Syrian Refugees in Turkey – Only Muslims after all

In September 2012 Angelina Jolie visited Turkey in her capacity as United Nations Special Envoy for Refugees. At that time the civil war in Syria had been going on for eighteen months, and there were approximately 80,000 men, women and children who had fled across the border to escape the violence. Ms Jolie and the UN High Commissioner António Guterres expressed high praise for the twelve well-organised camps set up by the Turkish Government to house the displaced Syrians. At the same time, they also urged other UN member states to recognise the need to provide tangible assistance to neighbouring countries like Turkey that were directly affected by the influx of destitute refugees.
Syrian refugee family in Istanbul 2014
That was then – this is now. There are currently 224,000 Syrians in those camps near Turkey’s southeastern border. The UN estimates that to be less than one third of the 700,000 they believe are in the country. The Turkish Government puts the number higher, at around 900,000. Whichever is correct, it is evident that those government camps, however, well-organised, are no longer able to cope with the vast numbers fleeing the war – and hundreds of thousands of homeless, jobless Syrians have now made their way to the larger cities in search of work and accommodation.
Turkey’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has been in Jordan meeting with Mr Guterres and other regional foreign ministers. According to an article in Hürriyet Daily News, ‘the U.N. refugee chief criticized the international community for “not contributing enough” to solve the issue’.
“Let me be very clear, there has been very little support. There must be massive support from the international community at the level of government budgets and development projects related to education, health, water and infrastructure,” he said. He stressed that the problem of refugees was not only the responsibility of regional countries, but of “all countries in the world.”
“To share the responsibility that has fallen upon the neighboring countries, every country should open its doors to Syrian refugees,” Guterres added.’
For his part, Mr Davutoğlu suggested that what was really needed was international aid to protect Syrian citizens in their own country. While Turkey maintains an open border policy and does not turn refugees away, the huge numbers are placing great stress on the economy, and there is a danger that resentment against them will grow and lead to undesirable outcomes.
This influx of refugees, however, is by no means just a recent phenomenon. The first major wave of immigration was large numbers of Sephardic Jews fleeing from religious persecution in Spain at the end of the 15th century. The so-called ‘reconquest’ of the Iberian Peninsula involved the forced conversion or expulsion of Muslims and Jews whose families had lived there for centuries. Sultan Bayezid II welcomed Jewish settlers into his empire, reputedly saying “the Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched us”. By the 19th century, the Ottoman city of Selanik (now Thessaloniki in Greece) was home to the largest Jewish population of any city in Europe. Many of them relocated to Istanbul after the Greek occupation, and later to the new state of Israel. There are still, however, many synagogues to be found in Istanbul, their congregations worshipping in the archaic Spanish dialect known as Ladino.
It is generally agreed that the Ottoman Empire reached the peak of its power during the reign of Sultan Suleiman around the middle of the 16th century, although it continued to extend its territorial reach until the armies of Mehmet IV were notoriously turned back from the gates of Vienna in 1683.
From that time, the seemingly invincible Ottomans began losing battles and ground to, in particular, the rising and expanding powers of Habsburg Austria and Tsarist Russia. Habsburg expansion occurred primarily in the Balkan region, much of which had been under Ottoman rule for centuries. For the Russians, a major goal was annexing territories that would give them access to warm water ports on the Black Sea and ultimately the Mediterranean. These territories, Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus, while not directly under Ottoman control, were inhabited predominantly by Muslims and definitely within their sphere of influence.
As Habsburg and Russian forces seized control of these regions, vast numbers of Muslims were killed or uprooted. It has been estimated that between five and seven million refugees flooded into the shrinking Ottoman Empire between 1783 and 1913. More than half of these were Crimean Tatars and Circassians displaced by the Russian southward advance. Dawn Chatty, Professor of Anthropology and Forced Migration in the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, in an article entitled Refugees, Exiles, and other Forced Migrants in the Late Ottoman Empire, suggests that an understanding of historical context is essential in the study of refugees. She argues that  ‘by and large the circumstances, experiences, and influences of refugees and exiles in modern history are ignored’. Her article focuses on ‘the forced migration of millions of largely Muslim refugees and exiles from the contested borderland between the Ottoman Empire and Tzarist Russia’. In particular, Professor Chatty examines the plight of the Circassians, hundreds of thousands of whom sought sanctuary in Ottoman Anatolia after Russian conquest of the Caucasus was completed in 1864.
In March 1821, encouraged by Lord Byron and other romantically poetical, classically indoctrinated English aristocrats, ‘Christians’ on the ‘Greek’ peninsula began a revolt against their Ottoman rulers. Certainly there were decidedly unromantic atrocities committed by both sides in the conflict, but the end result was that Muslims, whose families had lived there for centuries, and others perceived as Ottoman sympathisers (eg Albanians and Jews) were pretty much exterminated on that side of the Aegean Sea. Those who managed to escape sought refuge on the opposite coast.
This is the context in which we need to the view the later sufferings of Armenians and Orthodox Christians in the early years of the 20thcentury. Ottoman Muslims (who had long coexisted with Christian minorities within their own borders) had learned that defeat by ‘Christian’ powers would quickly result in extermination or expulsion of Muslims from the conquered lands. They had also learned that a tactic of those powers was to incite Christian minorities to rebel, then claim the right to ‘defend their co-religionists’ from reprisals.
A sad result of Britain’s encouragement of the Greek invasion of Anatolia in 1919 was the event known to Greeks as ‘The Asia Minor Catastrophe’, when, after their defeat in 1922, more than a million Orthodox Christians were forced to relocate to Greece, their places taken by almost half a million Muslims sent the other way. Other refugee flows to Turkey occurred as a result of state-sponsored terrorism in Bulgaria and Romania from the 1940s to the 1980s when Muslims were forced to change their Turkish-Arabic names. It is estimatedthat 230,000 Muslim refugees and immigrants sought refuge in Turkey from the Balkans between 1934 and 1945, and 35,000 from Yugoslavia from 1954 to 1956. In 1989 a further 320,000 Bulgarian Muslims fled to Turkey and perhaps 20,000 from Bosnia.
In the end, of course, these events are all in the past, and to be fair, some Bulgarian Muslims were able to return to their former homes after the collapse of the Communist regime. In general, however, the developing economy of Turkey (and before it, the struggling Ottoman Empire) has been obliged to deal with huge inflows of impoverished refugees displaced by events occurring beyond their boundaries and control. In large part, they have done this without complaint and with little assistance from wealthier nations. Now, it seems, they are doing it once more.
Again, to be scrupulously fair, the British Government agreed in February to take five hundred of ‘the most traumatised Syrian refugees’. The decision came, however, only after stiff and protracted resistance to UN pleas for support. Even New Zealand has offered to accept 100, which, on a per head of population basis, is about three times more generous. Still, when you set it against the numbers flooding into Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon (without getting into a comparison of per capita GDP) both look like token gestures.

