Top Menu

The Other Gallipoli Pilgrim: Islamism and the Rise of Neo-Ottoman Memory Politics in Turkey

TASA members Brad West, University of South Australia talking about the recent Turkish referendum.  . Please note, this report was originally published in TASA’s Cultural Sociology thematic group blog space

The recent Turkish referendum that enhanced presidential power has fundamental repercussions for parliamentary democracy in the country and for Turkish-West relations.

It is also significant for the collective memory and commemoration of WWI Gallipoli Campaign in both Australia and Turkey.

Even prior to the referendum the numbers of Australians along with other Westerners visiting Turkey had already dramatically declined following the 2016 attempted coup d’état and a series of terrorists attacks, including at Istanbul’s main airport.

The recent warnings from the Australian government over the potential of terrorists directly targeting Anzac Day on the Gallipoli battlefields and then a dramatic decline in the actual number Australians and New Zealander ‘pilgrims’ attending services on the battlefields, with estimates as little as 1000, may reflect the start of a general shift away from Australians having a commemorative focus on the battlefields.

I have argued elsewhere that this pilgrimage activity was central to the development of a more cosmopolitan comprehension of the Anzac narrative, in particular one characterised by a historical empathy for Turkey’s perspective on the war. If the pilgrimage tradition comes to an end it will likely have a wider significance for the way Australia comprehends Gallipoli and as a consequence the constant re-imagining of national identity. As Durkheim wrote, ritual “practices translates beliefs into actions, and beliefs are often an interpretation of the practices” (1975:22).

At the same time that Australians are withdrawing from pilgrimage to the battlefields, Turks are visiting in increasing number, with approximately one million Turks touring a year, with an estimated 10 per cent of the population having at some stage engaged in some kind of martyr tourism at Gallipoli.

Whilst there was a time only a couple of decades ago where the historical interest in the Gallipoli Campaign was the principal domain of Allied countries, the Battle of Canakkale as it is known in Turkey is now central to a battle over how Turkish citizenship is understood, part of a broader culture war between traditional secular notions of Turkish national identity and those of political Islam.

The rise of political Islam under the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodğan, has seen Gallipoli increasingly referred to in relation to an Islamic Jihad and as an Invasion of Crusaders into the House of Islam. Erodğan himself has been a central figure in linking the Gallipoli Campaign with Islamic conceptualisations of the Turkish nation and in the past has stated that the ‘Crusades were not [finished] nine centuries ago in the past! Do not forget, Gallipoli [campaign] was a Crusade.’ (TARAF Daily, 18 March, 2014, translation provided by Ayhan Aktar).

Following the 15 July 2016 attempted coup d’état, President Erdoğan also evoked the memory of Gallipoli with recreated scenes of the Ottoman victory in the land battles against Anzac soldiers playing on large screens in Taksim Square as he addressed cheering pro-government crowds. The vision was taken from a controversial television commercial originally produced for the Centennial commemorations of the Gallipoli campaign that uses various Islamic symbols, such as lminarets, the call to prayer, jihad and Ramadan, that was widely interpreted as breaking with traditional secular ways of remembering the battle.

In outlining this shift in the memory of Gallipoli in Turkey is not to suggest that the established secular narrative was any less mythological. Since the 1930’s but more intensively in the late-twentieth century (in part as a reaction to Australian led memorialisation and commemoration on the battlefields) we saw the victory of the Ottoman Imperial Army being ‘Turkified’, with Arab, Kurdish, Greek, Armenian and Jewish soldiers and officers cleansed from the official narrative. This also involved deemphasising the role of German military personnel as the allies of Ottomans in WWI. Although the Commander defending the Dardanelles was the German Marshall Otto Liman von Sanders, the official nationalist narrative has glorified the military leadership of Colonel Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) in the battles against the British and Anzac forces, thus linking the collective memory of Gallipoli with the Turkish independence movement that led to formation of the secularist Turkish nation-state in 1923.

To what extent might we be seeing the demise of this classical secular nationalist Turkish view of Gallipoli and its replacement replaced by an Islamic orientated narrative? In a recently begun research project with Ayhan Aktar from Istanbul Bilgi University I am examining the likelihood and nature of this shift by examining the influence of a range of new Turkish commemorations and memorials.

These rituals are politically significant. Whereas Turkish pilgrims once were told the same historical tales by the guides that also took Australian and New Zealand visitors around the battlefields, now the vast majority of locals visit through bus tours that are arranged by Islamist municipal administrations for their residents free of charge. In contrast to local guides embedded in the tourism industry, those that lead the bus tours are increasingly likely to express a Jihadist or at least an Islamic narrative of Gallipoli, particularly with the ruling AKP government being involved in their training.

Other new commemorative rituals are more subtle in possibly affording Islamic understandings of Gallipoli. This is particularly the case with new re-enactment rites and the rise of more living history style heritage sites where the traditionally lionising of Ataturk is replaced with a heroic focus on the Muslim soldier and wartime life in nearby villages. This can be seen in an increasing popular march that re-enacts the mobilisation of the legendary 57th Regiment to defend the highlands from Anzac troops. Involving approximately 20,000 young boys and girls from Scouts and other paramilitary organisations, it is common for participants to wear t-shifts remembering their own ancestors that fought at Gallipoli.

There has also been a dramatic rise in Turkish heritage sites to the campaign being established outside of the battlefield area (that technically under Article 129 of the Treaty of Lausanne was granted to the Allies). This includes a gentrification of villages and establishment of new memorials funded through the corporate philanthropy of the fuel oil distribution company OPET that since 2006 has sponsored $US8 million dollars of heritage ‘renewal’ schemes in the villages of Eceabat, Kocadere and Behramlı. Such heritage sites not only geographically shifts the historical focus away from the battlefields, where Turkish memorialisation is  Ataturk orientated, but my focussing on the home front during the war the focus turns to the private domestic sphere which is more likely to allowing for a profiling of Muslim devotion of soldiers and their families.

Without completing systematic empirical research it is hard to exactly know the political consequence of these new commemorative rituals for the collective memory of Gallipoli in Turkey. From my past fieldwork research on Anzac pilgrimage (West 2008) we are aware that the motivations and meanings taken away from the battlefields are often different from that which politicians and social commentators have often assumed. The referendum outcome though has made the meanings of Gallipoli even more politically significant than ever, even as pilgrimage by Australians wanes.


Durkheim, E. (1975) “Concerning the Definition of Religious Phenomena” in Durkheim on Religion: A Selection of Readings. Trans WSF. Pickering. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

West, B. (2008) “Enchanting Pasts: The Role of International Civil Religious Pilgrimage in Reimagining National Collective Memory” Sociological Theory 26(3): 258-270.

About the Author

Brad West is Associate Head of School for Research and lectures in sociology in the School of Communication, International Studies and Languages at the University of South Australia. He is a Faculty Fellow at the Yale Center for Cultural Sociology and has previously held academic posts at the University of Bristol, Flinders University and Kings College London. Amongst his professional duties he sits on the advisory editorial boards of the American Journal of Cultural Sociology and Tourist Studies. His research focuses on the changing dynamics of national collective memory, particularly examining how new forms of ritual and commemoration challenge and at times rejuvenate national identity. This has included studies on the media reporting in the 2002 Bali Bombing and 2004 South Asian Tsunami; and the broader political influence of ‘dark tourism’ at war sites in Vietnam and pilgrimage like activity at the WWI Gallipoli battlefields in Turkey.