Of Greek Fathers and Turkish Sons

-Orhan Kemal Cengiz/Al-Monitor

The Nov. 10 anniversary of the death of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Turkish republic’s founder, is marked with nationwide ceremonies in Turkey. This year’s commemorations included a religious memorial service for Ataturk at Istanbul’s Eminonu mosque.

A politician in attendance made headlines for a comment made while exiting the mosque: “If it weren’t for Ataturk, you would have been called Dimitri or Yorgo today,” Muharrem Ince, a parliamentary whip of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), told reporters.

Ince’s remarks would hardly make sense to those unfamiliar with Turkey’s history and its social and ethnic fabric. When decoded, the comment reveals strong racist and discriminatory connotations.

Ince was referring to Ataturk’s role as Chief Commander of the 1919-1922 Liberation War, suggesting that without him the Turks would have lost the war, and the Greeks would have retained Anatolia, in which case today’s Turks would have had Greek fathers and Greek names.

Given that Turkey’s Greeks number only 3,000 to 4,000 today, and “Yorgo” is one of their most popular names, one can imagine how the comment must have appalled them. Members of the Greek minority, who rarely speak out publicly, reacted with emotional, harshly-worded statements.

Yorgo Demir of the Istanbul-based Galata Greek School Foundation slammed Ince for “not only lacking respect for his fellow citizens, but also disregarding and belittling them with a knee-jerk impulse devoid of any political ethics and courtesy.” He went on to point out how Ince twisted historical facts.

“Ironically, the Dimitris and Yorgos, who had always existed in the lands Ince mentions, were either assimilated after being forced to adopt names like Hasan and Huseyin — especially in the Pontus region — when their lives fell in danger during the foundation phase of the Turkish republic, or were slain and wiped off these lands. That was no different from the atrocities against the Armenians in Anatolia and the Jews in Thrace,” he said.

Mihail Vasiliadis, Editor-in-Chief of Apoyevmatini, the newspaper of Turkey’s Greek minority, also spoke out, underscoring the stark contrast between Turkey’s realities and Ince’s remarks. It was Turkey’s Greeks who had to adopt Turkish names to survive and not vice versa, he stressed.

“If today some people named Ahmet, Hasan or Huseyin happen to have grandfathers called Yorgo or Dimitri, they should be grateful and say a prayer for Ataturk,” Vasiliadis said.

“Had their ancestors stayed as Dimitris and Yorgos, their families would have landed in a concentration camp in 1941 and paid the wealth tax in 1943 … or they could have had their properties looted on Sept. 6-7, 1955, or found themselves dispossessed and exiled in 1964. They should feel indebted for having escaped all that.”

Vasiliadis was referring to a series of policies that targeted Turkey’s minorities and were carried out mostly by the CHP, Ince’s party. As Vasiliadis mentions, gendarme soldiers showed up abruptly at the door of 12,000 non-Muslim men one day in 1941 to “recruit” them to the army.

The men were taken to squalid camps and malaria-ridden swamps amid scorching heat, humidity and water shortages. The “soldiers” — known as the Twenty-Draw Reserves — were used for heavy-labor such as stone-crushing, road construction and tunnel-drilling.

The wealth tax, levied in 1943 and targeting non-Muslims, resulted in many Greeks, Armenians and Jews selling off their entire assets to raise the enormous sums. Those who failed to pay the tax were sent to labor camps.

Those episodes are just a few examples of the CHP-led campaign against non-Muslim minorities. The CHP, Turkey’s main opposition today, is divided into two camps. The first, to which Ince belongs, is made of neo-nationalists — a term used to describe ultra-nationalist, left-leaning Turks. The second camp is made of social democrats in the traditional Western sense.

Owing to historical reasons, the neo-nationalists hold powerful clout in the party. As Ince’s example suggests, only far-right politicians would manifest similar views and attitudes in European countries. The neo-nationalists’ strong presence in the CHP caters to the argument that no “democratic” alternative is available to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Any move to expand non-Muslim rights and Kurdish freedoms is met with their fierce objections in parliament. Their aversion to minorities, Kurds and pious Muslims stands in the way of CHP efforts to appeal to wider masses and challenge the AKP, thus creating a big vacuum in Turkish politics.

The neo-nationalists undermine not only the CHP’s domestic standing, but also its international reputation and credibility. The criticism the CHP has faced on one too many occasions from the Socialist International (SI) stemmed almost exclusively from actions and statements driven by the neo-nationalists.

In an ironic coincidence, the CHP was hosting the annual Socialist Internationalist (SI) meeting in Istanbul when Ince made his controversial remarks. The SI is currently headed by former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, whose first name is an anglicized variation of “Yorgo.” In Turkey, he is typically called Yorgo Papandreou. The day after Ince spoke at the mosque, Papandreou was planting a tree in Gezi Park in memory of the demonstrators killed in nationwide protests that originated in the park earlier this year.

What could the SI president have possibly thought of a racist comment involving his name coming from his hosts in Istanbul? Will the comment lead to another wave of SI criticism of the CHP? And perhaps most importantly, will the constant in-house frictions lead the CHP’s genuine social democrats to eventually part ways with the neo-nationalists? These and other questions on the CHP are rekindled anew with Ince’s comment.