Hagia Sophia (Getty Images)

The Debate over Hagia Sophia, the New Republic, Hrant Dink and Tahir Elçi


By Taner Akçam

WORCESTER, Mass. – During the recent return of the Hagia Sophia/Hagia Sophia Museum to the status of a mosque, three moments stuck out as highly symbolic: the sight of a group of persons running to the mosque shouting “Allahu Akbar!”, the Turkish Minister of Religious Affairs ascending to the pulpit for the Friday sermon with sword in hand, and the President of the Republic reading from the Qur’an.

These are the symbols of the “new Republic” that President Tayyip Erdoğan is constructing, and all intentionally harken back to very important historical traditions.

Over the course of much of Ottoman-Turkish history we observe an abiding tradition of refusing to automatically recognize the right to life of those who were different, often justified on the basis of “might makes right” (kılıç hakkı). This tradition, which based itself on destruction and slaughter, has special meaning for the Syriac/Assyrian Christian community, which experienced this tradition first-hand, as the victims of the “Seyfo [Syriac word for sword]”. This is the sword that was drawn in Hagia Sophia on Friday, July 24.

This politics of annihilation, which began after the Tanzimat period, in particular and would end up eliminating close to 30% of the Ottoman population (primarily Christians), would persist during the Republican Period, during which time it targeted not just Christians, but Jews, the [largely Kurdish] population of Dersim and Alevis.

Neither the founders of the Turkish Republic nor their political opponents have ever fully come to terms with this policy of “annihilation and destruction,” and the reason for this is to be found in the “codes” of Ottoman collapse and Republican national rebirth.

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Defeat in wars is a humiliation and degradation for every country, a wounding of national pride and honor. Thus, the principal task of every defeated nation becomes the restoration of its  wounded honor.  And the first step is the inevitable demand to judge and punish those who are seen as responsible for the defeat. Such a process was entered into by the Ottomans in the wake of World War I, but it turned out to be short-lived and incomplete, being seen by many as a “victors’ justice”  forced upon a supine population by an occupying power and ultimately abandoned with the latter’s withdrawal and the victory of the nationalist forces.

Turkish honor, then, was not seen as having been restored through the punishing of those responsible for the debacle, but through military victory in the Turkish War for Independence.

The “truth” that has been imprinted on our brains, as Turkish citizens, is this: it was the Turkish War for Independence that served as the balm for our damaged national pride.

In this sense, there is a vast difference between the German experience after the Second World War and the Ottoman/Turkish one after the First. By facing up—admittedly, by being forced to face up—to its history and to try those who had brought the country to such a sorry state, was able to redeem itself and to restore its national pride.  It was upon the trials and judgments at Nuremberg that the German people succeeded in establishing a new state, one that sought a new understanding of what it meant to be German and a new relationship between citizen and state.

But for the Turks, there was never such a coming to terms with their recent past. National pride was not restored through a reconfiguration or new understanding of citizenship or national belonging, nor through an acknowledgement of past misdeeds. Rather, national pride was seen as being redeemed through the much simpler narrative of national collapse and resurrection. Within this narrative there was no room for a reassessment of the annihilationist policies long pursued; indeed, after a brief period of public trials immediately following defeat, there quickly arose a policy of almost complete denial or concealment.

It is not coincidental therefore that the new Turkish Republic and its founding ideology of Kemalism itself was founded on a continuation of these annihilationist policies inherited from the Ottoman state. In view of this, it should surprise no one that President Erdoğan’s “New Republic”—a not-so-veiled attempt to reverse much of the country’s secular Kemalist legacy—should be based on these very same foundations.

This understanding of recent Turkish history can be of great benefit for understanding the current debates over the Hagia Sophia’s transformation.

Neither the principal opposition party, the Republican Peoples Party nor others have been very vocal on this matter, carefully avoiding the creation of any fissures, either in society or within their own ranks. This should not be seen as surprising; rather it points to the existence within Turkish society of a silent, perhaps even unacknowledged shared understanding regarding the period of transition from empire to nation state.

But what is being seen here is in fact a crisis within the Republic itself, of which the Hagia Sophia affair is but a manifestation, a symptom of something more fundamental; it is a birth pang of the emerging political order.

What this crisis is showing us is that, apart from the Islamist-Nationalist coalition of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Deniz Bahçeli (and, to a lesser extent, Doğu Perinçek), there is currently no political circle within Turkey possessing a consistent, coherent response to the crisis that the Republic is experiencing. The regime’s bold stroke vis-a-vis Hagia Sophia should not be seen as stemming from desperation. Rather, it is simply meant to relay the not-so-subtle message of the path to be followed by the New Republic, and that message is that the “annihilationist tradition” of the old regime, inherited by the Republic’s founders, will be retained in the era to come.

