Partners and Nations

“How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk’.” – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

“Every morning I make my students tell lies. None of the children are Turks. Everyone here, including us teachers, is Kurdish.”School teacher in Turkey

“Listen, she’s not one of us.” – Christian radio host

In early 1919, what was to become the country of Turkey was prostrate, the middle of a defeated Ottoman Empire, partitioned and occupied by the victorious Allies.

Just four years later, in October 1923, Mustafa Kemal, who had organized and led an armed insurgency and nationalist movement against the Allies and their puppet Sultanate, repelling French, Greek, and British troops, was able to declare the independence of a new nation whose sovereignty was shortly recognized by the rest of the world.

Kemal was far more than a military leader. He was a true nationalist, and he realized that what was now the Republic of Turkey had to catch up. Education, the suffrage of women, even the alphabet became modernized and westernized under Kemal’s leadership.

Which seems a pretty glib way to summarize the career of someone who spent his life negotiating political and existential hazards to lead millions of people with diverse interests through traumatic change.

T. E. Lawrence, another larger-than-life leader of disparate peoples, wrote:

“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible. This I did.”


Lawrence and Kemal each overcame fractious petty tribalisms with the only weapon available: a much larger tribalism, nationalism. The tragedy for Lawrence was that it was a lie. Kemal’s accomplishment still lives.

Not surprisingly, Kemal’s nationalism did not enchant everyone. The abortive Sheikh Said Rebellion began as a conservative religious backlash against westernization, and became the first shot fired in the long and often violent movement of Kurdish separatism.

Separatist movements can be every bit as powerful as nationalist, and those who lead them understand two complementary weapons, both essential: something to mark a common identity (often race, ethnicity, or religion), and something to mark injustice at the hands of a common enemy. Anthropologists have a clumsy term, schismogensis, to describe (among other things) what skillful movement leaders have long understood: the endless tit-for-tat, that one side reacts in a way that goads the other to react ever more aggressively, ad infinitum. You can start a war in this way, make a new nation, or destroy one. Sheikh Said was hanged, and this was not forgotten. Kurdish separatism remains a belief and a movement to this day.

This is why “The End of History”, as predicted by Francis Fukuyama in his eponymous book, was just a bit premature:

“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution…”

A comforting thought, but there are surely people with other plans, and always will be, and therefore it is a dangerously delusional thought.

Tanya Marie Luhrmann, a professor of anthropology, recently published a column describing some of her experiences as a religious skeptic among the openly religious, and she concludes with a predictable piece of advice for us all, as well as something a bit more intriguing.

The predictable advice? “We need to recognize something of what we share, and…keep the conversation going…” It’s another comforting thought, perhaps a peace offering to movement footsoldiers of one organized religion or another, but will just as predictably be rejected by any movement leader as counterproductive, perhaps even held aloft to demonstrate weakness and uncertainty among the infidels.

Here is the intriguing bit: “Good marriages work because couples learn to repair, rather than escalate, their conflicts.” This is in fact an element of strategy straight from the playbooks of the most successful nationalists, the Kemals and Titos of the world (see The Politics of Tinder). No nation is without its fault lines, some potentially lethal, and the effective leader is part healer, a constant job requiring tireless energy.

But there is something deeper here. Perhaps “good marriages work” because couples repair their conflicts, but on its face this is nothing more than tautology. A marriage that works is one that works. But why? Why does one couple repair its conflicts while the next self-destructs in an escalating chain of schismogenesis?

The deeper answer is that successful partners operate on the belief that they need each other in some way, and it is this need that moderates emotions that, left to themselves, keep the conflict inflamed and growing – moderates them enough to permit the operation of thought and dialog and compromise.

In the larger setting, this is what a successful leader does. It’s why the role of leadership is so often dangerous and uncertain. Kemal was the subject of religious fatwah and sentenced to death in absentia. And leadership that attempts to heal has no assurance of success. Lawrence managed with a lie that he probably knew was a lie, resulting in the cauldron known as the Middle East today. There may in the end be no convincing different partners, or different factions, that they need each other.

Luhrmann concludes her column with, “If we can’t, we’re in real trouble.” She’s talking about religion and marriage and other social topics, but the words apply to nations and leaders as well.

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