Turkey’s Islamist leaders seek to rewrite Ottoman sultans’ role in state history

Turkey’s Kemalists – followers of the secularist ideology laid out by the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – were outraged by the May 19 edition of Sabah newspaper, which many saw as an attempt to rewrite the country’s history.

This edition was published on the Atatürk, Youth and Sports Day, a holiday commemorating the beginning of Turkey’s Independence War against foreign powers occupying it after World War One.

Yet alongside Mustafa Kemal, whose success in that war later earned him the surname Atatürk, the father of Turks, Sabah published photographs of the last Ottoman Sultan, Vahdettin, and his Grand Vizier, Damat Ferit Pasha.

These figures are seen in Turkey’s state history as collaborators with the enemy in the Independence War. Sabah’s presentation of the Ottoman leaders as heroes alongside Atatürk on May 19 was an attempt to rehabilitate them and rewrite that history along Islamist lines, scholar Gökhan Bacik told Ahval in a podcast.

“There have been serious divergences in Turkey’s recent history and its interpretation since the Tanzimat,” Bacık said, referring to the series of reforms that aimed to modernise and revitalise the Ottoman state during the 19th century - a period of protracted decline when it suffered crippling defeats at the hands of Western rivals.

“On one hand, there is the official history, and on the other hand, there is the approach of populist Islamists,” he said.

The official history states that, while Istanbul and other parts of Turkey were under occupation following World War One and the sultan’s court was collaborating with the British, “Atatürk went to Samsun on his own and launched the National Struggle, and saved Turkey,” Bacık said.

“By contrast, there is the opposite Islamist view. According to this, it was Sultan Vahdettin who did everything,” he said. “In fact, the Islamist discourse addresses the issue with a conspiratorial approach as if Atatürk was almost pro-British.

“Now that Islamists are in power in Turkey, they want to change that history,” he continued. Thus figures like Vahdettin and Abdülhamid II, the 34th Ottoman sultan whose authoritarian rule earned him the sobriquet “the Red Sultan” before he was deposed in a coup in 1909, are being redefined by Islamist commentators who emphasise positive aspects of their rule.

This is part of a strategy by Islamists to present their own version of history and every other field, Bacık said, adding that this version defines the secularist republican tradition as an aberration in the course of Turkey’s history.

Meanwhile, competing versions of history held by different factions in a highly polarised society have been accompanied by widespread popularity of conspiracy theories, contributing to a society that is stretching the bounds of reason, Bacık said.

A survey published this month by Istanbul Economy Research showed that more than half of Turks believed there were secret clauses in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which defined the borders of the modern Turkish Republic.

“Imagine if half of believers believed that some of the Koran’s provisions had been hidden, what kind of a situation would we be in?” Bacık said. “It’s a terrifying sign that we are abandoning rationality.”