Pushing boundaries: Turkey and the reframing of Asia and Asian studies

Pushing boundaries: Turkey and the reframing of Asia and Asian studies

Researchers from Turkey, Japan, and Australia have embarked on a multidisciplinary project to reconsider the intersections between Turkey and Asia, writes ROMIT DASGUPTA.

The politics of framing Asia and Asian studies, particularly from where we are situated in Australia, is slanted heavily towards a focus on East, Southeast, and South Asia. Dominant contemporary imaginings would suggest that Asia ends at the Pakistan–Iran border.

Moreover, rather than being merely an abstract issue for academic contemplation, it actually has on-the-ground, policy implications. For instance, the overwhelming focus of governmental study-abroad programs in Asia continues to be exclusively on East, Southeast and South Asia. As a case in point, the expanded 2015 New Colombo Plan, while incorporating the Pacific, goes no further west than Pakistan.

This somewhat limited conceptual boundary-framing of Asia is, however, problematic. In particular, it leaves out locations and regions that historically were very much considered part of Asia. After all (particularly from Australia’s perspective), we need to remember that the object of Edward Said’s seminal work, Orientalism, was not those parts of Asia identified with the term orient (the Far East), but rather the Middle East. Similarly, the very name (and concept of) Asia itself was applied by the ancient Greeks, not with reference to those parts of the continent we generally associate it with, but with Anatolia in present-day Turkey.

Moreover, the concept of an Asian (or pan-Asian) identity, as connected with such intellectuals and thinkers as Rabindranath Tagore, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, or Okakura Tenshin, that emerged in the anticolonial discourses of the late 19th, early 20th centuries were very much referenced against Europe (or, more broadly, the West).

Arguably, both Europe and Asia are mutually intertwined constructs, with equally fluid, shifting delineations—something captured beautifully, for instance, in the Japanese–German writer Tawada Yōkō’s short story, ‘Where Europe begins’.

Thus in teasing-out Asia (or, for that matter, Europe), it makes more sense to do so not from locations (such as India or China) that are unproblematically considered Asian, but from the continent’s ambivalent edges. These are places like Australia, Japan, Turkey (possibly even Russia and the Philippines), which have historically, and into the present, engaged in one way or another with questions of belonging, or not belonging, to Asia.

For instance, in Australia, Asia from the earliest days of colonial history has been a constant undercurrent within narratives of national identity, as somewhere that Australia wants to distance itself from or alternately seek acceptance into; a theme that gets addressed, for instance, in the works of historian David Walker.

Japan’s relationship with the mainland has similarly been characterised by dynamics of identification/disidentification, particularly following the establishment of the modernising (and ‘civilising’) Meiji state in the late-19th century, as embodied in the popular datsua nyūō (roughly, ‘Escape from Asia, enter Europe/the West’) slogan of the time. As with Australia, there is a substantial body of academic work (for instance, Stefan Tanaka’s Japan’s Orient) on Japan’s ambivalent intertwinings with ‘Asia’.

Turkey’s special position

Bringing Turkey into this conversation on conceptual mappings of Asia might, at first glance, appear a strange choice. However, Turkey occupies a special position in the global imaginary by dint of it straddling geographically, and indeed culturally, the two worlds/continents of Asia and Europe.

More so than other societies seemingly positioned between or across different physical and cultural worlds (such as Japan or Australia), the metaphor of the bridge has long been applied to Turkey as well as to the Ottoman Empire that preceded the establishment of the modern republic in 1923—a bridge between East and West, Europe and Asia, Europe and the Middle East, the Christian and Islamic worlds.

The notion of being both a bridge between two worlds and being caught in the faultlines, is, as Ayşe Zarakol argues, ‘sometimes seen as a weakness that needs to be overcome (by choosing one side over the other) and sometimes as a blessing that needs to be exploited’. This ambivalence is given expression, for instance, in a poem in Bozkurt Güvenç’s work Turkish identity (Türk kimliği), where he poses such rhetorical questions as: ‘Are we Asians, or Europeans? Shaman or Muslim, or secular? Are we a modern society, or a historic bridge? Are we eastern, or Anatolian, or western? Who are we?’ It even filters down to the level of popular culture—for instance, a tongue-in-cheek image on the Facebook Turkish memes page captures the same sentiment as Güvenç’s questions.

