25 June 2011
24 June 2011
The election of a Syriac deputy, Erol Dora, in the Turkish National Assembly (TBMM), attired the attention far beyond the boundaries of Turkey. Mr. Dora is the first person of this religion to become a Turkish parliamentarian, but by no means the first non-Muslim. One more time, some comments in the Western medias were, at best, approximate. A glance at the situation of non-Muslims in the three most targeted regimes of Turkish contemporary history — namely Abdülhamid II, the Young Turks and the Kemalist years — would permit to . . understand better the current situation.
The purpose of this column is neither to give a comprehensive view of such a huge subject, nor to assert that the situation of the non-Muslims was actually perfect — but to correct some widely diffused prejudices.
Abdülhamid II (1876-1908)
The reforms of the Tanzimat (1839-1856) gave the civic equality to all the subjects of the Ottoman Empire, expanding the presence of the non-Muslims in the high administration and the government. Abdulhamid II continued this movement, and with a certain justice, his reign was called by Stanford Jay Shaw and Ezel Kural Shaw the “culmination of the Tanzimat”. A democratic Constitution was promulgated in 1876, and one of his four redactors was an Armenian, Krikor Odian. Abdulhamid II suspended the Constitution of the Ottoman Empire as early as 1878, but not the Constitutions of the non-Muslim Millets, especially the very liberal Armenian Constitution of 1863.
The Sultan did not refrain to chose Christians in his government. Alexandros Karatheodori Pasha was minister of Foreign Affairs in 1879-1880; his successor was another Greek, Sava Pasha. Vahan Dadian Effendi was under-secretary in the ministry of Justice; Michael Portakalian Pasha was minister of Finances. Several Christians received high positions of diplomats, for instance Hirant Duz Bey, ambassador in Rome from 1900 to 1907; and Kostakis Musurus Pasha, ambassador in London in 1902-1907. The private physicians of Abdulhamid II were Greeks and Armenians (Michael Khorassandjian; Antranik Kritshikian; Spiridonos Mavroyenis; Tikran Pechtilmadjian). The two successive chiefs of the censorship during Abdulhamid’s reign were Armenians: the father then the son. The Sultan chosen also an Armenian, Hakob Effendi, as minister of the Civil List, i.e. the personal domains and incomes of the Sultan. The Greek Yeoryison Zarifis was the personal banker of Abdülhamid.
A typical response of the Armenian propagandists, at least for the Armenian case, is to oppose Istanbul’s bourgeoisie to the Armenians of eastern Anatolia. But the reports of the Russian General Mayewsky show that even in eastern Anatolia, the Armenian enjoyed as a whole of a better economic situation than the Muslims. The Armenians were not less represented in the local administration of eastern Anatolia and Syria than in the central administration of Istanbul (see Mesrob K. Krikorian, “Armenians the Service of Ottoman Empire. 1860-1908”, London-Boston: Routledge, 1977).
The Young Turks (1908-1918)
The improvement of the Jewish community’s situation during Abdülhamid’s years accelerated with the Young Turks, and the Jews were rather well represented in the CUP. Emmanuel Carasso (1862-1934) was among the leaders of the CUP. He crystallized the anti-Semitic attacks from various sides, including some Christian nationalists. Samuel Israel was chief of Istanbul’s police in the 1910’s.
But the Christians were even more represented. Bedros Halacyan assumed the important ministry of Commerce and Public Works in 1910-1912. Oskan Manikian was minister of Post, Telephone & Telegraph in 1913-1914 — and, as a result, indicted, together with Talat and Enver Pashas, by the unfair and unconstitutional military tribunal of 1919, during the occupation of Istanbul. Despite that he was not a member of the CUP, Gabriel Noradunkyan (1852-1936) served as Commerce minister in 1908-1909. The Christian Arab Sülayman Bustani (1856-1925) assumed the same position in 1913-1914. The resignation of Bustani and Manikian in the beginning of WWI was by no means due to any “policy of Turkification”, but to a political disagreement: they supported the neutrality of the Ottoman Empire; the majority of the CUP leaders considered that the neutrality was impossible.
Like Abülhamid II, the Young Turks favored the loyal Armenians far beyond Istanbul. A rich businessman close to the CUP, Bedros Kapamaciyan Effendi was elected, with the support of this party, mayor of Van (eastern Anatolia) in 1909. He was eventually assassinated for his loyalty to the Ottoman State by the terrorists of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF) in December 1912.
The Young Turks went so far, before WWI, that the former terrorist Garegin Pasdermadjian, exiled in 1896 for his participation to the attack against the Ottoman Bank in Istanbul, was allowed to be candidate for the legislative elections of 1908. He served as deputy of Erzurum until 1912. Betraying one more time his country, Pasdermadjian came as early as 1914 to Russia to organize the recruitment of Armenian volunteers for the Russian army. He died of a serious nervous breakdowns in 1923, the year of the Lausanne treaty.
