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Left Out in Turkey

a community that is being emboldened from outside the country to resist Turkification…. In the eyes of the people, the Kurds are increasingly becoming like the Greeks and Armenians.

In other words, the Kurds have become a minority that looks to outsiders, not to its own government, to protect its interests.

In the Erzurum branch of the Association of Martyrs’ Families, which cares for the next of kin of Turkish servicemen killed during the PKK rebellion, Hatem Tetik, the branch head, articulated the widespread Turkish skepticism about the EU’s intentions. He said he doubted the wisdom of a government plan to lower the parliamentary threshold, currently 10 percent of the vote, that parties must exceed to gain representation in the Ankara chamber. He said, “It’s clear that the EU wants DEHAP to be represented in parliament.” (DEHAP won 6.3 percent of the vote at the last general election, and currently has no deputies.) Tetik complained about last summer’s release from prison of a prominent Kurdish nationalist and spoke resentfully of European pressure on Turkey to safeguard the property rights of non-Muslim religious foundations. He was aghast at the idea that the European Court of Human Rights would soon rule on whether or not Ocalan’s trial in Turkey for treason had been conducted fairly, a decision that could prepare the way for a retrial.2

Surrounded by the framed photographs of dozens of fallen soldiers, including his own twenty-year-old son, I sensed that Tetik was struggling to understand a great irony. Having spent fifteen years fighting to protect the nation’s sovereignty, Turkey was now preparing to relinquish it voluntarily.

As we spoke of the Kurds, I was reminded of government officials whom I had met in the Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey. They had disparaged the “mentality” of the people whose lives they ran, without bothering to understand that mentality; they never seemed to ask themselves why many Kurds remain deeply hostile to the Turkish state. The armed forces, guardians of Atatürk’s republic, have done little to improve relations. Following the attempt by Kurdish youths to burn the flag, the General Staff castigated the “so-called citizens” who “breathe [the country’s] air, drink its water and fill their stomachs, and then dare to lay a finger on that country’s most sacred shared national value, its flag.” The statement says as much about the state’s view of Kurdish nationalists as ungrateful tenants as it does about the generals’ readiness to encourage Turkish chauvinism. Tetik’s reply to my question about Kurdish nationalists was in the same vein. “They eat the same bread as us, they marry our daughters, and then disparage the country. I don’t understand it.”

In the past, Turkish governments usually came to power speaking of reconciliation; they soon felt obliged, by a combination of PKK atrocities and pressure from the generals, to announce their faith in a “military solution” to what was presented as a simple problem of terrorism. Now, things have changed. With Erdogan in power, the generals must deal with a popular prime minister whose AK Party argues that a shared religion that does not deny ethnic differences will be sufficient to bind Turks and Kurds together. When I met Abdulrahman Dilipak, a militant Turkish Islamist based in Istanbul, he called for a “unitary state of many communities,” i.e., for according the Kurds some recognition.

For the first time in years, the place where the most adventurous opinions about Turkey’s future are being ventured is the Kurdish southeast. In the past, the representatives of Kurdish parties spoke circumspectly, fearing that they might be arrested or their party banned, but the climate is now freer. In Mus, an overwhelmingly Kurdish province, the local Human Rights Association representative, a supporter of the Kurdish cause, told me that “the number of people coming to me to complain that they have been tortured has gone down to virtually zero.” This reflects well on Erdogan and his policy of “zero tolerance” toward torture, which had indeed been widespread, but the atmosphere has emboldened Kurdish nationalists to articulate their aspirations with a new frankness. In Mus, when I asked the representative of DEHAP whether the Kurds wanted minority rights, he replied, “First we want the privileges that are afforded to minorities, and then we want to go beyond that.”

For many Kurds that probably means exploring Ocalan’s recent announcement from prison that he was setting up a “democratic federation” that would bind together the Kurds of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, but without splitting them from their host countries. How he would manage that, he did not say. Others envisage a new constitution that recognizes the Kurds as equal partners with the Turks and that provides explicitly for Kurdish instruction in state schools. The DEHAP mayor of Varto, a town in Mus province, spoke to me of bringing about a “transformation” in attitudes and forcing the state to evolve toward full recognition of Kurds.