I too feel sorry for those two hundred schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria, but I can’t help feeling that anger in Western nations seems disproportionate when compared with their lukewarm response to the unfolding human tragedy in Syria. And I can’t help wondering whether, had those Nigerian girls been Muslim instead of Christian, the cries for action would have been quite so strident and widespread.
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Who Killed the Armenians?

There is currently a resolution before the United States Congress to give official recognition to the event in 1915 often referred to as ‘The Armenian Genocide’, and to incorporate this recognition into US foreign policy. For the sake of brevity, this resolution is referred to as H.Res.252, and it was introduced in March 2009. Barack Obama, prior to his election as President, made it clear that he fully supported such official recognition. It is a measure, then, of the controversial nature of the issue that, two years on, the resolution has not been passed, and very likely never will be. Mr Obama, for his part, seems to have cooled off on the issue.
I doubt that any of my readers are ignorant of the claims underlying this resolution, but, to be fair, let’s hear them from the Armenian National Institute:
‘The Armenian Genocide was centrally planned and administered by the Turkish government against the entire Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire. It was carried out during W.W.I between the years 1915 and 1918. The Armenian people were subjected to deportation, expropriation, abduction, torture, massacre, and starvation. The great bulk of the Armenian population was forcibly removed from Armenia and Anatolia to Syria, where the vast majority was sent into the desert to die of thirst and hunger. Large numbers of Armenians were methodically massacred throughout the Ottoman Empire. Women and children were abducted and horribly abused. The entire wealth of the Armenian people was expropriated. After only a little more than a year of calm at the end of W.W.I, the atrocities were renewed between 1920 and 1923, and the remaining Armenians were subjected to further massacres and expulsions . . . It is estimated that one and a half million Armenians perished between 1915 and 1923.’
Sounds bad, for sure, and not something that can be easily dismissed. However, no event in history can be isolated from what preceded it, so I plan to take you on a trip back in time. Before departure, though, I want to draw your attention to a small but significant detail in the first sentence of the ANI statement above: the genocide was planned and administered by the Turkish government between the years of 1915-1918. Admittedly there is a reference, later in the same sentence, to the Ottoman Empire, but I am sure the distortion is deliberate. In fact, there was no Turkish Government until it was established when the Republic of Turkey came into being in 1923, just as there was no United States Government until independence from Britain was declared in 1776.
I am not, at this stage, taking issue with anything else in the ANI’s statement – merely clearing the way for our journey back to an earlier and arguably happier time in the Ottoman Empire, whose government should more correctly stand accused. Generally dated from 1299, it was one of the longer-lasting empires in world history, and one of its features, little-known but deserving of recognition, was the ‘millet’ system of government. A ‘millet’ was a community of faith whose members formed a relatively autonomous group within the empire. They had their own leader, administered their own laws at a local level, collected and disbursed taxes, practised their own religion, educated their children, spoke their own language – and lived alongside members of the other millets in comparative harmony.
There were five millets in the Ottoman Empire: Muslims (not just Turks, by the way), Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, Jews, and later, Syriac Orthodox Christians. It was a system based on religion rather than race or nationality, because that’s the way the world was in those days. No doubt as a system of government it had its imperfections, but set it alongside what existed in Europe at the same time and it looks like a beacon of tolerance and open-mindedness. Take Spain, for example, as Roman Catholicism established itself in the Iberian Peninsula to the accompaniment of Inquisitorial torture, burnings and forced conversions of Muslims and Jews. Many of those Jews accepted the invitation of Sultan Beyazit to settle in the Ottoman Empire, and their descendants can be found in Istanbul today, worshipping in their medieval Spanish dialect.
Recently restored Armenian church,
Lake Van, Turkey

