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Tuesday, December 08, 2009


Everything old is new again:

But in September, at his funeral in the garden of the majestic Sultanahmet Mosque here, thousands of mourners came to pay their respects, including government officials and celebrities. Some even kissed the hands of surviving dynasty members, who appeared shocked at the adulation.

The show of reverence for the man who might have been sultan, historians said, was a seminal moment in the rehabilitation of the Ottoman Empire, long demonized by some in the modern, secular Turkish Republic created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923. During Ataturk’s rule, the empire was remembered mainly for its decadence and its humiliating defeat and partition by the Allied armies in World War I.

Mr. Osman’s send-off was just the latest manifestation of what sociologists call “Ottomania,” a harking back to an era marked by conquest and cultural splendor during which sultans ruled an empire stretching from the Balkans to the Indian Ocean and claimed the spiritual leadership of the Muslim world.

The sentiment is a familiar one to old Publius: "Back in the good ol' days, when our lot ruled the world." The past was never as good as you remember it.

Pelin Batu, co-host of a popular television history program, argued that the glorification of the Ottoman era by a government with roots in political Islam reflected a revolt against the secular cultural revolution undertaken by Ataturk, who outlawed the wearing of Islamic head scarves in state institutions and abolished the Ottoman-era caliphate.

“Ottomania is a form of Islamic empowerment for a new Muslim religious bourgeoisie who are reacting against Ataturk’s attempt to relegate religion and Islam to the sidelines,” she said.

Mustafa Kemal was a Turkish response, albeit a rather delayed one, to the eighteenth century ideal of the Enlightened Despot. Confronted with societies ruled by absolute monarchs, holding sway over superstitious and semi-feudal populaces, the hope of many Enlightenment reformers lay with convincing Europe's hereditary tyrants to modernize their societies. While some implemented cosmetic reforms, others, notably Joseph II of Austria, sincerely wished to modernize their societies, introducing a significant element of rational discourse and individual liberty.

As notable as their ambitions, so were the failures of the Enlightened Despots. The failure was not comprehensive. Modern liberal democratic Europe can trace its origins to the efforts of these far-sighted tyrants. In the end their success, as that of Ataturk, was mitigated. The problem of Enlightened Despotism isn't the despot, but the people. What if they do not want to be free and modern? What if they prefer superstition, ignorance and tyranny, which they know well and understand? 

Joseph II was bitterly opposed by his own peasantry, whom he was trying to liberated from the vestiges of feudalism. On his tomb the Great Hapsburg had written: "Here lies Joseph II, who failed in all he undertook." Ataturk was more successful. He is today honoured as the founder of the modern Turkish Republic. Yet the European style modernity he brought was never completely embraced by the Turkish people. Thus the nostalgia for its pre-westernized past.

Posted by Richard Anderson on December 8, 2009 | Permalink


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