Matt Yglesias recommends to us an old Robert Kaplan article on the virtues of the AKP. Since I am a pretty convinced AKP-phobe, if that is what we can call it, I thought I would take a look. Within two sentences I decided that the article cannot be a very credible source of insight on modern Turkey, since it manages to get late Ottoman history so profoundly wrong:
The multi-ethnic Ottoman Turkish Empire, like the coeval multi-ethnic Hapsburg Austrian one, was more hospitable to minorities than the uni-ethnic democratic states that immediately succeeded it. The Ottoman caliphate welcomed Turkish, Kurdish, and other Muslims with open arms, and tolerated Christian Armenians and Jews.
First of all, you cannot seriously compare Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire on this point. During the same period of time in the late nineteenth century, before anyone had ever heard of Young Turks, the two empires treated their minorities in very different ways. In the 1890s, there were large-scale, government-aided massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, which had followed the massacres of the Bulgarians in the 1870s. In Austria, nothing of the kind was happening–the emperor was the mediator and protector of all the subjects in his domains, and was a force working against, not with, any nationalist or supremacist forces within the empire. Obviously, the Arab subjects of the Ottoman Empire did not regard Ottoman rule quite so highly as Kaplan does in retrospect. Second of all, it is not exactly true that the empire was more tolerant than the republic, since the empire had done most of the heavy lifting of genocide and expulsion of minorities from Anatolia. The failure of the Greek invasion of 1919-22 and the Treaty of Lausanne did the rest of the damage. The main difference is that the empire engaged in a lot of killing of non-Muslim minorities, while the republic turned its attention to oppressing non-Turkish minorities regardless of religion. In a really twisted way, that’s a kind of progress.
Kaplan would very much like to distinguish between the Young Turks who “brought down the empire” (small point–it was the Allies who “brought down the empire” and it was the Young Turks who were stupid enough to get into the war that destroyed the empire) and the quasi-constitutional monarchy that existed before 1908, which would be interesting, except that this is mostly a lot of rot. Anyone familiar with Taner Akcam’s A Shameful Act will know that things cannot be divvied up quite so nicely. The Young Turks were by turns Pan-Turanian, Islamist or Ottomanist, depending on what the circumstances demanded, and to call them “secular-minded” as Kaplan does is to mistake later Kemalism for what the CUP represented when it came to power. Kemal emerged out of the Young Turk movement, but it is rather obvious that this movement was not really “secular-minded.” It was a fusion of Islam, nationalism and progressive reformism in one nasty bundle. The triumvirate wasn’t being purely opportunistic in calling for a jihad during WWI.
Why does this matter (besides getting the history right and shooting down weird pro-Ottoman sentiments in the West)? It matters because AKP has been very keenly cultivating a neo-Ottomanist ideology–one that follows up on and goes beyond the neo-Ottomanism of Ozal that Kaplan thinks is so wonderful–that naturally regards the pre-republican period fondly as a time of Turkish greatness and relative Islamic (Sunni) unity. It is also relevant that the poem that got Erdogan jailed in the first place was written by Ziya Gokalp, the leading ideologist of the CUP and one responsible for many of the nasty ideas that subsequently led to genocide. Perhaps it tells us something that Erdogan chose to cite that particular author. I am confident that if a European politician started publicly quoting from the works of fascist or Nazi writers, he would not be winning a lot of sympathy from Western audiences.
Those unfamiliar with this history can be forgiven for indulging in misplaced sympathy for the AKP, but Kaplan almost certainly knows better. Like many a Western Turcophile, Kaplan finds the integration of Turkey into Europe a wholly good thing and seems willing to concoct the necessary arguments to make this most unpalatable idea go down more easily.
Update: Here is an April post of mine pouring cold water on another one of Yglesias’ “but the AKP isn’t so bad” arguments.