So maybe the question arises in your mind, as it did in mine: if the Ottomans were so tolerant and open-minded, why did they suddenly decide to commit genocide on those poor, harmless, law-abiding Armenians? The roots of the answer lie in the growth of the major European powers during the 18th century, the ideas of the Enlightenment and the associated forces of Romantic Nationalism and Imperialism. The Ottomans had been a (if not the) major European power until the end of the 17th century, but times were a-changing. In particular, the imperial ambitions of its northern neighbour Russia were threatening its territorial integrity. Russia was expanding in all directions, but its southern march posed the greatest threat to the Ottomans. As they moved towards the Black Sea, into the Crimea and the Caucasus, the Russians pursued a policy of Russification, killing and displacing the majority Muslim inhabitants of those lands and replacing them with Christian Russians, Slavs and if necessary, Armenians.
As well as loss of territory, another negative result of this for the Ottomans was an enormous influx of penniless refugees who had to be fed, housed and settled – a huge financial drain on an empire that was already struggling economically. The Russian advance into Ottoman territory continued right into the First World War, and the Armenian population became an increasingly important tool in their expansion. It suited the Russian cause to encourage Armenian nationalism with promises of support for the creation of an independent state in return for assistance against their Ottoman overlords. The Ottoman government and its Muslim subjects, for their part, became increasingly intolerant of Armenian acts of insurrection and terrorism within their borders. It is interesting to note that, when the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed at the end of the Great War, far from supporting their independence, the new Communist Government swallowed the Armenians into their Soviet maw in 1921, after a scant three years of national sovereignty.
However, I’m getting ahead of myself here. There was one positive outcome for the Ottomans, at least in the short term, from the emergence of the Russian threat. The other European powers, in particular Britain and France, began to take an interest in the unfolding events. For a start, they were determined to prevent the Russians from achieving their ambition of controlling the Istanbul straits and gaining free access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. One of the key issues in the foreign policy of all the European powers in the 19th century was what became known as ‘The Eastern Question’, the essence of which was: When will the ailing Ottoman Empire finally collapse, and which of us will get what parts of it when it does? The corollary of wanting to get the best bits for yourself, of course, was, naturally, ensuring that your rivals didn’t get them.
In practice, this involved encouraging national consciousness among the subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire in order to hasten its fragmentation and demise. Needless to say, it is not to be thought that the European powers concerned had any great love of nationalism as a philosophy per se. If you have any doubts about this, ask the Irish or the Indians, or the Algerians, or the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. The first ‘nation’ to benefit, however, was the Greeks, the success of whose struggle for independence was ensured by the intervention of the British, French and Russian navies, which combined to destroy the Ottoman fleet in 1827. A little publicized side effect of Greek independence was the massacre and displacement of thousands of Muslims whose families had lived there for centuries.
The original Greek state established at this time was perhaps only 40% of its present area. Over the next century, successive governments took advantage of the weakening and embattled Ottomans to expand their domains northwards and eastwards into Macedonia, the Balkans and the Aegean Islands. As they advanced, non-Christian minorities were slaughtered or driven out. An interesting example is the city of Salonika, which fell to the Greeks in 1912. At that time the second city of the Ottoman Empire, Selanik had the largest Jewish population of any city in Europe. Fifty percent of its inhabitants were Jewish, twenty-five percent Muslim and the remainder, mostly Orthodox Christian. In 1917, a mysterious fire broke out destroying most of the Jewish and Muslim parts of town. Subsequently most of the Jews and Muslims, prevented from rebuilding their homes and businesses, departed. There were still, however, a large number of Jews in Salonika when Nazi Germany invaded in 1941. As far as I know, there is no suggestion that the Greeks conspired with the Nazis to exterminate the Jews – but they certainly benefited from the destruction of the large historic Jewish cemetery, where the city’s university is now located.
