European languages encapsulate a history of the fascination with, and the fear, of Muslims in Europe.
Enter a turbaned man with a gray beard. He shows maps and complex equations. He looks authoritative. He speaks in a deep voice. Who is he? We are not yet sure but we listen in awe. We do not expect to be conned, to be getürkt.
The amazing feature of the German language is its plasticity. It allows us to mold nouns into verbs or string whole series of words into one single word. Years later, these new words become everyday expressions. We forget where they come from. They become a treasure trove of history. A history of creativity and destruction. Beauty and ugliness. Respect and prejudice.
Few words capture the complexities of historical movements and relations like “getürkt,” meaning faked or doctored. It gives us a whole line of synonyms which denote fickleness, falsehood, and treachery: gefälscht, erfunden, falsch, unecht.
And yet, the million dollar question is, who can spot the Turk in getürkt. How did the Turk get to be a verb?
“Getürkt,” as will become clear, encapsulates our simultaneous fascination with and fear of new technology. It is a story of art and engineering, cultural exchanges, and the fear of the unknown. Arguably, it also encapsulates a history of the fascination with, and the fear, of Muslims in Europe.
The expression may be chalked up to a historical accident, but it could also have arisen from a more deep-seated European prejudice against Muslims, which goes back to early meetings with Islam, mainly represented by the Ottoman empire, as the new power that swept over the known world with immense creativity and military force.
Besides Türkenmode, Robe à la turque, Turquerie, Turkish opera, and Turkish rooms, fascination for anything Turkish was omnipresent. The Turks brought us Swedes our first cup of coffee and thus our famous Swedish fika. They were the reason, among others, that freedom of religion was slowly introduced by Karl XII, who also had military alterations with the Ottomans which history recorded as “kalabalik in Bender.”
The word “kalabalik” (Turkish for masses) became the Swedish word for trouble. Europe had started to take over the ingenuity of its Muslim conquerors and was followed by exciting developments in every part of modern life. There was apparently an oscillation between Turkophobia and Turkophilia. An appropriation of the fascinating cultures mixed with the fear of its very presence.
Fear as a driver of technological innovation is probably best exemplified by the first, and completely preserved, print attributed to Gutenberg, the Türkenkalender (1454). This is a pamphlet about the most feared and exotified Orient: the Turks at the fall of Constantinople.
Before The Bible? Yes, it was printed before the complete Gutenberg Bible was printed. The great wonder of the printing press, this symbol of civilisation, was first used to print propaganda.
From Türkenkalender to another Turk: “Getürkt” comes from another first, the first robot, the first semblance of a computer and AI: The Mechanical Turk.
The year is 1769. The place is the court of the Empress Maria Teresia of Austria, the nation which famously stopped the Ottoman empire (1686) from diving deeper into the European continent, and, as the legend goes, brought us the Kipferl, the Croissant in the shape of the crescent on the Ottoman flag.
The Hungarian engineer and inventor Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen witnessed an illusionist entertaining the Empress and found himself challenged. Like Moses beat the Pharaoh’s magicians by introducing a real miracle, von Kempelen sought to impress the Empress by giving her a modern miracle of technology.
Already here we see how entertainment and invention go together. Substance and surface. No invention can do without a good story. It was no different in ancient Egypt and it is no different now when we talk to Siri, Alexa or Bixbi.
Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen constructed the Schachtürke or Automaton Chess Player. It was a fake chess-playing machine capable of beating even the strongest challengers, including statesmen such as Franklin and Napoleon.
The latter, who had just defeated Austria in the battle of Wagram, lost against the Schachtürke during the Treaty of Schoenbrunn near Vienna, a defeat that led him to throw the chess pieces in anger.
This Automaton looked like a table with a chessboard and a turbaned figure, a Turk-robot (or Robot-Turk). Surely, as Arthur C Clarke said, an advanced technological invention is indistinguishable from magic, but here we are dealing with the semblance of science. There is no substance. Only the mirage of the exotic magicians of the Pharaoh. No Mosaic substance. No Divine core.
The connection between the exoticism of the Turk figure and the robot-chess is thus quite an old one, quite a natural one. No doubt any other figure could have been used, but the figure of the swindling Turk encapsulated the notions of Eastern ingenuity, trickery, exoticism, and danger.
Chess was after all a game of war that spread from India and Persia to Southern Europe and the Vikings are said to have brought chess with them to Northern Europe. Chess was as much about power as the semblance of power. Strategy is always also about trickery, and the Turk as the most successful conqueror, embodied all these features.
This means that no matter who tricks us, the source and the character of fakery is somehow always the 'exotic Muslim.' For instance, “getürkt” is used to describe Konrad Fisher’s (real name Konrad Kujau) infamous forgery of the diaries of Adolph Hitler.
The irony is of course that no Turks were involved in the making of the automaton or the fake diaries. The swindling is done by the insider who can pull off such a feat under the disguise of prejudice and exoticism. A clear case of a getürkter Türke! Just as the exoticised images of Rumi and Hafez have been used to sell “translations” of their poetry, which were often original works by Western poets – who have getürkt us all.
A turbaned man with a beard is still such as prevalent trope of the Muslim today to the point that we have problems identifying Muslim scientists as a general category. We are unable to visualise them in different age groups, ethnicities, and genders. We keep gravitating towards the golden age of turbaned men. These images keep tricking us all into thinking that Muslims belong in the past and to non-European spaces.
And yet, given that the golden age of Islam and science is placed in Europe during centuries of diverse Muslim governance, one could argue that Muslim science is essentially European and that European science is at its core Muslim.
The Mechanical Turk in our analysis symbolises the problematic positioning of Muslims in Europe, Muslims as Europeans, and the erasure of Muslim heritage, in particular that of Muslim scientists.
The golden age of Muslim science is something we should be proud of as part of our European, and even global history, but let us no longer be getürkt by awesome images of exotic men no one can relate to today.
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