Islamist Transformations of Ottoman History, Culture and Literature: Between Scholarship and Politics

Whether wholeheartedly embraced by the modern Turkish generation (or even by Turkish historiography itself) or not, Turkey’s Ottoman past is an indispensable part of its history and identity. Rising around 1300 in Northwestern Anatolia and becoming the most significant world power by the time of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520–1566), the Ottoman Empire extended throughout what we call today the ‘Middle East’ and much further.

Many theories have been established in an attempt to explain the birth and the development of the Ottoman military supremacy, bureaucracy, social and economic institutions, and ethnic and linguistic structures. Who were the Ottomans? Was the House of Osman (believed to have founded the state) comprised of ‘Turks’ only? Was the Ottoman state a direct continuation of the Anatolian Seljuk dynasty or a transformation of it under a new leadership? Were some significant elements from the Byzantine institutions carried over into the Ottoman entity? What was the role of religious conversions in the creation of such a military and economic power? Was jihad the sole and only inspiration of the Ottomans in their military successes? How ‘Islamic’ and pious were these rulers and their state? How did the Ottoman rulers manage to keep their multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-linguistic populations largely in peace for centuries? How did the Ottoman state based so predominantly on the rules and values of sedentary life accommodate or not accommodate the nomadic Turks who in the beginning had contributed to the very creation of it? Was the idea of secularism so foreign to the minds of the Ottomans? Did the founder of the modern Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk receive any inspiration for modernity from the Ottoman experience? Is modern Turkey completely cut off from its imperial past? Have its citizens been suffering from a theoretical lack of ethnic, political and cultural ‘identity’? Is the Kemalist state nearing a cultural and ideological end due to the revival and powerful development and spread of Islamist ideology? Anyone dealing with issues involving modern Turkey can hardly avoid these questions and they become even more pertinent when it comes to attempting to study the reception of Ottoman culture and poetry and its politicisation process in the twenty-first century.

The Turkish cultural revolution of the early twentieth century was a revolution of symbols. There were no apparent anarchic attacks in this political endeavour towards the Holy Book, sacred buildings, visual arts, poetry and so on of the Ottoman Empire. From this point of view, it was not a devastating revolution. With some documented exceptions, the Kemalist ideology intended to implement a major socio-political and cultural revolution without bloodshed in a remarkably short period of time. This was a top-down revolution, engineered and prescribed by the elite for the ‘goodness’ of the masses. As a modernist ideology, it had no other options available either. The leaders of the Kemalist endeavour were people moulded in the courtly cultural makeup of the Ottoman system. These revolutionaries were indispensable intellectual components of the past they had to refute. I try to imagine Mustafa Kemal (especially once he became Atatürk), imagine him as a human … The Ottoman booze in his hand … Ottoman court music in his ears … Enjoying the courtly pleasures of the past he had to deny … Secretly … Simultaneously training his ‘new nation’ to be Westernized … Telling them the grand story of Western civilization … Here I do not mean to join or get lost in the postmodernist discursive space – those anachronisms of re-reading – carved especially after the 1980s, one of whose most popular subject matters seems to be a relentless focus on the caricaturisation processes of Mustafa Kemal and his cultural reforms.

To my knowledge, no modernist ideology in Ottoman and Turkish history has ever tried to systematically prohibit the production, transmission and reception of Ottoman court poetry. However, the cultural and political chaos, which was conditioned first by the creation of the Republic of Turkey and then was seized upon especially after the 1980s by the sophisticated minds of Islamism and post-Marxism, set up a market space for the re-introduction of Ottoman court poetry – not as an academic field but as a vital political tool in the invention of a new dimensionless cultural and political space.

Modernity in Turkey set out to define the borders of a new Turkish civilization, a new space where many different peoples and cultures could be unified in a newly designed enclosure. All that was left was the physical image of it, the shell of a sign now emptied of its meaning – and left in a completely different social and political space. Now this image could be transformed into a political tool. Many new receptions of it could be created and remarketed in the new space. It could now easily be a cultural or ideological weapon-symbol for an Islamist revival. It could now easily be played within the pages of a nostalgic postmodern novel … The empty signifier could be filled with any number of new values and meanings.

For the Islamist and/or Turko-Islamist, Ottoman court poetry was important. Hey, it was written in the Arabic script! The Holy one with which God’s words were written down. The connotation of the Ottoman poetry was secondary for them. After all, if it did not fit into the agendas of this ideology, it could be fixed and re-mixed for the new generation. The poetry itself was nebulous enough – at least for the modern mind … The author–audience and audience–author correlation of the Ottoman times was no longer here in this new space. The wine in a gazel could easily be re-presented as the signifier of the love for God, the this-worldly love of the Ottoman poet could easily be transformed into an Islamic/mystical adventure …

Just as Kemalism set out to make revolutions through signs, Turkish Islamists embrace similar methods – given the dominant ideology’s direct political control over these signs, it is perhaps all but natural. In today’s Turkey, almost all references to the Ottoman Empire are predominantly Islamist – this includes state-sponsored publications and highly popular soap operas on state-sponsored TV channels. In the Origins of the Ottoman Dynasty, I have tried to challenge these political representations of our time. My book is not based on the Islamist imaginings of the Ottomans but rather on medieval Ottoman manuscripts and their scholarly utilisation.