Essay: Turkey’s cultural sphere – Ottomania

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Over the last decade, Turkey’s cultural sphere has witnessed a motto of Ottomania—a term describing the recent cultural fervor for everything Ottoman. Although this neo-Ottoman cultural phenomenon, is not entirely new since it had its previous cycle back in the 1980s and 1990s during the heyday of Turkey’s political Islam, it now has a rather novel characteristic and distinct pattern of operation. This revived Ottoman craze is discernable in what I call the neo-Ottoman cultural ensemble—referring to a growing array of Ottoman-themed cultural productions and sites that evoke Turkey’s Ottoman-Islamic cultural heritage. For example, the celebration of the 1453 Istanbul conquest no longer merely takes place as an annual public commemoration by the Islamists,[1] but has been widely promulgated, reproduced, and consumed into various forms of popular culture such as: the Panorama 1453 History Museum; a fun ride called the Conqueror’s Dream (Fatih’in Rüyası) at the Vialand theme park; the highly publicized and grossed blockbuster The Conquest 1453 (Fetih 1453); and the primetime television costume drama The Conqueror (Fatih). It is the “banal”, or “mundane,” ways of everyday practice of society itself, rather than the government or state institutions that distinguishes this emergent form of neo-Ottomanism from its earlier phases.[2]
This is the context in which the concept of neo-Ottomanism has acquired its cultural dimension and analytical currency for comprehending the proliferating neo-Ottoman cultural phenomenon. However, when the concept is employed in contemporary cultural debates, it generally follows two trajectories that are common in the literature of Turkish domestic and foreign politics. These trajectories conceptualize neo-Ottomanism as an Islamist political ideology and/or a doctrine of Turkey’s foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. This essay argues that these two conventional conceptions tend to overlook the complexity and hybridity of Turkey’s latest phase of neo-Ottomanism. As a result, they tend to understand the emergent neo-Ottoman cultural ensemble as merely a representational apparatus of the neoconservative Justice and Development Party’s (AKP; Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi) ideology and diplomatic strategy.
This essay hence aims to reassess the analytical concept of neo-Ottomanism and the emergent neo-Ottoman cultural ensemble by undertaking three tasks. First, through a brief critique of the concept of neo-Ottomanism, I will discuss its common trajectories and limitations for comprehending the latest phase of neo-Ottoman cultural phenomenon. My second task is to propose a conceptual move from neo-Ottomanism to Ottomentality by incorporating the Foucauldian perspective of governmentality. Ottomentality is an alternative concept that I deployed here to underscore the overlapping relationship between neoliberal and neo-Ottoman rationalities in the AKP’s government of culture and diversity. I contend that neoliberalism and neo-Ottomanism are inseparable governing rationalities of the AKP and their convergence has engendered new modes of governing the cultural field as well as regulating inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in Turkey. And finally, I will reassess the neo-Ottoman cultural ensemble through the analytical lens of Ottomentality. I contend that the convergence of neoliberal and neo-Ottoman rationalities has significantly transformed the relationships of state, culture, and the social. As the cases of the television historical drama Magnificent Century (Muhteşem Yüzyıl) and the film The Conquest 1453 (Fetih 1453) shall illustrate, the neo-Ottoman cultural ensemble plays a significant role as a governing technique that constitutes a new regime of truth based on market mentality and religious truth. It also produces a new subject of citizenry, who is responsible for enacting its right to freedom through participation in the culture market, complying with religious norms and traditional values, and maintaining a difference-blind and discriminatory model of multiculturalism.

