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By Robert D. KAPLAN "Who Are the Turks?"
Posted 18 December 2003 - 11:49
Who Are the Turks?
They are defined by their history, ancient and recent
WHO ARE THE TURKS? THERE MAY BE FEW MORE IMPORTANT questions for the early twenty-first century. The word Turk first makes its appearance in the sixth century A.D., in the Chinese form Tu-Kiu, to denote a nomadic group that founded an empire stretching from Mongolia to the Black Sea. These nomads spoke an agglutinative tongue, which, like Mongolian, Hungarian, and Finnish-languages spoken by peoples vaguely related to the Turks-belongs to the Ural-Altaic group and stems from the region between the Ural Mountains in eastern Russia and the Altai range in Mongolia. It was the Chinese, a mor- tal enemy of the Turks, who gave definition to this nomadic or- ganism that spread like water over the bleak tabletop of inner Asia. The Great Wall of China, begun in the third century B.C., may have been built to keep these Turkic tribesmen at bay.
The succeeding centuries witnessed a series of Turkic nligra- tions over the Central Asian steppe that involved such obscure horsemen as the Uighurs, the Oghuz, and the Khazars. Empires briefly coalesced, leaving little residue as they compounded with yet another Turkic onslaught. "On the black earth he pitched his white pavilion; his many-colored tents reared up to the face of the sky. In a thousand places silken rugs were spread." So goes The Book of Dede Korkut, a collection of stories set in the heroic age of the Oghuz Turks: a wine-consuming horde-whose women were expert riders, archers, and wrestlers-that succumbed to Islam Sim- ply as a religion, not as a complete social system. This latent paganism, common to all Turkic groups, would help the leader Mustafa Kemal Ataffirk secularize Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s.
These footloose Turkic tribesmen pressed against the walls of China, as well as northward and westward against Russia. It was the Russians, another historical enemy, who invented the term Tatar as a catchall for Genghis Khan's Mongols and their Ural-Altaic cousins-the Turkic tribes. The Mongol Golden Horde subju- gated Russia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, shielding it from the Renaissance. The Tatars were, by and large, responsible for Orientalizing Russia. Ever since the days of Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century, the Russians, burdened with feelings of cultural privation and a thirst for revenge, have been on the offen- sive against the Turkic peoples. Stalin's assault on Turkic unity in Central Asia and his imposition of the Cyrillic alphabet on his Turkic subjects-in order both to Slavicize them and to cut them off from fellow ethnics in Afghanistan, northern Iran, and Turkey-were examples of this hatred. So was the Russian war against the Muslim Chechens in 1995.
In the ninth and tenth centuries, the Finns and the Magyars be- came the first Ural-Altaic peoples to arrive in Europe. The cultural genius of these horsemen of the steppe was apparent: within a cen- tury or so they had adopted European manners and customs. In the second half of the eleventh century, eastern Anatolia saw its first Turkic nomads, the Se1juks; (named after their founding chief- tain), who annihilated a Byzantine army in 1071 at the Battle of Manzikert. The Byzantine Greeks held out at Constantinople until 1453, when another Turkic tribe, the Ottomans, having van- quished and absorbed the Se1juks, conquered the city and later called it Istanbul.
The Ottoman Turks were to establish a polyglot empire stretch- ing from the gates of Vienna in the north to Yemen in the south, and from the border of Morocco in the west to Mesopotamia in the east. The Ottoman threat soon made the word Turk a European synonym for savagery. Martin Luther, in the sixteenth century, prayed for deliverance from "the world, the flesh, the Turk, and the Devil." Yet the romance of the Ottoman court in Istanbul's Topkapi Seraglio fashioned another, more benevolent stereotype: that of the "Grand Turk," with evocations of harem girls, tuhp fes- tivals, love poetry, brocaded silks and rich carpets, trays of sherbet and other sweets, and pencil-thin minarets reflecting in marble pools-the most sensuous of indulgent Islamic civilizations.
Topkapi was, originally, a nomadic court, its turrets reminiscent of tents of the Kara Kum Desert in central Asia, its military cam- paigns each year in Europe reflecting seasonal wanderings on the steppe. By the dawn of the twentieth century, however, Topkapi was a calcified theocracy, much as Greek Byzantium had been prior to the Ottoman conquest four and a half centuries earlier, and like some of the Arabian Gulf sheikdoms at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
Modern Turkey, which arose from the death throes of the multinational Ottoman Empire after World War I, was the dream of one man, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Father Turk). Kemal Atatürk was an authentic revolutionary-one of history's handful- because he changed a people's value system. He divined that the European powers had defeated the Ottoman sultanate not on account of their greater armies, but on account of their greater civilization. Turkey would henceforth be Western, he said. Not co- incidentally, no Muslim enjoys so high a historical reputation in the West as Atatürk. In the 1920s and 1930s, Atatürk abolished the Muslim religious courts. To wrench Turks away from their tradi- tional Islamic past, he forbade men to wear the fez and discouraged women from wearing the veil. He moved the capital from Istanbul-the symbol of the backward Islamic empire-to Ankara, rooted in pagan Anatolian Turkism, where the bull god reigned over the crescent. By replacing the Arabic script with the Latin one, he oriented Turkish culture to the West. Even Atatürks's def- inition of nationality was startlingly modern. "Atatürk declared that whoever says he is a Turk, speaks Turkish, and lives in Turkey is a Turk," I was told by Altemur Kili@, an Istanbul newspaper columnist whose family roots go back to Georgia, Abkhazia, Uzbe- kistan, and Aegean Rhodes. Atadirks's emphasis on lan- guage as the arbiter of nation- ality made Turkey not only a melting pot of Balkan, Cau- casian, and Central Asian Muslims, but also a hospitable place for Turkish-speaking Jews. Atadirk made Turkey not a blood republic but a modern one.