As with Japan and Australia, Turkey’s relationships with Asia have been characterised by processes of identification at times, and distancing at others. For instance, in the late-Ottoman period, particularly during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II, Turkey played a not insignificant part in the shaping of anticolonial pan-Islamic and/or pan-Asian discourses. Indeed, Istanbul became something of a magnet (often as a place of exile) for early pan-Islamic/pan-Asian activists like Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Abdürreşid İbrahim.

Dovetailing with these was the influence of pan-Turanic discourses highlighting the central Asian origins of Turkic peoples, and sociocultural and linguistic commonalities with societies in northeast Asia, in particular, Japan (even today, the Japanese are sometimes referred to as Far Eastern cousins).

In more recent years, there has been a shift away from highlighting Turkey as a European nation.

Significantly, Japan, like Turkey, was at the time also an emerging modernising society, outside of the Euro–American cultural zone, confronting similar issues (like unequal treaties) vis-a-vis western powers. Thus Japan, particularly in the wake of its victory in the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese War, became an important referent for Turkey. Historians like Cemil Aydın, Renée Worringer, Selçuk Esenbel, and the writer Pankaj Mishra, have thoroughly documented these early Ottoman–Asian linkages.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the establishment of the modern republic under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923, Turkey’s Asia connections took on added significance. The extensive modernisation (and indeed, Europeanisation) project sought to reconfigure earlier more diffuse Ottoman identities pivoted around religion rather than ethnicity or nationality into a singular secular national identity. The pre-Islamic (and shamanistic) central Asian origins of the Turkish peoples were foregrounded, while Islamic/Middle Eastern links were de-emphasised.

Language reconstruction

One example was the reconstruction of the Turkish language, through abandoning the earlier Arabic-based Ottoman–Turkish script in favour of a Latin-derived alphabet, and purging the language of Arabic and Persian words and reintroducing old-Turkish terms. In more recent years, particularly over the past decade or so, under the conservative, moderate-Islamist Justice and Development Party, there has been a shift away from highlighting Turkey as a European nation. Instead, these historic links and affinities with Asia have been drawn upon as an aspect of foreign policy, especially in relations with China, South Korea, and Japan. In the case of South Korea and Japan, in particular, the historic cultural and linguistic connections (regardless of whether they are real or imagined) are given particular symbolic weight.

The above is the backdrop to a multidisciplinary project that a group of researchers from Turkey, Japan, and Australia have embarked upon. Specifically, using Turkey as a fulcrum, we aim to provide a framework within which historical and contemporary intersections between Turkey and Asia may be reconsidered, and existing boundaries of Asian studies interrogated.

Those involved represent a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and approaches, including history, anthropology, cultural/literary studies, and international relations. However, what we have in common is that we all work on some aspect of Asia, while being physically located on the ‘fringes’ of the continent, in Japan, Australia and Turkey. Moreover, the reference point for all of us is Turkey. We are all either located there, or we work on Turkey’s interactions with countries and regions within Asia (for instance, my own specific research within the broader project is on contemporary contact moments and interactions between Japan and Turkey).

As one of the first milestones of the project, we will be organising a one-day workshop during the ICAS9 conference in Adelaide in July 2015, supported through an Asian Studies Association of Australia Events Funding Grant. Finally, not without significance, is the fact that the workshop with its physical location at the southern edge of Asia (in Australia), and its focus on a country on the continent’s western fringes (Turkey), is being held in 2015, designated as the official Year of Turkey in Australia and the Year of Australia in Turkey.

View of Blue Mosque in Istanbul (Moonik via Wikimedia Commons) .

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