A critique of neo-Ottomanism as an analytical concept

Although the concept of neo-Ottomanism has been commonly used in Turkish Studies, it has become a loose term referring to anything associated with the Islamist political ideology, nostalgia for the Ottoman past, and imperialist ambition of reasserting Turkey’s economic and political influence within the region and beyond. Some scholars have recently indicated that the concept of neo-Ottomanism is running out of steam as it lacks meaningful definition and explanatory power in studies of Turkish politics and foreign policy.[3] The concept’s ambiguity and impotent analytical and explanatory value is mainly due to the divergent, competing interpretations and a lack of critical evaluation within the literature.[4] Nonetheless, despite the concept being equivocally defined, it is most commonly understood in two identifiable trajectories. First, it is conceptualized as an Islamist ideology, responding to the secularist notions of modernity and nationhood and aiming to reconstruct Turkish identity by evoking Ottoman-Islamic heritage as an essential component of Turkish culture. Although neo-Ottomanism was initially formulated by a collaborated group of secular, liberal, and conservative intellectuals and political actors in the 1980s, it is closely linked to the consolidated socio-economic and political power of conservative middle-class. This trajectory considers neo-Ottomanism as primarily a form of identity politics and a result of political struggle in opposition to the republic’s founding ideology of Kemalism. Second, it is understood as an established foreign policy framework reflecting the AKP government’s renewed diplomatic strategy in the Balkans, Central Asia, and Middle East wherein Turkey plays an active role. This trajectory regards neo-Ottomanism as a political doctrine (often referring to Ahmet Davutoglu’s Strategic Depth serving as the guidebook for Turkey’s diplomatic strategy in the 21st century), which sees Turkey as a “legitimate heir of the Ottoman Empire”[5] and seeks to reaffirm Turkey’s position in the changing world order in the post-Cold War era.[6]
As a result of a lack of critical evaluation of the conventional conceptions of neo-Ottomanism, contemporary cultural analyses have largely followed the “ideology” and “foreign policy” trajectories as explanatory guidance when assessing the emergent neo-Ottoman cultural phenomenon. I contend that the neo-Ottoman cultural phenomenon is more complex than what these two trajectories offer to explain. Analyses that adopt these two approaches tend to run a few risks. First, they tend to perceiveneo-Ottomanism as a monolithic imposition upon society. They presume that this ideology, when inscribed onto domestic and foreign policies, somehow has a direct impact on how society renews its national interest and identity.[7] And they tend to understand the neo-Ottoman cultural ensemble as merely a representational device of the neo-Ottomanist ideology. For instance, Şeyda Barlas Bozkuş, in her analyses of the Miniatürk theme park and the 1453 Panorama History Museum, argues that these two sites represent the AKP’s “ideological emphasis on neo-Ottomanism” and “[create] a new class of citizens with a new relationship to Turkish-Ottoman national identity.”[8] Second, contemporary cultural debates tend to overlook the complex and hybrid nature of the latest phase of neo-Ottomanism, which rarely operates on its own, but more often relies on and converges with other political rationalities, projects, and programs. As this essay shall illustrate, when closely examined, current configuration of neo-Ottomanism is more likely to reveal internal inconsistencies as well as a combination of multiple and intersecting political forces.
Moreover, as a consequence of the two risks mentioned above, contemporary cultural debates may have overlooked some of the symptomatic clues, hence, underestimated the socio-political significance of the latest phase of neo-Ottomanism. A major symptomatic clue that is often missed in cultural debates on the subject is culture itself. Insufficient attention has been paid to the AKP’s rationale of reconceptualizing culture as an administrative matter—a matter that concerns how culture is to be perceived and managed, by what culture the social should be governed, and how individuals might govern themselves with culture. At the core of the AKP government’s politics of culture and neoliberal reform of the cultural filed is the question of the social.[9] Its reform policies, projects, and programs are a means of constituting a social reality and directing social actions. When culture is aligned with neoliberal governing rationality, it redefines a new administrative culture and new rules and responsibilities of citizens in cultural practices. Culture has become not only a means to advance Turkey in global competition,[10] but also a technology of managing the diversifying culture resulted in the process of globalization. As Brian Silverstein notes, “[culture] is among other things and increasingly to be seen as a major target of administration and government in a liberalizing polity, and less a phenomenon in its ownright.”[11] While many studies acknowledge the AKP government’s neoliberal reform of the cultural field, they tend to regard neo-Ottomanism as primarily an Islamist political agenda operating outside of the neoliberal reform. It is my conviction that neoliberalism and neo-Ottomanism are inseparable political processes and rationalities, which have merged and engendered new modalities of governing every aspect of cultural life in society, including minority cultural rights, freedom of expression, individuals’ lifestyle, and so on. Hence, by overlooking the “centrality of culture”[12] in relation to the question of the social, contemporary cultural debates tend to oversimplify the emergent neo-Ottoman cultural ensemble as nothing more than an ideological machinery of the neoconservative elite.