The EU process has elicited fears that the Alevis, too, will seek special status. As heterodox Muslims, the Alevis were often treated shoddily by the Ottomans. Many welcomed Atatürk’s secular republic because it seemed to offer an end to discrimination. More recently, the heterodox Shia Alevis have felt threatened by Turkey’s Sunni revival and by the state’s desire to regulate the revival. No room has been made for Alevi beliefs and practices; at school, Alevi children are instructed in orthodox Sunni Islam alongside their Sunni peers. In Ankara, Kazim Genc, who heads the Pir Abdal Culture Association, a big Alevi group, demanded that religious instruction be removed from the national curriculum and that the state provide help in building Alevi prayer halls, just as it helps the benefactors of Sunni mosques. Genc wants the Alevis to be elevated to their rightful status as a “founding element of the Turkish Republic.”

A new constitution, recognition for the Alevis, protection for non-Muslim religious foundations—for millions of Turks, these are frightening ideas, and they are all the more frightening because they are being articulated at the same time as the move toward EU entry, the stated goal of the Turkish state. This paradoxical situation seems now to be provoking among some Turks a reevaluation of the wisdom of seeking EU entry, and recent polls suggest a decline in support for that goal and a rise in nationalist feelings.3


Having lived in Turkey during the late 1990s, when most Turks admired Bill Clinton, I was startled by the anti-American feeling that I observed when I was there in April. George Bush’s invasion of Iraq and his support for Ariel Sharon have alienated the devout. America’s current patronage of the Kurds of northern Iraq has convinced many Turks that the US is prepared to tolerate an independent Kurdish state there—a state that could be seen as a model by Turkey’s Kurds. Some Turks believe that the US wants to take revenge for the Ankara parliament’s refusal to allow American forces to use Turkey as a launching pad for the Iraq invasion. Many Turks believe that, far from trying to control PKK units in northern Iraq, the US is abetting them in order to destabilize Turkey.

This background helps to explain the success of Metal Storm, a Turkish novel describing Turkey’s invasion by US forces which has been a runaway best seller, with a print run, huge by Turkish standards, of 350,000 to date. Polls suggest that many Turks regard such an invasion as a distinct possibility. At the end of 2004, the US embassy in Ankara had to deny Turkish newspaper reports claiming that the Asian tsunami had been caused by American underwater explosions designed to kill large numbers of Muslims.

Traveling through Turkey I was struck by a tendency among the people I met to look for villains. In Mus, for example, right-wing activists told me there had been a rise in Christian missionary activity, a claim for which they were unable to provide evidence. Some Turks are passionately opposed to the proposed reopening of a Greek Orthodox seminary near Istanbul. They regard this tiny concession to Turkey’s few remaining Greeks as a serious threat. Most improbable of all, many Turks say they fear the Sabbataians, a Jewish sect that probably no longer exists.

In the seventeenth century the Sabbataians were followers of Sabbatai Zevi, an Ottoman Jew who proclaimed himself the Messiah. After Zevi was induced by the Ottomans to embrace Islam, thousands of his followers followed his example, but continued to practice Judaism in secret. During the past two decades, some writers, most of them Islamist, have received some attention by challenging without any serious evidence the conventional account of what happened next—namely, that the Sabbataians’ descendants became integrated into Muslim Turkish society. On the contrary, these writers maintain, the Sabbataians multiplied, maintained their secret faith, and now exert a sinister stranglehold over Turkey’s political and economic life.4

This is the idea behind Soner Yalcin’s current best seller, Efendi: The White Turks’ Big Secret.5 The book is a detailed historical account of a powerful and tentacular Izmir family, the Evliyazades, many of whose descendants are well known in Turkey today. Yalcin follows the extended family from the late nineteenth century as its members make fortunes, arrange advantageous marriages, achieve high office during the imperial and republican periods, and are occasionally defeated by politics or jealousy. In the book’s last paragraph, Yalcin tells his readers his book

was written with the aim of lifting the veil on a secret that remains taboo in Turkey…. Sabbataiism is our reality. We cannot write our history if we ignore it.

And yet the alleged Sabbataiism of Efendi is not based on any evidence; it is suggested by innuendo for the initiated. Yalcin does not say outright that the Evliyazades are Sabbataians; he only implies that they are. He does not flatly contradict the Evliyazades’ account that the family originally came from Anatolia, but he hints that they are descended from Jewish converts. Once this is accepted, everything else falls into place: the Evliyazades’ business partnerships with foreigners; their supposedly effete, Western style of life; their association with sinister institutions like the Rotary Club and the Miss Europe competition (the 1952 winner, Gunseli Basar, apparently married an Evliyazade). Yalcin’s point is that the Evliyazades and people like them deserve the honorific “Efendi,” a word meaning “gentleman” or “leader,” that was often used to refer to non-Muslims during the Ottoman period, and that Yalcin seems to be using ironically. These “white Turks,” he seems to be saying, can hardly be considered Turks at all.