"Kernalism is a desire to be identified with the West, a way of life showing contempt for the Arab world:' said Nihifer G61e, an Istanbul sociologist and feminist. "Kemalism celebrates pagan- ism over Islam, it provides Turks with an emotional, nation-building myth that is completely secular and there- fore has no equivalent in other Muslim societies, where all the powerful myths are re- ligious." In other words, Kemalism enables secular Turks to fight just as strongly for their beliefs as the newly
Much of what distinguished Atatürk was the thoroughness with which he sought to Westernize Turkish society. "Perhaps this is the only histori- cal case in which a country de- cided through political will to have a shift of civilization." Göle laughs slightly. She is tall and thin, tense, with a taste for Western fashion. "I interpret the reforms of Atatijrk as an effort to define the civilized man as a Western man. This has had such important repercussions, conse- quences in our lives that we are still unaware of them.
"This change of civilization was mostly important in terms of women. Because women I think that, in all these Muslim countries that were involved in this process of modernization, women's status was not a marginal issue. It's directly related with this question of civilization. It is the touchstone of modernization. Because the way we proved our belonging to the Western world was through the visibility of women. The participation in public life of women was the cor- nerstone of these reforms."
-Scott L. Malcomson, Borderlands: Nation and Empire
religious Turks in the gecekondus fight for theirs. [ Gecekondus are slum houses or shantytowns; the term literally means "built in the night."]
Atatürk's mausoleum in Ankara, the Anitkabir (Great Tomb), is an assertion in marble and stone of this secular will-which aims to utilize, and to subsume, the dynamism of the gecekondus within the grand vision of Atatürk's "Republican Turkey." A gigantic Hellenistic temple, the Great Tomb is architecturally pagan, with sculptured torches by the walls, wolf tracks carved into the floor, and relief etchings of soldiers embracing mother goddesses. It is a ferocious place. As I walked around this temple precinct, guarded by white-helmeted troops, I felt that had Adolf Hitler died a nat- ural death, this is the kind of tomb he would have had.
But there is another tomb in Turkey: not in Ankara, but in Istanbul-the city of magnificent mosques, of Islam, the Ottoman capital that Ataffirk spurned that came back onto the strategic map after the fall of communism. This is not a "great tomb." The view from its humble precincts is of a modern highway; the sound you hear is that of automobile acceleration. But they come, they come, the slippered men and kerchiefed women of the gecekondus, to pray at this Uirbe (tomb of a Muslim holy man). Here hes Turgut Ozal, the prime minister and later president of Turkey, who died in of- fice in 1993-the second great Turkish revolutionary of the twen- tieth century.
While Kemal Atatürk was an aloof general, a ladies'man with a well-cultivated taste for Scotch whisky, Turgut Ozal was a short, fat, scruffy peasant whose neck disappeared within his shoulders; who talked while he chewed his food; who never learned properly how to use a knife and fork; and who was not ashamed of his faith:
"Though Turkey is a secular state, 1, the president, am not a sec- ular man."
And if Ozal could be -a Kemalist while still being a religious Muslim, why couldn't the people in the gecekondus? Why should there necessarily be a contradiction? Secularism, as Ozal redefined it, meant just that-not atheism. Not that these people in the shantytowns knew, or cared, what "Kernalism" was. They just knew that, under Ozal, they were part of the system. Ozal, who loved the American notion of social mobility, who traveled with both a Koran and a laptop computer, deeply intuited the dreams of his people: They merely wanted a better life without spurning their religious traditions. The supreme monument to Ozahsm is the Kocatepe Mosque in Ankara, one of the largest religious shrines in the world-built with a supermarket complex beneath it.
Ozal softened Atatfirk's fierce, Western-oriented secularism. Whereas Atatiirk ignored the Turkic east in the Caucasus and Central Asia in order to turn his people westward, Ozal saw the East as a new market for Turkish goods. Whereas Atatdrk looked westward for a cultural standard, Ozal lifted Turkey out of its self- imposed isolation by trying to assert a Turkish Muslim power block in the Balkans. But 6zal's most important contribution was his rediscovery of the multinational past, rectifying the tragic flaw in Atatiirk's vision.
Robert D. Kaplan is a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and the author of several books on travel andforeign affairs, including Balkan Ghosts: A journey Through History, The Arabists, and The Ends of the Earth: From Togo to Turkmenistan, from Iran to Cambodia: A journey to the Frontiers of Anarchyfrom which this story was ex- cerpted. He has traveled in nearly seventy countries and now lives outside Washington, D.C.
By Robert D. KAPLAN