Atatürk's Republic

Following Turkish News, Politics, Arts and Culture

Posts Tagged ‘history

Sevres Syndrome

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The tragic story of Sarai Sierra has been all over the Turkish and American media.  Until the discovery of her body on Saturday, her fate was a matter of speculation.  Some of that speculation ran toward the absurd.  One notable example attempts to prove that she was in fact a CIA operative.  Though this theory is patently ridiculous, similar conspiracy theories are all too common in Turkey.  I myself have been asked half seriously if I worked for the CIA.  Recently, members of the CHP even publicly questioned whether Angelina Jolie’s humanitarian visit to the Syrian refugee camps in Turkey was evidence of a CIA connection.

On the surface, this obsession with American covert infiltration and manipulation of Turkey’s government seems puzzling.  Turkey and America are close allies and have been so since the Cold War.  President Obama, in his address to the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 2009, praised the fact that, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey had “…freed [itself] from foreign control, and [had] founded a republic that commands the respect of the United States and the wider world.”  Turkey and America’s relationship is not without its problems, but there is certainly no reason to believe that the CIA would feel it necessary to intervene in Turkey’s elections in order to ensure PM Erdogan is reelected (another common rumor in Turkey).

The frequency and quotidian nature of these conspiracy theories in Turkey inevitably leads one to wonder what is fueling this paranoia.  Though there are certainly more recent events that come into play, such as the United States’ invasion of Iraq, I posit that the primary cause of Turkey’s collective fear of foreign interference derives from the division of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I in the Treaty of Sevres.   Despite the fact that the Turkish War of Independence effectively annulled the Treaty of Sevres and replaced it with the Treaty of Lausanne, the fear of territorial division and loss of sovereignty remains deeply imbedded in Turkish politics and culture.  Now it is the US that has the power to interfere with and overthrow  foreign governments and Turkey’s Sevres Syndrome now manifests itself as CIA centered conspiracy theories.

Given the heartbreaking outcome of this story, the above analysis may seem beside the point.  Indeed, I don’t believe ingrained cultural paranoia justifies the lack of basic human empathy exhibited by the article in question.  However, part of the aim of this blog is to acquaint English-speakers (read: Americans) with the history and culture of Turkey in order to dispel some of wide-spread myths created by America’s own historical and cultural baggage.  At the very least, if Turk accuses you of being a CIA agent, you’ll have a better understanding of why.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

February 4, 2013 at 9:34 pm

The Fate of Minorities in Turkey

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The Old Greek Orphanage on Buyukada

Last summer when I visited Buyukada I briefly discussed the confiscation of properties owned by ethnic minorities by the Turkish State.  The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in 2010 that confiscated properties must be returned.  Predictably, the Turkish government has made few efforts to ensure the former owners of properties in Turkey are given justice.  In August of last year the Turkish government passed legislation in order to comply with the ruling of the ECHR.  However, the majority of appeals by property owners have been rejected.

The once numerous Christian and Jewish minorities of Turkey have been the victims of discriminatory legislation dating back to the Ottoman Empire.  However, the large-scale exodus of these groups did not occur until the founding of the Turkish Republic.  Turkey and Greece exchanged the bulk of their Christian and Muslim minorities respectively in the early 1920s.  Throughout the 20th century, both countries have been guilty of official discrimination against the small groups of ethno-religious minorities which were allowed to remain.  In the case of Turkey, a series of crushing taxes directed specifically at minorities stripped Jews and Christians alike of their businesses, wealth and property.  Convinced of  the Turkish government’s animosity, many victims of these taxes left to rebuild their lives elsewhere.  Non-citizen Greek minorities, many of whom had family members with full citizenship,were subject to several waves of deportation.  These deportations aimed to force families to emigrate en mass with their non-citizen relatives.  This systematic persecution created the 99% Muslim Turkey we know today.  Outside of the property disputes, the Turkish government continues to show little concern for protecting the few minority enclaves that remain in Turkey.

As I discussed in my last post, Turkey’s Kurdish minority population has also been subject to official persecution at the hands of the state.  However, unlike the Greek, Jewish and Armenian populations in Turkey, Kurds are without the benefits provided by an ethnic nation-state.  However, the conflict in Syria has revitalized the movement for an independent Kurdistan.  Although the prospect of a greater, independent Kurdistan remains somewhat of a pipe-dream, in a post-Assad Syria Kurds could officially gain control over an autonomous region, similar to the situation in Iraq.  The power-vacuum left in the wake of the civil war in Syria has already de facto created a such a region.  A Syrian Kurdish autonomous region would certainly go far in ensuring the rights of Kurds in a post-Assad Syria.  However, Kurdish politics are bound to spill across boarders.  The current situation in Syria has arguably already negatively impacted the Kurdish community in Turkey and contributed to Erdoğan’s recent retreat from his previous support of greater Kurdish cultural rights.

