Still, I am going to try. While I don’t necessarily know anything about what was, I do have some ideas on what was not. In the philosophy of science, proving what is not true is quite easy, but it is often noted that proving that something is true is much more difficult. For example, you cannot prove the thesis that “swans are always white” simply by showing people how many white swans there are all around; doubts will linger in people’s minds. Someone might even say: “Who knows? Tomorrow we might encounter a black swan.” All you have to do is find that one black swan, and your “white swan” thesis immediately falls apart.
Now, when it comes to the underdevelopment of the Ottoman state, it can be immediately shown that the reason for this undeveloped status was not in fact religion. If it had been the fault of Islam, then in the eighth, ninth and 10th centuries, Muslim countries would not have been so advanced while Christian countries lagged behind. If religions were behind the good, the advanced, the successful -- as well as to the contrary, the bad, the backward and the failures -- these religions would have to have displayed these characteristics themselves, from when they emerged until now. And so bringing religion into the essence of this topic of “underdevelopment” is fairly meaningless.
What is possible to say when it comes to the topic of religion is this: Just as religion is not a fundamental reason for failure, it also cannot be counted as a reason for success. If success were in the essence of these religions, then the Christians would not have been so far behind in the ninth century, nor would the Muslims be so far behind in the 20th. Which means that these religions -- or, actually, the societies that believe in them -- can either be successful or not. Just as these religions do not “guarantee” any particular success, they cannot be counted as a main reason for failure, either. At this point, we also note that those who point to religion as a basic cause behind all this success and failure are actually trying a different route. We see the entrance onto the scene of what we call in psychology “defense mechanisms.” In philosophy they call this trying to keep a “collapsed paradigm” alive by offering up some side theses.
Let me explain.
There will always be Christians who refer to religion and say things such as, “Christianity was being wrongly implemented, which is why Europe was so underdeveloped in the ninth century.” And of course, the mirror-image mentality will be used by some Muslims in reference to their own societies. These are views which espouse a mentality worth noting carefully.
What is being done is this: Out of the 2,000-year history of the Christian religion, certain sections seen as appropriate will be chosen to highlight, with some saying that in fact this is what “Christianity” is. If what you want is to portray Christianity as successful, all you have to do is chose periods such as the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution or the Enlightenment. But if you want to show its failure, you could focus on the courts of the Inquisition, or the ignorance of the Middle Ages. This is the eclectic aspect to the making of history: You can choose and point to that which works for you, while that which does not work for you can be ignored and silenced. And then there is the thesis of “our religion was wrongly implemented,” which can be replied to thus: “Why did our religion not possess the power to prevent it from being wrongly implemented?”
Defining ‘underdeveloped’ status
I suppose I could talk about some wrong ways of thinking. It is much more difficult to talk about what was right. This is because we are faced with the reality of an Ottoman state that really was “underdeveloped” and the West, which is now very “advanced.” There is the constant need for a model that can explain these things. But from the very start, it is absolutely necessary to define the terms “advanced” and “underdeveloped.”
There can be a sort of tension that exists between technological development and an overarching ethical state. Attempts to follow or copy that which has developed can create doubts and lack of trust when it comes to identities. Favored lifestyles can change from person to person, and thus the idea of what makes for a “model society” may not be open to consensus. Despite everything, the most important priority for some people may be to believe in their own world views, and so “concrete realities” may not interest them. In other words, this topic may in one sense not even be open to debate, because in the end it may be too tangled up in our personal identities.
But many years ago, these were questions that nagged my mind constantly. In particular, the very widespread view I encountered while living in the western reaches of Turkey that “it is because of Islam that the East was underdeveloped” caused me to do further research into models of history that explained “underdevelopment” or “backwardness.” Here is what I was able to elicit from my research: Actually, the whole concept of a society being “underdeveloped” is not indisputable. Here is what is being implied: While what was necessary was “normal” development, this is not what occurred, for a number of different reasons. In other words, if looked at with this mentality, Europe’s development and development in general is counted as “normal,” and those who do not move in harmony with it are questioned as to why. The question asked then becomes: Why were we underdeveloped, why did it not develop?
The European exception
The truth, though, is that (Western) Europe is an exception. Almost the entire rest of the world is “backward”! Actually, the entire “normal” world, including all of Africa, all of Asia, and all of South America, was left outside of Europe’s development. “Development” occurred in Western Europe, and the places and societies that were directly connected to these regions were affected little by this development. This includes North America and Australia. The right question to ask is not in fact “Why were we underdeveloped?” but rather “How did they make those maneuvers?” The development we have seen over the last century is not in fact “normal” but rather exceptional.
This same situation unfolded in ancient Greece. A very cultural atmosphere occurred “all of a sudden,” especially in the arenas of philosophy and literature. So that while in other places in the world “normal” lives and ways carried on, ancient Greece experienced an “advanced” atmosphere, though one which disappeared in a manner that could also be considered sudden. As for the case of ancient Greece, the question should not be “Why did the world not follow Athens?” but rather “What happened in Athens that led to the birth of this atmosphere?”
Incorrect questions actually delay our arrival at the right answers while also -- and this is even worse -- causing us to experience damaging emotions. The question “Why were we underdeveloped?” includes the oblique message that “we are behind.” And this is not something easy for people to swallow because this provokes the need for defense in researching the answers. For a society to accept being underdeveloped is neither easy on a practical level nor beneficial to that society. Societies which lose their self-confidence enter into a mindset that says, “Who we essentially are causes us to be behind,” and this leads to other problems, too.
The debates over “underdevelopment and the Ottoman state” can be looked at from this perspective: There is a need to create more self-confidence. Those who are struck by the sense of being accused of being “backward” -- and as an Easterner, I certainly felt this as a youth -- may turn defensive and even aggressive, which can in turn produce a completely opposite thesis: No, it is not us but rather you who are backward!
Allow me to save my thoughts on the “West-East” difference and what it means to be developed or advanced for another column!
*Herkül Millas is a political scientist.