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The neighbour and the state

Understanding the cultural history of neighbourly conflict in Turkey

Any discussion of conflict between Turkey and its neighbours must take into account the social organization of the Ottoman period, says political columnist Etyen Mahçupyan. The heterogeneous and hierarchical structure of religious communities governed by the paternalist-authoritarian Ottoman state enabled a smooth transition to the modern nation-state. In the authoritarian version of modernity adopted by modern Turkish governments, "national interest" has been more important than individual or sub-societal benefit. The current conflict surrounding the so-called Armenian question is a product of this cultural history.

The last two words of the title of the panel "(Re)sounding Empires. Old neighbours, new conflicts", held at the 18th European Meeting of Cultural Journals, is highly optimistic to the ears of the average person. A "new" conflict is understood to be shallow; employ a few techniques, take a few steps, and it will soon evaporate. The preceding phrase is even more optimistic: "old neighbours" is a cliché that in all languages creates an atmosphere of harmony. In most cases it means that we get along well, most probably that we are alike. When these two phrases come together we face an irony: how can we have conflicts if we are old neighbours? We start thinking about, or searching for, an intruder; how else can we explain why we are not still living in the harmonious world of old neighbours?


Eurozine publishes original full length articles based on panel discussions held during the 18th European Meeting of Cultural Journals in Istanbul, 4-7 November 2005. Read contributions exploring facets of the main theme and the Turkey-Europe question from a range of intellectual and geographic backgrounds.

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From neighbourhood to citizenship: EU and Turkey
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At the margins of Europe: Russia and Turkey
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Europe revisited. Neighbourly conflict and the return of history
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The democratic neighbour: Politics of human rights in an enlarged Europe
Etyen Mahçupyan
The neighbour and the state
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The post-oriental condition: Serbs and Turks revisited

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Faces of Istanbul
That is how we come to start looking for an external actor, or an external force. It is exactly how the average Turkish person thinks about history today: "We were living in peace and harmony until an outside force (Europe or the West) came and brought new conflicts." Of course, this is not correct; and if history is seen in this way, Turkey's current problems are difficult to solve. In order to properly understand Turkey's new conflicts we must realize that they are in fact old conflicts that have become new. The crucial point here is that those old conflicts were set in a different mindset than conflicts today. They were experienced in a paternalistic world, while now Turkey is a kind of authoritarian world. What is more, the conflicts that once took place among communities have become a new set of conflicts among nation-states.

In order to see the temporal continuity and understand the real nature of the conflicts, it is necessary to refer to the Ottoman period and gain at least a rough idea of sociological circumstances at the time. To say it was a paternalistic world is to mean, above all, that epistemological knowledge of reality belonged to God the creator. The universe of beings was perceived as a hierarchy, with God at the top, through to angels, down to man, and so on. Of course, man occupied a higher position in the hierarchy of beings than woman, as always in religion. Knowledge was believed to originate from God and be reflected to the human mind; basically, we knew the world by knowing God. While this religious understanding of the world superimposed a hierarchy onto society, it also hinted towards a heterogeneous structure. In this conception, mankind itself was stratified depending on proximity to divine knowledge. The result was a hierarchy of knowledge, and therefore a hierarchy of social actors. There were guides who knew better than laymen and at the same time were inferior to those with more knowledge. The ultimate truth was in the hands of God; by approaching God, one understood the world itself, because it was a creation of God.

This structure has a symmetry when we look at society at large in the Ottoman period. It was both a heterogeneous and a hierarchical society; it was made up of communities, in other words, of different social actors belonging to different religious orders. Ottoman society included Orthodox Armenians, Catholic Armenians, Protestant Armenians, Orthodox Greeks, Catholic Greeks, Sunnis and Alevis, Jews, and so on. Of all these communities, no single one was equal to another; the crucial concept used to regulate them was "justice", which is still a highly efficient word in the political sense and used especially amongst the conservative circles within Turkish society. At the end of the 1980s, the religious Refah Partisi party and its leader Erbakan developed the slogan "adil sistem", or "the just system". It should be pointed out that in this context, "just" did not mean equality or freedom, but something else.

In the paternalistic mindset, the state – like a benevolent divinity –- became a referee over all the other social actors. The state was expected to regulate, in a just manner, all the problems that could possibly have arisen from society at large. On the other hand, society was a hierarchy of heterogeneous communities. The state's main concern became to stabilize this structure; in order to do so, it exerted special efforts to keep the communities apart by means of different and distinct identities. At the community level, this attitude caused an interesting situation. At the macro level, there were no physical borders separating communities: everyone lived together. But at the micro level, specific borders existed: there were Armenian villages, Greek villages, Alevite villages, and so on. In the towns, there were Armenian quarters, Jewish quarters, and so on. In fact, there was a separation at the micro level that hinted at a perception of imaginary borders between communities.

Therefore, it should be stressed that at the micro level there were two layers of "neighbourhood". In the closed circle of a neighbourhood, people lived with others who had the same identity as them. Simultaneously, neighbourhoods themselves neighboured on other neighbourhoods with different cultural identities. In addition, communities saw themselves as a single homogeneous entity, with members distributed across the empire. The communities shared the public sphere in general, but at the same time conceptual boundaries existed between them based on "eternal" cultural differences. This perception prevailed for many hundreds of years; it was the vision, not only of the state, not only of Sunni Turks, but also of Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and everyone else.

