Monday, March 24, 2008

From Ottoman Empire to Modern Turkey

Last Wednesday Scott Powell continued his stimulating Islamist Entanglement lecture series with a fascinating lecture on the history of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey. It is not too late to join -- all lectures are digitally recorded and with lectures only once every two weeks it should be easy to catch up -- there have only been three so far. Be sure to mention me if you do decide to sign up. I had a chance to listen to the recording last night and here is my review.

The story begins with the first milestone, the Ottoman's failed siege of Vienna in 1683. This milestone marks the end of the Islamic threat to Europe and the beginning of Western Ascendancy. Just as there was an Eastern question for the West -- what do we do with this declining empire? So there was beginning to be some equivalent thinking in the East: The West is getting stronger -- what do we do about it? The history of Turkey provides one answer to the question -- what Scott argues is something of a best case scenario.

After some false starts and further "encouragement" from the West (encouragement via encroachment), Turkey adopts Westernizing reforms (the so-called Tanzimat reforms of 1839 -- another important milestone). Subsequently, skipping ahead a little bit, Turkey adopts, under the leadership of Kemal, the hero of World War I, a "benevolent, secularist, dictatorship" -- one that replaces the structure of the Islamic Ottoman Empire with a new system based on the "primacy of the state over religion."

In this system the military, the most Western institution in the country, actually tries to guarantee that the state does not slide back into Islamic law by forcefully replacing any government that it decides harbors such dangerous sympathies. For much of the 20th century it has been successful; however, given that the majority of the populace is not in fact supportive of anything but Islam, Scott suggests the Turkish military is fighting a losing battle. Recent events, including the election of an Islamist (Erdogan) as Prime Minister do not bode well for the future.

The next lecture, scheduled for April 2 will be on Egypt's history. I can't wait!

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