Interestingly, if you visit Istanbul and make inquiries, you will be shown numerous Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Jewish churches, synagogues and cemeteries occupying large and prominent sites in very expensive parts of the city. The land they stand on must be almost priceless – yet they remain, respected and untouched in this nation of Muslims. In contrast, Athens is, I’m told, one of the few European capital cities which lacks a functioning mosque, despite the existence of half a million Muslim residents.
Which brings me back to the Armenians – whom I am sure you were beginning to think I had forgotten. I mentioned, above, that the Russian Empire massacred and expelled hundreds of thousands of Muslim Tatars, Circassians and Abhazis as it expanded into the Crimea from the 1770s, and the Caucasus from the 1790s. An article in a recent Time magazine[5] discussing the January terrorist attack at the Moscow airport, alleges a link to Chechen activists, and blames the situation on 200 years of Russian oppression. As occupied territories were cleared of their Muslim inhabitants, they were systematically resettled by Christians, more likely to be supportive of their co-religionist overlords. Among the groups used as pawns in this game of Russification were the Armenians, many of whom were invited to occupy the homes and farms of the dispossessed Muslims. Undoubtedly the Muslim refugees who flooded into Ottoman Anatolia would have harboured some resentment against the peoples who were seen to be profiting from their tragedy, and we need look no further for the roots of the sectarian hatred that began to build through the 19th century.
As an interesting aside, there are attempts internationally to have present-day Russia acknowledge a ‘Circassian Genocide’ that allegedly took place in the second half of the 19th century. The Putin government, of course, rejects responsibility for events that took place under the Czarist regime – yet, according to the Time article [1] cited below, similar policies continue to be implemented against Muslims in the area to this day.
What happened in Anatolia during the 19th century, then, was increasing encroachment on Ottoman territory by the Russians, and increasing desperation in the Ottoman Empire as their boundaries retreated, impoverished refugees flooded in with tales of horror, and the Armenian ‘millet’ (see above), encouraged by the Russians, increasingly resorted to terrorist attacks and insurgency.
But let’s not pick on Russia alone. I recently came across writings of a gentleman by the name of Edward J Erickson. Apparently he is a retired regular US Army officer at the Marine Corps University in Virginia, recognized as an authority on the Ottoman Army during the First World War. He writes of the activities of the Royal Navy in the Eastern Mediterranean from December 1914. In particular he refers to an RN cruiser, HMS Doris, commanded by a Captain Frank Larkin, which conducted operations around the Ottoman port of Iskenderun (Alexandretta), shelling shore installations and gathering intelligence from local Armenians. Erickson suggests that the Ottoman high command expected an allied invasion. They did not know where it would take place (with hindsight, we know it was directed at Gallipoli and the Dardanelles), but the rail links near Iskenderun were of enormous strategic importance to the Ottoman forces, and at the same time, very vulnerable to a sea-launched attack. Erickson suggests that the activities of Captain Larkin and the Doris, as well as the military incursions and machinations of the Russians, were instrumental in the decision to ‘relocate’ Armenians later in 1915.
In fact, ‘relocate’ is Dr Erickson’s word, not mine. Undoubtedly, Armenian people in the east of Anatolia suffered a terrible tragedy. I do not have the space here to discuss the extent to which the present Republic of Turkey should be held responsible for the sins of the Ottoman Empire; nor whether there was actually an official government decision, and if so, what its aims were. I do not intend to get involved in the discussion of how many Armenians died (also apparently a highly debatable issue), nor to question why so many Armenians remained in Istanbul, the seat of Ottoman Government, retaining their property, churches and cemeteries to the present day. My aim has been solely to suggest that whatever happened in that part of the world in 1915 needs to be seen in terms of events leading up to it in the previous 130 years. To compare what happened with the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire to the Nazi German extermination of the Jewish people is not only a distortion of historical evidence, but a grave injustice to the victims of the Nazi holocaust.

