Perin Gürel’s The Limits of Westernization: A Cultural History of America in Turkey offers an innovative, compelling, and much needed addition to the literature on cultural politics in Turkey. Starting from the premise that the United States has always served as a model and a foil in Turkish debates over Westernization, Gürel explores the contested image of America in Turkey over the past century to better understand how Turkish citizens, thinkers, and politicians have imagined Turkey itself. At a time when popular and even scholarly accounts often depict the rise of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist allies as a backlash to the authoritarian Westernization of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Gürel's approach provides a particularly valuable corrective. Her account shows how, throughout modern Turkish history, those seeking to define the limits of Westernization have criticized rivals for being both “too Western” and “not Western enough.” For Atatürk, no less than his contemporary critics, the figure of the “hyper-Westernized” or “westoxicated” individual, infatuated with Western culture and supporting Western political aims, provided a crucial object of derision. Even at the height of Atatürk’s reforms, these overly Western figures served to define the bounds of appropriate Westernization in Turkish politics. Ironically, the current criticism of Ataturk’s regime for its excessive commitment to Westernization is only the latest iteration of a discourse that Atatürk himself made good use of. Spanning the course of the twentieth century, The Limits of Westernization explores America’s changing role in this debate through four interlocking topics and approaches. In the book’s first chapter, Gürel examines the never-implemented idea of an American mandate for Turkey after World War I, and specifically the way it was (mis)remembered by Woodrow Wilson, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and Halide Edib, the woman who briefly led Turkey’s “Wilsonian Principles League.” Wilson’s intensely anti-Turkish attitude led him to literally forget, in subsequent discussions at Versailles, the more conciliatory position he had originally taken on Turkish sovereignty in the twelfth of his fourteen points. Edib, in turn, initially appealed to “Wilsonian Principles” after the war, later equivocated about her position when the American mandate became politically toxic in nationalist politics. And Atatürk, who had also once entertained the idea of an American mandate as a possible post-war ploy, never acknowledged this lapse into pragmatism when he later denounced Edib for her pro-American position. Over the ensuing century, criticism of Edib, often in highly gendered terms, complemented the use of mandacı (mandate supporter) as a term of abuse in nationalist rhetoric; in 2016, for example, Erdoğan applied it to academics who criticized his government’s war against Kurdish separatists. The second chapter traces critiques of hyper-Westernization (and critiques of those critiquing it) through a series of Turkish novels. Gürel first explores the “feminization of over-westernization” in several early twentieth-century works where “over-sexualized, smart, literate and treacherous” women engaged in inappropriate relationships with Western men and women that mirrored anxieties over the post-war military occupation of Turkey. Then she traces how, in the course of the twentieth century, the United States gradually replaced Europe as the focus of debates over Westernization, leading to several more complicated works addressing the impact of American cultural penetration, but also the limits of trying to resist it. The third chapter explores a rich array of bilingual jokes whose combined reliance on Turkish and English, Gürel claims, enables their tellers to critique and reconfigure the unequal relationship between Turkey and the United States today. The challenge in summarizing this chapter lies in its efforts to analyze the details of individual jokes rather than comment more broadly on the genre as a whole. A page-and-a-half-long analysis, beginning with the eleventh century Seljuk dynasty, does not necessarily enhance our understanding of a joke in which the legendary Turkish folk wit Nasreddin Hodja farts at dinner. Much more interesting, though, is the account of how Nasreddin Hodja jokes were elevated from a living tradition into an icon of official folk culture, losing their popular appeal as they were sanitized in the process. Finally, the fourth chapter focuses on the role of Western models in contemporary debates over gender and sexual orientation, particularly among political activists. Gürel argues that the emergence of an explicitly Westernized gay rights discourse, and the accompanying use of the loanword gey to refer to a new kind of “well-adjusted, Western-style” form of homosexual identity has consciously excluded others whose understanding of their gender and sexual identity fails to fit Western models. Specifically, she argues that Istanbul’s predominantly lower class transgender or transsexual sex workers, known in Turkish as travesti, have served as the inadequately Westernized foil for a new generation of upper class gay rights advocates. Whereas the first chapter criticizes nationalist leaders for using the charge of hyper-Westernization to exclude and oppress, this chapter challenges overly-Westernized activists who mobilize the charge of under-Westernization against a vulnerable community. Indeed, the final chapter highlights the intriguing and often recursive use of explicitly Western models to criticize others as being overly, or incorrectly, Western. Certainly over the past two decades, some Turkish and American liberals regularly accused Turkey’s “pro-Western” Kemalists of embracing an authoritarian version of secularism and nationalism that appeared distinctly anachronistic and non-Western by twenty-first-century standards. Needless to say, some of these critics were themselves then accused of being overly-Westernized. When the novelist Orhan Pamuk, for example, won acclaim in the West as a critic of Kemalism, even many in Turkey who shared his politics felt he was guilty of a certain political opportunism. Yet if Turkey is a place where critics of hyper-Westernization can themselves be accused of being dangerously pro-Western—a country, that is, whose anxieties over Westernization are all too often on display—this insecurity can only be fully understood in reference to the country’s longstanding relationship with a very different cliché. In exploring over-Westernization and under-Westernization, Gürel’s account makes only passing reference to the diverse array of figures over the past century who believed that in certain regards Turkey, as a bridge or a synthesis or whatever else, had actually gotten Westernization just about right. While not necessarily an omission given her focus, this is still striking since the book’s final two chapters deal with an era, in the mid-to-late 2000s, during which expressions of this kind of cultural confidence seemed to be on the rise. The bilingual humor Gürel examines, for example, was popular among a group of Turks who, as a result of their education and background, were often justifiably proud of being uniquely fluent in both Turkish and Western culture. Similarly, in debates over gay rights at the time, Turkish progressives could also specifically cite traditional and partially-accepted identities like travesti to argue that the discourse of tolerance for diverse sexual identities was not purely a Western import but something with a longstanding indigenous precedent. From Atatürk on, a succession of Turkish political movements have claimed to possess a unique vision that would, in the language of the nationalist thinker Ziya Gökalp, enable Turks to be like the West but still remain themselves. Less than a decade ago, there was still considerable optimism that Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party was poised to help realize this goal. Today, the optimism and confidence of that era seem painfully distant, and anti-Americanism in Turkey has become more widespread than ever. The unspoken question lurking in the background of Gürel’s book is why Turkey has remained in a state of enduring insecurity vis-a-vis the West. As she shows, Turkish fears over cultural Westernization have always been inseparable from fears over Western economic, political, and ultimately military dominance. If the message of Turkish writers and statesmen over the past century has been that only by achieving the correct level of cultural Westernization can Turkey approach the West on equal geopolitical terms, it may turn out to be that only when Turkey is on equal geopolitical terms with the West will the majority of Turkish writers and statesmen finally be comfortable with whatever level of cultural Westernization their country has achieved. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
Diplomatic History – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 1, 2018
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