The CUP’s effort to create a Turkish bourgeoisie did not change the economic preeminence of the Christians. In 1913-1915, 50 % of the Ottoman capital was the property of Greeks, 20% of Armenians, 5 % to Jews — so 75 % to non-Muslims Ottomans —, 10 % to foreign citizens and 15 % to Turks. The allegation that the forced relocation of Armenians was motivated by a goal of spoliation and changed drastically the sharing of the capital has just no sense. The majority the wealthiest Armenians, especially in Istanbul and Izmir, were spared of displacement, like the almost all the Greek businessmen. Eastern Anatolia was a ravaged land at the end of WWI, because of the widespread destructions perpetrated by the Armenian volunteers of the Russian army. In Erzurum and Van, almost no Muslim house remained in 1918; in Bitlis, none. The seizing of Armenian properties in eastern Anatolia was more frequently a simple question of survival than an accumulation of capital. And more than one usurper were severely punished (including some death penalties) as early as 1915-1916, by order of the CUP government.
Despite the forced relocation of several hundreds of thousands of Armenians, many Armenian civil servants remained at their post. There were even Armenian soldiers and officers in fighting units, on the Arab front and also on the Caucasian front, especially in the Stange detachment — accused without evidence, by some Armenian authors, to have been a key piece in an “extermination campaign” against the Armenian people.
The war of independence and the Kemalist years (1919-1950)
Sometimes, it is recalled — rightfully — that most of the Turkish Jews, like the Muslims, participated to the Turkish national war of liberation, as soldiers in Anatolia, or by giving moral and material support in Istanbul. But it is almost completely forgotten today: there were also Armenians who participated to the Turkish war of independence. The Karabetian Society, created as early as 1919, smuggled arms, ammunitions and money to the Kemalist movement. The group changed its name into Turkish-Armenian Friendship Association in 1920, was declared by Kemal Atatürk the single representative of the Turkish Armenians at the Lausanne Conference.
A bit more known is Berç Keresteciyan, who was deputy director of the Ottoman Bank and vice-president of the Turkish Red Crescent. He saved the life of Kemal Atatürk in 1919, warning that Atatürk’s ship would be attacked. Then, he financed the Turkish war of liberation, both in opening an account for the Kemalist movement in the Ottoman Bank and in giving his proper money. “Türker” (The valorous Turk) was added to his name in 1934, when the reform of family name was carried out in Turkey — a clear demonstration that the Atatürk’s definition of the Turkish identity was not “racial” or religious but civic. Keresteciyan Türker was elected as an independent deputy in the Turkish National Assembly in 1935. He was reelected in 1939 and 1943, an retired from public life in 1947, when he was 77 years old. He deceased in Istanbul in 1949.
It is an obvious fact that the linguistic reform was one of the major step of Atatürk’s policy creating a modern country, with a strong national identity. The first president of the Turkish Language Society was an Armenian, Hagop Martayan (1895-1979), chosen for his first-class qualities of Turkologist. Martayan received the name of Dilaçar (“opener of language”) in 1934.
But the most considerable contribution of non-Muslims to the Turkish revolution is probably the one of German and Austrian refugees, mostly Jews, who fled the Nazism. Hundreds of scholars, engineers and artists gave a priceless participation to the modernization of Turkey (see Arnold Reisman, Turkey's Modernization. Refugees from Nazism and Atatürk's Vision, Washington: New Academia Publishing, 2006). Alfred Kantorowitz, who remained in Turkey from 1933 to 1948 redesigned completely the dentistry in Turkey. The first building of the Faculty of Languages, History and Geography at Ankara University was designed by Bruno Taut. Taut’s corpse was buried in the prestigious Edirnekapy Martyr’s Cemetery (Istanbul).
In addition to this welcoming of prominent Jews, thousands of Jews of Turkish origin were saved in France and Greece; several dozens of thousands, possibly 100,000, could fly to Palestine via Turkey, thanks to the cooperation of the Turkish authorities and Zionist associations (see Stanford J. Shaw, “Turkey and the Holocaust”, New York-London: New York University Press/MacMillan Press, 1993).
As explained in the introduction, this article does not pretend that the situation of the non-Muslims was perfect. The capital levy applied in 1942-1943 would deserve a specific — and dispassionate — study; here, let notice simply, with Bernard Lewis, that “in the event it proved to have done little damage to the position of the non-Muslim class capitalist class as a whole” (“The Emergence of Modern Turkey. Third Edition”, New York-Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 473).
For Abdülhamid II, like for the Young Turks and the Kemalist regime, the loyalty to the State was more important than the loyalty to Islam; and the competence was much more important than the ethnic origin. Three different regimes share the same pragmatic approach in this topic. The three were, and are still, equally defamed by ultra-nationalist Greeks, Armenians and their Western followers as “fanatical Muslims”, “persecutors” if not “racists”. The three have indeed an absolute shortcoming in the eyes of these propagandists: to be Turkish.