"Is the Turk a White Man?": Race and Modernity in the Making of Turkish Identity

By Ferguson, Michael | International Journal of Turkish Studies, January 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

"Is the Turk a White Man?": Race and Modernity in the Making of Turkish Identity


Ferguson, Michael, International Journal of Turkish Studies


Modern Turkey MURAT ERGIN, "Is the Turk a White Man?": Race and Modernity in the Making of Turkish Identity (Leiden: Brill, 2017). Pp. 278. $151.00 Cloth.

Based largely on published state sources, newspapers, and contemporary academic studies, Ergin details the myriad factors involved in the racial formation of Turkishness during the early republican period as well as its legacies. This book brings together materials Ergin has published in numerous journal articles with additions and revisions. It is loosely divided into three parts, "forerunners of race discourses in the late Ottoman period," "maturation in the early republican period," and "the contemporary era of race in cultural guises beginning in the 1990s."

Chapter 1, "Why This Book Should Not Have Been Written," covers the challenges of studying race and racism in the development of Turkish nationalism, including those the author has had to confront when working on such a controversial topic. Many of them, such as 'there is no racism in Turkey' and 'the West was racist, so we can be too' will resonate loudly with researchers working on similar topics in non-western settings. He argues that a transnational approach in studying race and nationalism, as well as a multi-scalar analysis of actors (from individual such as politicians and academics, to institutions and states) involved in a complex "web of interactions" is central to bridging the gap between a hyperspecific case-study approach and overly simplistic, universal generalizations (p. 28).

Following theoretical considerations on historical sociology, chapter 2 introduces the concept of the Republican Conversion narrative. Here, Ergin discusses early republican views of the Ottoman Empire and how they presented its backwardness, chaos, and decline in contrast to the progressive, dynamic, and forward looking new republic. In so doing, they created a decisive break between the two eras that became the basis for sacredness and thus infallibility of the new republic's actions and ideology (p. 37).

In chapter 3, "Encounters with the 'West,'" Ergin focuses on what he calls the "looking-glass exchanges" between Ottoman and later Turkish perceptions of the West and how Western perceptions of the "Turk" formed the basis for the racial origins of Turkish identity" (p. 49). He then provides an historical overview of late Ottoman history, emphasizing Western perceptions of those in the empire. However, the speed at which these section moves reduces complex historical processes into overly simplified statements. For example, he states that the Ottoman Empire joined the German side in World War I because of "an impulsive decision by a few powerful members" of the Committee for Union and Progress (p. 66). The most important part of this chapter centers on a discussion of Islam, Turkishness, modernity, and civilization in the work of Ottoman political theorists such as (Mehmed) Ziya Gökalp. By the late 1920s, Ergin argues, as the new Turkish state gained increasing power, public and parliamentary debates on these topics were silenced as the state solidified its particular vision.

Chapter 4, "Race in Early Republican Turkey," treats the relationship between discourses on race and modernization in the ideology of the early republican period (1923-50). Ergin argues that in this period race became "firmly embedded in the modernizing elite's self-conceptions, and began to be disseminated through scholarship, education, and popular publications" (p. …

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