[1] Putin’s Terrorist Problem, Time European Edition, February 7, 2011

Genocide, and the Procession of History

There was an interesting exhibition in Istanbul recently – a collection of paintings by an artist called Faruk Kutlu. Not that the works themselves are likely to turn the art world on its head, but the title caught my eye: ‘Kafkasya’dan Sürgün’ – in English, ‘Deportation (or Exile) from the Caucasus’. It interested me because I’d recently visited Sakarya, a small city not far from Istanbul, and people there told me that their ancestors had come from the Caucasus region. I’m irresistibly fascinated by these little historical mysteries, so I had to check it out.

It turns out that representatives of the Adygeyans (which is apparently what the Circassian people of the Caucasus call themselves in their own language) have, for some time, been lobbying the Russian Government seeking an apology for an alleged genocide that took place in the 1860s. ‘Dammit,’ I hear you say. ‘This word genocide is going to lose its meaning if it gets bandied around so frequently and lightly’ – but I have to say’ this one is definitely worth a look.


The Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991, was heir to the domain of the Russian Empire, officially dated from 1721. By the second half of the 19th century, under Tsar Alexander II, Russia had built the third largest empire in the history of the world, and as we all know, its religion was Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Well, like most generalisations, that’s only part of the truth. In fact the expansion of the Russian border to the south was largely at the expense of central Asian and Caucasian states, which, at the time, were overwhelmingly Muslim.


