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Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey / Edition 1

Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey / Edition 1

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As the twentieth century drew to a close, the unity and authority of the secularist Turkish state were challenged by the rise of political Islam and Kurdish separatism on the one hand and by the increasing demands of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank on the other. While the Turkish government had long limited Islam—the religion of the overwhelming majority of its citizens—to the private sphere, it burst into the public arena in the late 1990s, becoming part of party politics. As religion became political, symbols of Kemalism—the official ideology of the Turkish Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923—spread throughout the private sphere. In Nostalgia for the Modern, Esra Özyürek analyzes the ways that Turkish citizens began to express an attachment to—and nostalgia for—the secularist, modernist, and nationalist foundations of the Turkish Republic.

Drawing on her ethnographic research in Istanbul and Ankara during the late 1990s, Özyürek describes how ordinary Turkish citizens demonstrated their affinity for Kemalism in the ways they organized their domestic space, decorated their walls, told their life stories, and interpreted political developments. She examines the recent interest in the private lives of the founding generation of the Republic, reflects on several privately organized museum exhibits about the early Republic, and considers the proliferation in homes and businesses of pictures of Atatürk, the most potent symbol of the secular Turkish state. She also explores the organization of the 1998 celebrations marking the Republic’s seventy-fifth anniversary. Özyürek’s insights into how state ideologies spread through private and personal realms of life have implications for all societies confronting the simultaneous rise of neoliberalism and politicized religion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822338956
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 08/30/2006
Series: Politics, History, and Culture Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Esra Özyürek is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. She is the editor of Politics of Public Memory: Production and Consumption of the Past in Turkey.

Read an Excerpt

Nostalgia for the Modern

State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey
By Esra Özyürek

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3879-6

Chapter One

The Elderly Children of the Republic

The Public History in the Private Story

In 1998, during the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Turkish Republic, an autobiography written by Mina Urgan-a relatively unknown, elderly, retired female professor of English literature-became a best seller in Turkey. Although her previous books on Shakespeare and the history of English literature had sold merely a couple of thousand copies over the years, The Memories of a Dinosaur went through one hundred authorized reprints and countless pirated versions, selling half a million copies in a year. In her book Urgan declares herself a devoted Kemalist and narrates her life story growing up in the early years of the republic to become a university professor and leftist activist. Raised with the idealistic values of the young republic, she defines herself as a dinosaur, a species that does not fit the profit-seeking mentality of contemporary Turkey. On the cover of her book, Urgan appears sitting comfortably but also thoughtfully in an armchair in her crowded library. A careful look reveals her holding a small cigar. Her short,gray, uncovered hair, white shirt, and black vest make her look quite masculine compared to other women of her generation.

Urgan was not the only elderly, educated, urban Kemalist woman who gained public attention that year. Many other members of her generation, born in the young republic and playing a role at the forefront of the Kemalist revolution, wrote their memories and described their personal experiences of the founding years of the Turkish Republic (Turan 1993; Abadan-Unat 1996; Uçuk 1995; Denktas 1998; Moran 2000; Aksan 2001). There was an increasing interest even in early Republicans who were not talented enough to write their life histories (Ergun 1997; Z. Arat 1998; Gümüsoglu 2001; Öztürkman 1999). The image of the elderly woman Republican with her unabashedly gray, uncovered hair and a serious expression on her unmade face suddenly became a common image in the mainstream media serving a secularist clientele.

Celebrating the stories and images of the elderly was a novelty, especially in the context of a national celebration. Since the early days of the Turkish Republic, youth as a collective body had been emblematic of the new nation and its utopian idealism (Neyzi 2001). The youth, once ordered as the guardians of the new republic by Atatürk, had now grown old and began vanishing at the republic's seventy-fifth anniversary. Worse, they were taking the belief for the possibility of a brighter future away with them. A nostalgic attention to these people at the very end of their lives attests to the fact that the present youth in Turkey do not have similar utopias. A belief in the future is now only a relic of the past, something to be admired from the distance without bringing it to the present moment.

Despite their old age, the members of this generation were called "children of the republic." Born in the golden age of the single-party regime and raised by the founding father, these people represented the lost childhood of the Turkish Republic. During the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Turkish Republic, younger generations turned toward these eternal children to hear their life stories in which they combined their own childhood with that of their country. In studying these double childhood narratives, I followed Annette Kuhn's advice and did not take them literally. Instead, I saw them as "recourse to this past [as] a way of reaching for myth, for the story is deep enough to express profound feelings in the present" (Kuhn 1995, 1). I examined these narratives in order to understand the shared emotions-such as loss, love, and desire-in the present about the past, even if the stories did not provide valuable information about the past.

