Creating a Suitable Past: From the Turkish History Thesis to Ertuğrul
Erdoğan's frequent references to the past fit within an ongoing tradition in Turkish politics. Uğur Derin shows how history has been politicised in Turkey since the emergence of the Republic, focusing on Erdoğan's usage of a civilisational discourse that glorifies an Islamic and Ottoman past.
Politicisation of history, or in other words, the use of history for political means, has been around for a long time and was especially significant in the construction of national identities in Europe during the nineteenth century. British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm pointed out the ways in which the past was tampered with for political purposes and famously stated at the opening lecture of the Central European University in 1993 (which he later published in his book On History) that “if there is no suitable past, it can always be invented.” Various European countries claimed a link to ancient peoples. Especially in relation to land disputes, claims on antique civilisations continue to play a role in politics, for instance concerning Palestine during the establishment of the state of Israel and in the recently resolved name dispute over North Macedonia. Even the European Union considers itself the heir to the Graeco-Roman civilisations.
Turkey is no different. Throughout its post-Ottoman republican existence since 1923, Turkey has been engaged with the creation of civilisational legacies for different political purposes. In fact, the Turkish Historical Society was established in 1931 directly at the behest of the founder of the Republic and first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, with the purpose of – to quote from its website today – “making the whole world hear about the place of the Turks within world history and their contributions to civilisation.” An example of this type of research is the pseudo-scientific Turkish History Thesis of the 1930s. According to this theory, Turks were the true descendants of an ur-race of humanity that had established all the ancient civilisations, one after another.
Although the Turkish History Thesis, like many of its counterparts in Europe during this age of extreme nationalism, had racist tones, it still had an inclusive character. In line with the assimilation policies of the early republican era, this civilisational discourse declared everyone a Turk, whether they wanted it or not, while promoting the superiority of the real Turks. This perspective evolved to incorporate the state-founding mission and ability of Turks. For example, the sixteen stars on the Presidential Seal of Turkey (introduced in 1960s), are said to symbolise the alleged sixteen Turkish states throughout history, going back to the third century BC.
During the course of the Turkish Republic, the use of civilisational history for political purposes took different shapes. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Turkish state increasingly endorsed the historical thesis known as the “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis.” According to this theory, the pre-Islamic culture of the Turks and Islam had certain similarities that made it easier for the Turks to adopt the religion of Islam. Moreover, Turks contributed to the rise of Islam and made it the civilisation of a world empire. Irrespective of its historical accuracy, the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis was adopted by senior politicians, such as general-turned-president Kenan Evren and former prime minister and president Turgut Özal. This new civilisational discourse was used especially to combat communism and leftism, as well as to counterbalance the growing influence of Islamism in the Arab world and in Iran.
President Erdoğan is an intellectual child of the teachings of Turkish-Islamic Synthesis. While the early republican practices emphasized Turkishness as the common civilisational denominator (mostly ignoring the Ottomans and Islam), Erdoğan’s usage of history mostly emphasises Islamic values, incorporating them in Turkishness via the glorified imagining of the Ottoman and Selçuk empires. At times, the aforementioned “state-founding Turks theme” also comes into the picture. A case in point, and a rather bizarre one, was in January 2015 when Palestine leader Mahmoud Abbas visited Turkey. In an iconic photo that was highly ridiculed, Erdoğan and Abbas shook hands in front of the stairs of the presidential palace, while behind them sixteen actor “warriors” lined up with costumes supposedly symbolising the sixteen historical Turkish states.
Within Erdoğan's historical references when addressing distant territories, Islamic civilisation serves as the main frame for asserting Turkish influence. In 2014, during the summit of Latin American Muslim Leaders in Istanbul, Erdogan claimed that Muslims discovered the Americas in 1178, before Columbus. Stating that Columbus mentions in his memoir a mosque by the Cuban shore, Erdoğan said that he would like to build a new mosque in Cuba. In closer regions with a shared imperial history and in domestic politics, Erdoğan endorses a civilisational discourse that glorifies the Ottomans in the form of an Islamist (not Islamic) empire. At times, and especially regarding the relations with Arabs, the discourse focuses on Turkish superiority, reminding the Arabs that they were once Ottoman subjects. For example, in 2017, a minister of the United Arab Emirates retweeted a post depicting the Ottoman officer Fahreddin Pasha (who was the commander defending the city of Medina against the British during WWI) as a thief and referring to him as one of “Erdoğan’s ancestors.” Erdogan’s harsh reaction, which included name-calling, was followed by a discussion of whether Arabs were loyal to the Ottomans, and rekindled the ubiquitous “Arabs who stabbed us in the back” rhetoric.
In the last few years, the entertainment industry has become the primary medium to disseminate re-written history to the public. With titles such as “The Founder,” “Resurrection,” and “Awakening,” historical TV dramas taking place between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries present an atmosphere that encourages Turkish viewers to discover their greatness in history, through heroes like Osman (founder of the Ottoman dynasty), Ertuğrul (his father), or the Selçuk Turks fighting against the Byzantines and Crusaders. The series, broadcast on the state channel TRT and pro-Erdoğan channels, impose a highly emphasized Sunni version of Islamism. Erdoğan himself visited the set of Ertuğrul: Resurrection multiple times and publicly praised the show for teaching children the right values instead of the corruption of social media. Often defined as the “Muslim Game of Thrones,” Ertuğrul also has a huge appeal in most of the world of Islam. It is broadcast on the Pakistan television in the Urdu language, and a statue of Ertuğrul was erected in the capital Lahore in 2020.
Since the emergence of the Turkish Republic, history has served not just as source of pride, but as a means of legitimacy. Turkish politicians have kept rediscovering their past roots to manage the present day. Unless the education and practice of history in Turkey are thoroughly questioned, this tradition does not seem to be going anywhere.