Despite what many assume, history is not just about the past. It’s about giving us the knowledge to understand the present and predict the future. This is exactly what Dr. Virginia Aksan illustrated through her presentation on October 27th.
BYU History Department Chair Eric Dursteler once said, “As historians, we look to the past to understand the present.” This served as the opening to the annual De Lamar Jensen Lecture, which is funded by and named after the esteemed former BYU professor. This year’s distinguished lecturer was Dr. Virginia Aksan, who is a retired McMaster University History professor specializing in Ottoman History from the 1700’s to the early 1800’s. As such, her lecture was focused on that topic and how it relates to contemporary times.
History student Madelyn Lunnen attended the lecture. She says: “Dr. Aksan spoke passionately about the Turks and the Napoleonic War. Her eyes lit up as she expounded on their various rulers and changes made to the civilization.” Without a doubt, the Ottoman Empire is a very specific topic, one that will not appeal to everyone.
However, that does not mean that it is not applicable to us today. The Ottoman Empire later dissolved into what is now known as Turkey and parts of several other nations. It may be argued that our relationship with the country is paramount, as they are a part of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the UN, and are being considered as a potential addition to the EU. The US State Department describes our relationship with the country thus: “The U.S.-Turkey partnership is based on mutual interests and mutual respect and is focused on areas such as regional security and stability, as well as economic cooperation.”
Despite this positive depiction of our friendship with Turkey, their president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in an interview with 60 Minutes indicated the opposite: “Well, let me be very frank in my remarks. I wouldn’t speak the truth if I said I was not disillusioned, because I am disillusioned.” He spoke on the the US’s involvement in Syria. According to Erdoğan, the US’s actions in Syria have led to an increased number of refugees (almost 3 million) coming to Turkey, hindered his ability to guard his country, and created a threat on his Southern border.
Because of Turkey’s close proximity to Syria and the Middle East, the U.S. maintains military bases in Turkey. To the extent that the U.S. still actively seeks to counteract the international threat that ISIS poses as the perpetrator of 1,200 deaths, a mutually beneficial relationship with Turkey would enable the U.S to maintain its counter-terrorism efforts in that part of the world, and perhaps the alleviation of Erdoğan’s concerns regarding the number of refugees in his country.
Erdoğan, like Aksan, reveres the Ottomon Empire as one of the oldest and longest lasting in human history. He has, in fact, stated that he would like to take his country back to the time when they were the most powerful nation in the world, to the time of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, it is crucial that we understand what that empire was and its significance. This will aid us in repairing our relationship with Turkey and continuing our fight against terrorism.