I consider the life-history narratives of elderly citizens not for their referential value but as speech acts (Austin 1975). More than four decades ago, Austin argued that some utterances "do things" rather than simply "say things." His famous examples of what he called "performative utterance," despite his dislike of the term, include saying "I do" in a marriage ceremony, or "I give the name of Queen Elizabeth to this boat." Similarly, as my narrators and their listeners continuously reiterated the unoriginal narratives of the early Republican era, they engaged in a socially meaningful political action: they critiqued contemporary Turkey while simultaneously declaring their support for the foundational principles of the republic. Although the verbal performances of the early Republicans were set apart from daily life and ordinary talk, such performances have effects in the real world (Lemon 2000). As part of these speech acts, both the narrators and their listeners jointly inscribed, edited, and circulated a nostalgic account of the foundational past that was legitimized through the personal experiences of the elderly Republicans.

As many scholars of nostalgia agree, this particular structured feeling toward the past is a strategy that serves the present both in terms of legitimating and delegitimating its parts (K. Stewart 1988; Rosaldo 1989; Ivy 1995; Rofel 1999). What makes each moment of nostalgia unique is the role it plays in relation to the present. The list of virtues that belonged to the golden days of the republic took shape in dialogue with (and as a critique of) the political situation in contemporary Turkey. The elderly teachers created their narratives in relation to a "co(n)text" (Silverstein and Urban 1996, 1), the readable or unreadable background to textual fragments of culture, in which these narratives circulate. In the late 1990s, the dominant narratives competing with the semi-official narrative about the foundation of the republic included the Islamist, Kurdish, nationalist, and the liberal so-called second Republicanist narratives. Although these narratives make different claims about the past and the future, they share the common point of criticizing the early days of the republic as authoritarian and oppressive. The personal stories of the first-generation Republicans competed with these critiques in demonstrating that individuals willingly and personally embraced Kemalist policies. As they depicted those days as a lost utopia, they also critiqued the present regime, which they believed remained far from fulfilling the goals set by the founding father.

As I studied the content of the narratives closely, however, I found that the first-generation Republicans did not always tell the privatized version of the official ideology the younger Kemalists sought to hear. The elderly Republicans, socialized to immerse their private selves in the public, resisted a personalized interpretation of the early Republican era and its ideology. Rather, they perceived themselves as embodiments of the public- and future-oriented nature of the Republican project, which no longer had a place in the self-interest-seeking mentality of neoliberal modernity.


Despite their gray hair, the first-generation Republicans who took active roles in public are still called children or daughters of the republic. This name refers to their association with the mythologized early Turkish Republic, itself as a child of the country's founding father. At the same time, the name establishes an intimate connection between the vanishing generation and the rest of the citizens who can provide these departing children with the protection of familial intimacy and public memory. This name also forever infantilizes an entire generation and by doing so points to unfulfilled expectations set in the 1930s toward the utopia of a fully modern and Westernized Turkey.

The elderly children of the republic could not grow up to be adult citizens because their unfulfilled dreams belong to a future that never arrived in Turkey. In a life-history interview, Nilüfer Gürsoy, the daughter of a minister from the first Republican parliament, declares that she still waits for the realization of her childhood dreams seventy-five years later: "I hope for the accomplishment of that great progress I lived in as a child. I also wish not to be distracted from that vision [because] I comprehended the importance of this process much later." Despite her advanced age, Gürsoy sees herself as a child of the republic and refers to the early Republican goals as parts of a grand project that exceed her (still) childish mind. These goals were set by adult founders, in this case, actually her parents. Yet at the end of her lifetime, none of these goals seem accomplished, nor do they appear replaceable by any other aspiration.

Similarly Cahit Kayra (2002), a retired high-level bureaucrat born in 1917, says in his autobiography, "Dreams are usually about the future. Mine are the other way around. I wish I were a member of the 1908 generation and had died in the 1930s" (16). By the 1908 generation Kayra refers to the Young Turks who played an active role in the 1908 constitutional reform that curbed the power of the Ottoman sultan and then established the Turkish Republic in 1923. This generation imagined a different future for the country and implemented a modernization project. Kayra wishes he had died when Atatürk passed away, leaving the country without a leader. As a member of the first-generation Republicans who inherited Atatürk's mission, Kayra feels deeply disturbed by what he perceives as a recent divergence from the accomplishments and goals of the early republic. "When we were taking part in sweeping transformations around the country," he says, "we could never imagine that after a few decades the Anatolian notables would tragically take the country backwards" (34). As the other unguided citizens moved backward in time, the first-generation Republicans could not achieve full adulthood since their lives were devoted to a public project. For Kayra, the 1920s and 1930s appear closer to the future than today, a backward-oriented present. That is probably why Kayra wishes he was part of an earlier generation that marched straight on their path under Atatürk's leadership.

