1363) The touchiest subject in Turkey?

Earlier today, I was introduced to an 80 year-old Armenian-Turkish jeweller as a 'true resident of Istanbul', since his family has been living here for over 300 years. This really is rare, because . . most Turks living in Istanbul have roots in the city only going back a generation or two; they or their recent forebears came either from elsewhere in Turkey to avail themselves of the better economic opportunities in fast-growing Istanbul, or from territories of the former Ottoman empire during or shortly after its collapse. But it also served to remind me of something I've meant to write about, although it is a (somewhat) touchy subject in Turkey, depending on how it's approached: for years, historians, politicians, and others have debated the deaths of ethnic Armenians in central and eastern Turkey during the World War I, and whether they were systematically murdered by ethnic Turks and/or Turkish national forces in a genocidal manner. It's an incredibly murky subject (even the number of deaths is heavily disputed, ranging from several hundred thousand to over two million) and objective historians have had great difficulties piecing together definitive analyses.

When I first arrived in Turkey, the issue had recently flared up again, due to the fact that in October the French parliament had passed a bill making it a crime to deny the existence of an 'Armenian genocide' (see news articles here and here). The bill was never going to considered by the French senate or presidency and so never really had a chance of becoming law, but it certainly didn't endear France to the hearts of most Turks (although I never heard any 'freedom fries' proposals...), who correctly regarded it as a political ploy to appeal to ethnic Armenian voters and voters who opposed Turkey's entrance into the EU made at the expense of Turkey and freedom of speech. It really was absurd; using the same definitions of the term loose enough to criminalize the denial that what happened in Turkey was in fact 'genocide', what the US government did to native Americans in the 19th century certainly qualifies as such, and yet the US isn't widely accused of 'genocide' - even by mssrs. Chavez or Ahmedinijan - and no other countries would dream of passing a law making it a crime to deny that it was.

So given the charged atmosphere, I expected the 'Armenian genocide' to be a somewhat taboo subject here in Turkey; instead, I was surprised how many people were willing to coolly discuss the issue with me (or maybe it was because of the sensitive nature of the subject that it was such an easy one to broach, because many people wanted to try to logically defend Turkey out of a sense of justice and/or national honor). In general, I found the average Turkish position to be reasonable, and - also surprisingly - not heavily colored by emotion or national pride. No one denied that lots of Armenians were killed, but generally the position was that the violence was two-sided, since many Turks were also killed by Armenians. Aside from the inconclusive historical evidence, this is probably the main reason the Turkish government will never say 'OK, it was genocide, let's move on' -- many Turks have relatives or ancestors who were killed in eastern Turkey in WWI and to cop to genocide would involve the politically unpopular implication that they died carrying out a genocidal war rather than honorably defending their country. Interestingly, most people don't blame the Armenians themselves for the violence, but rather Turkey's WWI enemies (particularly Great Britain) for promoting the violence, and given the historical climate of the time, it's certainly plausible to me that the Great Powers would attempt to stoke non-Turkish ethnic nationalism in the interest of weakening the then Ottoman Empire, and that the Armenians and other groups would attempt to take advantage of the disarray of the war-torn government to try to establish independent homelands. This angle is supported by the fact, cited by most of the people I talked to, that Turks and Armenians had hitherto lived side by side in relative peace for hundreds of years (admittedly, the Jews lived in Germany for hundreds of years as well, but anti-semitism there seems to have been much more widespread than 'anti-armenianism' in Turkey). The general view is that there could have been some cases of genocide, but to definitevely classify the entire event as 'genocide' is as unreasonable to completely deny it as such (although most Turks would probably err on the side of the latter).

So while most Turks would probably just prefer to put the issue to bed, if it entails accepting the 'genocide' tag, they'll have a very difficult time doing so. One of my friends made the really interesting point that the 'culture of repentance' is foreign to Turkey, since as a predominantly Muslim (or secular - more on this soon) nation, Turkey lacks the basic cultural tenet stemming from Christianity that you have to admit your sins before they can be forgiven. Yet if Turkey truly wants to join the EU club (with its Christian cultural heritage), it will have to make a big show of the fact that it has learned to admit its past sins, even if doesn't truly consider them as such. Will that ever happen? My guess is it will, but in some compromised form (e.g. the admission that 'limited acts of a genocidal nature' were perpetrated), but only one thing is certain: the issue isn't about to go away for good any time soon.

