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December 09, 2012, Sunday

Need for Ottomanism at home

Ottomanism is mainly a foreign policy issue in Turkey. Turkey has been criticized for dealing the neo-Ottomanism card in the Middle East and the Balkans. However, its value in foreign policy notwithstanding, Turkey itself needs Ottomanism, and at home at that. Paradoxically, conservatives, many of whom are happy to insinuate an “Ottomanist” discourse into foreign policy, seem to consider Ottomanism not appropriate in domestic politics. Therefore, Ottomanism is a politically unclaimed agenda at home.

This brings serious questions: Are Turkish conservatives sincerely Ottomanist in their contemplation of Turkey's domestic problems? Do they seriously want to be the heirs of the political legacy of the Ottomans? Given their reactions to certain issues in Turkish politics, one could easily get the impression that they are just "talking the Ottomanism talk," not making an agenda of it.

Ottomanism is first about multiculturalism. The Ottomans were proud champions of multiculturalism. They thought monoculturalism a serious threat, to the point that they made efforts to have different religious and ethnic groups make up the populations of their cities. Ottoman İstanbul was not a Turkish city; instead, it was a multicultural "imperial" city. Every great Ottoman monarch of the cut of Mehmet the Conqueror would be deeply sad to see that the İstanbul of today has lost its multicultural characteristic. In sharp contrast with the Ottomans, the contemporary conservative champions of Ottomanism have a deep fear of multiculturalism. Anatolia is facing the serious risk of losing its historical multicultural nature.

The Ottomans were happy to recognize the local laws of different groups. An Ottoman statesman would never have understood why the Halki Orthodox seminary is still closed. An Ottoman statesman would never have understood why there are still no Kurdish traffic signs in cities populated by Kurds. The Ottoman state mind, which somehow ruled a large geographic area from the Balkans to Yemen, would have laughed at Turkish statesmen in Ankara for failing to govern Diyarbakır. Abdülhamit II would most probably have deemed the Turkish strategy in the Kurdish problem a total fiasco.

The Ottomans were a practical people who exuded political wisdom. They never forced the same model on different places or societies, for their wisdom led them to alternative solutions for Kurds, Armenians, Muslims, etc. They were not sticklers for state principles. Instead, they were open to changing the state to accommodate the needs of the people. In sharp contrast, a state fetishism exists in Turkey today, even among the conservatives.

I do not want to be trapped by anachronism. However, the Ottomans never believed in centralism. Delegating authority to the periphery was a central Ottoman state principle. The Turkish Republic is totally different. For that reason, the issue of the unitary state should be re-evaluated. The Turkish Republic is probably the first unitary state in the whole of Turkish history. Again venturing towards the trap of anachronism, I would argue that neither the Seljuks nor the Ottomans lived according to an administrative logic like that of the statesmen of the Turkish Republic.

Some would say that we are living in the age of the nation-state, thus the comparison of the Ottoman state and the Turkish Republic is invalid. My answer is as simple as this: The Flemish region can conduct an independent foreign policy; the city state of Hamburg can appoint a delegation to Brussels. What Turks want to realize does not exist in the developed Western world. What we understand to be the modern state is totally a national illusion. Ironically, many Europeans are closer to the Ottoman model than is the Turkish state.

Who are the claimers of the Ottoman political legacy? Ottomanism is now reduced to the love of Ottoman monarchs. Conservatives have so far used the Ottomans for pedagogical purposes. They were held up as examples of perfection to young boys and girls, who were urged to emulate them. There is nothing wrong with that. However, it is now time for conservatives to also emulate the Ottomans in their national politics.

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