One of the big changes I’ve noticed during my time in Turkey is the freedom that now exists to speak about topics that were once taboo. The government may not have apologised for whatever happened to the Armenians back in 1915; Kurdish citizens may not be 100% happy with their lot; Alevis have some reservations about the government’s good intentions – but at least the issues are open for discussion, without which no solution could ever be found.
Obviously complex situations that have developed over centuries of history are not going to be unravelled overnight. Syria’s bloody civil war has been going on for four years with no peaceful end in sight. The Basque minority in Spain, or at least a significant part of it, seem keen on establishing an independent state: Russia’s interests in Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus require constant attention and continue to threaten violence. New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people pose ongoing political dilemmas. Racial tensions in the United States seem always close to eruption – reducing their own native population to a state of virtual invisibility. Even their white citizens don’t seem altogether happy – if the frequent mass shootings of innocent children in schools is any indication.
So I am still hopeful that, in spite of renewed violence in the southeast of Turkey, a peaceful solution here is not beyond the bounds of possibility. From my own experience in New Zealand, I know that there are extremists among the Maori people who will not be happy until all descendants of the invading white race have returned to Scotland, or wherever we came from. There are others who want to assimilate into the globalised world and have no wish to identify with the traditional language and culture; and between these two polar opposites there is a spectrum of opinion such that generalising about the wishes of the native people as a whole is impossible. I suspect the same is true of Kurds in Turkey. Complicating these situations everywhere is the existence of provocateurs inciting the gullible to violence to advance their own aspirations to power, or out of mere cussedness.
Illustrating both the new spirit of openness in Turkey, and the difficulty or arriving at the truth of historical events, is an anniversary that attracted some media attention earlier this month. The 6th and 7th of September 2015 marked the passing of 60 years since a tragic event known variously as the Istanbul Riots, the Istanbul Pogrom or Septemvriana.
Briefly, what happened was that mobs of Turks went on a rampage of violence lasting for 9 hours on the night of 6 September 1955. In the course of the violence, more than four thousand houses, one thousand workplaces, 73 churches, one synagogue, 26 schools and 5,000 other premises were attacked. Most of these places belonged to non-Muslim citizens, the majority of them of the Greek Orthodox religion. Fifteen people died, hundreds were injured including, it was claimed, some men forcibly circumcised and many women raped. Damage was estimated at around $US 54 million (480 million in today’s dollars). Eyewitnesses claimed that police not only failed to intervene to prevent the rampage, in some cases they actively encouraged the rioters. Few individuals were ever brought to justice for offences committed, and the government of the day reneged on promises to compensate victims. A state of emergency lasting for six months was declared and the National Assembly temporarily closed down. In the aftermath of the riots there was increased emigration of religious minority groups from Turkey.
Of course there is some variation in actual figures depending on which source you look at, but no apparent denial that the event actually took place. What surprised me was that this year was the first time I had seen any reference to the riots in any Turkish newspaper. Well, maybe one might say a diamond jubilee makes an event more newsworthy – but it seems to me that a lid had been lifted off a pot that had been well covered in this country for more than half a century. This feeling was borne out by the protestations of ignorance that met informal inquiries I made of Turkish friends and colleagues. The event doesn’t seem to have warranted much attention in school history courses.
Nevertheless, there is plenty of information to be found online. A more recent and related event I should have been aware of but wasn’t, was the organised disruption of a photographic exhibition held in Istanbul to mark the 50th anniversary of the riots in 2005. The photographs had been in the possession of the military prosecutor at the time, who entrusted them to the Turkish Historical Society with instructions to exhibit them 25 years after his death! A clear indication that powerful forces might not want them to see the light of day. Sure enough, a mob of militant nationalists raided the venue chanting slogans and damaged many of the photographs. Interestingly, two of the instigators were later taken into custody in the course of the Ergenekon investigation which dealt with an alleged plot to overthrow the democratically elected government. One of them was an ultra-nationalist lawyer ‘famous for filing complaints against more than forty Turkish journalists and authors’, among them, Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk.
Also interesting is that the government of Turkey is generally assumed by foreign commentators to be pursuing prosecutions against writers under Section 301 of the country’s penal code. While it is true that this law was enacted by the present government, it is also true that it replaced an earlier, more draconian Section 8 of the Anti-Terror law; that article 301 was subsequently amended; most of the prosecutions have been brought by private citizens (particularly the above-mentioned lawyer) and, according to Wikipedia, most prosecutions resulted in acquittal.
The Wikipedia entry goes on to suggest that the ‘nationalist old-guard’ in Turkey have been making deliberate use of article 301, contrary to the spirit of the legislation – and that would seem to be borne out by the fact that the only actual conviction they have found was when two sons of murdered journalist Hrant Dink were given one-year suspended sentences ‘for printing Dink’s words that the killings of Armenians in 1915 was a genocide’. Certainly, you have to be careful about that one in Turkey.
