Synchronising the Ottomans

Temporalising cultural difference

In his classic work Time and the Other (1983), Johannes Fabian showed how anthropologists made sense of cultural difference through the metaphor of time. ‘They live in the past, we live in the present’ etc. This is by no means confined to the discipline of anthropology, but has become a common trope also in political discourse. Alongside civilisation, the main concept by which European discourse came to structure such hierarchies was progress. ‘They will reach our stage in a generation or two.’ By which time, ‘we’ of course, will have progressed further. The Ottoman Empire was, by the late nineteenth century, represented by Europeans as an incurable ‘sick man of Europe’ and a relic of the past. This was about the same time as progress as a historical concept was translated into Ottoman and became part of Ottoman political debates. Ottomans increasingly made sense of international hierarchies by the use of this concept and through the temporalisation of difference. Following the establishment of a Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkish nationalists adopted this representation of the Ottoman Empire as a relic of the past and started to distance themselves from an empire they had very much been part of. As is now generally acknowledged, these debates started much earlier in Ottoman, there is an important continuity in the political discourse of the late Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic. Yet, the Turkish Republic distanced itself from the Ottoman Empire through a similar type of othering that the Europeans had employed. This part of the project is about the synchronisation of Ottoman and Turkish historical narratives through the translation of concepts, periodisation devices and genres such as World History from European languages.

Time for the nation-state

As opposed to empires, nation-states have as a fundamental principle that a nation should have one temporality. The nation-states that emerged from the Ottoman Empire were formed by an adherence to modernity as a set of political discourses and practices. Its citizens should live life according to a single temporal standard, and there could only be one politically relevant historical narrative, namely, that of the nation as a collective. In the process, the nation-states, and I suspect also the mandate states, sought to displace all other narratives as politically irrelevant or treasonous. Adhering to a different temporality—that is, timing one’s life and telling one’s history by a different temporal standard—became an act of questioning the political project of the nation-state, of identifying with something else than the nation as a body politic.

Secularising history

Ottoman historiography traditionally had its own temporality, centred upon the dynasty and upheld by the genre of the chronicle and the institution of the court chronicler, and the narrative was punctuated and spaced out according to a schema that was out of synch with European historiographies. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Ottoman historical narratives came to be synchronised with the European standard. Through the translation of the concept of progress and the introduction of the genre of World History and the writing of Ottoman history within this framework, Ottoman historical temporality came to be increasingly synchronised with that of European historiography. History came to be told by reference to the concept of progress, and the telos of that progress came to be formulated not only by the use of European-emergent concepts and societal models, it became formulated in a heliotropic manner, giving progress in the Ottoman and later Turkish narrative a geographical direction – West. Synchronising Ottoman temporal regimes with European ones was a matter of introducing supposedly secular nation-state ontology for how to order relations between peoples, states and dynasties, and to do so in a manner that underlined the Ottomans’ belatedness in relation to Europe. Yet the Ottomans and later the Turkish nation-state formulated this in a way that is markedly religious. The nation in Turkish is in fact synonymous with the religious community of Muslims – millet, and historical movement, if no longer directed towards salvation, is undertaken in order to protect the religious community and secure its continued practicing of the religion.

Few of the post-Ottoman states were as ferociously devoted to secularising temporality as the Turkish Republic. By extending the timeline of the Turks far into the past, it bracketed the Ottoman period as one of several empires founded and run by the Turks. The Ottoman Empire’s greatness was detached discursively from Islam, and instead linked to the ingenuity and pragmatism of the Turkish race. Where the Ottoman Empire had narrated its history primarily by referring to the Ottoman dynasty as protectors of Islam, the new Turkish Republic narrated a story of Turkishness, fitting all known steppe-nomadic rulers and empires into its own genealogy. Narrating a story where the Ottoman sultans were written into a lineage of caliphs, and were primarily the protectors of Islam, differs markedly from a story of how the Islamic Ottoman Empire is one of several incarnations of an inherently Turkic passage through history. Even as the Ottoman past is increasingly used as a positive point of reference today, it no longer centres on the temporality of the Ottoman dynasty, but is instead written into World History and Turkish nation-state history by reference to these same schemata and the application of the concept of progress.

Published Sep. 9, 2015 12:17 PM - Last modified Sep. 9, 2015 12:19 PM