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MOSCOW — The story of international schools in Turkey occupies a place in two different but intertwined histories: the decline of European missionary schools set up with a civilizational aim, and the birth of the modern international schools, serving countries with interests in Turkey. Traditional Istanbul schools like the French lyceum Saint-Benoît, Robert College, or the Austrian high school Saint George’s, all of which were founded in the 18th and 19th centuries, at first served to educate the local Christian clergy and the population of foreign communities, and then went on to become the schools for elite of the new country, traditionally looking at Europe as a role model and highlighting the identity struggles of the Turkish republic, which remains torn to this day between Islamization and Westernization.
The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire around the time of the First World War reframed the role of these institutions, as the old Ottoman subjects would eventually enter a different order of Otherness in the still-colonial gaze of the European. In the new reality of the late 1920s, as Turkey was grappling with the violence of the nation-state and a still-disputed series of genocides, massacres, displacements, and population transfers, one might assume there would have been little time to rethink old-school expansionism. Turkey was still politically and culturally indebted to Europe, and the idea of Turkish culture and education as an export product was very far from the consciousness of the period. That remained true until the 1960s, when a young and charismatic Muslim clergyman, Fethullah Gülen, began attracting disciples at a mosque in Izmir. Over the next four decades, his nameless organization, which is sometimes referred to as Hizmet, grew into a global network of nonprofits, educational institutions, and businesses, attracting a nascent middle class in Turkey and elsewhere, and deploying enormous resources under the banner of modern Islam.
Since the 1980s, the schools of the Gülen movement do not form a concrete bureaucratic entity, yet they share certain patterns: a corporatist approach to modern life, engaging with technology and science while emphasizing traditional values, and a Turkey-centric worldview. These schools also began to market Turkish education and culture abroad in the same way that Western-style schools did in Turkey and the postcolonial world. For more than a decade, the schools have been organizing the Turkish Olympics, an event held in different countries that includes a central event in Turkey, where young pupils from around the world gather to reenact Turkish culture, competing in categories including poetry, literature, music, and folklore. The Olympics are a sort of early-20th-century world expo, in which colonial subjects come to perform an Oriental cabinet of curiosities — but this time, paradoxically, what’s being performed is the audience’s own culture.
Turkish artist Köken Ergun, a filmmaker and researcher, became interested in the Turkish Olympics around 2008, after seeing a viral Facebook post of a Mongolian student reading a Turkish nationalistic poem in front of a large audience of Turkish politicians and the “middle class” (a newly minted concept for a neo-conservative emancipated working class in Turkey). Many more clips followed, flooding Turkish online platforms: Senegalese students performing folk dances from Western Turkey, Thai students performing obscure dances from the Kurdish region, an Albanian student singing a famous Turkish pop song. The Turkish reaction was sarcastic, skeptical, and bemused: In the staged performance of living culture there is always an element of ridicule, unlike with religious ritual, where there is a sense of the otherworldly. As Ergun told Hyperallergic, he thought at the time about his earlier video work “The Flag” (2006), which focused on a young girl reading a nationalist poem at a ceremony in Turkey, unveiling the influence of nationalist politics in Turkish education and the performative aspect of nationalism in Turkish school through well-structured rituals and histrionics. It was, for Ergun, an ongoing investigation on the role of politics in education in Turkey, as well as the ideological construction of a very fragile nation-state.
This was the birth of the project Young Turks (2015), composed of an artist’s film and installation, which is currently on display at Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art and makes reference, perhaps sardonically, to the 20th-century political movement that oversaw the period of transition between the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish republic, mediated by the horrors of the Armenian Genocide. In Ergun’s imaginary, however, these new young Turks are a new kind of colonized subjects: through an academic and ideological program, they are taught to view Turkey as the center of a master narrative that no longer exists — and probably never did.
Ergun began his research by visiting the Turkish Olympics in Istanbul in 2011, and then, in 2013, he began filming during the events in Izmir and Istanbul, without yet knowing the direction the project would take.
Of course, imagined culture and lived culture are totally different. In the Turkish education system, traditional dances and nationalistic songs always play a role in the background, but in everyday life the state and its citizens have embraced global capitalism and its cultural manifestations, so the Gülenist performance of Turkish culture might seem to modern Turks both outdated and ridiculous. However, the Gülenist construction of Turkey is a stale monolith without historical fluctuations where restaging is not a maneuver but an act of foundation in itself: The performance of culture is as good and true as the promise of culture.
Ergun then traveled to Kenya and Indonesia, where he interviewed different agents of this process of inverted Turkification, from young Dervishes to regular students and teachers. The case of Zeki Hoca, a teacher at a Turkish school in Africa, demonstrates the dangers of juxtaposing ideology with history and reality, providing a fascinating example of what Ergun wants to exemplify. In the film, Hoca delivers a passionate assessment of the importance of Turkish culture and the noble labor of these Turkish schools, while completely overlooking the tragic fate of minorities in Turkey and bypassing the potential of the political ideology of the nation-state to mobilize masses for violence.
In the installation, the interviews are displayed on seven separate screens near the main film, so one can focus on each interviewee and hear their very personal experiences individually, without losing sight at any moment of the performance playing in the background. The main film, however, is neither a documentary nor a full-length feature. Ergun’s gaze is investigative enough to question his subjects, but so ethnographically neutral that language and discourse do not override the viewer’s sense of both space and sound, allowing the master narrative of a fictional Turkishness to be experienced in all its grandeur. Sounds plays a very important role in this exhibition, as do images and dialogues, all of which merge into a theatrical stage. The nation-state becomes designated as the theater, and the political begins and ends at the level of performance. Mimicking grand events of the Turkish republic, such as Atatürk’s Day or Turkish Republic’s Day, the Turkish Olympics imitate the internal configuration of the Turkish identity without being held accountable for its many contradictions, uncertainties, and catastrophes.
The timing of the exhibition is also crucial. It’s not so much the residual Cold War politics still in effect between Turkey and Russia at this given moment, but the desire of both countries — two old, ruined empires — to reenter the geopolitical stage and play an active role in the convoluted here and now, either through proxies or military intervention. As both countries vie for a greater role in the Syrian war, we are reminded of the position that both Ankara and Moscow have adopted in recent years as skilled propagandists, spreading the kind of expansionist politics that the subjects of Young Turks have internalized in the name of culture.
Since 2013, the Gülen movement has come under fire. Many of its schools have closed, both financial and judicial investigations have been launched, and the movement’s main newspaper in Turkey has been taken over by the government. The close ties between Gülen and Ankara have become clear through a number of corruption scandals and allegations in Turkey, and once the ties between Turkish president Erdogan and Gülen himself were broken in 2013, the Turkish Olympics were banned from Turkey. Since then they have taken place only in other locations: Germany, Romania, and Ethiopia.
Did Ergun document one of the last living manifestations of this strange hybrid of religion, nationalism, ideology, and cosmopolitanism? It’s hard to answer right now. As authoritarianism grows to unprecedented heights in Turkey, with a near complete gag on freedom of expression, a fresh cycle of bombings in Istanbul, and the EU’s new promise to return Syrian refugees to Turkey (a country with a very poor record for honoring diversity), it is imperative to consider the full implication of Gülen’s expansionist project and its ties to Turkey’s opaque foreign policy. Somewhere between ethnography, film, journalism, theater, and performance, Young Turks is an almost authorless essay on the conditions under which culture becomes a tool of indoctrination and the necessity to distinguish between pedagogy and politics.
Köken Ergun’s Young Turks continues at Garage Museum of Contemporary Art (9/32 Krimsky Val, Moscow) through March 26.