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The melancholy of Turkey

Conceding defeat to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the June election, Opposition leader Muharrem Ince protested against the “authoritarian” turn of events. He said the “one-man rule” meant that Turkey has departed from democratic values and that such rule poses “a threat to the survival of the country”. With civil liberties under acute pressure and Mr. Erdogan rooted in Islam, Turkey is in a state of flux. However, a look at its history shows that it has always been pulled in many directions. It is at once secular and Islamic, Western and Eastern, democratic and autocratic, with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia.

Jason Goodwin traces the rise and decline of the Ottoman empire in Lords of the Horizon (1998). He writes that “it was, by common consent, a Turkish empire, but most of its dignitaries and officers, and its shock troops, too, were Balkan Slavs. Its ceremonial was Byzantine, its dignity Persian, its wealth Egyptian, its letters Arabic... Its most brilliant sailors were all Greek. Its canniest merchants were Armenian.” Ottoman society at its best was civilised and tolerant, its rulers governing conquests with a light hand. Goodwin argues that the empire fell not least because of the Turks’ “prideful ignorance of the West”, depriving the country of the fruits of modernity.

The Turkish republic was founded on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. In The New Turkey and Its Discontents (2016), Simon Waldman and Emre Caliskan bring us to the present and its contradictions. Following the rise of Mr. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, they ask whether Turkey has descended into a “tyranny of the majority” led by a charismatic leader. The challenges are many, from a faltering economy, the Kurds issue, a fraught foreign policy to a gnawing unhappiness. Is it surprising then to find a “dense melancholy” consuming the Turks?

In his 2005 memoir Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk admits that he has always “apprehended the city’s soul in black and white”. Even the greatest Ottoman architecture, he writes, “has a humble simplicity that suggests an end-of-empire melancholy, a pained submission to the diminishing European gaze and to an ancient poverty that must be endured like incurable disease...” Pamuk talks about the packs of dogs in the streets, mentioned by every traveller passing through, “mad, lost creatures still clinging to their old turf”. Burdened by a dichotomous past, Turkey appears to labour on in the present.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 1:43:00 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-melancholy-of-turkey/article24305637.ece

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