December Issue 2014
Book Review: Turkish Awakening
From the ruins of the First World War arose the modern Turkish Republic, under the tutelage of Mustafa Kemal. Kemal was one of the few Turkish officers to emerge from the war as a successful commander. He built the new republic in his own image, annihilating the memories of the Ottoman empire, infusing the country with nationalism, instructing the Turkish people to change their clothing and, most importantly, the script in which their language was written.
Mustafa Kemal’s rule was — and probably still is — the biggest social experiment in stripping a nation of its existing language and providing an alternative. The Arabic-Persian script was replaced with the Latin alphabet. Women were given a prominent position in the new society, replacing the traditional patriarchal norms. Secularisation, in the guise of modernisation, was imposed on the populace. The new republic was supposed to be democratic, but Mustafa Kemal never took part in an election himself. His ideology became Kemalism, a curious blend of Turkish nationalism, modernity and secularism.
In the last decade of the 20th century, the emerging middle classes began to lose patience with autocratic rulers (there were four military coups between 1960 and 1999) and enforced secularisation. This sentiment manifested itself in the form of support for the Justice and Development Party (also known as the AK Party). The AK Party, led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has managed to sweep all national elections held after 2002. Turkey underwent a ‘rebirth’ under the leadership of Erdogan, managing tremendous growth on the economic front and strengthening ties with the Middle East. In the first decade of the new millennium, Turkey had become the epitome of a secular democracy in a Muslim-majority country.
It is this new Turkey that the author, born to a Turkish mother and a British father, explores. The book encapsulates the hopes, fears and aspirations of the urban, educated middle classes, the shortcomings of the Turkish education system, the inherent entrepreneurial spirit among Turkish businessmen and the multi-layered character of Turkish society. Divided into 12 chapters, the book surgically dissects different issues with precision and care. Each chapter focuses on a particular aspect of modern Turkey. The author does not only focus on cosmopolitan cities like Istanbul and Ankara, but also on the lives of people inhabiting the Black Sea region and the South Eastern Kurdish-majority areas. Alev Scott deconstructs orientalist narratives about Turkey, its women, the LGBT community and the people’s thoughts about joining the European Union.
The most captivating accounts in the book are those of Gezi Park and the protest movement that started from there. The events at Gezi in 2013, initially with an environmentalist agenda, snowballed into a protest movement that affected Turkish society as a whole. The AK Party’s Islamist government overreacted to the protests by using indiscriminate force, and videos of police brutality went viral. Turkey, with its tourist-friendly policies and tremendous economic growth under the AK Party regime, presented a unique model as a modern Islamic country for much of the last decade. Gezi Park changed the perception that everything was alright under this government. The protests united people from all stratas of society and they became a symbol of cosmopolitan awakening in the face of an increasingly repressive regime. Taksim Square, with the Republic Monument and the Ataturk Cultural Centre in the background, became the symbol of resistance for the urban middle classes against the forced gentrification of their city.
At the beginning of Turkish Awakening, Scott informs the reader that the Gezi Park protests took place as she was finalising the book and that she had to update certain chapters in light of the events. Since the book has been published, however, even more developments have taken place: Turkey has been overwhelmed by an influx of Syrian refugees and the AK Party has furthered its stranglehold on power by getting Erdogan elected as President.
Alev Scott’s first book, with meticulous research and attention to detail, is extremely well-written. But there is a chasm in content that needs to be addressed, and one hopes that in a future edition Scott will write about the changes in Turkey’s internal affairs and geopolitical standing that have materialised since the book was published.
This review was originally published in Newsline’s December 2014 issue under the headline”Turkey’s Changing Face.”
The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore. He writes on History, Political Economy and Literature. Follow him on Twitter