Imaginations of the Republic (Cumhuriyet'in hayalleri), a well-circulated 1998 documentary, displays the first-generation Republicans as the embodiment of failed futuristic dreams. As one elderly citizen after another appears on the screen to tell in a shaky voice how he or she used to be enthusiastic about the prospects for the republic, the viewer gets the sense that Republican imaginations are doomed to disappear with the first generation. In the documentary, Mina Urgan says, "The most important characteristic of the [early] republic is that it was a period of hope. We believed all the unimaginable utopias were about to be realized before our eyes. This gave our generation such a hope that it still keeps us going." Yet the decaying images and nostalgic narratives of the elderly Republicans remind us of the fact that the first generation in fact does not belong to the present, but to a failed future of the past, one once promising. By naming the section in which the narrators talk about early Republican hopes the "Fairy Tale of the Happy-Land" ("Mutluluk ülkesi masali"), the documentary makers set the early republic in a fairy-tale time-space that vaguely connects with the present context in which the viewers listen to the narratives.


Despite the fact that the devoted first-generation Republicans see themselves and are seen by others as eternal children, they are also perceived as the teachers of contemporary generations. An alternative way to look at the same phenomenon is to argue that specifically because they were marked as children, the first generation, and especially women, found it most appropriate to dedicate their lives to the education of children. At the same time, they proved key to the Republican project since they were to replace the family, relatives, neighbors, and religious teachers in educating the new generation and inculcate them to the nationalist and secularist teachings of the new regime (Atay 2004). Of the relatively small number of vanguards at the forefront (and the beneficiaries) of the Republican revolution, retired schoolteachers attracted most of the attention. These teachers, trained by the new education system of the republic in order to spread its ideology, were considered ideal representatives of this vanguard group. Shortly after he founded the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk started an education campaign and adopted the name "Head Teacher" (Basögretmen). He paid utmost attention to training a new generation of teachers who would both be ideal citizens themselves and also teach new generations how to become the same. The teachers' role in establishing the republic was so important that they were called the "soldiers" of the "education army," who would fight the war with ignorance much like Turkish military soldiers fought with the imperialists (Altinay 2004). Most important, the new generation of teachers would embody the principles of the new state, which educated, disciplined, and watched over its citizens.

Women educators were simultaneously the most prevalent objects and subjects of the Republican reforms. In their bodies, women teachers united what Homi Bhabha (1990, 292) defines as a split between "the continuist, accumulative temporality of the pedagogical and the repetitious, recursive strategy of the performative" in nationalist narratives. As teachers, they were asked to educate the future generations about the history and the accomplishments of the Turkish nation. At the same time, they were the first fruits of the Kemalist reforms, which promoted the introduction of women into the public sphere as a sign of modernity, as opposed to their seclusion, which Republicans portrayed as an Islamic custom (Göle 1996). As the first generation of trained teachers, their duties included both talking about the new nation and also publicly representing its latest body. For example, Pakize, one of the first female trained physical-education teachers and a devoted Kemalist, was conscious of her role as a model and representative of the success of Kemalist reforms. During our interview in the fall of 1998 she told me,

As the first Turkish girl athlete, I participated in a race. People did not know, they said, could girls run? They were all closed-minded. We put our shorts on and with our German teachers ran one hundred meters, jumped over the pole, threw discs. We wanted the people to learn about this. It was our duty. We wanted the people to learn that women can do such things. We were conscious about being the first people doing this. If they write a book called The Firsts, they should write about us.

First teachers of the Republic can be best defined as a cohort, not merely they were born around the same time but rather because they "developed a sense of identification in coming of age through particular political movements and state regimes," as Lisa Rofel has argued for other generations in China (1999, 22). The children of the republic not only lived through the same historical moment but also attended the same schools for training teachers. Most of the time, they were the daughters of well-educated or well-o men who showed their support for the regime by sending their daughters o to the new schools of the republic (Z. Arat 1998). The period during which the first generation of schoolteachers came of age and the education they received shaped their worldview.

In the post-1980s, as Turkey increasingly became part of the world economy, the previously privileged classes, including the vanguards of the republic such as the teachers described above, became relatively marginalized and experienced a loss. Uneducated entrepreneurs from nonurban backgrounds climbed up the social hierarchies and displaced the state-educated elite. The members of this cohort retired from their jobs in the 1970s. Their marginalization, however, increased as the new liberal state paid lower pensions. They saw the increasing economic liberalism, populist politics, and the growing power of political Islam as contributing to a loss of control over state power and, more important, as a departure from the state-led modernization Atatürk had outlined. In other words, during the seventy-fifth anniversary, this group was vanishing both in terms of demographics and in terms of their social and economic influence.


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1. The Elderly Children of the Republic: The Public History in the Private Story 29

2. Wedded to the Republic: Displaying Transformations in Private Lives 65

3. Miniaturizing Ataturk: The Commodification of State Iconography 93

4. Hand in Hand with the Republic: Civilian Celebration of the Turkish State 125

5. Public Memory as Political Battleground: Kemalist and Islamist Versions of the Early Republic 151

Conclusion 178

Notes 183

References 199

Index 217

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