Bill Kissane speaks to Turkish academic Fatma Müge Göçek in a recent, in-depth interview for H-Nationalism.
I first encountered Professor Fatma Müge Göçek at a conference held by the LSE Turkish Studies programme on March 17 2016. The conference theme was ‘Interrogating the Post-Ottoman’ and the day was devoted to the comparative study of that part of the world – especially south-eastern Europe – which had been under Ottoman rule before 1923. More specifically, the conference explored parallels and contrasts between Ottoman and western Imperialism, Ottoman practices of pluralism, and those historical and cultural commonalities which some claim have made the post-Ottoman world a unified region. Professor Goçek’s paper ‘Imagined Boundaries of the Post-Ottomans’ showed how different attitudes to the imperial past still played a significant role in party political divisions within the Turkish Republic, most visibly since the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002.
First educated at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul Turkey, Professor Göçek moved to Princeton in the United States in 1981 where she completed an MA in 1984 and was awarded her doctorate in 1988. In the same year she was appointed Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Michigan where she still teaches in the Department of Sociology and the Programme in Women’s Studies. In that period she has authored three monographs and four edited books, mostly focussing on the politics of Turkey and the Middle East. A select bibliography can be found at the bottom of this interview. She became full professor in the same university in 2012.
A central issue in her field has been the way in which Ottoman legacies affect the management (or otherwise) of cultural diversity in the Balkans, Anatolia and the Middle East. This has increasingly become a fundamental issue in Professor Göçek’s work too. Having begun her academic career working on an issue that has been central to the historical sociology of ‘the European periphery’ – how agrarian societies come to terms with western modernity – increasingly her focus is on nationalism: on those current internal conflicts which have followed the formation of a nationalist Republic out of the Ottoman Empire. Be these conflicts ethnic, ideological or religious, they form important threads of continuity running from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty first, and are an appropriate focus for a scholar who interprets the task of the historical sociologist to write present-centred histories of the past. This ambition is full of controversy, indeed risk, and is eloquent testimony to the reality that the break with the Ottoman Empire remains ‘an unsettled accomplishment’ for both Turkey and its neighbours.
Let’s go back to the start. When we first met, I asked you about your name, which is Fatma Müge Göçek. Which do you normally get called by?
Well this is a very interesting issue because culturally, in Turkey, people use your middle name as your first name. Hence, Müge is the name they use to call me in Turkey because that is the name that my parents gave me. My first name, Fatma, is the name that my family gave me and it is often a more traditional name: in my case, the name is not only the Prophet Mohammad’s daughter, but it was also the name of my great-grandmother on my mother’s side. So I go by Müge in Turkey, but I go by Fatma in the United States because in the US people use your first name, not your middle name. So I decided as a consequence to use both; I answer to both of my names at this point.
It is quite different here, in Western Europe, nobody knows what your middle name is.
Exactly, yes, nobody uses the middle name in the West which is very weird to me. When I first travelled to the West, I was so used to people calling me by my middle name that people would say Fatma, and I would look around, muttering to myself ‘Who is this Fatma who is not answering’…
Did you first come to the United States as a post-graduate student?
No, I came to the US right after I got my B.A. and M.A. in Turkey at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. I spent a term in Paris at the Sorbonne learning French and then I came to the States for my PhD, to Princeton University, in 1981.
Did you grow up in Istanbul?
Yes, I was born and raised in Istanbul. I come from an old Istanbul family.
At what point did you decide to become an academic?
Well, I come from a family of business people, who were very distressed when they found out, when I was an undergraduate at Boğaziçi University that I decided to study to become an academic. The time was of course, the late seventies, when there was a lot of unrest in Turkey, a lot of student movements; people, especially my peers, were being assassinated, right and left, with the leftist and rightist students going after each other. So even though I started my undergraduate as a business major after the family tradition, my conscience would not allow me to go into business and make money at a time when people around me were dying and there was so much chaos. I tried to at least understand what was going on and why it was going on. I thought at the time that it would be too challenging to focus on the contemporary issues because the field was so politicized, and I also wanted to find the roots of all these social challenges we were encountering. That’s why I thought it would be safer – little did I know! – to go into historical sociology, which is the study of the past as it is being negotiated in the present; so you have to look at the tension, the interaction between the past and the present, which seemed to hold great valence in the case of Turkey.
