As a general matter, I am firmly on the side of the secularists opposed to the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist prime minister. That said, I found that I had surprising sympathy for him and his movement when I read an article in the current issue of The New Yorker (gated) about the popularity in Turkey of a TV show set in the Ottoman era. From the essay:
Between 1924 and 1926, Ataturk embarked on an aggressive program of secularization, abolishing the caliphate and the dervish orders, closing the shrines of Islamic saints, and banning the fez. The Islamic calendar and Sharia law were discarded, and the country adopted the Gregorian calendar and the Swiss Civil Code. Polygamy was outlawed, and women were allowed to show their hair in public, vote in elections attend universities, and run for public office. The capital relocated from the Ottomans’ beloved Istanbul to Ankara, a provincial outpost in the middle of the Anatolian steppe. In 1928, the Arabic script was replaced by a modified Latin alphabet, and a state-appointed Language Committee set about purifying the Turkish language, ridding it of Arabic and Persian loan-words — a project roughly analogous to removing Latinate words from English. In 1935, the state published a handbook listing Turkic equivalents for Arabic and Persian vocabulary; everyday words were replaced by obscure variants recorded by folklorists in Anatolia, or borrowed from Tatar or Azeri. Not all these changes caught on, but Ottoman Turkish is a foreign language to modern Turks. Books written before the nineteen-forties have to be translated. Ataturk’s famous thirty-six hour speech about the birth of the republic has been translated at least three times since it was first delivered, in the course of six days in 1927.
It is hard to read that and think about what an act of savage cultural violence Ataturk committed against his nation. One does not have to approve everything about the Ottoman Empire, or support the proposition that no modernizing reforms were needed, to grasp the severity of Ataturk’s modernizations. To me, cutting off the Turkish people from their historic language, which is to say, from access to their past, is by far the worst.
I’m reading Massie’s excellent biography of Tsar Peter the Great, who is best known as a titanic Westernizer. It’s a riveting portrait of a fascinating historical figure, but it’s difficult to know what to make of Peter. Part of me cheers for him as he defies the xenophobia, the pig-headed conservatism, and the hollow formalism of the court in Moscow. But part of me also sees him as a heedlessly destructive figure, not so much a reformer as a destroyer.
This kind of thing is why it’s unwise to judge foreign leaders by our standards, or at least why it is difficult to determine when to judge them by our standards, and when to withhold judgment. Every time I hear that something has gone wrong for Erdogan, I am happy. I do not want Turkey to become an Islamist power, and my general stance is that the Islamization of Turkey is bad for the Turks (to say nothing of the tiny community of Greek Orthodox Christians remaining in Turkey — but then, they had it bad under the secular nationalists too). But I am a Westerner who judges social and political arrangements by Western presuppositions (this, even though I am quite conservative). I find it hard as a traditionalist not to sympathize with Turks who believe the violent modernization inflicted on Turkey’s Islamic society and culture by Ataturk was a bad thing, a thing alien to the organic traditions of Turkish life, and that it ought to be reversed to a significant degree.