This fact bears repeated emphasis: in regard to these long-held “annihilationist policies,” the “New Republic” of the current government coalition does not represent a complete break from the Kemalist tradition, any more than the Kemalists—their claims to the contrary—represented a break from the late Ottoman statecraft of their Unionist predecessors. The “conquest and the sword” featured at the Friday sermon at Hagia Sophia are unmistakable symbols of this continuity.

As for the country’s political opposition, its utter inability to publicly oppose these “coded messages” show the lack of any alternative vision for the future republic. This sorry state of affairs is best reflected in their inability to even produce a justification for the 1934 decision to turn the mosque into a museum in the first place.

I fear that, just as the Turkish War for Independence served as both a salve for wounded national honor and a compress that masked the annihilationist mindset of past governments, by failing to oppose the symbols of “conquest and sword” the current opposition has, for whatever reason, taken on the role of protective compress, shielding from scrutiny this continuing mindset prevailing within the current coalition.

Hrant Dink, Tahir Elçi and the New Republic

It is nevertheless possible to come out in opposition to the Erdoğan-Bahçeli-Perinçek vision for a republic, one constructed on the “annihilationist tradition” of the past, to not simply serve as a shield for such efforts, and to possess a different vision for a “New Turkish Republic”.   But any vision for a republic that is built on the inherited national myths of the War for Independence and its heroes cannot offer a viable alternative, it can only be another salve for Turkish pride and honor, a shield from our troubled, hidden past. And herein lies the failure of the current opposition.

What is needed is people willing and able to produce a vision of a truly new republic, one that transcends the received narrative, the “official history” of the country’s establishment. With the killing of the unarmed Black man George Floyd by police, a serious debate has been reignited in the United States over the country’s founding principles and the role of slavery in its establishment. This process, which has been made more urgent by the recent deaths of civil rights leaders John Lewis and Elijah Cummings, rests on the fundamental claim that the reason for persistent racism and discrimination in America today is that it has been part and parcel of American history since the beginning, extending back before the time of its establishment and its “founding fathers.”

But the America of today is also a country that has been shaped in great measure by the struggle for civil rights and equality. If America has truly made strides toward fulfilling its dream of offering an equitable and free democracy to all its citizens, the argument goes, great civil rights leaders such as John Lewis, Elijah Cummings, and Martin Luther King must be seen as founding fathers of at least equal importance.

It is possible to establish a truly democratic society only by a periodic reappraisal of a country’s history and of its founders. If the seminal contributions of persons such as Martin Luther King and John Lewis are not recognized, no truly democratic tradition can fully take hold.

This is the state in which we in Turkey also find ourselves. The only thing that will allow us to counter the benighted, destructive republican tradition of the ruling coalition is a truly democratic and egalitarian Turkish Republic that is able to honestly face and come to terms with the darker aspects of its history.

And such a republic will need to produce and recognize new “founders”. Such persons do indeed exist, persons similar in their visions to the aforementioned American civil rights leaders, persons who have fallen victim to those opposing their struggle. I am thinking especially of Hrant Dink and Tahir Elçi, two men whose names symbolize this vision of a new republic.

These two, who were of Armenian and Kurdish stock, respectively, took on as their life’s mission the creation of this new society, and showed us exactly what the “annihilationist tradition” in Turkey—this same tradition that is now finding expression the Right-Islamist coalition in power—had destroyed and was continuing to destroy.

A new tradition and a new republic, if they are also to be understood as a salve on wounded national pride and damaged honor, cannot be founded merely on the War for Independence and the accepted founders of the Turkish Republic. What such a reformed society needs most of all is a balm to begin to heal the wounds, to mollify some of the pain and bitterness of the last 150 years of Ottoman-Turkish history. It is possible to come to terms with the destructive policies and mentalities of the past, and to create a new, inclusive narrative. But for this task we need to raise up and embrace a new group of “founders,” one possessing a new understanding and vision for the Turkish Republic.

The words, actions, and legacies of Hrant Dink and Tahir Elçi are the best and clearest response we possess to Turkey’s “annihilationist tradition” and its sword, symbolically brandished at Hagia Sophia. These are our symbols, our “founding fathers” of a more democratic, more just, and more equitable Turkish Republic.

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