Interview with Ali Sirmen, columnist for the leftist kemalist daily «Cumhuriyet»


Interview with Ali Sirmen, columnist for the leftist kemalist daily «Cumhuriyet»

What political line does Cumhuriyet follow?
“Cumhuriyet” was first created under the name of “Yeni Gün” before the proclamation of the Republic, during the Second World War. At the time, the owner, Yunus Nadi (1880-1945), was a deputy of the Ottoman Assembly and subsequently became a supporter of Mustafa Kemal. Following to Istanbul’s invasion by the Allied Forces, on 16 March 1920, he escaped to Ankara to become a member of Mustafa Kemal’s emerging National Assembly and remained a deputy of the Republic until his death. Ankara was the capital of the new republic but the press was concentrated in Istanbul. So Yunus Nadi established his paper in Istanbul and changed its heading - also owing to a suggestion by Mustafa Kemal - into “Cumhuriyet” which was created in 1924, and by its name outlined its republican and kemalist editorial policy. Yunus Nadi believed the young Republic had to be protected. Since its establishment and as the name of the newspaper itself points out, “Cumhuriyet” has always upheld republican values. Today, ultraliberals define it as reactionary! While others claim it is a leftist paper …

Does this mean that internationalist liberals and the holders of Turkey’s capital, currently find Cumhuriyet a reactionary newspaper?
The situation is even more confused. With the rise of Mr Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, i.e. the rise of Islamism to power, it’s a different deal. Currently, part of the capital that fears the rise of Islamism supports us, for example, by placing their publicity on our pages.

Turkey seems to be a very complex nation: its history, its politics…
Indeed, it is very complicated! Then again, Turks don’t know their history too well. On Turkey’s history you should read Robert Mantran’s book “History of the Ottoman Empire” (1) edited by Fayard in 1989. Many historians and scholars of Turkish history have contributed to this work; among these, I like quoting François Georgeon who just recently published a very interesting book on Sultan Abdülhamid II (2). In the chapter dedicated to the fall of the Empire, he also states his opinion on the Armenian “genocide”. He openly declares that this issue needs to be discussed, due to the lack of information that both parties have provided…

How are Turkey-EU relations evolving since the start of negotiations for the adhesion? How do the Turks feel about it at present?
Since the 19th century, Europe has represented America to Turks! Their own America, as Jacques Brel used to say, “Madeleine is my own America”… Therefore, it was a goal to reach. We must keep in mind that in 1856, following to the Crimean War, during the Paris Conference held at the Quai d’Orsay, the great European powers declared that the Ottoman Empire was now part of the European circle and that its territorial integrity was guaranteed by European states. Well, the ottoman press was enthusiastic and kept on repeating: “We have all become Europeans!», while the French press laughed, obviously.

Interview with Ali Sirmen, columnist for the leftist kemalist daily «Cumhuriyet»
Ali Sirmen

It’s true that many orientalist writers ridiculed Turks at the time. Some comments were disparaging, suffice it to mention Flaubert’s Voyage en Orient...
I will quote another book: “The Ottoman Empire” by Dimitri Kitsikis (3). The author affirms that as for all empires, the Ottoman Empire also has a multiple nationality. According to him, claiming that the Ottoman Empire was a Turkish empire would be like claiming the Byzantine one was Greek. In addition, the alleged ‘Turkish domination of 400 years’, is a historic forgery created by 19th century nationalist historians. Turks were portrayed very differently before and after the nation-state era… Nation-states are the cause of the crumbling of empires. The Ottoman Empire tried to remain assembled, but in vain. Take for example the Galatasaray School: it was founded in 1868 to create an ottoman identity but failed its task, as writes a Turkish historian who was also a student there. On the other hand, it quite managed to transmit a national Turkish identity.

The ancient students of the Galatasaray School, have traditionally been the bridge between Turkey and Europe. What do they think of the present situation?
They’re currently the most disappointed and critical of Europe. We must keep in mind that Turkey banked on Europe without really knowing what Europe was exactly. They set big hopes on it and imagined it was like America, where all wishes come true; but they were misled. I remember writing an article in 2004 on the French paper Libération, in which I wanted to demonstrate that Mustafa Kemal’s republican revolution – let’s also mention that it wasn’t made by a single man, contrary to current Turkish belief – was not the fruit of an ideology. What did Kemalism prove with its republican revolution and its enormous reforms? It proved that European values can be rooted outside of Europe’s geographical location and in a non Christian society. And by this it proved that European values are universal. It’s no small issue! It was Turkey’s challenge and it could also be Europe’s. Europeans haven’t considered this perspective.

From our part, Turkey is moving further away from Europe. This is not only due to the great misunderstanding between Europe and Turkey, the prejudices, the hidden-agendas or Europe’s double standards, but it is also caused by Turkey’s rushing evolution towards an Islamic regime and by our Prime Minister, who by declaring that Europe is not a Christian club, forgets that it is a secular club. Turkey is moving further apart from secularity.

