Saturday, 27 October 2012

Orhan Pamuk and the colonisation and humiliation of Turkey

Greek homes and shops attacked in Constantinople
The novelist Orhan Pamuk has positioned himself as the modern, European face of Turkey, reflective and critical of his country’s history and politics; but in a comment piece for the Guardian he reveals that he is just another exponent of the obtuse claims of Turkish nationalism.

When Turkey started in 2005 to negotiate its entry into the EU, optimists suggested Turkey could be a member by 2014, and in his article Pamuk purports to explain why Turkey’s EU process has badly stalled. In doing so, he trots out the usual paranoid Turkish nationalist view that Turkey’s EU aspirations have been thwarted principally because Europe, not living up to its own standards of modernity and secularism, is sinking into conservative nationalism and Islamophobia. The biggest reason, Pamuk says, for Europe’s shunning of Turkey is:
‘undoubtedly the large influx of Muslim migrants from north Africa and Asia into Europe that, in the eyes of many Europeans, has cast a dark shadow of doubt and fear over the idea of a predominantly Muslim country joining the union’.
Thus instead of taking his own country to task for abysmally failing to reach European norms on democracy, freedom of speech, protection of minority rights, the occupation of Cyprus, the casus belli against Greece and so on, Pamuk chooses to play the Muslim card in which criticism of Turkey is inspired by European malice and anti-Muslim prejudice.

In the last year, reacting to these perceived European sleights and revealing the loathing in Turkey’s love-loathing relationship with Europe, Turkey’s president Abdullah Gul has called the EU a ’miserable union’; so-called minister for Europe Egemen Bagis described the EU as ‘psychologically sick’; senior ruling AK party MP, Burhanettin Kuzu, in a Turkish TV debate, threw on the floor the unfavourable 2012 EU progress report and declared he was in fact ‘throwing the report in the rubbish’ where it belonged; while, two weeks ago, Turkey’s economy minister, Zafer Caglayan, described the EU as ‘the most two-faced union of all time’ and condemned it for ‘torture’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ for continuing to exclude Turkey from membership.

But even more than Pamuk’s refusal to admit that Turkey’s own shortcomings are entirely to blame for the lack of progress in its EU endeavour, I was struck by this statement in his piece:
‘[H]istorically, Turkey was never colonised by any western power, never oppressed by European imperialism. This allowed us later to nurture more freely our dreams of European-style westernisation, without dredging up too many bad memories or guilty feelings.’
It amazes me that such a prominent and supposedly liberal and European Turkish intellectual could succumb to such a parody of historical reality and regurgitate a classic piece of Turkish nationalist bombast, designed to cover up the horrible truth for the fragile Turkish ego, which is that in the 200-year decline of the Ottoman empire, Turkey developed a semi-colonial relationship with the West.

As the ‘sick man of Europe’, Turkey suffered humiliating defeat after humiliating defeat as rival powers and Christian minorities exploited Turkey’s weaknesses to dismantle the Ottoman empire. Ottoman finances and territorial integrity became dependent on the West. The system of Capitulations granted widespread privileges and rights of intervention to European states in Turkey; while, as any ‘A’ level history student could tell you, Great Britain, fearful of Russian expansionism, for decades, diplomatically and militarily guaranteed the Ottoman empire’s survival. As for modern economic activity within the empire, it became largely the preserve of Jews, Armenians and, particularly, Greeks. (If ghiaour Smyrna was not a Greek colony in the midst of the Ottoman empire, then what was it?).

Thus, one of the fundamental tenets of Young Turk nationalism was that the Ottoman empire had become so decrepit that it was no longer able to protect or advance the interests of Turks, and the goal of Turks must be to escape political subordination to European powers and wrest control of Turkish society and the economy from foreigners and the minorities.

In this latter instance, of the minorities, it is evident that the genocides in Asia Minor and Anatolia, as well as the anti-Jewish Thrace pogrom (1934), the Varlik Vergisi (Wealth Tax) and the anti-Greek Constantinople pogrom (1955), were part of this process of restoring Turkish preeminence in (or, if you like, decolonising) Asia Minor and Anatolia and Turkifying (or, again, decolonising) the country’s economy.

Thus far from Pamuk’s depiction of Turkey ‘freely’ nurturing its dreams of Europe, the opposite is true; which is that Turkey’s view of Europe (and of the non-Turks in Turkey) was nurtured by Turkish resentment and humiliation or, to put it another way, was nurtured by the classic inferiority complex that comes from having been colonised, subject to the whims and power of foreigners and non-Turks.

No comments: