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Provincial Turkish Newspapers and the Negotiation of a Muslim National Identity

James T. Simon
Director of International Resources, Center for Research Libraries

In 1923, the Republic of Turkey was born from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, following the tumult of World War I and the conflicts engulfing Anatolia and Eastern Thrace through the Turkish War of Independence. The leading figure in the Turkish nationalist movement was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic and by most accounts the key force in transforming Turkey into a modern secularist state.

The Turkish newspaper Demokrat Hamle (shown here: August 30, 1953 edition) is one of the many CRL resources Professor Gavin D. Brockett used.

The bulk of the scholarly record credits Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with creating a Turkish national identity through his progressive secularization of the country during his presidency (1923–38). However, in his new publication, Gavin D. Brockett, Associate Professor of Middle East and Islamic History at Wilfrid Laurier University, challenges the dominant narrative of a united Turkish national identity under Atatürk by examining the press history of the nation, particularly regional newspapers held by CRL and other libraries.

How Happy to Call Oneself a Turk: Provincial Newspapers and the Negotiation of a Muslim National Identity (University of Texas Press, 2011) traces the development of the “national” print culture of Turkey from the founding of the state through the transition to a multiparty democracy in the 1940s and ’50s. Brockett focuses on the press outside metropolitan centers to understand how the principles of secularism (laiklik) and modernization were perceived beyond the Kemalist elite. In analyzing how print contributed to the formation of a common national identify, Brockett reveals far more complexity than the traditional political narrative has previously conveyed.

“Serendipitous Find”

As a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, Brockett never intended to embark on this particular research pathway. In searching for articles by a particular Turkish intellectual known to have circulated widely, Brockett came across a listing of CRL’s extensive holdings of Turkish newspapers. Borne more of curiosity (“professional procrastination”) than direct research application, Brockett borrowed a selection of papers through interlibrary loan. He marveled at the variety of news he discovered in these remote papers: images from abroad such as President Truman throwing the ceremonial first baseball pitch in 1951, and photos and political cartoons clipped from foreign media. As he read further, however, he began to note the diversity of local geographic, political, and religious perspectives promoted in the various papers. “To a researcher, opening up those wonderful brown paper packets,” Brockett notes, “was like striking gold.” Eventually abandoning his original research, Brockett started ordering more papers from CRL, which were delivered on large trolleys. Brockett received space at the university library to store and use the papers. After three years of research, he relates, he still had not exhausted the collection.

Completing the Research

After Brockett completed his doctorate at Chicago, he spent a number of years on research to flesh out his work into a full publication: “When I first started reading the papers from CRL, I found there was no comprehensive catalog or index for these papers.” Gleaning information from diplomatic reports and press summaries was helpful in identifying additional resources. But the most important information came from the papers themselves. Newspapers often printed information about other publications, in some cases pricing and circulation figures. References to competitors (frequently disparaging) provided Brockett a list of other targets to pursue, but it required additional research to track down titles, particularly for the earlier years. “The reality of the collection [at CRL] is that it is not complete. CRL holds a lot of the known papers—the majority of them—but coverage begins largely in 1950, and ends around 1953.” Receiving research grants, he ventured into collections in Ankara and Istanbul to supplement the materials found at CRL.

In his book, Brockett used newspapers archived at CRL to examine social and political debates from around Turkey.

Press laws in Turkey ensured that copies of all published works (including newspapers) were deposited in several locations. The National Library of Turkey (Millî Kütüphane), established in 1950, possesses the most extensive collection of newspapers in the country. Brockett spent time poring through the collections in the limited time he had available. “There are countless challenges to accessing these collections. Cataloging is not always reliable. There can be bureaucratic red tape, such as actually gaining access to a library or only being allowed to see a limited number of titles each day. Fortunately, the staff began to tire of my repeated requests to haul these heavy volumes and eventually allowed me into the depot to pursue my research. After this I was able to be much more productive.

“There is no question the research in Turkey assisted in my work,” Brockett notes. “However, it did make me value the comparative ease of access to CRL’s collection.” He also appreciated the assurance that a second copy of the material was accessible should misfortune befall the originals.

He adds that additional material exists in private collections in the region, but trying to identify those collections and gaining access to them is quite difficult. In one case, after identifying a title referenced in another paper held by CRL, he engaged in an extensive search in Turkey. “Time and again I was told the paper did not exist. Finally, I went to Samsun [on the coast of the Black Sea] and found the editor, still alive in his late seventies. He had about half of the run, and he generously photocopied his holdings for me.” Brockett eventually found the rest, uncataloged, while working in the newspaper depot in Ankara.

Challenging the National Identity

Brockett’s work challenges the assumption that the transformation of the country and formation of a national identity can be told solely from the perspective of Atatürk: “It’s like telling the story of America from the perspective of George Washington, ignoring everyone else.” Moreover, the Kemalist vision of a secularist society ignores the significant role that religion played—and continues to play—in Turkish identity. Brockett argues that the implementation of laiklik actually proved to be an obstacle to national identification for those Turks for whom religious identities remained important. It was not until the formation of a multiparty state, and the resulting expansion of the press, that the people of Turkey could properly explore the relationship between national and religious identities.

The evidence, found in the newspapers, shows that when Turks had the opportunity to express themselves in print, topics frequently revolved around religion. Religious newspapers were very important in the scheme of the provincial press. These papers ranged in scope and purpose, from the strictly religious (publication of sermons, articles about proper beliefs and practices as Muslims) to those engaged in the political debates of the day (regulating forms of religious practice or the language used for the call to prayer). At their core, the provincial press—largely ignored in the historical record, according to Brockett—provided a direct challenge by the surrounding populace to the centrally imposed principles of laiklik.

Not to say these religiously oriented papers were anti-nationalist. According to Brockett, nearly all of them were very pro-nationalist. However, the tenet of their argument was that a “good Turk” was also a Muslim Turk, and that every Turk had a right to be proud of being a Muslim. This negotiation between the nationalist ideology of Atatürk and the traditional principles held by the population is central to understanding the identity that Turkey has today.

Future Research

Brockett notes that much fertile research lies ahead. The ongoing identification and study of these under-represented resources, as well as surviving personal archives about the publications or publishers, serve as grist for future scholars. Also of significance, he relates, would be the records of the government’s suppression and closure of newspapers. These records, along with information on trials and persecution of publishers and reporters, remain closed to the public.

Brockett advises libraries to work closely with scholars who have intimate knowledge of collections and the availability of potential resources. He notes, for instance, the presence of a vibrant online second-hand book market in Turkey, in which many rare publications are offered. He cautions that these resources are often bought by private collectors, and then disappear from view. While he acknowledges that all libraries have finite resources, Brockett encourages institutions to think broadly about how to work with researchers to shore up the historical record and make these lesser-known but significant resources available to future scholars.