Interview with Ali Sirmen, columnist for the leftist kemalist daily «Cumhuriyet»

Obviously Europe is everything but a Christian club, but it is no secular club either. The situation is quite ambiguous. Notably in Italy, as in other European countries, history has witnessed many infringements to secularity.
I agree, although an Islamic regime has definitely no place in Europe and Turkey keeps moving away from the modern world. Kemalism is already dead. There is no political alternative to the present rise of Islamism: today’s Islamists, unlike past ones, are more clever and astute and know they will be supported by foreign powers, especially the United States. Tayyip Erdoğan‘s “Moderate Islam” enjoys their consideration, not due to the fact that they are moderate but because our Islamists have rallied their economic interests with those of the foreign powers! That’s what we call “compradores”, according to the Chinese definition (4). We must also keep in mind that our American friends are the cause of this Islamic rise we’re witnessing! When Turkey became an ally of the United States at the end of the Second World War to prevent Stalin’s aims at the straits and at the cities of Kars and Ardahan in North-East Anatolia, the first request of the United States was to boost religion

That is how religion classes started in 1947. The call to prayer, which was sung in Turkish in Atatürk’s time, went back to Arabic in the 50’s!...

Are you saying there can be no Islam respectful of the Turkish Republic, as for christian democrats in Europe?
There is of course an Islamic model that respects the Republic… That is Iran! If you want to read an apology of this kind of Islam you can find it in one of Guy Sorman’s last books: “The Children of Rifaa” (5). It’s the story of a religious man, Rifaa el-Tahtawi, who lived in Egypt under Mehmet Ali Pacha and during Napoleon’s campaign. He visited France and created a modernisation movement… Well, it’s an idea…

Today there is a quasi-democracy in Turkey and a pseudo-democarcy in Iran. That’s the difference! We’re going to slip from a quasi-democracy into a pseudo-democracy…Yet, I don’t believe religion is the main issue here, it’s actually the structure of society. Religion is the instrument of an agrarian society. As long as Muslim countries remain agrarian, there will be no democracy. Look at what happened in Iraq, where Americans sacked Saddam Hussein saying they would bring democracy… Even if this war was not based on lies and on imperialist interests, even if Americans were sincere, they could never establish a democracy there!

Going back to Europe, we felt there was real enthusiasm in Turkey, not only from the ruling class but also from the people. But today Turks seems to be very deceived and humiliated…
They do feel humiliated, but keep in mind that the only person who never fell in contradiction with himself was Mr Tayyip Erdoğan, who didn’t really feel much for Europe anyway! All he wanted was to reach the negotiation process to tell the Turks that he was the right man to lead them into Europe and to unbalance the domestic policy. It was a success…On 17 December 2004, the text he approved confirmed that Turkey would never be part of Europe. We were offered a “privileged partnership” with no privileges included and Mr Erdoğan accepted! We have this inferiority complex which prevents us from believing we can improve the situation by ourselves without Europe’s support. So they put the cart before the horse and told us that we needed to solve out political, cultural and socio-economic problems before we could accede to Europe and not vice-versa. The secular system, the republic, the reforms weren’t created by Europe but internal dynamics; without a domestic system, nothing can be done.

During the period of the Tanzimat(6) in the 19th century, the Turks believed that by aligning themselves with Europe they would have become more civilized, progressed economically, etc… But ultimately the Empire crumbled! A huge parallelism can be seen between the period of the Tanzimat and Turkey’s present venture with the EU.

At the beginning, there was a customs union: the agreement reached in 1838 with Great Britain. Then followed the Copenhagen standards with Europe and the customs union…After that, the second declaration of 1856 of the Paris Conference was applied. Today, we’re negotiating the conditions for our public debt refund with the IMF…
These two time-frames run in parallel, so I am rather sceptical on the subject of Turkish-European relations.

How could we try to improve these relations in order to achieve Turkey’s adhesion to Europe?
I don’t think they can be improved also due to the enormous problems that need to be solved. There is the Kurdish issue which Europeans tackle in a different way… The Armenian one… Cyprus…All this is much more complicated than you think. There are also obstacles caused by the country’s socio-economic condition. Turkey has a young population made useless by the high rate of unemployment! Millions of people are desperate. How can Turkey be part of Europe?

(1) On Robert Mantran, who directed the collective work «Histoire de l’Empire ottoman», edited by Fayard in 1989, you will find information at the following internet site:

(2) On François Georgeon «Abdülhamid II - Le sultan calife»
you will find information at the following internet site:

(3)«L’Empire ottoman» by Dimitri Kitsikis, PUF Que sais-je? , 1985

(4) See a recent article on today’s Chinese compradores

(5)«Les Enfants du Rifaa, musulmans et modernes», Editions du Livre de Poche, 2005

(6) The era of the Tanzimat (Tanzimat Devri) begins in 1939, spurred by Sultan Mahmut II, it is related to a set of reforms based on the Western model, made to reorganise and modernise the Ottoman Empire.

Mehmet Basutçu

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