How does a person get trained as an historical sociologist? What is the difference with being trained as an historian?
It is probably the treatment of the temporal dimension that is the most important difference and that of course generates an epistemological difference as well. Historians look at the past in and of itself, and they do not also include the interpretation of the past in the present; they do not bring in, like historical sociologists do, an analysis of how what is going on in the country at present and in contemporary scholarship is negotiated in relation to that past. So in a way historical sociology focuses on the tension between the past and how that past is being negotiated in the present. That is probably the major difference, but of course in this age of inter-disciplinarity, I think we all do a bit of everything. There are now many historians who also look at how knowledge about the past is constructed in the present.
But were you trained as an historian or as a sociologist?
I was trained as a sociologist, definitely, but I am different from many sociologists in that, because of what I was working on – the Ottoman Empire at the time – I was also trained by many historians from my undergraduate years on: I learnt Ottoman, I worked in the archives, and I used primary documents, which is not something that many sociologists do, especially those in the United States who often use only secondary sources. So what distinguishes me is that I always employ primary sources in my work, and that is why a lot of people in the field still think that I am an historian, with many jokingly calling me a closet historian! Yet I appreciate, respect and focus on primary sources, making sure I employ them properly, process them as well as, or at least in accordance with, the standards set by historians.
How easy is it for a contemporary Turkish person to learn Ottoman: Is it a foreign language or just a version of Turkish?
First of all, the script is different so you have to learn the Arabic script, because we use the Latin script in modern Turkish. The language you can understand, but it necessitates — probably like Old English as opposed to English — some knowledge of other languages, in the case of Ottoman of Arabic and Persian because the sentences are very long, and contain within them many Arabic and Persian constructions. So it becomes hard to decipher Ottoman by relying on modern Turkish alone. And the other challenge is that of course printed Ottoman is much easier to read than the hand-written Ottoman in the archives; the latter requires at last a year or two of training which I started receiving as an undergraduate.
So what was the subject of your PhD?
Well, during my undergraduate years, I was obsessed, like all intellectuals in Turkey, with the transition from feudalism to capitalism: Why was it that in the West some countries were able to transform and others could not? So I became very interested in the westernisation process, on how Ottoman and later Turkish society negotiated the West, how its relationship with the West form and transform over the years. For me, the most interesting time period during this process was the eighteenth century because by the nineteenth century, pretty much many western-style institutions were established in Ottoman society. I thought the eighteenth century would demonstrate how that change came about. My first book actually grew out of a term paper I wrote as a graduate student at Princeton. I analysed the report of Yirmisekiz Çelebi Mehmet Efendi, the Ottoman Ambassador sent in 1720-21 to the French Court by the sultan, because he had been explicitly sent with the mission to figure out what changes were taking place in the West, and what could be taken and applied to the Ottoman Empire. And the term paper got out of hand and turned into a book. My professor at Princeton, Bernard Lewis asked ‘why don’t you publish it as a book?’ and I said ‘ok.’ But he then added: ‘if you publish this as a book, you cannot use it for your PhD, because your dissertation has to be original, unpublished work.’ I said okay to that as well since I had another project in mind for my dissertation. That is how I published my first book, with Oxford, before I got my PhD. My editor at the time almost had a heart attack when she found out I was still a graduate student but she could not do anything because the readers’ reports were good and I had signed the contract…
My PhD topic went beyond the analysis of a diplomatic encounter; it looked at how, basically, Ottoman state and society negotiated what was going on both in the empire and abroad. So I examined in great detail how the Ottoman Empire processed western goods, institutions, and ideas throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And in analysing western goods, I looked at inheritance registers, which I was randomly trying to sample from Istanbul, to see when goods of western origin became dominant. This was a fascinating process because my initial hypothesis that the elite, namely those with the most resources would accumulate most western goods, did not hold up! I found out that the elite had always consumed goods of foreign origin, including those from the West, and kept on consuming them at a steady rate. What was fascinating instead was to see how the western good consumption of the urban inhabitants of Istanbul, the group I then named the Ottoman bourgeoisie, escalated dramatically during this time period. These were often involved in trade and commerce, became professionals of one sort or another, and were mostly non-Muslim subjects of the empire. I realised that I had captured the origins of the Ottoman bourgeoisie, and that is why the second sole-authored book I wrote based on my dissertation was called The Rise of the Bourgeoisie, the Demise of Empire: Ottoman Westernization and Social Change.