The policy of successive Russian monarchs had been to ‘discourage’ the Muslim religion in the interests of civilisation, Christianisation and Russification. Perversely, the Muslim inhabitants of the Caucasus chose to reject the invitation to become part of this Orthodox Russian civilisation, and their resistance lasted from 1817 to 1864. The intervening struggle is variously known as the Caucasian War, the Russian Conquest of the Caucasus, and, apparently, the local Muslim population even had the temerity to call it the Holy War! But in the end, the result was pretty much as you would expect: the big guys beat the little guys, and the price exacted from the little guys was in proportion to the time and inconvenience they had put the big guys to.
What actually happened at this point is, of course, not easy to ascertain. Circassian sources claim that 400,000 of their people were killed and around 500,000 were forced to leave their homes and seek resettlement in the neighbouring Ottoman Empire, many of these refugees dying on the journey, or later in the crowded, insanitary conditions in which they were obliged to live on arrival. Russian sources are understandably less specific on details, but the matter of mass deportation is beyond dispute, as is the fact that Muslim populations within the expanded Russian Empire became minorities in areas where they had previously been the majority.
At this point, I want to turn my attention from the micro- to the macro-, and to introduce a political concept known as ‘The Great Game’. You are probably aware that the 19th century saw the beginning of a period in history often referred to as the Age of Imperialism. The major European nations (including Russia) were engaged in the process of empire-building, just as some formerly powerful empires were in the process of disintegration. Key aspects of the imperialism business were: maintaining the balance of power while seeking to grab as much territory as possible for your own empire, and at the same time, limiting the growth of the others.
No doubt you are also aware that India was the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the British Empress, Victoria; and of course, Vicki and her ministers were not amused to see that jewel threatened by the southward expansion of the Russians. ‘The Great Game’ is the name given to the conflict and rivalry between the British and Russian Empires for control in Central Asia. The ‘game’ became increasingly serious from the 1850s, when oil began to assume major importance as an economic resource. Political ‘game’ it may have been considered by some, but in reality, it was played at great expense in money and human life. Take as example the three Anglo-Afghan wars fought between 1839 and 1919. It’s almost enough to make you feel sorry for the Afghans. But that’s another story.
Running parallel to, and occasionally overlapping this ‘game’ were the power plays related to ‘The Eastern Question’. This was another driving force in the policies of the European Great Powers during the 19th century and up to the end of the First World War. Essentially, the question can be put thus: When will the Ottoman Empire finally disintegrate, and who will get all the good bits when it does? As noted above, all the European empire-builders were keen to benefit from the Ottoman collapse; but at the same time they were equally keen that their rivals should not.
Once you grasp these relatively simple principles, a lot of the otherwise confusing activities of the European empire states, not to mention events unfolding in apparently distant unrelated places, become more intelligible.
Take, for example, the Crimean War. The Charge of the Light Brigade was no doubt a marvellous example of the incomparable bravery and discipline of the British fighting man. But what on earth were they doing over there fighting a war on Russia’s back doorstep for nearly three years? Well, in fact, they were part of a British strategy to keep Russia iced up in its frozen wastes and prevent it from gaining access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean. In the 1850s, this strategy required bolstering up the Ottomans and helping them defend their realm.
Go back, however, a mere 26 years to 1827, and you would find the warships of Britain, France and Russia fighting together to destroy the Ottoman navy off the coast of southern Greece. At that time, it suited the European powers to encourage and then support Orthodox Christians to unite in a nationalist struggle and declare the independence of the Greek peninsula. We can guess that the British were keen to have a compliant puppet state in the eastern Mediterranean, but what was in it for the Russians? Most likely there was some deal going on – you help us out here and we’ll try to work something out for you over there. Turn a blind eye to what you’re doing to the Muslims in central Asia, for example? Incidentally, you might want to ask how those Russians got their ships into the Mediterranean to participate in the battle. That’s the trouble with history – you answer one puzzling question and it raises several equally troubling new ones.
But I refuse to be sidetracked. Our subject is genocide, and its euphemistic little sibling, ethnic cleansing. The Greek peninsula had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, and its population had large Muslim and Jewish elements. In fact, at this point, it will be worth our while to take a look at the composition of the Empire. The Ottomans were a ruling elite, for sure with their origins in the Turkish migrations from central Asia, but, by reason of conquest, long residence and inter-marriage, considering themselves cosmopolitan, and even (dare I say it?) European. They regarded themselves, with some justification, as the legitimate heirs of the Byzantine Roman Empire; the Sultan’s mother would almost certainly have been a Byzantine princess, or Bulgarian, or Russian, but assuredly not Turkish. Their language, although based on Turkish, had a large admixture of Persian and Arabic. Their empire included a wide range of ethnic groupings, religions and languages, and interestingly, they didn’t really try to impose uniformity.
The Ottomans recognised four millets (nations) within their boundaries, based primarily on religion. Muslim was the state religion, but this group included Arabs and others, as well as Turks. Christians and Jews were ‘people of the book’, so they were permitted to retain their religious practices and languages, especially the local varieties of Christianity, Greek Orthodox and Armenian. They, with the Jews and the Muslims, made up the four milletsof the empire.
What happened at the time of the Greek ‘War of Independence’ was a forerunner of what was to follow as the Ottoman Empire fell apart. We could say that the repercussions have continued to be felt into our own times. For their own ends, the European powers encouraged nationalist sentiments among the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire. They then presented themselves as protectors of the Christian minorities when Ottoman authorities, not unreasonably, came down hard on separatist movements within their borders. One side effect of the Greek War of Independence was the killing of rather a lot of Muslim civilians, whose families had been living on the Greek peninsula for centuries.
Similar scenarios were played out in Bulgaria and other parts of the Balkans in the later years of the 19th century, as Russia and the geriatric Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire encouraged, also for their own purposes, (Christian) nationalist movements to rise up and throw off the chains of Ottoman hegemony. In fact, Muslims were still being slaughtered in the Balkans, and refugees streaming from Bulgaria into Turkey long after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, right up to the 1980s.
The fledgling state of Greece also took the opportunity to expand its territory at the expense of the beleaguered Ottomans. The important trading city of Selanik, birthplace of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and reputedly home to the largest Jewish population in Europe, was taken by the Greeks in 1912. Not long after, a catastrophic fire wiped out most of the Jewish and Muslim parts of town, and you will look hard to find a mosque or a synagogue in the modern Greek city of Thessaloniki.
When the First World War ended, the victorious vultures descended in force on the body of the dying Ottomans. It has been argued that the punitive damages imposed on Germany at that time contributed to the rise of Hitler and thence to the Second World War. Under the terms of the Treaty of Sevres, the Ottoman Empire was not merely to be punished; it was to be dismantled and the pieces given into the hands of outsiders. For the purposes of this article, the most significant event was the landing of a Greek army on the Aegean coast of Anatolia backed by the guns of warships from the European victors of the ‘Great War’.
What ensued was a three-year war, during which Christian inhabitants of the region at first welcomed their ‘liberators’ and many Muslims were killed, followed by a successful counter-attack by the newly formed Turkish nationalist forces. Needless to say, some revenge was undoubtedly exacted by the now victorious Muslims. The end result was a forced population exchange in which Muslims and Christians, who had existed side by side in relative harmony for centuries, were forcibly relocated: the Christians of Anatolia being sent to mainland Greece to be replaced by Muslims going the other way.

