Jenny B. White is associate professor of anthropology at Boston University, former president of the Turkish Studies Association and of the American Anthropological Association Middle East Section, and sits on the board of the Institute of Turkish Studies. She has received numerous grants and fellowships from, among others, the Social Science Research Council, the MacArthur Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and Fulbright-Hays. She is author of Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics (2002) (Winner of 2003 Douglass Prize for best book in Europeanist anthropology); and Money Makes Us Relatives: Women’s Labor in Urban Turkey (second edition, London: Routledge, 2004). She has authored numerous articles on Turkey and lectures internationally on topics ranging from political Islam and civil society to ethnic identity and gender issues. Professor White is currently writing a book on contemporary Turkish nationalism and Islam. She has been following events in Turkey since the mid-1970s. All of her books have been translated into Turkish.
She also has written three historical novels set in nineteenth-century Istanbul, The Sultan’s Seal (2006), The Abyssinian Proof (2008), and The Winter Thief (2010). The Sultan’s Seal has appeared in fifteen languages. The Sultan’s Seal was named one of the top ten first novels of 2006 by Booklist and was shortlisted for the 2006 Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award.
1. Could you inform our readers about your academic publications on Turkey?
Most of my scholarly work falls into three categories – labor and production, especially family workshops (my book Money Makes Us Relatives); women and the family; and the rise of the Islamist movement and the Islam-rooted political party that today dominates Turkish politics (my book Islamist Mobilization in Turkey). I have also treated these issues historically, with a recent article on the development of squatter areas in Turkish cities since 1923, and an article about the history of women’s movements in contemporary Turkey. I’m currently writing a book about nationalism and Islam.
I’ve listed a few representative publications below.
Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics. University of Washington Press, 2002. Winner of 2003 Douglass Prize for best book in Europeanist anthropology. Awarded by American Anthropological Association Society for the Anthropology of Europe.
Money Makes Us Relatives: Women’s Labor in Urban Turkey. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994. Second Edition, London: Routledge, 2004.
“Tin Town to Fanatics: Turkey’s Rural to Urban Migration from 1923 to the Present”, in Turkey’s Engagement With Modernity, ed. by Celia Kerslake, Kerem Öktem, and Philip Robins, eds. London: Palgrave, 2010.
“The Ebbing Power of Turkey’s Secularist Elite”, Current History December 2007.
“The Paradox of the New Islamic Woman in Turkey”, in Gender, Religion and Change in the Middle East, ed. by Inger Marie Okkenhaig and Ingvild Flaskerud, Oxford: Berg, 2005, pp. 123-135.
“The End of Islamism? Turkey’s Muslimhood Model”, Modern Muslim Politics, Robert Hefner, ed., Princeton University Press, 2005, pp. 87-111.
“State Feminism and the Turkish Republican Woman”, National Women’s Studies Association Journal Vol. 15, No. 3 (Fall) 2003, pp. 145-159.
2. What are the potential limitations of the existing analyses on Turkish politics and society, in your opinion? Could you suggest any gaps in the literature or any potential pitfalls?
I teach an undergraduate course on Turkey and am always struggling to find a good central text that covers Turkish history, politics, and society from mid-19th century to the present. Most of the current books cover either the Ottoman or the Republican period, and if they overlap, tend to stop at the early republic or mid-century. There are a great many edited volumes, but although some of the chapters are very good, the books themselves tend to be a bit too disjointed or eclectic to meet my needs. One of the best is Deniz Kandiyoti and A. Saktanber, eds., Fragments of Culture. (London: I.B. Tauris).
A book I have used in the past is Erich Zurcher’s The Making of Modern Turkey, although it tends to be too dense for a class in which this text is to serve simply as a springboard to discuss social and cultural topics. In a way, this reflects the Turkish state’s representation of its own history as beginning in 1923 after a major rupture with the Ottoman Empire. In my class, I begin in the 1850s and work out social and political patterns that I believe repeat through to the present, as do certain core issues and controversies. Other authors like Michael Meeker have pointed to these continuities and challenge the idea of a rupture. A new edited book, Turkey’s Engagement With Modernity by Kerslake, Öktem, and Robins, eds., that has just been published promises a more comprehensive view, with major Turkish scholars discussing aspects of Turkish society, culture, economics, politics, urbanization and so on with a long view over the entire 20th century.