From neo-Ottomanism to Ottomentality

In order to more adequately assess the socio-political significance of Turkey’s emergent neo-Ottoman cultural phenomenon, I propose a conceptual shift from neo-Ottomanism to Ottomentality. This shift involves not only rethinking neo-Ottomanism as a form of governmentality, but also thinking neoliberal and neo-Ottoman rationalities in collaborative terms. Neo-Ottomanism is understood here as Turkey’s current form of neoconservatism, a prevalent political rationality that its governmental practices are not solely based on Islamic values, but also draws from and produces a new political culture that considers Ottoman-Islamic toleration and pluralism as the foundation of modern liberal multiculturalism in Turkey. Neoliberalism, in the same vein, far from a totalizing concept describing an established set of political ideology or economic policy, is conceived here as a historically and locally specific form of governmentality that must be analyzed by taking into account the multiple political forces which gave its unique shape in Turkey.[13] My claim is that when these two rationalities merge at the cultural domain, they engender a new art of government, which I call the government of culture and diversity.
This approach is therefore less concerned with a particular political ideology or the question of “how to govern,” but more about the “different styles of thought, their conditions of formation, the principles and knowledges that they borrow from and generate, the practices they consist of, how they are carried out, their contestations and alliances with other arts of governing.”[14] In light of this view, and for a practical purpose, Ottomentality is an alternative concept that I attempt to develop here to avoid the ambiguous meanings and analytical limitations of neo-Ottomanism. This concept underscores to the convergence of neoliberal and neo-Ottoman rationalities as well as the interrelated discourses, projects, policies, and strategies that are developed around them for regulating cultural activities and directing inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations in Turkey. It pays attention to the techniques and practices that have significant effects on the relationships of state, culture, and the social. It is concerned with the production of knowledge, or truth, based on which a new social reality of ‘freedom,’ ‘tolerance,’ and ‘multiculturalism’ in Turkey is constituted. Furthermore, it helps to identify the type of political subject, whose demand for cultural rights and participatory democracy is reduced to market terms and a narrow understanding of multiculturalism. And their criticism of this new social reality is increasingly subjected to judicial exclusion and discipline.
I shall note that Ottomentality is an authoritarian type of governmentality—a specific type of illiberal rule operated within the structure of modern liberal democracy. As Mitchell Dean notes, although the literature on governmentality has focused mainly on liberal democratic rules that are practiced through the individual subjects’ active role (as citizens) and exercise of freedom, there are also “non-liberal and explicitly authoritarian types of rule that seek to operate through obedient rather than free subjects, or, at a minimum, endeavor to neutralize any opposition to authority.”[15] He suggests that a useful way to approach to this type of governmentality would be to identify the practices and rationalities which “divide” or “exclude” those who are subjected to be governed.[16] According to Foucault’s notion of “dividing practices,” “[t]he subject is either divided inside himself or divided from others. This process objectivizes him. Examples are the mad and the sane, the sick and the healthy, the criminals and the ‘good boys’.”[17] Turkey’s growing neo-Ottoman cultural ensemble can be considered as such exclusionary practices, which seek to regulate the diversifying culture by dividing the subjects into categorical, if not polarized, segments based on their cultural differences. For instance, mundane practices such as going to the museums and watching television shows may produce subject positions which divide subjects into such categories as the pious and the secular, the moral and the degenerate, and the Sunni-Muslim-Turk and the ethno-religious minorities.