It’s a sorry tale, isn’t it! But history is history, and you can’t turn back its relentless tide, however much you may wish to. Before we finish, however, let’s return to the other theatre of conflict we were discussing earlier – the expanding southern borders of Russia. Of course, as the British well knew, the Great Bear would not be content with merely adding a few central Asian state-lets to its empire. A major goal was always access to the Mediterranean. Clearly the Bosporus Straits would be ever problematic, so another option was to drive a channel though eastern Anatolia, again, at the expense of the moribund Ottomans. Fortunately a pretext was available in the form of the Christian Armenians, who could be incited to rebellion, then offered ‘protection’ in the form of a Russian invasion to help them set up a nationalist state from which any inconvenient Muslims could be ethnically cleansed (though the term was not invented till later, of course). Again, we may suspect that Armenian independence would have been short-lived, or nominal.
However it was, Armenian nationalists in eastern Anatolia were enthusiastic about Russian support, and ready to create ‘incidents’ which would encourage Russian intervention on their behalf. The Ottoman government, for their part, had a clear example, in the Caucasus, of what was likely to happen in the event of the Russians gaining control. Whatever happened to the Armenian milletin 1915, and undoubtedly it was a tragic event, it needs to be remembered that, as always, there are at least two sides to the story. The Ottoman Empire was fighting for its life in a major war on at least three fronts. And, in an analogous situation, as the present-day Russian government has pointed out with respect to the Caucasus deaths, the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire was a different entity.
There is a short story, ‘The Whale’, penned by the New Zealand author, Witi Ihimaera, which ends with an elderly Maori leader weeping over the bodies of a pod of beached whales. The whales can be seen as symbolising the old culture and traditions of his people, the indigenous race of New Zealand, whose way of life has been irretrievably lost. ‘No wai te he?’ the old man cries. ‘Who is to blame?’

The Turkey Israel Connection

In January 2009 the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan attracted considerable media attention, at home and abroad, for his spat with the Israeli Premier, Shimon Peres, at the Davos World Economic Forum. Apparently, Mr Erdoğan couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to berate his Israeli counterpart for his country’s recent actions in the Gaza conflict. Undoubtedly, there has been a cooling of relations between Turkey and Israel in recent years, especially since the accession to power of Mr Erdoğan’s AK (Justice and Development) Party.

Perhaps, then, it’s a good time to take a look at this event in the broader context of history, particularly when Turkey is being increasingly challenged to accept the accusation of ‘genocide’ against the Armenian people.

One important point that must be noted at the outset, of course, is that both Turkey and Israel are relatively ‘new’ nations – the Republic of Turkey was founded as recently as 1923, while Israel became a nation in 1948. At the same time, however, it must also be recognised that the peoples of these two ‘modern’ states have lived as neighbours for more than a millennium. Turkic invaders entered Anatolia in force after defeating the armies of the Byzantine Roman Empire in 1071 CE. Already Muslim, they mixed and intermarried with the predominantly Christian peoples they had conquered, establishing states and empires culminating in the 600-year Ottoman Empire, which lasted until it was finally dissolved after the end of the First World War. It is probably fitting, then, that its successor state, the Turkish Republic, was the first Muslim nation to recognise officially the fledgling nation of Israel.

In my previous post, we looked at the complex procession and interplay of religions that have taken place in this part of the world over three millennia of history. The so-called ‘clash of cultures’, referring to the face-off between the Christian West and the Islamic East, is largely a western construct. Its roots lie in the desire of the medieval Bishops of Rome (Popes) to add the muscle of temporal power to their presumably less satisfying spiritual leadership. In the Near and Middle East, it has been a different story.