In a recent issue of a left-wing Turkish magazine, Rifat N. Bali, a Turkish Jew, sees Efendi as part of the tradition of Turkish anti-Semitic writing.6 He describes Islamist journalists who try to “out” famous Turks as being Sabbataian. He points out several passages in which Yalcin implies that Sabbataians have intervened during Turkish history to the benefit of their own (and Israel’s) interest, and to the detriment of Turkey’s. Without any factual basis for doing so, Yalcin ascribes a discriminatory tax imposed on the capital of well-to-do non-Muslims in the 1940s to a plot by pro-Israel Jewish converts in the Turkish government to persuade Turkish Jews to migrate to the new state. Whatever the reason for their departure, Yalcin concludes, the Jews who eventually left showed “disloyalty” to Turkey. In the eyes of Turkish nationalists, disloyalty and ingratitude are common traits among minorities.


I arrived in Istanbul on Sunday, April 24, ninety years to the day since the Ottomans began arresting prominent Armenians in the city, an event that for Armenians marks the beginning of the genocide. A large Armenian church that I visited in European Istanbul was packed with worshipers who lit candles in memory of those who had died. Some local Armenians, along with a few liberal Turkish journalists and historians, had flown to Armenia to participate in a commemoration there and to support demands that Turkey recognize the events of 1915 as genocide.

Turkish newspapers had much to say about those events. Columnists and celebrities presented themselves in the press as experts on history. Could the deportations of 1915 have been avoided? No, argued Sukru Elekdag, a handsome former ambassador turned politician, “the Ottoman government went to great pains” to protect the Armenians during the deportations, but “due to contagious dis-eases, severe weather conditions and limited resources there were losses on both sides.” On April 25, Hurriyet, Turkey’s most slavishly pro-establishment paper, announced that “today, for the first time, fully ninety years after the events of 1915,” Talat Pasha, the Ottoman grand vizier who ordered the deportations, “speaks, joining the debate with hitherto unpublished documents from his personal archive!” During the next few days, a series of articles taken from Talat’s journal purported to show that the chief vizier, who was assassinated by an Armenian in 1921, had been much concerned for the welfare of the deportees.

The evident purpose behind this display of opinion was to promote the Turkish version of events. The Armenians, so the Turkish argument goes, were deported because the Turks credibly feared that they would link up with the advancing Russians and seize parts of Anatolia. The deportations could not have been better managed because the Ottoman Empire was at war and in chaos. Most of the massacres were committed by brigands who acted without state sanction. And some of the worst massacres were committed against Turkish villages by Armenian gangs withdrawing from eastern Anatolia along with the Russians after the Bolshevik Revolution.

During the past two decades, several Turkish historians have made careers by developing this thesis, and also by dismissing as inflated claims that 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives during the deportations. These historians have been supported by Turkish diplomats, but they have had little success. Few foreign historians and, perhaps more important, no foreign countries feel confident defending the Turkish thesis. Turkish newspapers like Hurriyet carried triumphant headlines after George Bush avoided using the word “genocide” in a statement of condolence to the Armenians on April 24, but throughout the world, the opinion of politicians and historians is decidedly against the Turks. The parliaments of more than a dozen countries have recognized the events of 1915 as genocide and a resolution has been submitted to the European Parliament demanding that “genocide recognition” be made a precondition for Turkish entry to the EU.

Many Armenians agree that Turkey must recognize the events of 1915 as genocide. Turkish officials vigorously resist a label that, they rightly fear, will result in their being associated with horrors comparable to the Holocaust and may expose them to class-action lawsuits. It is hard to argue that the writing and understanding of history have benefited from the bitter controversy over the word “genocide.” Many individual Turks accept that the Ottomans committed an appalling crime, but the same Turks violently react against suggestions that the crime was genocide.7 The attitude of these Turks, in turn, enrages many Armenians, for some of whom it is the label of genocide that counts—more so than an appropriate show of contrition or even an honest appraisal of the past.8 So a distorted “debate” is taking place in the shadow of Turkey’s bid for EU membership.

Some Turks, many of them writers and academics, dare to put their heads above the parapet, and try to discuss the issue in a dispassionate manner, but they are not always allowed to do so. In May, academics at Istanbul’s respected Bosporus University felt obliged to cancel a conference on the history of the Armenian deportations after the Turkish justice minister obliquely referred to the event as “treason,” and “the spreading of propaganda against Turkey by people who belong to it.”

When Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s best-known novelist, made the unremarkable observation last year that one million Armenians were killed in Turkey, his words provoked a protest demonstration in the streets. Under Turkey’s new penal code, it is not clear that referring to Armenian genocide constitutes “anti-national activity”—a crime that is punishable by ten years’ imprisonment. (The law’s original footnote, which suggests that it does, has officially been erased, but this may not have much effect in practice; many copies of the new penal code that have been circulated contain the offending footnote, raising fears that lawyers and judges will apply it.) If saying the Turks committed genocide is a crime, this is surely as flagrant an affront to intellectual freedom as the recent decision by the Swiss judiciary to launch an inquiry into Yusuf Halacoglu, the head of the Turkish History Organization, on the grounds that his denial of the genocide during a speech he gave in Switzerland may amount to illegal racism. That court decision was denounced not only by members of the Turkish establishment, but also by pro-Armenian Turkish historians such as Sabanci University’s Halil Berktay, who says that the events of 1915 constitute a “proto-genocide.” Etyen Mahcupyan, a prominent Turkish Armenian writer and journalist, also criticized the Swiss decision, saying that he agreed with “none of Professor Halacoglu’s views,” although he defended his right to express them.

In the offices of the weekly Agos, a paper published for Istanbul’s roughly 60,000 Armenians, Karin Karakasli, the newspaper’s general coordinator, told me that despite the controversy over official recognition of the killings as genocide, the conditions that Turkey’s Armenians live under are getting better. Only a few years ago, Karakasli recalled, the Armenian community was being accused of cooperating with the PKK; what the government calls “minority affairs,” including relations with Armenians, were supervised by the police. Until the cancellation of the Bosporus University conference, it had seemed as though Erdogan and his government were showing a softer and more tolerant attitude. The picture is now less clear—and members of the Turkish establishment, including top army commanders, have yet to show any sign that they would endorse such a softening. All the same, Agos has benefited from a relaxation in laws and attitudes concerning freedom of expression. Minority affairs are now supervised by the Interior Ministry. Karakasli told me that dozens of Armenian memoirs, novels, and history books are now being published in Turkish, part of a trend toward greater pluralism in publishing.9 For the first time that she can remember, there is no general desire among Istanbul’s Armenians to emigrate.

Although Istanbul’s Armenians agree that the events of 1915 amounted to genocide, more immediate practical matters, such as Turkey’s continuing refusal to reopen its land border with Armenia, seem more important to many of them than the issue of whether genocide is officially recognized. Justifying its decision to keep the border closed, Turkey cites Armenia’s occupation of territory belonging to Azerbaijan, a Turkish ally, and Armenia’s claim to parts of eastern Anatolia. But Erdogan has said that he wants improved relations with Armenia and he recently called for a joint commission of Turkish and Armenian historians to review the events of 1915. Etyen Mahcupyan has advised the Turkish parliament that Turkey should reopen relations with Armenia; if it does, Turkish acknowledgment of the genocide will, he believes, become less important. He, Karakasli, and other prominent Turkish Armenians criticize the efforts of diaspora Armenians to persuade foreign parliaments to pass resolutions denouncing the genocide. “They seek to protect their identity by generating hatred,” Karakasli said, “and they end up poisoning themselves…. They have no contact with the Turks. We live among them.”

Of all Turkey’s minorities, recognized or not, Armenians have the most tragic past. They may also have the brightest future, since most of them live in Turkey’s only cosmopolitan city. In more remote and conservative parts of the country, such as Erzurum, it is harder to envisage a smooth accommodation of minority demands, still less the sharing of ideas that would help facilitate the transition. This is why a recent work on Turkey’s minorities, by Baskin Oran, a political scientist at Ankara University, is so important.10

In his scholarly and exhaustive book, Oran examines the Treaty of Lausanne, the consequences of Atatürk’s exclusive conception of Turkishness, and the repressive laws that have been enacted in the name of both. He contends that Turkey’s foundations could be strengthened, and many inconsistencies resolved, simply by changing the official designation of the Turkish citizen from Turk, or Turk, to Turkiyeli, which means “of Turkey.” It is an ingenious answer both to Turkish nationalists and also to demands by Kurds that their special status be recognized, for it convincingly assumes that no one should have special status. In Oran’s Turkey, everyone is a Turkiyeli. Of course, Oran’s ideas amount to more than semantic invention. They challenge the way that the state regards its citizens. In the words of an EU diplomat based in Ankara, the state has hitherto organized itself in order to “protect itself from its citizens, rather than the other way around.”