Kurdish Syrians and Iraqis seem satisfied to remain in autonomous regions united to their respective countries for the time being.  However,  if either or both should gain true independence, I fear for the continued existence of the Kurdish community in Turkey.  For the past century, the Turkish government has failed to incorporate its Kurdish citizens into greater Turkey either through integration or autonomy.  If a “homeland” is created for them elsewhere, Kurds may face intense pressure to immigrate.  I do not envision it being as harsh as the cleansing of the Armenians from Anatolia, the Turkish government is far too sophisticated to engage in such open brutality.  However, policies similar to those that helped to drive out members of the Greek and Jewish communities (taxes, property confiscation, etc) could be employed to make life (even more) intolerable for Turkey’s Kurds.  At this point in time, it is hard to predict how the Kurds on both sides of the boarder will fare in the wake of the Syrian civil war.  However, I predict that the more power Syrian Kurds have on regions bordering Turkey, the harder life will become for Turkish Kurds.

Written by ataturksrepublic

November 27, 2012 at 8:02 pm

Happy is he who calls himself a Turk

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With the hangover of the election upon, it is easy to feel like America has become a hopelessly divided society.  Left and Right have become identity markers that at times can seem to trump all other factors pulling people together or driving them apart.  The divisions currently plaguing  America were recently put in perspective by the sharper, more violent divides plaguing Turkey.  Turkey’s independence  day, known as Republic Day, celebrations last Monday marked by stark displays of Turkish disunity.  At center stage was the long-standing rivalry between the Islamist ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) and Turkish secularists, historically organized under Ataturk’s People’s Republican Party (CHP in Turkish).  Previous to the holiday, PM Erdoğan had announced that public celebrations in the capital would not be permitted due to vague threats of violence.  This ban unsurprisingly angered secular citizens, who hold state holidays in a quasi-sacred regard.  Erdoğan’s banning of independence day celebrations could be compared, over-dramatically but not inaccurately, to informing devote Christians that they would not be allowed to publicly celebrate Christmas.  The ensuing clashes between the police and protestors last Monday overshadowed the official ceremonies conducted by the Prime Minister, President and members of the military.  Simultaneous to the controversies surrounding the Independence Day celebrations, another protest with life or death consequences has been playing out in Turkey’s southeast.  For almost two months now, imprisoned ethnic Kurds have been engaging in a hunger strike.  Their demands for Kurdish language and cultural rights, namely Kurdish-language primary education and the right to use Kurdish when mounting their defense, seem ridiculously basic to an outsider, especially an American.

These two protests may seem to be completely unrelated, but they both highlight Turkey’s painful internal divisions.  The division between religious and secular as well as Turk and Kurd dates to the founding philosophy of the Republic.  Atatürk was a true believer in the ethnically homogeneous nation-state model.  After having lived through the violent shattering of the Ottoman Empire along ethno-religious lines, it is not surprising that Atatürk believed that a strong Turkey could only be built upon a base of national ethnic unity and modern sensibilities.  In theory, anyone could/can be Turk so long as they accepted boundaries defined by Atatürk, namely that a true Turkish citizen is someone who speaks the Turkish language, practices Turkish cultural norms and is nominally Muslim but secular in practice.  For decades pious Muslims, though undeniably “Turkish” in every other way, were considered an “outsider” group.  They were (are) members of the “unconverted” masses that were expected to eventually see the light of Kemalist secularism and join the ranks of their “modern” Turkish brethren.  Kurds were similarly expected to be converted into Turks.  In the early Republic, Kurds were denied to exist.   They were deemed to be “mountain Turks,” semi-savage Turks who had forgotten their heritage.  To help them “regain” their Turkishness, Kurdish cultural practices and the public use of the Kurdish language were outlawed.

Now that the AKP is in power, the oppressed are becoming the oppressors.  Though they rose from the ranks of the marginalized pious classes, the AKP is a product of Turkish emphasis on uniformity.  They have shown that they have only marginally more sympathy for other oppressed groups in Turkey than previous governments.  Less surprisingly, the AKP, like the secular governments of the early Republic, is attempting to make it’s version of Turkish history the dominate narrative.  The Republic Day incident is simply the latest in a long line of historic and cultural spin in Turkey, which has included the building of museums, mosques and a general emphasis on Ottoman (read: Turkish Muslim) history over other aspects of Turkey’s rich heritage.

Despite the recent exchange of choice words between Erdoğan and the leader of the CHP, I have hope that pious and secular Turks can work out their political difference because they are just that, political.  However, it seems almost too obvious to state that Turkey’s Kurdish minority will continue to undermine the stability of the Republic until Kurds are given the full rights they deserve.  The AKP and its leaders need to draw empathy from its own experience as political outsiders and give in to the demands of the Kurdish hungerstrikers.  The acceptance of Kurds as both a distinct minority and full Turkish citizens is the only way to defeat the PKK and ensure the future strength and stability of the Turkish state.  If Erdoğan could achieve this, and I believe that he has the power to do so, he could become the founder of era of e pluribus unum in Turkey.

Written by ataturksrepublic

November 8, 2012 at 9:44 pm