Left Out in Turkey


“In Turkey we have no minorities,” the leading official in a poor district in one of the poorest provinces of eastern Turkey told me in April. The official was in his late twenties; he had studied public administration at a Turkish university, then received training in Ankara and spent a few months at a language institute in England’s West Country. He enthusiastically practiced his English on me. There was not much use for it in his district, where most people speak one of two Kurdish tongues, Kirmanji or Zaza, and many of the old people do not know Turkish.

The Kirmanji speakers in the district are Sunni Kurds, of which there are at least 10 million in Turkey. The Zaza speakers are members of Turkey’s roughly 12-million-strong Alevi community, heterodox Shiites of Turkmen and Kurdish lineage. Neither of these groups, the official went on, should be called a minority; that would imply that there is discrimination against them, which is not the case. He told me this with the assurance of someone who knows that he, and his view of the world, enjoy the sanction of a large and powerful state. You can find young men like him throughout Turkey sitting in government offices, where a cast of the death mask of Kemal Atatürk, the republic’s founder, is hanging on the wall behind them.

The Turkish Republic’s attitude toward minorities only makes sense if you have an idea of the contribution that the nationalism of those minorities made to the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Starting in the eighteenth century, Europe’s Christian powers assumed the role of protectors of their coreligionists in the empire. By the nineteenth century, they were promoting nationalist movements among them and protecting the newly independent states that had been created from former Ottoman territories, such as Greece, Serbia, and Romania. The process of making new nations was lethal for the empire and very often for those Muslims who were caught up in it; millions of Muslims were forced out of those newly independent states (besides the new autonomous territory of Bulgaria) and fled to Anatolia, the empire’s heartland. By the eve of World War I, Anatolia had become a refuge for dispossessed Muslims from the Bal- kans and from the Caucasian territories that Russia had won during the Russian–Ottoman War of 1877–1878.

But Anatolia also had large non-Muslim minorities, including the Orthodox Greeks and mostly Gregorian Christian Armenians. These minorities looked to outside Christian powers for protection, especially to Greece (in the case of the Greek Orthodox) and Russia (in the case of the Armenians). Many of them were uneasy about the Ottoman decision during World War I to side with Germany against their own protectors, while the Ottomans viewed them as potential fifth columnists.

In 1915, following severe military defeat at the hands of the Russians and an Armenian uprising in the eastern city of Van, the Ottomans ordered the deportation of Armenians from Anatolia. Well over one million are thought to…

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