Reassessing the neo-Ottoman cultural ensemble through the lens of Ottomentality

In this final section, I propose a reassessment of the emergent neo-Ottoman cultural ensemble by looking beyond the conventional conceptions of neo-Ottomanism as “ideology” and “foreign policy.” Using the analytical concept of Ottomentality, I aim to examine the state’s changing role and governing rationality in culture, the discursive processes of knowledge production for rationalizing certain practices of government, and the techniques of constituting a particular type of citizenry who acts upon themselves in accordance with the established knowledge/truth. Nonetheless, before proceeding to an analysis of the government of culture and diversity, a brief overview of the larger context in which the AKP’s Ottomentality took shape would be helpful.

Context

Since the establishment of the Turkish republic, the state has played a major role in maintaining a homogeneous national identity by suppressing public claims of ethnic and religious differences through militaristic intervention. The state’s strict control of cultural life in society, in particular its assertive secularist approach to religion and ethnic conception of Turkish citizenship, has resulted in unsettling tensions between ethno-religious groups in the 1980s and 1990s, i.e. the Kurdish question and the 1997 “soft coup.” These social tensions indicated the limits of state-led modernization and secularization projects in accommodating ethnic and pious segments of society.[18] This was also a time when Turkey began to witness the declining authority of the founding ideology of Kemalism as an effect of economic and political liberalization. When the AKP came to power in 2002, one of the most urgent political questions was thus the “the limits of what the state can—or ought for its own good—reasonably demand of citizens […] to continue to make everyone internalize an ethnic conception of Turkishness.”[19] At this political juncture, it was clear that a more inclusive socio-political framework was necessary in order to mitigate the growing tension resulted in identity claims.
Apart from domestic affairs, a few vital transnational initiatives also took part in the AKP’s formulation of neoliberal and neo-Ottoman rationalities. First, in the aftermath of the attacks in New York on September 11 (9/11) in 2001, the Middle East and Muslim communities around the world became the target ofintensified political debates. In the midst of anti-Muslim and anti-terror propaganda, Turkey felt a need to rebuild its image by aligning with the United Nations’ (UN) resolution of “The Alliance of Civilizations,” which called for cross-cultural dialogue between countries through cultural exchange programs and transnational business partnership.[20] Turkey took on the leading role in this resolution and launched extensive developmental plans that were designated to rebuild Turkey’s image as a civilization of tolerance and peaceful co-existence.[21] The Ottoman-Islamic civilization, known for its legacy of cosmopolitanism and ethno-religious toleration, hence became an ideal trademark of Turkey for the project of “alliance of civilizations.”[22]
Second, Turkey’s accelerated EU negotiation between the late 1990s and mid 2000s provided a timely opportunity for the newly elected AKP government to launch “liberal-democratic reform,”[23] which would significantly transform the way culture was to be administered. Culture, among the prioritized areas of administrative reform, was now reorganized to comply with the EU integration plan. By incorporating the EU’s aspect of culture as a way of enhancing “freedom, democracy, solidarity and respect for diversity,”[24] the AKP-led national cultural policy would shift away from the state-centered, protectionist model of the Kemalist establishment towards one that highlights “principles of mutual tolerance, cultural variety, equality and opposition to discrimination.”[25]
Finally, the selection of Istanbul as 2010 European Capital of Culture (ECoC) is particularly worth noting as this event enabled local authorities to put into practice the neoliberal and neo-Ottoman governing rationalities through extensive urbanprojects and branding techniques. By sponsoring and showcasing different European cities each year, the ECoC program aims at promoting a multicultural European identity beyond national borders.[26] The 2010 Istanbul ECoC was an important opportunity for Turkey not only to promote its EU candidacy, but also for the local governments to pursue urban developmental projects.[27] Some of the newly formed Ottoman-themed cultural sites and productions were a part of the ECoC projects for branding Istanbul as cultural hub where the East and West meet. It is in this context that the interplay between the neoliberal and neo-Ottoman rationalities can be vividly observed in the form of neo-Ottoman cultural ensemble.

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