The influence of such a social structure on the political sphere was and still is crucial. Via rules and regulations, and also by tradition, the political sphere was divided into three in the Ottoman period. For an individual, politics meant having a career in your own community. In order to move up the social ladder, an Armenian was expected to become a member of the secular council of the patriarch. For him, that was politics. At the other end of the spectrum there was the political sphere of the state. This is where the big decisions were taken, the matters of state per se, which the communities had nothing to do with. They included decisions about taxation, signing treaties, declaring wars; they also included the expenditure of the Sultan himself, and prices in the market.

Between these two political spheres there was another. This was politics of the communities with regard to one another. The crucial thing was that the communities of the Ottoman system never got together to make decisions. As social and political entities, they faced the state; whenever they had a problem, they "talked" to the state – mostly in the form of complaint. As the logical counterpart, the state "talked" to them separately, making decisions that were expected to be just. For a community – or millet, meaning "nation" – politics, or the understanding of politics in the Ottoman times, was based on enlarging its own "ground" and increasing its strength in relation to the other communities.

This political setup created its own culture and has produced two important results. Firstly, a tradition could not develop of opposing the state while at the same time remaining legitimate, not only in the eyes of the authorities, but also in the eyes of the public. Opposing any authority made one a "heretic". This was also the case regarding internal opposition within communities, since the structure of the communities themselves was modelled after the state; the authorities of a community had a state-like prestige. For this reason, it is not surprising that no armed uprisings, either from within communities against their own authorities, or by any community against the state, took place during the centuries of "pre-modernity".

The only exceptions were the occasional rebellions of the Alevites, who were at the bottom of the hierarchy of communities. Alevites had a different stance to non-Muslims; though they appeared to share the religion of the state, Islam, they lived by a completely different code of culture. Alevites had always been considered a bigger threat to the state than non-Muslims, since they could claim power based on their religion. This brought ongoing pressure upon the Alevite community, which resulted in several uprisings.

Leaving the case of Alevites aside, we can safely say that Ottoman political culture was based on obedience and "harmony" rather than open opposition. On the other hand, this does not mean that there were no conflicts between communities, and between communities and the state. However, these conflicts were resolved in a peculiar way, corresponding to the second result of Ottoman political culture: all conflicts were resolved at the level of the state and behind closed doors. This mechanism was mostly informal, with the "state" listening to complaints and deciding on a very pragmatic basis, depending on the conjuncture and balances within the social structure. Problem areas between communities were at a "lower" level of importance, and the decision taken by the state was considered correct, since the state was acting with a "higher" goal and broader knowledge.

Given this tradition, when modernity dawned in the mid-nineteenth century, all communities within Ottoman society understood it in the same way. Modernity has, one might say, two pillars. One says that individuals are not comparable. Each individual has his or her own value system, makes his or her own choices, and the experience of any two individuals is not the same. This is a relativist understanding of morality and a system of value judgments. The second pillar is an authoritarian mindset. In the soft version, it says that there should be a single and coherent legal system encompassing all these individuals. In the hard version, it says that all non-alike individuals should belong to a nation, and that this nation should be connected to – in fact "belong to" – a particular state.

Thus the modern nation-state was integrated into a legal system and a "nation" of its own. This gave common identity to all the non-alike individuals, who were now called "citizens". The move from individual to nation as a free agent of history was quite easy.

When the communities within the Ottoman social structure experienced this change, they did not really understand the individualistic mentality. It was foreign to them, and in fact is still foreign to us in Turkey today. Even today, we do not really grasp what individualism is, and most of us have an inner dislike for what it represents. But the other pillar, nationalism connected to a state authority, was very close to the minds of the Ottomans. Because communities were already "nations" – they were "millets". It was just one more move to go from a paternalist community to a nation in the modern sense. Thus, old borders and neighbourhoods were redefined in a highly authoritarian version of modernism.

That is why, when we look at Turkey's relations to its neighbours today, we again see a series of "neighbourhood problems", this time in the context of foreign policy. Society as such is not seen as an actor in those fields, but rather "states" and "nations". Society is urged to believe that "nations" confront one other, that it is a zero sum game. The authoritarian approach to modernity says that there is a deep contradiction in the interests of nations, that contracts between states cannot benefit both. Benefit in this sense corresponds to "national interest", something that is much more important than any individual or sub-societal benefit.

Therefore, culture, tradition, and history are all tools in the hands of foreign policy; this goes for both Turkey and Armenia, if we want to take an example. If this situation is to change, if it is to be called a "new conflict", the cultural history must first be understood, so that the real nature of this conflict becomes clear. Turks and Armenians must realize that it is not a foreign intruder, but ourselves, that prevent those problems being solved.

If we want to solve any conflict in a democratic way, we have to find at least one criterion in which the conflicting parties are equal. They can and must start from a framework that equalizes them, and thus makes it possible for them to "talk". That level is shared history, shared mentality. At the beginning of the twentieth century, nationalist Armenians and nationalist Turks were very similar to each other in mentality – though not in power. If we want to create a new future, we must start on equal footing, we must remember that we are "old neighbours". Only then we can really start understanding and solving our problems.

This article is based on a contribution to the panel discussion, "(Re)sounding Empires. Old neighbours, new conflicts", which took place at the 18th European Meeting of Cultural Journals in Istanbul from 4 to 7 November 2005.


Published 2006-01-18

Original in English
© Etyen Mahçupyan
© Eurozine

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