The conquest of hearts: the central role of Ottoman nostalgia within contemporary Turkish populism

Abstract

In contemporary Turkey, populism goes hand in hand with neo-Ottoman nostalgia. They make a stigmatized duo, as nostalgia is interpreted as lingering in the past and populism is deemed as the opium of the uninformed, emotional masses. In this paper, I complicate this vision through an ethnographic discourse analysis of the 2016 Conquest of Constantinople Rally, organized by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). I show how nostalgia helps boost the authenticity claim that social performances seek to achieve. In a ritualistic setting, the rally portrays a Manichean worldview predating to Ottoman times, underlines the power of the “people” against nefarious others, and is organized around a leader who is posited as a savior. By relying on forty-five in-depth interviews in five cities, I investigate the extent to which this social performance convinces the audience. Three interpretative perspectives emerged from participants’ responses: Spectacle Seekers see the rallies as a necessity and as providing emotional uplift as the state’s duty; Appraising Skeptics approve the commemoration, yet are skeptical of the authenticity of the effort; and History Guardians deem the Ottoman past as sacred and regard the AKP’s use of it as emotional manipulation.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    See Boym (2001) and Niemeyer (2014).

  2. 2.

    Anthropologist Esra Özyürek (2006) provides a compelling account on the nostalgia for Kemalist modernity of early Republican Turkey in her seminal ethnography. Focusing on the everyday life in 1990s Turkey, she observes the shift from state-led modernization to a “nostalgic modernity.”

  3. 3.

    For a discussion of cognition, emotion, and perception see Craig Calhoun (2001).

  4. 4.

    Conceptually, I differentiate the state-led (neo-Ottomanism) from popular (Ottomania) Ottoman nostalgia. This analytical separation allows for observing how over the years, the AKP has increasingly co-opted popular cultural articulations such as the TV series and nostalgic photo booths, which operated outside of state ideology. The shift to neo-Ottoman identity is best observed since 2011. In the preceding decade, the AKP’s social performance emphasized the tenets of the regime such as secularism and Westernization (Altınordu 2016).

  5. 5.

    I separate cognitive/rational and emotional/affective only analytically, and do not adhere to a Cartesian dualistic approach, acknowledging that they are interlinked in the processes of meaning making and perception.

  6. 6.

    Gowan (2010, pp. 24–25) looks at how competing discourses are taken up, reworked, and performed by people on the street through an ethnographic discourse analysis. This approach challenges the opposition between large-scale structural forces and cultures defined as small scale or local.

  7. 7.

    The electoral success of the AKP based on November 2015 general elections: 48.8% voted for the AKP in Ankara; 48.7% in Istanbul; 31% in Izmir (where 46.8% voted for the CHP); 65.6% in Kayseri; and 66.8% in Trabzon.

  8. 8.

    For a discussion of the celebration of the quincentenary of the capture of Constantinople in 1953, see Brockett (2014). In this piece, Brockett offers a historical account of the commemoration of the conquest, walking the reader through the late Ottoman perceptions of this event to the first attempt of memorializing it during the centennial. Even though this was an important first attempt, the fact that the prime minister and the president had declined to participate shows that the conquest still remained tangential to hegemonic history telling. To highlight this point, Brockett argues “For all that political parties began to manipulate the Ottoman legacy in accordance with their own ideologies after 1953, the formal political rehabilitation of the Ottoman Empire that has allowed Prime Minister Erdogan to capitalize on public memory associated with the conquest of Constantinople did not occur until after a military coup in 1980” (2014, p. 426).

  9. 9.

    See Berezin’s (2017) piece in the American Journal of Cultural Sociology. She recounts how Trump is portrayed as a doer, a man of action during the 2016 campaign. The theme of construction is central to both Erdogan’s and Trump’s campaign platform.

  10. 10.

    Translated as “god willing.”

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Acknowledgements

I thank Ron Aminzade, Alejandro Baer, Giancarlo Casale, Jack Delehanty, Penny Edgell, Teresa Gowan, Patricia Lorcin, Alex Manning, MJ Maynes, Victoria Piehowski, Joachim Savelsberg, Evan Stewart, Caty Taborda-Whitt, and J. Siguru Wahutu for their constructive feedback. I also thank AJCS Editor Jeffrey Alexander, Managing Editor Anne Marie Champagne, and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and advice on earlier versions of the paper.

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Karakaya, Y. The conquest of hearts: the central role of Ottoman nostalgia within contemporary Turkish populism. Am J Cult Sociol 8, 125–157 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-018-0065-y

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Keywords

  • Populism
  • Nostalgia
  • Emotions
  • Turkey