City of Brass

City of Brass

Liberté, fraternité, but not égalité: a note from Istanbul.

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

This is a guest post by my friend Joshua Treviño.

The American relationship with religion in public life is not as simple as the phrase “separation of church and state” implies. The American concept of liberty is deeply rooted in the explicit search for a religious liberty, and even the religiously heterodox John Adams remarked that only a moral people could govern itself under our Constitution. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that even as religion played no formal role in American governance, it was nonetheless the “first institution” of our politics. It is an oversimplification, but nonetheless true, to state that American religious life suffuses and undergirds our civic life and institutions — and that those institutions become swiftly malign without them.

In the Turkish Republic, all this is turned on its head. Faith that is the “first institution” of the state in de Tocqueville’s concept is the first cause of its demise in Ataturk’s concept. This conviction yields a contradictory regime of nationalist self-negation that cannot endure.

There is no need to recount in detail the roots of the Turkish Republic. The state was born in blood, at the end of a long century of trauma for the Ottoman state. That empire began its long decline with the 1699 peace of Passarowitz, but it was the Greek revolt of 1821 that truly began the dismemberment of the once-great Turkish imperium. That history is typically taught — and was contemporaneously perceived — as a series of revolutions by oppressed Christian peoples. This is true, but not the whole story: as Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia-Hercegovina, et al., threw off Ottoman rule, the millions of Turks in Europe suffered their own epic of massacre, resistance, and exile. The untold story of the end of the Ottoman Empire is the end of a Balkan Islam, of which the present-day Muslim Bosniacs and Albanians are only a remnant.

The contraction of the Ottoman frontiers, and the concurrent influx of millions of Muslim refugees from Europe, forced a steady reevaluation of Turkish identity. Ataturk’s biographer Andrew Mango neatly summarizes the process, through the 19th century, by which Turkish self-conception narrowed along with the empire’s borders. What began as a sense of allegiance to the Ottoman regime became a sense of Muslim solidarity, which became a sense of explicitly Turkish nationalism that Ataturk was able to mobilize and win with by 1923. Unlike the Ottoman Empire, which did not win a major war unaided for roughly two hundred years, Ataturk was able to take the very core of that old empire — its Turkish Anatolian heartland — and fend off several major powers plus a full-scale Greek invasion.

This is the historical glory of Turkish nationalism, and also the root of its religious dysfunction. The Turkish nationalism that Ataturk invoked was a reaction to the Muslim nationalism of the late Ottoman era. Turkish nationalism is ethnic, though not racial, and it appeals to the identity of Turks-qua-Turks. But what defines a Turk? A typical nationalism of this period defines its group with some mixture of descent, culture, language, and faith. Turkish nationalism in Kemalist thought, albeit containing some reflexes toward “real” Turkish descent from steppe nomads, reduces this to language — and overriding all else, faith.

It is instructive here to consider the fate of the Karamanli people, formerly of central Anatolia. If the Ottoman experience produced in Europe a fusion of Slavic ethnicity and Muslim faith, it also produced the reverse in Asia Minor: the Karamanli, a Turkish ethnicity professing Orthodox Christianity. This people, indistinguishable from fellow Turks by anything but faith, existed as one of Anatolia’s patchwork of peoples until the disaster of 1923. In that year, with the “exchange” of populations between Greece and Turkey, Ataturk’s victorious regime seized the opportunity to finalize the expulsion of non-Turks from the new republic. Out went the Greeks, ending their several thousand years of habitance — and out went the Karamanli too, no doubt surprised to learn that speaking Turkish and hewing to Turkish custom was insufficient to make one a Turk.

It is therefore Islam, in historical experience and present reality, that serves as the foundational prerequisite for Turkish identity in the eyes of the Turkish Republic. This is a problem in itself, as it renders the situation of the few remaining religious minorities in Turkey exceedingly precarious — but it is doubly problematic in that though Kemalist ideology holds Islamic faith to be fundamental to its nationalism, it also fears and despises Islam. The legacy of Ataturk, which expelled religiosity from the public square and subjected the clerisy to total state control, is alive and present now — and the rise of the Islamist AK party (which I wrote about in National Review in 2007) has not significantly altered this. One does see more Muslim women in scarfs and even the occasional abaya these days, but the basic belief of Turkish republicanism remains: left to its own devices, Islam and Muslims will destroy progress and modern society.

This is where thoughtless American conservatives cheer: “of course, that’s precisely what Islam and Muslims will do if not controlled by a benevolent and powerful state, and bravo to the Turks for realizing it”. Leave aside the contradiction of the general Christianity of this group, and the ending of Christianity in Turkey that the ideology they applaud produces. Leave aside, too, the bizarre and unsustainable contradiction of a nationalism that simultaneously identifies and rejects the founding characteristic of its nation. Focus, instead, on the simple demands of liberty.

The argument undergirding the Turkish Republic is that freedom must be quelled to preserve it. Strange as it is, it’s an argument that finds great currency in the Muslim world — see, for just one example, the tyranny in Egypt — and it’s an argument that we Americans must reject. Without being naive about Islamists, who too often feel about liberty as Communists do about democracy — that is, a mere means to power — we must understand that freedom is not easily divisible. In Turkey, the means of suppressing Islam also serve as the means for extinguishing the Orthodox Christians’ Ecumenical Patriarchate. The result in the long term is tragedy, as minorities disappear forever — and horror, as ordinary faith in the public square is channeled into murderous fanaticism in private.

Joshua Treviño is an Orthodox Christian. He is also an accomplished blogger and founder of Treviño Strategies and Media. This is his second sojourn in Istanbul, Turkey.

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