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Let’s Not Forget the Others Who Suffer in Turkey

Αssociated Press

The bodies of deportees from Van who died of typhus and various other diseases, pictured in a forest near the Mother See of Etchmiadzin, about 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the Armenian capital of Yerevan, in the summer of 1915. (Armenian Genocide Museum/PAN Photo via AP)

Greeks are understandably focused on the real injustices, the ethnic cleansing and the destruction of our ancient heritage inflicted by modern Turkey. The Greek community that once numbered several millions a little more than a century ago has dwindled to about two thousand elderly residents of Constantinople together with a few dozens of determined and courageous clergy preserving what remains of the Great Church. The ethnic cleansing of the Greeks of ancient Ionia that included mass killings deserves to be termed a genocide but we should not ignore other communities that have suffered as much or more.

In his recent book Minorities & Minority Rights in Turkey; from the Ottoman Empire to the Present State (Lynne Riennes Publishers 2021), Dr. Baskin Oran, a Turkish human rights activist and academic describes in excruciating but objective detail the broad tragedy of Turkey’s other minorities. His book traces the evolution from an Ottoman Empire that often brutalized but did not threaten the existence of its subject peoples to a modern Turkish state that invented a universal Turkish identity that denies the existence of minorities. 

The Ottoman Empire defined its subjects by religion, known as the Millet (community) system. The Moslem millet included Turks, Kurds, Arabs and others more or less equally. The Sultan created two Christian Millets, the ‘Rum’ (Greek Orthodox including non-Greek Arabs and Slavs) and the Armenians. Later, European powers coerced the Ottoman State into creating special millets for other smaller Christian groups. The Muslims had greater privilege, but Christians could survive and even prosper. The Ottoman ruling class drew its members from all communities even drawing some high officials from the Christian community. The Ottoman state devolved considerable autonomy to each community so long as it kept order and paid taxes. The Ottomans were not by any stretch benign administrators, but they usually resorted to violence only to suppress dissent. This changed towards the end of the Ottoman Empire as European powers began to encroach on its territory and weaken the state. The Ottomans saw their Christian subjects as a dangerous fifth column helping foreign powers, and by the late 1800’s commenced an ethnic cleansing that culminated in the Armenian genocide and the expulsion of Greeks during and after World War I.

Dr. Oran provides an eye-opening explanation of how the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the founding document of today’s Republic of Turkey, created a legal status for minorities worse than that of the Ottomans. The Treaty gave legal recognition to only three minorities in Turkey: ‘Rum’, Armenians and Jews, but this placed these ‘recognized minorities in legal limbo, as citizens but not as ‘Turks’. It ignored the existence of any Muslim minorities. The modern Turkish state accepted the definitions (or lack thereof) and then proceeded to systematically persecute all its minorities in violation of protections embodied in the Lausanne Treaty to which it had agreed. That the world has chosen to tolerate these systematic violations of the Lausanne Treaty almost from its inception is a disgrace.

Dr. Oran explains how the Turkish state re-interpreted Lausanne to define all Muslims as Turks and all Turks as Muslims. More specifically, it defines Turks as Sunni Muslims following the Hanafi interpretation of Islam and denies any other ethnic or religious identity. Turkey has implemented this policy by persecuting its non-Christian minorities since 1923. The Kurds are mostly Hanafi Sunnis but never regarded themselves as ‘Turks’. They point to a continuous presence in Anatolia predating the arrival of the Turks by millennia. The Turkish Government tried to eradicate any manifestation of ‘Kurdishness’. They have banned printing or broadcasting in the Kurdish language and, until recently, speaking Kurdish in public. The Kurds, who number perhaps 25% of the total population of Turkey, rebelled. The Turks massacred them by the thousands beginning in 1927 and continuing until the present day. The United States and EU, seeking to placate the Turkish government, essentially colluded in the atrocities by declaring the Kurdish resistance organization, the PKK, a terrorist group.

The Turkish government has also attempted to force the Alevi community, numbering perhaps five million, to abandon its own identity. The Alevis regard themselves as Turks but hold a variety of religious beliefs that Hanafi Sunnis regard as heretical. Much of traditional Turkish culture originates with the Alevis, including the famous ‘whirling dervishes’ (now incorporated as a Turkish tourist attraction). The Alevis have higher levels of education than the average Turk and generally have supported liberal leftist policies. Not unlike what happened to the Greeks of Constantinople in 1955, Sunni mobs have regularly attacked Alevis in their homes and their places of worship, killing hundreds with official impunity. International media failed to report the last large-scale pogrom of Alevis in the Ghazi neighborhood of Istanbul in 1995. Last year, Alevis protested because the Turkish Army refused to allow a Turkish soldier killed in action burial according to Alevi tradition. Other smaller Muslim communities, such as the Laz peoples of Pontos have seen their culture and language virtually erased.

Campaigning for symbolic actions such as a declaration of a ‘Greek genocide’ may provide psychic satisfaction but will not help the future of the community and the Patriarchate. While seeking justice for the Greeks of Turkey and for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, we must also broaden our appeal to include the persecution of these other much larger minorities. We saw how Turkish attacks on Kurds in Syria galvanized a reaction both within the U.S. government and military. We must ask now why the United States classifies the PKK as terrorists. We must push for a Turkey that treats all its citizens with respect and justice if any minority is to have a future.