Palmyra, USA
TravBuddy member

a muslim country?
January 13, 2007
Europe > Turkey > Istanbul

Argh, day #2 without a blog entry. But this time it’s really not my fault: yesterday I wrote a fairly lengthy comment on religion in Turkey (which for once I actually thought was pretty good). Just as I was almost done, some friends came over, so I left it unfinished for a couple of hours. Later, after adding a few more sentences, I tried to publish the entry, but something went awry and - poof - everything I had written was gone. I tried everything to get it back, but to no avail, so now I have to try to recreate my lofty, elegant, insightful prose (ha...) solely from memory. Here goes:

As modern and western as Istanbul is, it’s still the largest city in a predominantly (upwards of 95%) muslim country. The calls to prayer ringing through the city five times daily (to my American ears still one of the main things that constitute Istanbul’s ‘exotic’ appeal) serve as a constant reminder of that fact. So, too, do the sights of many women in headscarves on the streets, and the faithful praying in the mosques that double as some of the city’s main attractions, seemingly oblivious to the tourists wandering around snapping photos. Yet the relationship between Turks and religion is not a simple one, nor so easily defined.

Two of the main principles of the modern Turkish republic are secularism and laicism. It’s funny; we Americans hold (or at least are supposed to hold) the separation of Church and State as almost sacred, but in comparison to Turkey, the US is practically a theocracy. In the interest of creating a modern, progressive democracy, Ataturk and his band of merry men disbanded the caliphate (the muslim equivalent of the papacy) which for centuries had been held by the Ottoman sultans, abolished and/or banned political parties with religious affiliations, and instituted various other reforms designed to limit the role of religion in public life. For the past 80 years, the Turkish army has been the main guarantor of this legacy, and has at various times staged or threatened coups to curtail what it has perceived to be undue religious influence within (legitimately elected) governments. Today, most well-educated and western-leaning Turks (so most of my friends and the people I’ve met through them), still adhere to the kemalist tradition and are very secular and skeptical of religion in general. They dislike the current government, mostly because it is led by the AKP, a conservative political party with veiled religious affiliations. Some have even gone so far as to describe the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as an 'idiot' (not that comments disparaging the intelligence of the head of the government is such a rare thing in the US...), not because of his policies, but because they perceive him to be following a hidden religious agenda. Similarly, they are often heavily critical of devout muslims, who seem to them to be dragging the country backward. Veiled, or ‘closed’ women, as the Turks call them, (i.e. those completely covered except for their eyes) are one of the main objects of this anti-religious scorn.

The pope’s visit to Turkey in early November raised some very interesting questions regarding the tenuous relationship between politics and religion in Turkey, and also about religious freedoms here. Much was made of the pope’s call for greater rights for Turkey’s tiny christian minority (catholic or otherwise), but what seemed to get lost in the hubbub was the fact that the country’s muslim majority is denied those same rights. It’s not that the government is purposefully persecuting Christians; all religion - regardless of creed - is very intentionally allowed an extremely limited sphere of influence. To allow greater power to christian organizations would therefore mean allowing greater power to their muslim counterparts, which the government is extremely reticent to do, because it fears the negative impact such strengthened religious organizations might have on Turkey’s future growth and stability. The restriction of religious rights is one of the worst side-effects of Turkey’s strict official secularism; the relatively moderate brand of Turkish Islam and dearth of fanaticism inside the country are two of its main success stories (for a very interesting and much more detailed analysis of the pope’s visit, check out this article from the Turkish Daily News).

a bright future
January 14, 2007
Europe > Turkey > Istanbul
When the pope was here, he made headlines and endeared himself to Turks by quoting his predecessor, John XXIII, saying "I love the Turks." Apart from reservations about making broad statements of that nature (although I guess that's what much of this blog has been), I can't really disagree. This is a wonderful country, with friendly, open people and I firmly believe it has a very bright future. I'm optimistic about Turkey's prospects for a variety of reasons, but maybe the biggest is that there has been a recent increase in emphasis on quality higher education (and other 'luxury goods', like museums and cultural centers) within the country, spurred by the tremendous wealth creation of the past 5-10 years, and the new generation of bright, well-educated young Turks may well be better equipped to lead the country forward than any of their forerunners. A strong sense of national pride and increasing opportunities within the country means that many of them are staying in Turkey or returning after studying elsewhere, rather than seeking their fortune abroad.

Granted, the country is far from perfect; low-level corruption (i.e. bribery of police officers and government officials) is still more prevalent than it should be, some human rights are not given enough of a priority, and rural areas have a lot of catching up to do to reach the level of wealth within Istanbul and a few other major cities. The mandatory 6-12 month military service for all male citizens is a not-insignificant drain on productivity within the economy. But every developing country faces similar problems, and Turkey seems more properly equipped and incentivized to handle them than most. The days of extremely high inflation and the heavy-handed influence of the military over elected governments seem to be over, which has and should continue to pave the way for increased foreign investment and the development of more advanced capital markets, which in turn will allow for additional growth.

And so when comparing Turkey to most of its middle eastern neighbors, it seems to me that Turkey should be viewed as a shining example of progress in this area of the world. There are many differences between Turkey and the Arab countries (and no real love lost between Turks and Arabs), but the fact remains that Turkey is both a country with a heavily muslim population, and a reasonably well-functioning democracy -- certainly in comparison with other islamic countries. Of course the historical legacy of the Ottoman empire and the secularist/laicist tradition stemming from Ataturk mean that the 'Turkish model' isn't an easy one to emulate, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be held up as an example to learn from, and that western governments shouldn't be doing all they can to strengthen Turkey's democracy and free-market economy, and to encourage other governments to take positive lessons from Turkey's development. The EU in particular has the most power to promote or undermine the completion Turkey's transformation into a first-world country. If the EU continues to balk at allowing Turkey to join, a disgruntled Turkey (there is already a rapidly growing sentiment here that Turkey will never be allowed to join the 'Christian' club, and corresponding bitterness toward the pwers that be within the EU) will have far less of an incentive to continue to carry out difficult governmental and economic reforms. Full EU membership, however, will help to cement the country's pro-western, secular, capitalist nature. This outcome is certainly in the interest of regional stability and economic growth, and so is therefore in the interest of all western democracies as well. So the US should be doing everything in it's power to pressure the EU to accept Turkey; if the Europeans refuse, the US should still be strengthening ties with the country to shore up its democratic institutions and continued economic growth.

This country is in decent shape, and bar some tremendous shocks I can't really see it sliding too far backward; however, it would be a shame for Turkey not to fulfill its massive potential, and if that turns out to be the case, the West would share a large portion of the blame.

'smile smile'
January 15, 2007
Europe > Turkey > Istanbul

My last day in Istanbul: it’s unbelievable that I’ve been here for 2 1/2 months. The time has flown by and I'll be sad to leave, but I also think it's time to go: much longer and I think I'd start to really feel guilty about not doing anything terribly productive, and also about not putting forth more effort to learn Turkish. I had grand plans of using my time here to learn the language, but apart from pleasantries and some other bare-bones basics, that definitely didn't happen, because pretty much any time anybody says anything to me in turkish, I still give them the blank 'huh' look, and then break out the trustiest of my handful of phrases and one of the few i've got down pat, since it gets far-and-away the most use: 'ozür dilerim, turkçe bilmiyorum' (I'm sorry, I don't speak turkish).

I do feel a little bad that I didn’t make more of an effort to travel around Turkey. Apart from a few days in and around Selçuk (close to ancient Ephesus) and Bodrum, I’ve been in Istanbul the whole time. Although in many ways Istanbul is modern Turkey, in a lot of ways it’s not really Turkey at all, and I would have loved to get outside the city to places like Trabzon, Mardin, and Northern Cyprus. Yet another reason to return in the future (as if the people, and the food, and the rakı weren’t enough)…

But for now, it’s Güle Güle (informal goodbye that literally translates as ‘smile smile’) to Istanbul and all of my Turkish friends, with the promise that I’ll be back someday, inşallah (God willing).

Other Travelogue Notes of Mark:
January 11, 2007
Europe > Turkey > Istanbul


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