Well, I read and hear a lot of criticism by opponents of the present government, local and foreign, that democracy no longer exists in Turkey, and the county is becoming a dictatorship. So I would like to summarise briefly for you what I have been reading about those unpleasant events back in September 1955. Most of the articles I read more or less corroborate the following statement I am quoting from an article by Dilek Güven in the European Journal of Turkish Studies: ‘The events of 6/7 September were planned by the Democratic Party (DP) government of the period, and were accomplished with the participation of the Secret Service, the DP’s local administrations and organisations guided by the state such as student unions, youth associations, syndicates and the “Association of Turkish Cyprus” (KTC).’
One of the articles I found, published by the International Association of Genocide Scholars, claimed that ‘The Istanbul pogrom was a phase in the Ottoman/Turkish policy of eliminating Greek communities from their 3,000 year-old homelands in Asia Minor, Thrace, the Aegean and Constantinople itself.’ Well, I don’t want to go down that road. I’ve looked at this issue before, and I have to tell you, I don’t have much respect for the academic objectivity of genocide scholars as a class.
A more objective piece appeared in a journal of the arts, Red Thread. Discussing the attack on the exhibition referred to above, the author writes that ‘people involved in the organization and execution of the incidents of September 6-7 included the then-president Celal Bayar, prime minister Adnan Menderes and other members of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), secret service operatives, and members of KTC, student organizations and labour unions instructed by governmental and state actors. In the trials held in İstanbul, no members of the government or the secret service were prosecuted in relation to the attacks, and KTC members suspected of involvement were acquitted. However, the Yassıada Tribunals, held after the 1960 military coup, convicted Bayar, Menderes and Foreign Affairs Minister Zorlu of instigating the events, in addition to other crimes.’
This last reference to the 1960 military coup interested me because I had been feeling sorry for PM Menderes, executed by hanging after being convicted by those tribunals. The unfortunate man was subsequently vindicated to the extent that at least one major airport in Turkey was named after him. Now I’m wondering if the soldiers were right in calling him to account. Nevertheless, overthrowing of democratically elected governments by force is not generally considered the done thing in civilized societies, and hanging is a rather final solution when the crime may be open to some debate.
Dilek Güven, author of a book on the subject, makes an interesting case for linking the 1955 riots to the Cyprus issue. In 1955 the island was part of the British Empire and a key location for military bases in the eastern Mediterranean to protect the Suez Canal, the route to India and Middle East oil. In that year EOKA was founded, an organization of Greek Cypriots aiming to achieve union with mainland Greece through armed struggle. Other sources agree that the British adopted their normal policy of ‘divide and rule’ and they encouraged Britons and others in Cyprus and elsewhere to stir up Turks in order to combat and neutralize Greek agitation.
The trigger for the actual violence seems to have been a news article widely circulated in Turkey that Greeks had bombed the house in Thessaloniki where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, revered founder of the Republic of Turkey was born. It subsequently turned out that a bomb had been set off by a staff member of the Turkish Consulate, but the actual house suffered no damage. Nevertheless, the spark was sufficient to ignite the fuel that had already been prepared.
To what extent were British agents involved in the plot? Who can say? The Wikipedia entry on the Istanbul pogrom insists that ‘The riots were orchestrated by the Tactical Mobilization Group, the seat of Operation Gladio’s Turkish branch; the Counter-Guerrilla, and National Security Service, the precursor of today’s National Intelligence Organization’. This in turn suggests the involvement of the United States government and the CIA, since they are considered to have been behind the Gladio stay-behind operations throughout Western Europe.
You ask, why would they? The purpose of the Gladio operation was to prevent the spread of Soviet-led communism in Western Europe during the Cold War years. Its activities were directed at left wing political parties and organisations, and one of its methods was carrying out acts of terrorism (false flag attacks) which were then blamed on communists, thereby stirring up public fear and hatred, and justifying arrests and suppression. Coincidentally, the first response of the Menderes government to the riots was to blame communists. Interestingly, two later Turkish prime ministers, Bülent Ecevit and Turgut Ozal, publicly acknowledged the existence of Gadio, and both narrowly survived assassination attempts.
Once again, how can we know the truth? Such claims are difficult to substantiate, since, if they are true, the perpetrators are, by definition, professionals, expert at covering their tracks. I’m just happy that it is now possible to discuss issues like this in today’s Turkey. I suspect the motives of anyone who claims that this country was more democratic in the past; and I take comfort that national military forces seem to be more occupied these days in preserving Turkey’s security against outside threats than in overthrowing elected governments and silencing popular dissent.
An interesting blog on the subject can be found here