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The Critical Corner - 03/21/2005

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Armenian News Network / Groong
March 21, 2005

By Eddie Arnavoudian


ON THE IDEOLOGY OF MODERN TURKISH NATIONALISM
 

Published in 1926 Zarevant's `For A United and Independent Turania'
was the first substantial Armenian language study of the ideology of
modern Turkish nationalism. It needs to be said at the outset that
this valuable volume is rather diminished by an absence of adequate
referencing and citations whether this be to prove a point or
establish a view. This makes it difficult to evaluate propositions
that would be challenged by hostile critics. Nevertheless...

Pan-Turanism, or Pan-Turkism, was born not in Turkey but in the 19th
century Tsarist Empire where it gave expression to the then burgeoning
national movement of Turkic people suffering Tsarist oppression and
forcible Russian assimilation. Within the Ottoman Empire Pan-Turkism
gained rapid ground among the Young Turks especially only after the
Ottoman defeats in the Balkan wars.  In fighting for the national
rights of Turkic people under Tsarist occupation and in developing the
Turkish language and Turkish culture Pan-Turkism could have had
democratic potential. But this was suffocated and destroyed at birth
by the political ambition of its leadership.

In the struggle for the rights of Turkic peoples living under Russian
occupation the Pan-Turkish leadership chose the decaying and savagely
oppressive Ottoman Empire as its main ally. This alliance was no
temporary expedient in the battle against another imperial power. The
Ottoman Empire was to be the main agent and engine of liberation. The
defence and strengthening of an Empire that was a prison to millions
of Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Greeks and others, was for the
Pan-Turkish ideologists the core of a political project that sought to
extend Ottoman boundaries eastwards without regard for the national
rights of non-Turkic people, among them the Armenians living in their
historic Armenian homelands. This determined the irredeemably
reactionary and chauvinist character of Pan-Turkism that was to become
manifest as it gained ground in the Ottoman Empire after the so called
Young Turk constitutional revolution in 1908.

Considering Pan-Turkism's rapid growth in the Tsarist Empire Zarevant
claims that the 1905 Azeri massacres of Armenians were not, as
traditionally argued, merely products of imperial Russian machination
designed to divide and rule the region.  They were rather, Zarevant
argues a first Turkish nationalist offensive to cleanse Armenians
across the entire Caucasus that they regarded an integral part of a
future independent Turkic state. Unsupported as they are, it is not
possible to evaluate the validity of these claims especially given the
judgements of many contemporary commentators, including ARF leaders
and novelist Shirvanzadeh for example, who saw in the Azeri-Armenian
conflict the ugly hand of imperial Russian intrigue.

In his evaluation of Turkish nationalism Zarevant rather dubiously
attributes a degree of democratic substance to the Young Turk
movement. He argues, for example, that Pan-Turkism gained influence in
the Ottoman Empire only after the collapse of the Young Turk effort to
develop an Ottoman - as opposed to a Turkish - nationalism, a
nationalism that would incorporate Turk and non-Turk. The Young Turk
enterprise, he continues, failed in the face of Armenian, Greek, Arab,
Jewish and Assyrian resistance. Were this line of argument supported,
it would demand a wholesale re-evaluation of the fundamentally
reactionary character of the Young Turk movement.

The Young Turks however never represented a non-existent Ottoman
nationality. They were rather the first flag bearers of a reactionary
modern Turkish nationalism whose aim was nothing less than
safeguarding the Ottoman Empire from the democratic demands of the
national groups it oppressed. The Young Turks central aim was
reconstituting this decaying Empire in order to secure it exclusively
for the rising Turkish bourgeois/trading class. Thus it was
irreconcilably hostile to the legitimate demands of other national
groups within the Ottoman Empire.  At best one could say about Young
Turk ideology prior to its embrace of Pan-Turkism that it was
inherently contradictory, containing as it did democratic shadings
that did not sit well with Turkish nationalist ambitions but that were
necessary to disarm other national movements.

The Young Turks gradual adoption of Pan-Turkish conceptions was a
resort to ideological forms more consistent with their chauvinist
nationalism.  With the Ottoman Empire on its last legs Pan-Turkish
ideologists offered a new and well-argued political vision for an
exclusive nationalism that legitimised their imperialist ambitions
against the democratic national movements within the Ottoman Empire
and with a perspective of securing Ottoman control of Turkic
territories in the East to replace the lost lands of the Balkans, Pan
Turkism also provided a programme for reconstructing empire.

Zarevant's booklet draws attention to many apparently common features
between Armenian and Turkish national movements. Both attempted to
cleanse their languages of unnecessary foreign importation and to
develop a vernacular literature and theatre accessible to the masses.
Both developed an ambitious educational programme in the course of
which they also worked to recover their ancient, classical history.
They also envisaged an enhanced and emancipated role for women in
society.  Significantly both sought to abandon Istanbul, seen as an
enfeebled and degenerate centre, in favour of the interior, Anatolia
and Armenia.  Turkish nationalism also took the unprecedented and
almost sacrilegious step of translating the Koran into Turkish.

