Turkey And The West: A Nation's Quest For A Modern Identity

Looking West? Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey
Looking West? Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey
Ayse Hur

ISTANBUL — The Republican era of Turkey began with the rejection of the Ottoman past by those destined to fill the ranks of the civilian and military cadres under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This new establishment was keen on modernization and Westernization, with the ultimate goal of creating a modern nation-state from the remnants of an empire.

One of their key requirements to see their goal succeed was to transform the mindset of the people. They believed that the masses could learn what is “good,” “true” and “necessary” only under the leadership of a new elite. The founding cadres therefore believed that modernity could only be achieved by having absolute custody over the whole of the society — and were prepared to practice radical methods to see this through: Any form of opposition was crushed; democracy was never allowed to truly flourish.

This new Turkish national identity was thus taking form with a conflicting attitude vis-à-vis the West: On the one hand, it looked upon it as a role model; yet it also felt a sense of rejection and uneasiness brought on by an awareness that it could not attain the levels of advancement already achieved in Western Europe and the United States.

Hostility against the West was nurtured during the first years of the republic with the "Independence War won against the great powers" propaganda. At the same time, efforts were made to create a new state, a new order with Western foundations and terminology — such as nation, secularity and republic.

In the end, the solution was found in the discourse of Ziya Gokalp: “Civilization is universal while culture is local. Let us preserve our culture; there is nothing wrong with sharing the civilization from one side.” And yet we now know that “civilization” and “culture” or “Western Civilization” and “Western Culture” have taken shape by interacting with each other.

Turning inward

While political relations with the West were downgraded to a minimum after 1925, major moves to westernize the country were taken in terms of clothing, law, women’s rights, education, history, geography, archeology, language —with the implementation of a Latin alphabet — and architecture. With Turkey’s love-hate relationship since the Ottoman times, the goal was both to catch up with the West and severe all ties with the East. In the end, the establishment was to strive for the goal, as summed up in Ataturk’s famous quote: “We are like us.”

Kemalism, the driving ideology of the new nation, tried to overcome these inherent contradictions with odd claims such as the Turkish History Thesis (claiming all civilizations were founded by Turks who migrated from Central Asia) and the Sun Language Theory (claiming all languages originated from Turkish). In the end, the hostility felt toward the West and the extreme caution not to be drawn to the East forced Turkey to turn inward, spurred farther by the worldwide effects of the Great Depression.

A new era with the West

The cultural revolutions lost momentum with the death of Ataturk in 1938, but the true change came from foreign factors. Turkey chose to be a part of the Western Block after World War II, joining NATO in 1952, contributing to the Korean War and receiving aid by way of the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan within the strategy of fortifying Europe against the Soviet Block.

The lack of national self-confidence grew less apparent as Turkey transformed from a largely agrarian nation to one of expanding industry. Debates over identity largely died down, and a growing bond with the United States began to develop. At the same time, however, the Turkish identity started to clash with Third World interests because good relations with the West demanded turning a deaf ear to the voices of its old colonies.

After 1955, the rightist conservative Democrat Party (DP) founded the Baghdad Pact which divided the Arab world into two — ending relations with the Third World at the Bandung Conference and siding with France against Algeria. This heightened the Turkish leftists’ criticism towards Ankara and the Western World. The conservative and Islamist intellectuals were already critical of the West since they recognized the “Jacobean republic” as a project of the West. The rude Johnson Letter from the U.S. President to Turkey in 1964, as the country was preparing to intervene with the Greek oppression of Turks in Cyprus, added fuel to the fire. In the end, the political elite, the intellectuals and the Turkish street were all left angry at the West.

The discovery of Orientalism

The spirit of the “national struggle” from the days of the independence war resurfaced in 1968 with the political atmosphere provided by the student protests that shook Europe, the Vietnam War and the U.S.’s growing lack of respect towards Turkey.

Events like the 1973 oil crisis and the U.S. banning Turkey from growing opium further added to the disaffection with the West. In the eyes of both right and left-leaning movements, the West was a “superior” but “hostile” antagonist. The bloody 1980 coup increased the hostility for the alleged American role.

Hostility against the West peaked in the 1990s, this time toward the European Union. The EU was perceived negatively in Turkey, as it was seen as constantly changing its mind about Turkey joining the Union, while favoring Greece in the dispute over Cyprus, and alleged support for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The 1978 book Orientalism by Edward Said, which criticized the Western perspective of the East, influenced Turkish intellectuals deeply across the political spectrum, from Islamists to the liberals.

Philosophy Professor Hassan Hanafi of Cairo University, author of Introduction to the Science of Occidentalism, delivered an influential talk in 2002 in Turkey. “While we are busy looking toward the West in search of a solution, the West continues to surpass us. In the end, what we get is low self-opinion.”

Today, we are trying to join the EU even if we do it halfheartedly. We try to be the country that the U.S. can count on the most. In short, we are still trying to secure a position in the Western World. On the other hand, whenever we hear the word “West,” we imagine an eternal enemy who tries to divide, shatter and destroy us. We say that "the Westerners do not like us," but we have yet to answer the question of whether or not we like the West.

It is clear that the historic crimes of the West and its current questionable politics play a role in this, but the anti-Western propaganda used throughout the republican history of Turkey is an even more important factor. If we cannot ask ourselves the questions of who we are, what is the West and who is the Westerner, we will maintain this schizophrenic status for years to come.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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