Workshop Review: “From Unionism to Kemalism: Social and Political Transformation of Turkey”, University of Basel, October 27 - 28, 2017

Selen Etingü's picture

Workshop Review

The 5th MUBIT doctoral workshop, entitled “From Unionism to Kemalism: Social and Political Transformation of Turkey” took place in Basel, Switzerland on October 27-28, 2017, thanks to the MUBIT Inter-University Doctoral Cooperation in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and the Graduate School of Social Sciences at the University of Basel. In a series of lectures, Professor Asim Karaomerlioglu (Bogazici University) and Associate Professor Ahmet Kuyas (Galatasaray University) discussed about the historiographical trends in the Ottoman and Turkish studies with several students who attended the workshop from various institutions from Germany, United States, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Turkey and Portugal.

The discussion on the first day focused on the “generation” of the political elite who witnessed the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic. Both Karaomerlioglu and Kuyas discussed how a common vocabulary, common traumas, and the other shared experiences usually create a distinct kind of connectedness for people of the same generation. Accordingly, the Balkan Wars, World War I and the dissolution of the empire were some of traumas which led the Ottoman and Turkish political elite to adopt a mentality of ‘saving the state no matter what’ with strong nationalist sentiments. Even though our focus was concentrated on the commonalities of the Ottoman and Turkish political elite, participants also emphasized the need to enrich the recently proliferating accounts of history from below perspective and deal more with “fundamental components of life” such as sexuality, morality and marriage in Ottoman and Turkish studies.

In line with this emphasis, Karaomerlioglu discussed the ideological background of population policies in Republican Turkey during the second day of the workshop. He posited that the Republican regime aimed to preserve “the noble Turkish blood” and the future generation of “Turkish race” through social policies such as the prohibition of abortion, improvement of public health and education of ordinary people. Kuyas, on the other hand, talked about the abolition of the sultanate and caliphate as well as the proclamation of the republic, pointing out to the fact that all of them took place without a constitutional consensus. When evaluated with other radical reforms such as the declaration of civil law and replacement of Arabic letters with Latin Alphabet, Kuyas identified the republican elite with Jacobinism- not in terms of their ideological perspective but in terms of their “mood.” This Jacobinist mood, however, started to erode in late 1930s thanks to a closer cooperation with the West and a certain degree of political and economic liberalization.

As a graduate student participant, I feel extremely satisfied with the content and the program of the workshop. Reading materials, lectures of both professors focusing on certain themes as well as the participants with diverse field of expertise was what made the workshop fruitful. Additionally, this type of academic meeting, i.e. workshops, is much more productive when compared with other kinds of conferences because it allows participants to interact with other participants’ works in a more comfortable way, whereas at conferences, to quote a colleague, “people tend to be more defensive” rather than interactive. I would like to thank Prof. Maurus Reinkowsi, Dr. Selen Etingu-Breslaw, and Murat Kaya for organizing this workshop and I strongly encourage my graduate colleagues to attend the workshop next year, if the opportunity arises.

Burak Basaranlar

Ph.D. Candidate in History Department/ Binghamton University