Yet for all their formal similarities the contexts for Armenian and
Turkish movements were fundamentally different. The Armenian expressed
the strivings of an oppressed people. Turkish nationalism and
Pan-Turkism within the terms of the Ottoman Empire at any rate
expressed ambitions to defend the empire and was in this sense similar
to the thoroughly unsavoury British imperial nationalism.

The xenophobic essence of Pan-Turkism, evident in its politics after
the defeats in the Balkan wars, was condensed in the slogan `Turkey
for the Turks'. Within the bounds of the Ottoman Empire this slogan
was a call to grab Kurdistan, Armenia, portions of Arabia and portions
of Greece for the Turkish elite. It was thus despite its innocent
appearance a slogan pregnant with the possibility of ethnic cleansing
and genocide.  Fiercely critical of imperial Ottoman concessions
granted to non-Turks Pan-Turkish and Young Turk organisations embarked
on economic boycotts against Armenians and Greeks and established
their own exclusively Turkish financial, banking, trading
organisations.

With each setback in the Balkans the Ottoman state and the Young Turks
sought to reinforce control eastward in Anatolia and western Armenia.
So they sharpened the anti-Armenian and also anti-Russian blade of
their politics. In the context of their efforts to preserve what
remained of the Ottoman Empire, for the Young Turks Tsarist Russia
with its eye on Western Armenia was unquestionably the main strategic
enemy. In the same vein the Armenian national movement and the
Armenian people despite its minimal ambitions to limited autonomy
within the Ottoman Empire came to be seen as one, if not the main
`internal' problem for the Young Turks.  The Armenian movement was
perceived as a challenge to the Ottoman Empire's so-called
`territorial integrity' and treated as a dangerous potential ally of
its strategic Russian enemy.

It is thus easy grasp the stubborn Young Turk and Pan-Turkish
opposition to any independent Armenian political entity, indeed to the
very existence of the Armenian people in the region. One can grasp the
reactionary logic behind the 1915 Genocide, the slaughter in Baku and
the Turkish invasion of the Caucasus. Nevertheless accepting
Zarevant's claim that Pan-Turkism gained a significant foothold in the
Ottoman Empire only after 1908 it would be a mistake and a distortion
to explain the Genocide in terms of Pan-Turkism. The Genocide was a
function not of Pan-Turkism but of a long-term strategic ambition of
modern Turkish nationalism that predated Pan-Turkism's growth in the
Ottoman Empire stretching as it did back to the Russo-Turkish war of
1876. Pan-Turkism may have given this strategic design additional
ideological underpinning but it was not its cause.

Besides opposing Tsarist Russia, Pan-Turkism also strove for total
Turkish independence from the western imperialist powers. The Young
Turks seized the opportunity of WWI to withdraw economic privileges
and monopolies previously obtained by European imperialist powers.
Though this drive to independence collapsed with Turkey's defeat, a
new generation of equally reactionary Turkish nationalists under the
leadership of Ataturk persevered to establish the foundations of
modern Turkey. Needless to say, in the context of the oppression of
Armenian, Assyrian, Kurdish, Arabic and Greek peoples this Young Turk,
Pan-Turkish and Kemalist opposition to western imperialism had no
democratic substance. It was the wolf fighting other wolves for choice
portions of the lamb.

For reasons that merit study and analysis not available in this volume
the Armenian leadership utterly failed to recognise the pernicious
character of Turkish nationalism, despite readily available evidence.
When this leadership began to reconsider the wisdom of its fatal
alliance with the Young Turks that had disarmed the Armenian people,
rather than rearm to confront the glaring spectre of genocide it
returned to beg charity from the imperialist powers. Unable to grasp
Young Turk/Pan-Turkish fear and loathing of Tsarist Russia, the
Armenian leadership displaying no tactical sense loudly proclaimed
their pro-Russian sympathies from the rooftop. But as they thus
provoked the ire of the Ottoman Empire, they took no measures to
defend the Armenian people against bloody reprisal.

Zarevant's account includes a significant evaluation of Turkish-Soviet
relations arguing that the Soviet leadership systematically sacrificed
Armenian territory and interests to Turkish and Azeri Pan-Turkish
ambitions. This all left Armenia without even minimal basis for a
viable nation state. Turkish nationalists of all colours, Zarevant
claims, conscious of Soviet vulnerability to British and other allied
aggression, made pro-Soviet gestures in return for Soviet support for
their attempt to evict Europe from Turkey and re-establish Turkey as a
great power. In view of the weighty volume of Soviet Armenian
historiography that rejects this thesis, it is a pity that Zarevant
did not supply convincing evidence.

Independent of the reliability of aspects of this volume it remains
indispensable for students of modern Armenian-Turkish relations.


--
Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from
Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on
Armenian literature.  His works on literary and political issues
have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open
Letter in Los Angeles.

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