Zihni Özdil - History

Linking the past to the present

"Being a historian sometimes also means being a prophet."

You think he looks familiar? You might have spotted Zihni Özdil, junior lecturer and PhD candidate at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC), on Dutch current affairs TV programmes such as Pauw & Witteman and Nieuwsuur, or in printed media such as Vrij Nederland and NRC Handelsblad. Although he doesn’t shy away from engaging with the public debate in the media, he describes himself as a 'nerd'. "I can get really excited about historical topics," he says, almost as a confession. "Especially when they are important in helping us understand what’s going on in the world today."

Zihni’s (research) interests are broad yet interlinked. “In essence, my field of interest is the interplay between ‘power’ and the ‘other,” he writes on his blog. The fact that his faculty looks at history from a societal perspective was therefore extra appealing to him.

"Turkish secularism basically meant control over religion. Everybody who didn’t fit the state version of Islam wasn’t recognized."

His research centers on state-building and non-Sunni Muslim religious minorities in early Republican Turkey. “More specifically, my research focuses on the interplay between state-led secularization and the formation of ‘Alevi’ and 'Nusayri' identities during the First Turkish Republic, from 1923 to 1960,” he explains. “Turkish secularism basically meant control over religion. Everybody who didn’t fit the official state version of Islam – except Christians and Jews because of the Treaty of Lausanne – wasn’t really recognized.”

Turkey today
Dealing with the relationship between church and state in the Turkish Republic, his research obviously has a great deal of resonance with what’s happing in Turkey right now. Zihni: “The current government has always been praised as an example for the Middle East, because it was democratically elected and seems to be able to combine Islam with democracy. But after what happened in Turkey last summer, we are realizing that it probably isn’t such a sweet picture after all.”

The 2013 uprisings in Turkey came as no surprise to him. Zihni had been warning against this in the media for three years. “While everybody else was praising Turkey, I was pointing out some facts nobody wanted to talk about. You cannot really understand in detail what’s going on in Turkey if you don’t understand what Turkish secularism used to be; how it was implemented, top-down, and how the Turkish population reacted to this,” Zihni says. “Being a historian sometimes also means being a prophet,” he adds, laughing. 

Time management
Being both a junior lecturer and a PhD candidate, Zihni spends 40% of his time on teaching and 60% on research. “But the teaching load is more than 40%,” he says. “It requires a lot of planning and time management, but I still enjoy it a lot, because the topics I’m teaching are topics that I’m really interested in. I made a job out of my hobby.”

Show your face

He spends his scarce free time engaging with the public debate and trying to convey his knowledge to a broader audience via publications on his blog and in various media, and taking part in TV or radio shows when invited.

"PhD candidates shouldn’t be afraid to enter into debate. Don’t hesitate to show your face."

“I think it’s important to make an impact during your research, especially considering the diminishing career opportunities in academia,” Zihni states. “PhD candidates shouldn’t be afraid to enter into debate. This doesn’t mean you have to be on talk shows every day, but don’t hesitate to show your face.”

Not rocket science
“Personally, I really think it’s our responsibility – because after all we’re being paid by the public – to share our knowledge with a broader audience when we feel it’s relevant,” Zihni continues. “And it often is relevant. Some historians, but also philosophers and sociologists think it’s so complicated to share their findings with the public. Some of them want to be so precise and think it’s necessary to study for another four years before they can say anything related to the present. But what we do is not rocket science. We are historians, not brain surgeons.”

Something big
Even though career opportunities in academia may be diminishing, there’s no lack of ambition in Zihni’s future plans. “I’ve also studied in the United States and I really like American academia. There, you’re really encouraged to think critically.” If there aren’t any interesting job opportunities in the States, he’s planning to stay in the Netherlands. He says with a smile: “But I want something big. I want to become the first ‘allochthonous’ prime minister. Or maybe I’ll be the Dutch Cornel West. We’ll see. But I know for sure that I won’t be spending my days only in a campus office.”