You mention Bernard Lewis (author of The Emergence of modern Turkey). The main theme and debate in the field is still – either for historical sociologists or contemporary historians of Turkey, and also politically, not just academically – the transition from Empire to Republic. Would you say that for your work too, that it is largely within this paradigm that you are working?
Well that is an interesting point. Bernard Lewis was a magnificent mentor, he was excellent in mentoring me. To give him credit, we never talked about politics at all, and that was a good thing because our politics were very different. He was also very open in letting me seek out knowledge and information about the Ottoman transition in any way I thought was necessary, so I had no problem, for instance, of bringing in Edward Said’s analysis into my work, even though they did not at all agree at the time. I also followed, much more than Lewis, Erik Jan Zürcher’s approach. Zürcher argues that even though there is indeed a transition, a structural transition, there really isn’t much of a transformation; what goes on is that many of the imperial structures, institutions, ideas and people transition right in to establish the Turkish Republic. So you could argue that Bernard Lewis focused on the structural change from Empire to nation-state and treated the Republic as a new formation. Yet Erik Zürcher emphasized instead the continuities from one context to the other, arguing that many ideas, institutions and practices transitioned, almost untouched, into the Republic. I think I belong much more to the Zürcher School…
Do you still see continuity, because another transition in Turkey is the transition from the single-party regime (1923-1946) to a more democratic regime, but now under President Erdoğan people are talking about authoritarianism. Is the continuity still there?
Oh, yes. Over time, I became aware of how the continuity persists to this day. Just to put things into perspective, when writing my dissertation, I realised that the first Ottoman bourgeoisie that emerged in the empire was very multi-cultural – literally, non-Muslims of the Empire formed the initial seed of the Ottoman bourgeoisie. What happened then, of course, was that nationalism started to take root with the coming to power of the Young Turks in 1908. As a consequence, over time, all the non-Muslim bourgeoisie within the Empire were marginalised and violently eliminated. Instead, the state literally aided the formation of a Turkish sunni bourgeoisie. What is important here is that if you do not see the continuity of the ruling elite, namely the Young Turks, in the transition from the Empire to the Turkish Republic, you cannot understand why violence persists to this day – – I think taking stock of this past is the only way to explain the continuing violence in Turkey. The denial of violence that accompanies it is also extremely crucial: when you deny, you do not account for past violence. When past violence is not punished and you get away with it, whenever a problem arises, your first course of action to resolve it is through violence. You do so because you got away with it in the past and you will keep repeating resorting to solving violence through violence until you get punished for it.
I see the Armenian genocide as the foundational violence of the Republic that has still not been accounted for. The people who perpetrated this violence, not only were they not punished, but they were actually rewarded: they white-washed their past and became the leaders of the Turkish Republic. Once again in power, they normalised violence into society and state practice, and as a consequence -whenever there was a moment of tension, or a problem, or an opposition – their first recourse was not negotiation, but instead resorting to violence, because that is how they had solved things in the past, and thus it became their modus operandum. My last book The Denial of Violence basically documents this continuity of violence: I argues that unaccounted past and present violence kept reproducing itself over and over again, making it impossible for Turkey to transition into a fully functioning democracy. I ended my analysis in 2009, after the 2007 assassination of (the Armenian journalist) Hrant Dink, and I argued that unless Turkey came to terms with and held itself accountable for the denied collective violence in its past, it would keep repeating itself over and over again in the present and also the future. And that is exactly what is going on in Turkey today…
There is another book about this transition and it is politically very different, The State Tradition by Metin Heper. Is there still a state tradition and are there any aspects of that state tradition which are positive?