For a start, the Muslim religion always recognised the debt it owed to its predecessor faiths, Judaism and Christianity. To Muslims, Jews and Christians are also ‘people of the book’ – followers of a great monotheistic belief system with shared history and common prophets. The ‘Christian’ crusades of the 11th to the 13thcenturies, it can be argued, were more attempts to unite Western Christendom under the Popes of Rome, and assert its superiority over the East, whatever faith they espoused, than the more commonly held belief of a confederation of the righteous aiming to free the Holy Lands from heathens and unbelievers. As evidence of this, we can take the fact that the army of the Fourth Crusade took time, on its way to fight the Muslims, to besiege, conquer and despoil the Christian capital of Constantinople, 250 years before the Muslim Ottomans set foot in it. It has also been argued that, prior to the Crusades, genuine Christian pilgrims from other lands were not prevented from visiting and paying homage at sacred sites in the city which is sacred to all three religions.
Little of this, however, directly concerns modern Turkey. Of much more relevance to our discussion here are the actions of the Ottoman Empire since, at least in Western eyes, there is an undeniable connection between the two. 1453 is one of those dates in history that are interpreted by some as marking key transitions from one age to another. In this case, it was the year that the Ottomans, led by their youthful Sultan, Mehmet II, known to Turks as ‘the Conqueror’, finally succeeded in entering the city of Constantinople. However, far from representing the defeat of a glorious empire, the Ottoman victory was more of a final symbolic act. The Byzantine capital was, by this time, merely the rump of a former mighty empire, with a population estimated at no more than 50,000.
The city that Mehmet the Conqueror envisaged as his own imperial capital required repopulating – and the Ottoman policy knew no nationalistic exclusivity. The Sultan brought Greeks and Armenians as well as Turks from other cities to assist in the economic resurgence of the conquered city. Churches were restored as mosques were built, and the cosmopolitan character of Constantinople / Istanbul was established from the outset. The various communities had their own specialisms in terms of occupations, and each contributed its own areas of expertise. So, towards the end of the 15thcentury, when Mehmet’s successor, Bayezid II opened his welcoming arms to Jewish refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, he saw it as a natural step in the economic strengthening of his empire. The Jews brought financial expertise and other trade skills which the Ottomans needed. Neither Turkish ethnicity nor Islamic belief were prerequisites for citizenship.
It is a fascinating feature of the Jewish community in Istanbul that most of them trace their ancestry back to the Sephardic refugees who made their home in the Ottoman Empire after the forced conversions and persecutions of the Spanish Inquisition. While Turkish is their first language today, their rituals and music preserve the Judaeo-Spanish dialect known as Ladino, which they brought with them from their homes in the Iberian Peninsula. As an aside, contrary to popular belief, it was Jews and Arabs who were the main target of the Spanish Catholic Inquisitors at that time, rather than Protestants, whose Reformation had barely begun, and certainly not in Spain.
A sub-branch of the Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire was the dönme, followers of the 17th century self-styled Messiah, Sabbatai Zevi. This gentleman made himself unpopular with the Ottoman establishment at the time, and he and his supporters had to convert to Islam in order to remain within Ottoman borders. It is said, however, that they maintained their Jewish faith and rituals behind a Muslim façade. Unlike the Spanish, the Ottomans were, apparently content to accept the ‘conversion’ at face value, and refrained from applying unpleasant methods to identify backsliders. Two of the better-known private educational foundations in Istanbul today, FMV Işık and Terraki, are reputed to have been founded by the dönme community in Salonika, whence they moved after the population exchanges following the Turkish War of Independence.
Several sources set the number of synagogues in modern Istanbul at twenty-one, with a further eleven in Izmir, and a sprinkling in other Turkish cities. By contrast, modern Thessaloniki, formerly, during Ottoman times, regarded as the largest Jewish city in the world, has three. At that time known as Selanik, the city became part of Greece in 1912. Subsequently, a huge fire in 1917 destroyed much of the city including most of the synagogues and left many of the Jewish community homeless. After the Nazi occupation of Greece in 1942, Jews were rounded up and sent to death camps. The mortality rate is reported to have been 98%.
The Republic of Turkey maintained its neutrality for most of the Second World War until the final months. During the war, however, several Turkish diplomats did their best to alleviate the suffering of Jewish people under threat from the Nazi extermination machine. Behiç Erkin was Turkey’s ambassador to France from 1939 to 1943. During this period he worked to identify members of the Jewish community who were of Turkish origin, and to persuade the Nazi authorities that they should be repatriated to Turkey. His efforts are believed to have saved thousands of Jews from removal to concentration camps.
Necdet Kent, Turkish Consul-General in Marseilles, is recognised as having put his own life at risk to save Jews from transportation to Nazi camps. Stories are told of how he boarded a train loaded with Jews of Turkish origin bound for Germany, refusing to get off until the Jewish prisoners were allowed off too.
Selahattin Ülkümen perhaps saved fewer souls, but paid a higher price for his humanitarian efforts. As Turkish consul on the island of Rhodes during the Second World War, he worked to have many Jewish families shipped to Turkey to save them from Nazi round-ups. After Turkey abandoned its neutrality in the last months of the war to side with the Allies, his house was shelled by the Germans and his young wife fatally wounded. He himself was interned in occupied Greece until the war ended.

Undoubtedly there have been incidents in subsequent years where Jewish people have been victimised in local incidents – but for the most part, Turkey, and the earlier Ottoman Empire, have an exemplary record of good relations with the Jewish community, in
comparison with their European neighbours. Turkey has at times acted as a mediator in Middle East conflicts involving Israel. There is a free-trade agreement between the two countries, and Israel is an important supplier of arms to the Turkish military.
Prime Minister Erdoğan has a tricky task as leader of a secular, parliamentary democracy with its strategic location on the fringe of the Middle East. Much of his predominantly Muslim electorate undoubtedly sympathises with co-religionist brethren suffering from Israeli expansion (and missiles). Continually fobbed off by Europe in their attempts to join the European Union, Turkey will inevitably look to form partnerships with more accommodating neighbours. At the same time, Turkey remains committed to gaining acceptance among the civilised nations of the world – and friendship with the USA and Western Europe is a prerequisite for this. Politics, for the most part, is a business of compromise. Perhaps a little grandstanding on Mr Erdoğan’s part in front of his Islamic neighbours abroad and supporters at home is understandable, in the circumstances.