In battle for Turkish identity, an old Ottoman victory takes center stage

President Erdoğan recently accused his country of burying its history and damaging future generations by overlooking a 1916 defeat of the British during World War I. 

Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press
Residents walk past a poster of Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul, Friday, May 6, 2016.

A century-old victory by the Ottoman Empire in Iraq has become the latest flashpoint in a battle over Turkey’s national identity. 

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently accused his nation of “trying to bury our own history” by overlooking the 1916 siege of Kut, when Ottoman forces captured the British-held fort on the Tigris River during World War I.

At a lavish centenary commemoration of the event on April 29, Mr. Erdoğan claimed that those who neglected the memory of Kut “both disrespect our forebears and damage future generations.”

It was the latest example of the rehabilitation – enthusiastically spearheaded by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) – of the Ottoman Empire, whose collapse following World War I paved the way for the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

Before the AKP took power in 2002, Turks were encouraged to view the late Ottoman period as one of shame, decadence, and defeat. Previous governments usually sought to remain aloof from Middle Eastern affairs. Under Erdoğan’s rule, however, Ankara has emphasized a different narrative, drawing on a more glorious sense of the past to cast itself as a regional leader, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011. 

But all has not gone smoothly. The centenary comes as Erdoğan increasingly blames shadowy Western conspirators for a series of crises afflicting the country – from a fragile economy to the resurgent conflict with Kurdish PKK militants in the southeast. And heated debate has broken out over which dates to remember and forget – a controversy that intersects with broader tensions over the AKP’s active foreign policy in the Middle East and its domestic efforts to increase the role of Islam in public life.

“The [Kut celebration] is intended to remind Turkish people that they had an empire, that they are one of the great nations of the world, and to never forget their historical mission to be a leader of the Islamic world,” says Behlul Özkan, an assistant professor of political science at Istanbul’s Marmara University.

Mustafa Akyol, an author on Islamic issues and columnist at Hurriyet Daily News, says the AKP – like others before them – are being selective in the way they revive history. “The AKP is building an historical narrative that suits their contemporary political narrative,” he says. 

A misstep?

The Kut festivities might have passed without controversy had the government not curtailed celebrations the previous weekend of National Sovereignty and Children’s Day, which marks the foundation of Turkey’s parliament. That provoked a furious response from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).

The government said it canceled the Children’s Day reception in parliament out of respect to those who have died in the continuing Kurdish insurgency in Turkey’s southeast. Other celebrations to mark the festival went ahead, but CHP and opposition press accused the government of seeking to diminish the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s modern founder.

“The meaning of these decisions is to substitute a distorted history based on references to the Ottoman state in the place of Republican history and values,” Özgur Özel, the CHP’s parliamentary group leader, told the Monitor.

Claiming that the Kut celebrations and the decision to scale back Children’s Day were linked, he added: “The AKP government is trying to build a twisted future by creating an imaginary past.”

The version of history being put forward by the AKP originated within Turkey's Islamist movement and is the culmination of decades-long counter-narrative to that imposed by Atatürk and his successors, according to Behlul Özkan, an assistant professor of political science at Marmara University in Istanbul.

“Islamists in Turkey since the 1950s have been portraying Ottoman victories such as the 1453 siege of Constantinople as big victories. Kut is the latest example of this,” he says.

As the AKP, which is rooted in Islamism, has expanded its power, such pre-Republican dates have been marked with increasingly lavishly celebrations.

“The republic’s official history praised everything post-1919 [when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk launched the independence war leading to the creation of the republic], in order to legitimize it in the eyes of the public,” says Mr. Özkan. “Anything before that, especially the last years of the Ottoman Empire, were portrayed as a time of collapse and failure, with the sultans responsible.”

The last victory before defeat

The five-month siege of Kut, which concluded when Ottoman forces won the surrender of a British contingent of 13,000 soldiers on April 29, 1916, was the empire’s last military victory, and was followed the next year by their comprehensive defeat in Iraq.

Kemalist historians have held up the campaign as a cautionary example against imperialist adventures, citing the fact that some Arab tribes sided with the British as evidence of their "betrayal" despite centuries of Ottoman rule there.

Through the story of Kut, Erdogan and the AKP are modifying that narrative into a story of Islamic unity against the West, by emphasizing that local Arabs fought alongside the Turks.

“One thing it does is appeal to citizens’ pride in a glorious past, rather than engage their fear of destruction by outsiders as in World War I,” says Jenny White, visiting professor of anthropology at the Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies. “So the theme is victory, rather than caution.”

“Actually, AKP plays on both of these,” she continues, “the evil outsider – the British, Lawrence of Arabia – are all tropes continually invoked by Erdoğan and his party.”

Mr. Akyol, the columnist at Hurriyet Daily News, says he welcomes commemoration of Kut. But, he adds,  "I wish it wasn’t done for political purposes, and become the topic of another political controversy. But sadly that’s the way everything goes in Turkey at the moment.”

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