It depends on what it is you want to explain. Metin Heper takes a much more Weberian perspective. I think he also assumes and naturalizes the idea that the state should have power over the people, and I think he is very good at explaining what goes on in Turkey as told from the standpoint of the state. So once you naturalise and normalise the modus operandum of the state, you can see how it indeed produces and reproduces the institutions necessary for the state to sustain its power over time. What I am interested in, as a sociologist, is not what the state does by itself and how it does it; I focus on the interaction of the state with the society. Once you bring in the societal perspective to the state’s continuity, you realise that that continuity of the state has occurred at the expense of society, at the expense of the individuals and the social groups comprising it. That is why I think we approach the Republican process from two very different angles: Heper takes state power as given and natural whereas I problematize it, and then I analyse how it is monopolized and sustained at the expense of the people.
If you consider the current problems, how does this long-term perspective explain why it is so difficult to establish a liberal democracy in Turkey?
Well this is why, I sort of feel very bad, because I predicted in my last book that the cycle of violence would reproduce itself even when the AK Party government was taking peaceful steps. And I refused to write a conclusion to the book as a consequence, arguing that as long as the violence in Turkey is normalised and continues, this denial is going to continue, and I want to make a statement by not writing a conclusion. I said I will only write a conclusion when Turkey actually acknowledges its past. My editor said well, why don’t you write that in the conclusion? And that is how the book ends.
What happened with the AK Party is that even though the Turkish state was initially against their incorporation into the body politic, the party members were nevertheless able to eventually mobilise the masses democratically – it took them 30 years, but they did it and they singlehandedly created their own electoral base. And then they were able to come to power by using that electoral base. Yet the true measure of a democracy is not how and why the majority is actually able to sustain its power, because they do so naturally, as they are the majority and therefore control all the structures. The lynchpin of a true democracy is the treatment of those who are left outside, marginalized and excluded. These used to be the non-Muslims, but now, in addition, the excluded are the Kurds, the Alevis, and all others who do not define themselves first as ethnically Turkish and religiously Sunni Muslim. Turkey will only be able to achieve true democracy if and when the excluded are brought into the political system. Yet I think that President Erdoğan lacks the education, ethics and vision to achieve that goal; he cannot move beyond the blinders of Islamic religion and Turkish nationalism.
So the problem for democracy in Turkey is that people understand democracy as majority rule?
Exactly, that is the problem, yes. And that is because of the perseverance of nationalism in Turkey which hasn’t been critically reflected upon because Turkey stayed out of World War Two and therefore never had to come to terms with the Holocaust and the concomitant crisis in modernity. Turkey never had the critical break and ensuing self-reflection that Europe went through because of the collective destruction – not only physically and but also symbolically – brought upon by the war. Turkey did not have to face the wrath of Spanish, German, and Italian fascism that Europe had to suffer through; it did not have to come to terms with what happens to a society when the majority assumes power to destroy the rest the way Europe did.
So if your current work is on the Armenians and the Kurds, you are putting yourself at a distance from the culture that you come from.
Yes. I am actually learning Kurdish now because I next want to study how, after the destruction of the Armenians, violence was normalised by Turkish state and society and then systematically employed against the Kurds. I should point out that Turkey is not alone in its practice of collective violence. I am interested in the negative relationship between collective violence and a viable democracy in other contexts as well. For instance, since I live and work in the United States now, I look at the contemporary United States through the filter of the past. At the moment, I am teaching courses on the violence that existed and still exists against, for instance, Native Americans and African Americans, with the intent to alleviate it. Even though the American experience with democracy spans many centuries, there are still problems that need to be solved in order to guarantee equal rights to all citizens. If I hadn’t learned, used and taught post-colonial, feminist, race and queer theories at the University of Michigan, and if I had not been a recent immigrant with the standpoint of someone born and raised in another society, I probably wouldn’t have been able to develop the critical perspective that I have not only in relation to Turkey, but also the United States and the rest of the world.
So your time in the United States as a sociologist has made you more radical?
Oh yes, living, teaching and working here has, I think, expanded my horizons. What I try to do is develop and apply, for instance, the same analytical lens to Turkey and the United States. For example, last year I taught an undergraduate course entitled ‘Terrorism, Torture and Violence’ to get students to think critically. We did the following: we started by studying Islamic state terrorism, then moved to US practices of torture at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, and then we ended up by studying campus-based sexual assault at US universities. I wanted the students to realize that violence exists in many shapes and forms, from processes out there to interactions in their own lives. I think the future of humankind depends on our ability as social scientists to lay bare the roots, processes and consequences of violence throughout the world with the intent to generate, nurture and advocate peaceful solutions to replace violent practices.
