- An Interview with Erik-Jan Zürcher, the Turkish Studies Professor at Leiden University by Mohammed Aldujayn, 26 February 2018, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Erik-Jan Zürcher received both his MA in Middle East Studies (1977) and his PhD (1984) from Leiden University. Zürcher has worked at the University of Nijmegen (1977–97), headed the Turkish Department of the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam (1989–99), where he also served as general director (2008–12), held a private chair of Turkish History at the University of Amsterdam (1993–97), and since 1997, he has held the chair of Turkish Studies at Leiden University, where he has supervised some twenty PhD dissertations. Prof. Zürcher specializes in the political and social history of the late Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic. He has authored/ edited thirteen books on the subject, including The Unionist Factor: The Role of the Committee of Union and Progress in the Turkish National Movement (1905–1926) in 1984, Political Opposition in the Early Turkish Republic, The Progressive Republican Party (1924–1925) in 1991, Turkey: a Modern History in 1993, Arming the State: Military Conscription in the Middle East and Central Asia, 1775–1925 in 1999, The Young Turk Legacy and Nation Building in 2010, and Jihad and Islam in World War I in 2015 (all of which have been translated into Turkish) as well as over 150 articles, and he is a recognized lecturer and speaker by various academic and governmental institutions worldwide. In June 2005, he was awarded the Medal of High Distinction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, which, however, he returned in 2016 in protest against the persecution of academics in Turkey. In 2006–07, he was involved in the founding of the Dutch Institute of Higher Education in Ankara (NIHA) and the Turkey Institute in The Hague.
How do you think the Ottoman (and Turkish) history narrative compares, for example, with that of its American, European, Asian, and Arab counterparts? The Ottoman (Turkish) historical transition in the twentieth century [End Page 215] does seem to be interesting in the sense that it involves a country born of an empire alongside a new form of identity and political system. Do you think that Ottoman and later Turkish history is unique in comparison with other nations' history and why?
In one sense, of course, every country's history is unique, but if we take a wider view, we see that the historical narrative of the Turkish Republic has many similarities with that of other young nation-states that have emerged from empires. Whether one looks at Greek, Bulgarian, or Arab historiographies, the basic narrative is the same: the emergence of the nation from an imperial past in which the "reality" of the nation was submerged and not recognized. This is also true for the historical narrative of the Turkish Republic in its first generations. It was a typical historiography of nation-building, built on an opposition between the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish nation-state, which was also an opposition between old and new, and decay and resurgence. But in one sense the position of Turkey was always different from that of the Arab or Balkan countries in that it inherited the imperial center—its capital, its army, and its bureaucracy. In a sense it inherited the head, where countries like Greece, Syria, or Iraq inherited limbs. That always made the relation with the Ottoman past more ambivalent. The narrative that described the republic as something fundamentally new persisted for a long time, but from the sixties, authors like [Tarık Zafer] Tunaya and [Niyazi] Berkes in Turkey and [Stanford] Shaw and [Bernard] Lewis abroad, emphasized the way in which the modernization of the republic was based on late-Ottoman examples. Over the last twenty years conservatives in Turkey have developed a nostalgia for the late empire and particularly for Sultan Abdülhamid II, which is based on the writings of Necip Fazıl and Samiha Ayverdi in the forties to sixties, but this is a popular, rather than a serious academic movement.
In your remarkable book, Turkey: a Modern History...