My most recent interests are nationalism and Islam. These generally have been covered separately in literature about Turkey. Altinay discusses the formation of militantly nationalist identities and threat perceptions of Europeans, Kurds and non-Muslims in the educational system. Kentel et al.’s recent study of nationalist attitudes is the most comprehensive and up-to-date analysis of the rise of these attitudes in Turkey.
Soner Cagaptay’s book gives an excellent and nuanced history of the development of Turkish national identity in the period between the first World War and the 1950s, teasing out the complex components of territory, religion, and race (which in that period meant “ethnicity through language”, rather than immutable biology). He suggests that there were three contradictory definitions of Turkishness: territorial, the basis for citizenship; Muslim; and ethno-religious (all Turks were Muslims, but not all Muslims were ethnic Turks). He traces the lingering effect of the millet system that in Ottoman times ordered and identified people according to ethno-religious groups. Cagaptay argues that this history caused Kemalists to see non-Muslims as “citizens outside the body of the Turkish nation” (39), but that this exclusion affected Christians more than Jews, who had had close relations with the urban elite in Ottoman times, and in the early republic were considered somewhat amenable to assimilation if they spoke Turkish. Kurds, on the other hand, while Muslim, were considered unassimilatable to the national community because of their ethnic/tribal nature and resistance to speaking Turkish.
Cagaptay also makes the insightful point that overlapping processes of nationalization (that includes Islam) and secularism (that excludes it from the public sphere) have created tension between Islam as a religion and Islam as an identity. Islam as identity is a marker of Turkishness, but Islam as faith is outside the public sphere. Cagaptay’s analysis speaks directly to current tensions between the AKP and the laicist state, linking them to inherent fractures within Turkey’s national identity, although the book does not explicitly extend the analysis to the present. Thus, it does not address the question of whether the national body itself is in the process of being redefined. While secular Kemalists adhere to the identity boundaries described by Cagaptay, Muslim nationalists are redefining those boundaries along late Ottoman (Misâk-i Milli) lines, with the consequence that the millet model and a shared Ottoman past are used to reincorporate other religions, ethnicities, and regions into the Turkish nation and national interest (if not into Turkishness).
Graham Fuller tackles this in his analysis of what he calls the “new Turkey”, a country whose identity is evolving away from Ataturk’s “cultural lobotomy” (17) and moving from a Kemalist racially oriented reading of pre-Islamic Turkish history toward a rediscovery of its Islamic and Ottoman past. As a consequence, Fuller suggests, Turkey is becoming part of Middle East politics again and redressing the legacy of authoritarian republicanism, the exclusion and oppression of non-Turkish ethnic identities, and the vilification of Islam and Islamic traditions. What is missing from this analysis is a critical look at the discrepancy between liberal Turkish government policy toward non-Muslim minorities and widespread on-the-ground intolerance by both officials and the population at large, as shown in polls.
Looking at the identity issue from the Kemalist side, Esra Özyürek argues that Kemalist identity and relation to the state has been transformed as well. In her book Nostalgia for the Modern, she suggests that, as a result of neoliberal economic policies of the 1980s, contemporary Turkish citizens have developed a new relation to the state that, in the past, had been based on a paternalistic, authoritarian, government-orchestrated identity that was modern and secular. This gave citizens the experience of a synchronous, collective national identity requiring obedience and respect for the symbols and rituals of the state. Özyürek argues that this relationship has been replaced by one based on individual choice, emotional connection and voluntarism, something she calls neo-Kemalism. Citizens have become individuals who carry symbols of the state voluntarily into their homes, make them part of their personal narratives and express nostalgic, emotional attachments to national principles as these are expressed in symbolic commercial artifacts, the life histories of early Republican families, public exhibits of their lifestyles, national festivals organized by civil society instead of state-orchestrated rituals, and the consumption of pictures of Ataturk, the founder of the Republic, that show him as a human being, rather than a stern, mythical figure. She makes the point that, while this new relation to the state appears to be an expression of the popular will and is experienced by individuals as free choice and free association, in actual fact it continues to reflect official state ideology. This becomes clear when she analyzes what and who is left out of the festivals and discourse. Devout Muslims, ethnic minorities, anyone considered outside the official ideological definition of modern, secular citizen continues to be excluded and, at times, explicitly silenced. The new element of free choice and voluntarism, however, makes this appear to be the will of the people, not state ideology. She also describes the oppositional use of nostalgia and rituals by Islamists who are producing revisionist versions of early Republican life.
