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December 16, 2012, Sunday

Populist nationalism and militarism

The “history and reality” debate currently affecting Turkey is being experienced by many countries around the world.

The English King Richard I, known as the Lionheart, became a cult figure thanks to descriptions by famous Scottish writer Sir Walter Scott. (Feridun Fazıl Tülbentçi is our Turkish equivalent.) Was he really a hero or a romantic legend? Historical documents and novels may portray a person differently who slaughtered Muslims and civilians (3,000 in number) indiscriminately who surrendered at the siege of Acre during the Third Crusade because they failed to provide the ransom he demanded.

To write fiction about historical figures’ biographies with a romantic background along with stories of heroism is one thing, and to elucidate them through documentaries and historical documents is another.

The debate on “our history and facts” that has been revolving around a soap opera about Süleyman the Magnificent and his era is actually offering us a good opportunity for discourse. This debate essentially aims to invigorate the nationalist/conservative sentiments of certain voters and reinforce the image of a certain party as “the best protector of the past and [our] own values.”

Let us focus on this political populism and try to understand how the notion of “nationalism” has been tossed around recently. Any quest to discuss the canons with which historians and sociologists describe the relationship between the notions of nationalism and nation would require a lengthy article.

Professor Benedict Anderson, author of “Imagined Communities,” makes strong arguments in asserting that nations are fabricated as “imaginary communities” by means of mass communications, the press and the public. Also in Ernest Gellner’s thesis “Nations and Nationalism,” he writes: “nationalism is not the work of nations; rather it is nationalism that gives birth to nations.” This may hold true. Nevertheless it should be remembered that the theories of these distinguished scientists are backed by the fact that nation building and nation-state building processes go hand-in-hand.

Nationalism can refresh itself and become successful thanks to a harmonious composition of genetic codes, cultural heritage and political demands. However, this does not mean these people’s search for a “national identity” and “national awareness” is purely political or ideological. We may acquire “national sensitivities” as a result of relationships based on geography, culture and kinship over time. What horrifies modern theoreticians is nationalism’s potential to establish relationships with militarism and authoritarianism.

I will shy away from a discussion of to what extent distinctions between cultural nationalism and blood nationalism, etc., hold true. Nonetheless, we are all entitled to be curious about and understand Süleyman the Magnificent as a human being. Any attempt to transform him into a “national hero” or an “icon” whose deeds or merits are unquestionable is not “national sensitivity” but a “populist nationalism” reflex.

What conservatives in general, and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in particular, should be aware of is the bond between nationalism and militarism. Forcing historical novels, films and works of art to follow certain guidelines imposed by laws and implemented by force would be another reincarnation of the “official ideology.”

Nationalism can be described as the quest by members of a nation for safeguarding and promoting their lifestyles, cultural resources and the forms that remind them of their roots. Novels, dramas and films may be entitled to “reproduce” Richard the Lionheart or Süleyman the Magnificent and they can even do it in a reckless way.

Of course, intellectuals may react strongly to efforts to distort or manipulate reality. However, if we don’t question history and the acts of historical figures -- in other words if we glorify them and place them on unquestionable pedestals -- we will not be doing society and national conscience any favors. Instead, we pave the way for the invigoration of the synthesis between militarism and populist nationalism.

Previous articles of the columnist