[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
LONDON – Every time I come to this magnificent city, I admire the way the British honor their past. This time, I was impressed even more, for I had a chance to spend a whole morning in the House of Lords, at which a conference about Turkey’s emerging role in the world was held. While walking in the corridors of the splendid building, I could not count the number of statues of former statesmen that I saw. But I could well feel how tradition keeps the British proud and dignified.
The Turkish Parliament, in contrast, is devoid of any symbol that will give you a sense of history. The current one is the third parliament building since the 19th century, and was totally refurbished in the early 90′s. Now it has white walls and bright orange chairs, which look anything but kitsch, and has anything but character. If there were no Turkish flags in the hall, and no drones of men with moustache, you would hardly guess this was actually the Turkish parliament.
Is this because we Turks came to the face of the Earth just out of the blue, without any history, and history of democracy? No, not at all. The first Ottoman Parliament was opened in 1876. It was a much more impressive assembly than the current one, not just architecturally, but also with regards to its diversity: It hosted deputies from all religious and ethnic communities of the empire. One-third of the seats were held by non-Muslims, such as Armenians, Greeks, or Jews.
But today most Turks hardly know anything about this Ottoman heritage. The only thing they rather know is that Turkey was in “darkness” before the Republic, which shone on us “like a sun” in 1923.
Well, it is hard for these Turks to do fact checking about this official picture, for they have no easy access to history. The Republic was not just a political but also a cultural revolution, and the latter included the controversial “language reform.” Not just the alphabet was changed; even the words people had used for centuries were replaced by artificial ones created by the Turkish Language Institution. The idea was to “cleanse” the Turkish language from “foreign” (mostly Arabic and Persian) words, which had actually given the Ottoman language most of its sophistication.
As a result, a Turk on the street today has no chance to go into a library and read a book that was written a century ago in his hometown. An average Briton can easily read John Locke or Adam Smith, but an average Turk has no way of understanding Namık Kemal or Sabahattin Bey, the Ottoman proponents of classical liberalism in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The language reform was only one aspect of the Kemalist cultural revolution that Turkish society went through during the single-party era (1925-46). The whole idea was to change the very identity of the society and make it totally “Western” in all aspects. One iconic step was the “Hat Reform” of 1925, by which traditional Ottoman fez was banned and the Western-imported trimmed hat was made compulsory for civil servants. For a brief period in the 30′s, even Turkish music was banned on Turkish radios. Only Western classics would be played, and Turkish ears that enjoyed them would have “progress.”
This type of “modernization,” as you can guess, is not my cup of tea. I rather opt for a modernization driven by industrialization, economic rationality, democratization and the consolidation of individual liberty. The latter view has also been the philosophy of Turkey’s center-right, which, unlike the Kemalists, focused on building highways and dams, and boosting production and export, rather than imposing hats and banning headscarves.
And today, the ever-globalizing world proves the center-right right, and Kemalism wrong. Because in this world, your culture has no “market value” unless it brings something unique and authentic to the table.
Take India, for example. It has a booming economy, a functioning democracy, and an astonishing culture. Do you think it would be as interesting as it is today if it went through a “hat reform” and a “skirt reform,” and there were no Indian men and women who wore the turban and the sauri? Or what would you think if all bands in India played Bach, but not any Hindustani? Or would Bollywood have this much appeal, if it had nothing original, and were just a bad imitation of Hollywood?
Not really. And, similarly, a Turkey which is simply a bad imitation of the West has nothing interesting to offer to the world.
Think for yourself: If you want to listen to Mozart, would you order a CD from the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra, or the Presidential Symphony Orchestra of Ankara? And wouldn’t the latter be more interesting if it played the works of Ottoman composers, which were really not bad, and perhaps their modernized versions?
What all this means is that if we Turks don’t want to remain as European wannabes that people joke about, we have to get rid of this 80-year inferiority complex. There are many things in the West to admire, to be sure, but adopting them should not mean denying ourselves. There is nothing admirable about that.