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Posts Tagged ‘sevres syndrome

Shifting Minority Politics

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After more than a decade in power, what can we make of the AKP’s relations with Turkey’s ethno-religious minorities?  On the one hand, certain properties confiscated by the state from Christian minorities have been returned.  Journalists have documented on multiple occasions the rare but real phenomenon of Greeks migrating to Turkey to work or in some cases to return to the homeland their ancestors were forced to abandon.  The Turkish government has pledged to protect all Syrian refugees that seek shelter within its borders, no matter their ethnicity or religion.  On the other hand, both the government and its army of sycophantic journalists have engaged in anti-Semitic fear-mongering as a retort to any and all criticism or protest against the current government.  The minority that has arguably suffered the most under the AKP are the Alevis.  The vast majority of those killed as the result of the past year’s anti-government protests were young Alevi men.  In a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle, the deaths of Alevis have resulted in protests and unrest in Alevi towns and neighborhoods, triggering harsher police crackdowns and ultimately the deaths of more Alevis.

Despite the laudable actions the current government has taken regarding the return of confiscated properties and the welcome it has extended to non-Sunni Muslim minorities fleeing Syria, the AKP has failed to change the national cultural attitudes that ultimately undermine the status of ethno-religious minorities.  Of the multiple cultural and historical factors that inhibit the acceptance of minorities, it is the threat of international sabotage, a neo-Sevres Syndrome, that is the current AKP favored political red herring.  Erdogan’s nearly daily speeches accusing foreign elements of instigating everything from the Soma disaster to the corruption probe to the Gezi protests attests to the fact that this kind of rhetoric still holds significant political sway over hearts and minds of Turks.  Jews and Alevis have simply replace the Greeks in the Sevres narrative.  Turkey’s current tolerance of native Christian groups does not signal a greater opening toward ethno-religious minorities, no matter what the pro-government press may claim.  Greek-Turk relations have improved over the years and in its current economic and political state, one would be hard pressed to make the case that Greece and Greeks are still the perpetrators behind Turkey’s woes.  Erdogan and the AKP have simply replaced one boogeyman with another.

Populations that exist on the margins of the majority, blurring the lines between the categories of “us” and “them” often become the targets of violent identity politics.  Therefore, Turkish acceptance of religious pluralism hinges largely not on its relationship with Christians or Jews but Alevis.  A fuzzy symbolic boundary can become a severe existential or even political threat to socially constructed groups.  The centuries-long persecution of Alevis by Sunni Muslim authorities is a prime example of this phenomenon.  It is often easier for religious plurality to exist when beliefs and practices are very distinct, and thus establish clear boundaries.  However, it is not impossible to overcome these kind of existential issues.  For example, if the Turkish government would offiicially recognize the Alevi house of worship, called a Cemevi, as a legitimate worship space, this legal act could also serve to create symbolic boundaries between Sunnis and Alevis.  Currently the government argues that Alevis are Muslims and the only appropriate worship space for Muslims is a mosque.  Recognizing Cemevis would not preclude Alevis from self identifying or being identified by the state as Muslims, but would create a boundary marking them as a distinct type of Muslim.

This kind of recognition of a group as “same but different” has worked to reconcile other boundary groups to a hostile majority, a prime example being the Mormons in the United States.  I would of course not be a magic cure for anti-Alevi sentiment and would have to be accompanied by pluralistic educational initiatives as well.  As evidenced by this recent piece in Al Monitor falsely equating Alevis with Syrian Alawites, even educated elites in Turkey lack a clear understanding of Alevism.  In general, Turkey has a long way to go in embracing and understanding the diverse ethno-religious groups that historically inhabited its territory.  The AKP has made only symbolic gestures toward its original platform promise of creating a pluralistic Turkey.  Hope for real change must be shifted to Turkey’s recently politically-awakened youth demographic.  It has become cliche, but all credible sources agree that Gezi was a rare moment of true pluralism.  We can only hope that youth aspirations toward pluralistic ideal will survive subsequent avalanche of xenophobic propaganda that has come in Gezi’s wake.

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

February 4, 2013 at 9:34 pm