What audience is there in the United States for an Ottoman or Turkish historian?
Well, I am not one as I was hired as a sociologist to one of the most highly ranked sociology departments in the country. It is interesting to note that one advice Bernard Lewis gave me was telling me that I should try to avoid getting a job in an area studies department because all were highly politicized. And in the department I have taught sociology courses exclusively; I have never taught a course on the Ottoman Empire or on Turkey even though I am considered an expert in both. I think that practice has given me a certain distance from Ottoman and Turkish studies. Such a distance can be healthy at times, and hard and challenging at others. Healthy in the sense that I always have to present things in a much larger perspective, teasing out elements in our study of Turkey that could apply to other contexts; for example, with respect to the concept of violence. Yet, it is harder for specialists of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey to sometimes process my work, what I am doing, because I address things at so many different levels, in the past and at present. Yet I think such interdisciplinarity is the wave of the future.
So is there an audience in terms of the Turkish public: are they receptive to your work on state violence or minority issues and so forth?
Well they were receptive in the past as I gave many talks in Turkey. In 2015, for instance, the Tarih Vakfı (the History Foundation) put together a year-long lecture series on the Armenian genocide that I helped kick off. The lecture hall was filled to the brim and the talk I gave based on my book was very well received. And of course almost all the liberal intellectuals in Turkey agree with and support my work.
But for the first time this year, I could not go back to Turkey after I signed (in January 2016) ‘the peace petition’ that basically asked the Turkish state to stop the current violence committed against the Kurds in the East, systematically massacring them on their own ancestral lands. And for signing that petition, the Turkish state, under direct orders from President Erdoğan, accused all 1128 academics who initially signed it for being terrorists, for aiding and abetting the Kurdish guerrillas, for committing treason against the Turkish Republic and some additional nonsense. There is an ongoing investigation. Since I am on the list of those who are going to be investigated and since President Erdoğan and AK Party have made such a mockery of any modicum of law and order in Turkey since then, I decided not to go back to Turkey for the first time in my life. Before now, I could at least count on the rule of law. Yet this time, I contacted colleagues and asked if I should come. They said, well, probably nothing will happen, but since we no longer have the rule of law, someone could decide on their own to arrest you for some reason, and you may end up in prison. After all, after working on the Armenians, I now started working on the Kurds. At the moment, if you have anything to do with the Armenians or the Kurds, you are literally considered guilty by association. I feel as if Turkey is living through the nightmare so amazingly articulated in George Orwell’s 1984. Any thought or idea not approved by the hegemonic bloc of the state, President Erdoğan and the AK Party government is persecuted, prosecuted and viciously punished.
One final question. Once you finish your work on Turkey, what do you think the project will be in the future?
Well. What I am interested in – and this is why I am interested in post-colonial theory – is the treatment of minorities throughout the world. Let me note that I define minorities as all social groups that do not share equally in the power and resources of a particular society. I am very interested in, and I work with people who specialize on these issues in other parts of the world. As a consequence, I would be very interested in the future in analysing the location of Native Americans in the United States, Blacks in the West and Africa, indigenous people in Australia and South America. I think there are lots of continuities in the experiences and life trajectories of these groups that we need to study collectively. Only by critically examining the adversities they have and still continue to encounter can we as humankind achieve that elusive peace on earth that we yearn for but can never actualize.
F. M. Göçek. East Encounters West: France and the Ottoman Empire in the 18th Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.
F. M. Göçek Rise of the Bourgeoisie, Demise of Empire: Ottoman Westernization and Social Change Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.
F. M. Göçek. Denial of Violence: Ottoman Past, Turkish Present, and Collective Violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Please note, this article was originally published by H-Nationalsim on August 9, 2016.
Fatma Müge Göçek is a Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan.
H-Nationalism is a forum for conversation across academic and national frontiers open to all those with an interest in nationalism, and is part of H-Net, Humanities & Social Sciences Online.
Note: this article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Department of Government, nor of the London School of Economics.