I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Modern Turkish: A Catastrophic Success


Kemal Ataturk was a determined and gifted military leader whose role during the Turkish war of independence was central to the emergence of a viable state following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the great war of 1914-18. In effect he presented the allies with a de facto independent Turkey, an outcome which the British in particular did not welcome, preferring to control access to Cental Asia and the land route to India themselves.

Ankara was chosen as the new Turkish capital in part because it was beyond the range of British gunboats. His achievements won Ataturk the admiration of many Turkish people, particularly among the military and the educated classes. The military has since been consistently defensive of the Kemalist heritage and on a number of occasions has suspended parliamentary government when it  felt civilian politicians were straying from the modernising Ataturk constitution.

However, it seems that many – actually the majority of the population ‑ who were traditionally Muslim in culture were, while esteeming Ataturk as the saviour of the nation, never particularly attracted by his programme of radical modernisation. Indeed it is likely that majority did not quite see the point of it. The abolition of the caliphate and especially the banning of the fez were not popular. The Kemalist state’s marginalisation of Islam and its regulation of it through the Ministry of Religion were probably the elements of the new order which least appealed to the majority.

Under the democratic system, which the military has at times felt required its guidance, the majority has in recent times elected governments sympathetic to Islam. The government of Erdogan is the most impressive of these Islam-friendly governments. Under him Turkey has experienced an economic boom and he has felt strong enough to challenge the military, bringing some senior officers before the courts on charges of conspiracy against the state.

Erdogan, however, has irritated civilian secularists, who are considerable in number and well entrenched in urban Turkey. This stratum of society is prominent in the current wave of anti-Erdogan protests. Actions such as restricting the availability of alcohol and declaring that women should have a minimum of three children have been something of a red rag to secularists. Gezi Park itself, the centre of the current dispute, was set up under Kemalist auspices and made available to the people of Istanbul and visitors for public relaxation. As a development it reflected an essentially western idea of public space for relaxation and was in harmony with the larger Kemalist programme of modernisation, a programme which promoted the idea of equality between men and women and equal rights for all citizens under the laws of the republic, a republic largely based on the French model.

Erdogan’s targeting of the park was undoubtedly a symbolic criticism or qualification of the Kemalist vision of a modern Turkey, a vision which emerged in response to the reality of a crumbling and subsequently fallen empire. The Ottoman Empire was a massive international entity and with its collapse the Turks had to reconsider their identity and role in the region. The time when this took place was an age when the influences of nationalism and modernism shaped ideas of what was possible and under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk a radical programme of nationalist and secular modernisation was initiated. It was a vision which gave Turkey its cultural and political coherence throughout the twentieth century.

As we know in Ireland programmes of cultural engineering, no matter how well intentioned, are not without their pitfalls. The paper from the renowned linguist Professor Geoffrey Lewis which was delivered at The Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul in 2002 and which we link to below describes some problems which emerged followed Kemalist attempts to develop and impose a purely Turkic language with a new alphabet in place of the rich mixture of Turkic, Arabic and Persian which had comprised the language of the Ottoman empire.

My subject this evening is the Turkish language reform. I gave my book about it the subtitle “A Catastrophic Success”. Though the reform has not been so drastic in its effect on the spoken language, it has made everything written before the early 1930s, and much that has been written since, increasingly obscure to each new generation. It has undeniably been a success, in that the reformers succeeded in their purpose of ethnic cleansing; getting rid of the non-Turkish elements in their language, so that it has changed as much in the last century as in the preceding seven hundred. I hope to show you why I call that success catastrophic.

The full text of Professor Lewis’s paper is available at http://www.turkishlanguage.co.uk/jarring.htm

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