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December 16, 2010, Thursday

Ottoman Commonwealth of Nations?

Jewish tale-teller and sage Nachman of Breslov used to say that “a dream is beautiful, yet the story of a dream is more beautiful -- because it is both a dream and a story.” This saying summarizes the happy mood of the Turkish nationalists and expansionists about the discussion of a possible Ottoman Commonwealth of Nations to be established.

To me, this is both a dream and a story.

The Turkish foreign minister was quoted, not long ago, by The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl as having asked, “Why shouldn’t Turkey re-establish its leadership in the Ottoman countries of the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia as Great Britain did with the Commonwealth of Nations with its former colonies?” This quote reignited an old discussion among Turkish intellectuals: the discussion of neo-Ottomanism.

I have written several pieces about neo-Ottomanist rhetoric. I would like to summarize my positions here.

1. There was no Ottomanism. The Ottoman state was not a nation-state organized around certain ideological positions. It was a state organized around a family. Hence, neo-Ottomanism is not a revivalist perspective because there is nothing back there to revive.

2. The revival of the Ottoman state is not realistic and is not desirable. Even the foundation of a new transnational body that invites post-Ottoman states to membership is not a viable goal. Post-Ottoman states are unfulfilled nation-state experiments with thousands of problems. A Commonwealth of Post-Ottoman States won’t have anything in “common” and it won’t provide “wealth” to its members. It will at best be a gathering of countries with the largest number of social, economic, political and cultural problems.

3. Even though it is not a viable option, the Ottoman Commonwealth of Nations is a dangerous name to be pronounced. First of all, it takes a product of colonialism as a reference point. Second, it irritates the nation-states founded on the lands that used to belong to the Ottomans in the 19th century because these states are still at a stage of establishing homogenous nation-state structures; and it is quite early for them to get ready for an idea of trans-nationalism. Third, the term is threatening for regional powers afraid of any kind of Ottoman, Islamic or Arab revivalism.

4. Any reference to the Ottoman map in Turkey’s future role in world politics is treason to the capabilities of the Turkish people and a mockery of the technical abilities human kind has attained over the last century. Turkish civil society organizations have established schools and study centers all around the world. Turkish humanitarian aid organizations are in Haiti. Whatever political-social message Turkey may have for future generations, it can appeal to the whole world. Why take only the Ottoman lands into account? There is a qualitative difference between saying “Let the Turks be everywhere” and saying “Let everywhere be of the Turks.” I say the first.

5. This is not to say that Turkey won’t be a regional superpower and with a role to play in world politics. But expansionism is just not the mood of the day. The most successful economic-political-cultural transnational gathering of history is the European Union, and we have already seen how it shattered when only one member state entered into social and economic crisis. Why should Turkey be receptive of the problems of all post-Ottoman states only in order to lead them? There is a sharp difference between “We want zero problems with our neighbors” and “We want all the problems of our neighbors.” Together with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, I support the first.

6. A growing number of people are living in cyberspace, spending more time on their virtual lives than their real lives. Several web-based societies form stronger feelings of belongingness than national identities, and some of these have more members than the population of a medium-sized state. In such a world, maps refer to a limited horizon for future opportunities. In a world without the dimension of space, the Ottoman map is too small to long for.

Previous articles of the columnist