Last November, a condensed version of Oran’s book was issued by a panel—of which Oran was a member—that had been asked by the government to examine minority questions. The result was an uproar of objections. To show his opposition to Oran’s views, another member of the panel snatched it from the jurist who was reading it aloud, and ripped it up. Later on, Oran’s suggestion was attacked by Turkey’s second most senior general, and denounced by Turkish nationalists. Startled by the reaction, the government disowned Oran’s ideas.

At least Oran was not charged with any crime or fired from his job at the university, as he might have been a few years ago. He and other progressives realize that attempts to change Turkey will set off reactions, not least from a reactionary and ultra-cautious establishment. Still, a transformation is underway in Turkey, and a central part of it involves Turkey’s still troubled relations with its minorities.

—June 16, 2005


Left Out in Turkey’ September 22, 2005

  1. 2

    In May, the ECHR ruled that Ocalan’s trial “was not tried by an independent and impartial tribunal,” and called for a retrial.

  2. 3

    That decline is bound to be accelerated by the crisis that was precipitated by the rejection by French and Dutch voters of the new EU constitution. Now Turks have even less of an idea than they did of what sort of EU they might eventually join—or, indeed, whether rising anti-Turk sentiment in member states might keep them out.

  3. 4

    Yahudi Turkler, yahut Sabetaycilar (Jewish Turks, or Sabbataians) (Zvi-Geyik Yayinlari, 2000), a collection of articles on the subject by Mehmed Sevket Eygi, a prominent Islamist columnist, contains the assertion that “a few thousand Sabbataians control the country’s affairs,” but provides no evidence that this is the case. He says that Istanbul contains “secret synagogues” where Sabbataians worship, but does not say where they are. Like other writers on the subject, Eygi makes no attempt to distinguish between sincere converts to Islam and Sabbataians, which further weakens his assertion that Sabbataiism is a thriving sect. It seems no more than a scurrilous anti-Semitic label.

  4. 5

    Efendi: Beyaz Turklerin Buyuk Sirri (Dogan Kitap, 2004). With fifty-six reprints to date, Efendi is one of Turkey’s most successful nonfiction books of recent years.

  5. 6

    Birikim, June 2004.

  6. 7

    In his statement on April 24, Bush referred to the “mass killings of as many as 1.5 million Armenians during the last days of the Ottoman Empire.” This contradicts Turkish claims that there were no mass killings and that only a fraction of that number died. Although Bush was accusing the Ottomans of an appalling crime, the fact that he did not use the word “genocide” was presented in Turkey as cause for celebration.

  7. 8

    Some people contend that, unless Turkey recognizes that a genocide took place, no appraisal of the past can be considered complete. I am not so sure. It is unlikely that Turkey’s justice minister would have reacted so aggressively to the proposed conference at Bosporus University if he did not fear that the event would be useful to those who advocate recognition of genocide. His reaction, naturally, was strongly attacked by such advocates, including a group called the Campaign for Recognition of the Armenian Genocide. It is hard to imagine that the experience of Bosporus University will encourage other Turkish institutions, especially ones that value academic integrity, to stage conferences of their own. They would inevitably get caught up in the dispute between proponents and opponents of genocide recognition—a dispute that often has the result of drawing a semantic veil over the Armenian tragedy of 1915.

  8. 9

    In Turkey, it is now possible to buy books arguing that genocide took place in 1915, as well as memoirs, written by Armenians who survived the deportations, that describe appalling behavior by the Ottomans. The success now being enjoyed by Fetiye Cetin’s story of her Armenian grandmother, who was rescued by Turks, has prompted others to admit that they, too, have Armenian antecedents. In fashionable Istanbul bookshops, it is possible to find, on the same shelf as Soner Yalcin’s Efendi, novels that celebrate the Ottoman cosmopolitanism that Yalcin finds so objectionable. Such books sell less than the chauvinist ones, Karakasli concedes, but that they are largely available is new and important. “In the past, you only heard one view.”

  9. 10

    Turkiye’de Azinliklar: Kavramlar, Teori Lozan, ic Mevzuat, Ictihat, Uygulama (Minorities in Turkey: Notions, Theory, Lausanne, Internal Regulations, Interpretation, Implementation) (Iletsim Yayinlari, 2004) .

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