The thesis of Özyürek’s introduction to the edited volume, Politics of Public Memory in Turkey, is that Turks have lost faith in the future and excavate the past to find clues to help them understand the present. They do this by using the past to create and support alternative identities for individuals and communities. The thesis of the book is that memory can actually construct new sets of social relationships, rather than simply reproduce culture and society. The book then sets out to illustrate this principle by looking at 1) how history is encoded in objects and concepts that then become commodities and can, thus, be acquired and “owned” by individuals. 2) how memories heal traumas by both concealing and highlighting them; 3) how memory is productive of social and political relations in the present, and is a result of political struggle, rather than a reflection of the past.
In her introduction, Özyürek revisits the well-trodden ground of Kemalist Turkish nationalism from unique and creative angles. For instance, she focuses on how the changes of the early Republic (in the calendar, alphabet, etc.) not only inscribed a new identity on the bodies of individuals moving in the space of the new nation, but also erased what came before. I find the notion of ‘sites of forgetting’ and the need for reminders of ‘what to forget’ very interesting and productive. She then argues that in post-1980s Turkey ‘forgetting’ has been replaced by nostalgia, a kind of performance (and redefinition) of the past that allows marginalized groups to create a legitimate space in the political and public life of the nation. She makes an important differentiation between collective memory as embedded in the individual, learned in schoolbooks, etc., and nostalgia, a conscious remembering and performance of the past. She also observes that not all collective or public memories are shared, although they are meant to be. Different groups promote their own versions of public memory in order to serve their interests.
3. You are also the author of the Kamil Pasha Novels series. Could you briefly tell us about your novels? How did you come up with Kamil Pasha character and what is your latest book “Winter Thief” about?
My research and studies have been about contemporary Turkey, so I had read about early twentieth-century Turkish history and the late nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire when many of the reforms in place today (like democracy, secularism, western lifestyles, women’s rights) first started being debated and introduced. But when I decided to set a novel in 1886, I had to do some more research. I was missing important details that scholarly history books usually don’t bother with. What were the streets of downtown Istanbul paved with in 1886? Were there streetlights? If so, gas or electric? Was there a shore road up the Bosphorus? What were fashionable veil colors in 1886? The list is endless.
The essence of scholarly research is this treasure hunt for knowledge, for revealing facts, for seemingly abstruse information, then putting it all together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. When you have enough pieces in the right order and you begin to see the final image emerge, and that image allows you to understand something new, it’s a most exhilarating feeling. That feeling is what drives scholars on, despite low pay. And it was the same for the novel, only the picture that emerged was of a fictional story in a real time and place. The puzzle pieces I used were, as far as I could make them, the real thing – whatever I knew of present culture (extrapolated back in time, which admittedly is not kosher from a scholarly point of view) and whatever I could find out about the history, politics, bureaucracy, clothing, lifestyle, architecture, economy, and debates of the period. It was exhausting. It was fun. I got to look up unusual stuff – not just street lamps, but also orchids, the Bosphorus currents, the habits of fish as well as people. And I got to make stuff up – it is a novel, after all! I added fictional pieces to the puzzle – characters, lives, loves, dangers, dilemmas. I got to kill people in interesting ways.
The themes in all three novels are ethnic and religious violence, war and territorial upheaval, the international “Great Game” played by the European powers in the nineteenth century in their pursuit of territory in the Near East. These also can be read as metaphors for the present on two levels, the personal and the political, which in reality are never separate.
In my novels, historical events and political and social unrest take the form of personal tales of tragedy, death and dislocation. For the characters, living in historically turbulent times sends them on personal journeys that test the possibility of love and redemption after living through cataclysmic events, the shattering of illusions about one’s family, one’s friends, perhaps oneself. My novels examine things like how far people are willing to compromise what they think is right in order to protect family and safeguard friends, and what does that do to them? They’re about the slippery, unreliable nature of truth and justice in times of war.
In The Winter Thief, Kamil Pasha – a dedicated, law-and-order magistrate – comes to understand that the justice of law and state is not always the same as justice in a humanitarian sense. What should he do when taking either road will lead to the deaths of innocent people? When any choice he makes will betray his integrity? These are the sorts of moral dilemmas often faced by people in times of war, no matter what ‘side’ they are on – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, northern Ireland. What can it mean to be a “good person” in times of war? In The Winter Thief, an international group of socialists set up a utopian commune by means of which they hope to do good in the world, but that inadvertently sets in motion a catastrophe for surrounding villages. Kamil also discovers that not all evil is alike – sometimes one must choose one evil over another, when there is no other choice. International struggles become personal tales of horror and redemption, irrevocably changing everyone involved.
