National history as a contested site: the conquest of Istanbul and Islamist negotiations of the nation
Comparative Studies in Society and History
Cambridge University Press
364 - 391
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In this paper, I examine the unofficial commemoration of the Conquest of Istanbul on May 29 by Islamist circles in Turkey, whose large-scale demonstrations and parades celebrate an alternative history that contests secular Turkish national history.1 May 29 celebrations do not only glorify the Ottoman past, but also make a connection between the conquest of Istanbul and a prophecy made by the Muslim prophet Mohammed, thereby making the event a part of Islamic history as well. I argue that these Islamist performances of history serve to construct an alternative national identity which is Ottoman and Islamic, evoking a civilization centered in the city of Istanbul, as opposed to the secular, modern Turkish Republic centered in the capital city of Ankara. The unofficial celebration of May 29 emerges as a disruptive interjection in time, an event which forces public attention to think of its past in terms of centuries, instead of decades. Suddenly, the celebration of national time, which had exclusively concentrated on the two decades between 1919 and 1938, warps into the past and locates a national moment in the fifteenth century. The performance of this alternative national history serves to incorporate the Ottoman times into national memory, unsettling the secularist constructions of national history centered around the Kemalist/Republican era of the twentieth century. It undermines secularist conceptions of the modern nation-state, and calls into question the official date of the founding of the Turkish nation, set as October 29, 1923. The commemoration of May 29 also addresses broader questions about the making and contestation of national identity through daily practices in public life. As I discuss below, such commemorative practices show how the making of national history involves a series of contested and negotiated interventions in public life.