Jewish Journal


August 12, 2010

Turkey, Then and Now



The Jerusalem Post reported yesterday that Turkey is ignoring U.S. sanctions against Iran, allowing Turkish companies to sell fuel to Tehran.  Their immediate motive is economic.  The Turkish oil refining company Tupras explained, “We get crude oil from them. We don’t get anything from America.”

There may be more to it than that.  The other day, on a Turkish Airlines flight, I leafed through their handsome in-flight magazine and read an interview with the historian Halil Inalcik.  The 94-year-old scholar, who specializes in the Ottoman Empire, explained how he chose that field.

    “When I enrolled in Ankara University [in the 1930s] it was fashionable to study Sumerian, Hittite, and Assyrian history.  These were also the fields in which Atatürk took a close interest.  The Ottoman sultans were regarded as despots who shed Turkish blood around the world.  Despite all that I said to myself, the Ottoman Empire made inroads halfway into Europe and ruled the Middle East for six hundred years.  I told myself that I was going to explain the concept, organization, and achievement of Ottoman civilization to the whole world and prove how superior it was.”

Prof. Inalcik pointed to one particular difference from the Europeans:  “Among the Ottomans, to conquer does not mean to destroy or annihilate.  The Ottoman sultan took under his protection everyone who acknowledged his supreme rule.”  The subtext is unmistakable.  It amounts to a rejection of modern, secular, Western values as epitomized by Atatürk, and an embrace of the Islamic civilization of the empire he supplanted.

The magazine also carried a seasonal article about “Ramadan in the Topkapi Palace,” which describes the sultan’s elaborate ritual at the Visit to the Holy Mantle on the 15th of the month.  This was more than a state function.  The sultan of the Ottoman Empire was not only head of government; he also occupied the office of caliph, effectively the leader of the Muslim world from 1517 until the position was abolished by Atatürk four hundred years later.

In recent months Prime Minister Recep Tacip Erdogan has talked more openly about Turkey resuming its historic leadership role among the Muslim states.  So the decision to ignore U.S. sanctions against Iran may be more than a business decision.  It may signal another step by Turkey away from its 20th-century experiment with secular Enlightenment values and towards the glories of its shared history with the Muslim nations of the Middle East.

Bob Goldfarb is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Los Angeles and Jerusalem.  He also blogs at eJewishPhilanthropy.com, and Tweets about Jews, the arts, and Jewish culture at twitter.com/bobgoldfarb.


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