My books are about the city of Istanbul too. You might say, the city is a character in the books. In my fiction, I preserve what is emblematic of Istanbul, but wouldn’t fit in an ethnography: night fishermen on the Bosphorus, raspberries in the hills above Ortaköy, the rabbit fortune teller, the sense of the city as an immense palimpsest, layer upon layer of civilization written with the stones of earlier ones. The Ottoman Empire, of which Istanbul was the capital, was the culmination of an almost 500-year-old empire founded on even older civilizations — the Byzantines, Romans, Greeks, and, before that, other civilizations not as well known today. Walking through the city today, a visitor stumbles – sometimes literally — across traces of these empires. There are ruins upon ruins, and the ground beneath is laced with antiquities. One of my neighbors in Istanbul used a Greek capital as a doorstop. She said the city had been doing repair work on the water pipes in the street before her house and had thrown the hunk of marble out of the hole.
In the 1880s, the period the novels are set, the Ottoman Empire was a truly multi-ethnic, multi-denominational empire – Jews, Armenians, Greek Orthodox Christians, Muslim Turks, Arabs, people of all faiths from the Balkans, European “Franks” and many others mingled in the streets and in households. They were craftsmen, traders and servants, but also held important positions as doctors, merchants, bankers, and advisors to the sultan. It was a period of profound social and political change. Educated and wealthy urbanites were acquiring European customs and technology. Some were interested in European political models, like a parliament. Despite European support for the independence movements that were breaking the empire apart, many young Ottomans, like Kamil, admired European political values, science, and ideas about society. Some Ottoman leaders also felt they could only fight European attacks by emulating their enemy.
In the 1880s, you could see the shape of the future, but it hadn’t taken on a concrete form yet. People were trying out new roles. They were debating things like the role of religion in society, the challenge posed to faith by science and reason, abolishing slavery, and what women’s roles should be in the home and in society. How should minorities be incorporated in the political scheme of the Empire? Should they act first and foremost as Ottoman citizens or should their loyalty be to their own sect? What does it mean to be modern? What are the costs of progress? What are the rights and obligations of the individual and those of the family and society as a whole? Should one be given preference over the other?
Kamil, like his fellow Ottomans, was worried about the consequences of change, the decline of the family, losing the moral fiber of society. In many ways, these are questions people in Europe and the United States, and elsewhere, are still struggling with today. Istanbul in the 1880s presents all of the fascinating paradoxes of the modern world in a setting that reaches back thousands of years in culture and architecture. Surely the Byzantines worried about the consequences of change as much as Kamil did in the 1880s and we do today.
In my novels, I also hope to dispel some of the stereotypes about women and harem life, while still acknowledging the mystery and lushness of the Ottoman period. A harem is simply the part of the home reserved for women. Harems were formal, structured places where women had positions, ranks, children, and jobs to do, not a place of lounging naked odalisques as conjured up in the fevered imaginations of 19th century European writers and painters who, of course, had never seen the inside of an actual harem.
The questions people are asking themselves in Turkey today are similar to those that also were of concern to Kamil in the 1880s, and that still preoccupy many people in the US. In fact, in The Sultan’s Seal the Ottomans claim some of the virtues the West usually claims for itself, like tolerance and family values. Ottomans debated whether women should enter public and professional life. Many worried that, if they did, the traditional family would decline, leading to a loss of community and morality. Others argued that educating women was important because it made them better mothers. These arguments and issues remained central during the Turkish Republic and are still hot topics in many parts of the world today.
You can find more information about Jenny White and about her publications at:
She also writes a blog on contemporary Turkey:
 Altınay, Ayse Gül. 2004. The Myth of the Military Nation: Militarism, Gender, and Education in Turkey. New York: Palgrave.
 Kentel, Ferhat, M. Ahüıska, and Fırat Genç. 2007. “Milletin Bölünmez Bütünlügü” Demokratiklesme Sürecinde Parçalayan Milliyetçilik(ler). Istanbul: TESEV.
Islam, Secularism, and Nationalism in Modern Turkey: Who Is A Turk? (Routledge, 2009)
 The New Turkish Republic: Turkey as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World. (Washington, DC: U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2008).
 Nostalgia for the Modern: State Secularism and Everyday Politics in Turkey (Duke University Press, 2006); ed., The Politics of Public Memory in Turkey (Syracuse University Press, 2007).
The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author/s who retain the copyright.