Who are the Lord Byrons of today? - SELÇUK TÜRKYILMAZ

Who are the Lord Byrons of today?

If we build an order that is based on the history of European schools of thought such as the Enlightenment period, the French Revolution, democratic ideas, and modernization, it would be very difficult for us to grasp the pivotal issues of our history from our own perspective.

In fact, doing so often makes it impossible to comprehend the events that determine the times in which we live because it blinds us to the events that have actually taken place throughout history. What we did learn certainly provides a meaningful framework to understand the history of European thought. The same applies to the history of literature. But we can confidently say that the order of classicism, romanticism, realism, and Parnassism offers a meaningful framework to help us understand the changes that have taken place in the field of literature in Europe—or more specifically in England, Germany, and France. However, when we adopt this order, it becomes difficult for us to understand the debacles that have risen in our ties with Europe. Especially when pondering certain questions from our own history, we realize that either we’re unable to find an answer or that we tend to see our own history through their eyes.

Looking at our history through their eyes goes beyond borrowing a few concepts here and there. For example, when the events that started in the Peloponnese turned into a mass revolt against the Ottoman Empire, should we consider the British, French, and German romantics siding with Greece within the stylistic characteristics of the Romantic movement, or should this be explained by the idealism of the Romantics? If we try to find answers to these questions within the framework of the above rankings, we cannot escape characterizing the events that paved the way for the emergence of numerous concepts about the East, Muslims, and Turks as “Euro-centric.” Our choice to call it the "Greek Revolt" instead of the "Greek War of Independence" does not stem from mere semantics. The Romantics opposed the universalism of classicism, but the national literature that marked the nineteenth century was a window into universal truths for us. Who was Lord Byron really? To whom can we compare Bernard Henri Levy in history? 

Of course, it is not a very significant event in Western literary history for a Turkish intellectual to talk about the "boredom that plagued Lord Byron," but when we define the 19th century as the imperial age, it becomes crystal clear that a great discrepancy will undoubtedly emerge. The way Ottomans, Turks, and Muslims were regarded by Europeans has undergone a significant change since the turn of that century. We can talk about a new sense of trust in European literature, which has prevailed since the beginning of that century, toward the East and the Turks. The Greek Revolt is where this shift is most evident. However, we are squarely to blame for the fact that Turkish intellectuals do not hesitate to internalize the concepts of the history of European literature and schools of thought that teemed with anti-Ottomanism. This also rings true for politicians who adopt these ideas as their own. Although 150 years have passed since he rose to the throne, there are political connoisseurs who still to this day regard Abdülhamit II as a "despot, tyrant, and a bloody sultan"—making it clear that the internalization process is still alive and well. So how can we characterize this problem? Is it a resumption of the Westernization process or should we focus on the most recent colonial expansionism?

We have to home in on the connection between Turkish politicians of the likes of Meral Akşener, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, Ali Babacan and Ahmet Davutoğlu’s disdain for concepts such as "domestic and national" and vertigo arising from the "boredom that made Lord Byron miserable". By understanding the schools of thought and literature built around them, we can say that there is no fundamental difference between the approach of those who call Abdulhamit II “the red sultan” by serving as mouthpieces for others. Thus, while the influence of minority ideologies must not be underestimated, the deeply rooted networks of links should also be taken into account when evaluating this issue. We are talking about engineered links, not mere intellectual alienation.

When the Greek Revolt started, we were on the defensive. At the time, Western European states, including the United States, threw their weight behind the rebellion. Public opinion in Europe was largely against the Ottomans and Turks. Victor Hugo penned his book "Les Orientales", which inspired the Parnassians, in this atmosphere of furor. Two hundred years later, it is clear that Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis wants to resurrect the same sentiment. The speech he gave in the U.S. Congress is a clear indication of this. But make no mistake, we are not the Turkey of the 1820s. For this reason, we can say that the opposition has committed a grave miscalculation.

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