Attempted Coup in Turkey – For Those Who Do Not Understand

You should read this. It’s not just me . . .

e14ab38e-4511-4a3a-9ac8-6a83a38175e8Adam McConnel in Serbestiyet:

“Hours after the Turkish government declared a state of emergency, the German Foreign Ministry took the astonishing step of criticizing the Turkish government for the action. Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s comments revealed how ignorant he is about Turkish affairs. Germany’s neighbor France has been under a state of emergency since November 2015, and has just extended that state of emergency for another six months. The German Foreign Ministry has not said anything about that. Then two days later, in a case of grotesque and horrific irony, Germany itself had to declare a state of emergency when an assailant in Munich killed a number of civilians.

As someone who lived through the night of 15-16 July, there are two aspects of the situation that I find disturbing. The first is the event itself, which was truly terrifying. The second has been the attitude of journalists and other intellectual commentators both inside Turkey and abroad. As the coup attempt emerged and then failed, reporters and pundits struggled to say something coherent for their viewers and readers. The situation inside Turkey was better because the large majority of commentators had (and have) a better grip on the political realities of the situation, but abroad the outlook was grim. This and the following articles will address those journalists’ and commentators’ massive failure to perform their job properly.

A number of extremely worrying narratives emerged even while the violence was continuing early on Saturday, 16th July. In a general way, they were meant to insult or to negatively impact on the public perception of two main actors. The main target was Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan; the secondary, but inherently connected actor was the Turkish citizens themselves. For several years an international campaign has been waged to portray the Turkish leader in as bad a light as possible for Western media consumers. But because Erdoğan has achieved repeated and spectacular electoral successes over the past fifteen years, the insults aimed at Erdoğan have between the lines also been aimed at the Turkish people. If he is the supposed dictator, then they are the brainwashed, hideous rabble that voted him there.”

Read the whole article

The 93rd Anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne

This post was published by the Turkish Coalition of America to commemorate the treaty signed in Lausanne on June 24, 1923 that gave international recognition to the modern Republic of Turkey.

“TCA celebrates the 93rd anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, which recognized the boundaries of the modern state of Turkey. This international treaty was signed on July 24, 1923 and shortly thereafter, the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed on October 29.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk Fotoðraf ve Objeler

Legislative Assembly of the new Republic of Turkey

The Treaty of Lausanne followed the signing of the Armistice at Mudanya on October 11, 1922, after decisive victories by Turkish national forces led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Britain was forced to lift its occupation of Istanbul and the Turkish straits and to call for a peace conference in the face of the final defeat of Greek forces, who invaded Anatolia as Britain’s surrogates, and with the occupying Italian and French forces decidedly moving toward non-confrontation with the Turkish national resistance movement.

The Turkish delegation to Lausanne was led by Ismet Inonu, the victorious commander of the final battles that led to the peace negotiations. Countries represented at the peace talks included Britain, France, Italy, Japan, Greece, Romania and Serbo-Croatia. Russia, Belgium and Portugal entered the treaty negotiations at later stages to discuss the status of the Turkish straits and financial matters concerning the defunct Ottoman Empire. The United States attended the treaty negotiations as an observer.

Cheering the victory

Citizens of the new Republic celebrating their victory

The negotiations began on November 21, 1922 and lasted over eight months. Turkey’s main concern was to achieve recognition of its borders as defined in its National Pact of 1920, gain control over the Turkish straits and end the economic concessions and privileges (capitulations) conferred to some European states. At the end of the conference, the Turkish borders gained international recognition with special provisions placed on Iskenderun and Mosul. The status of Iskenderun was later determined by a local referendum and the province legally joined Turkey’s borders on June 23, 1939. Mosul remained outside of Turkey’s borders and subsequently became part of Iraq. Turkey also gained control of the straits with special provisions to regulate international commercial traffic and rights by the Black Sea littoral countries, which were later codified by the Montreux Treaty on July 20, 1936. Finally, capitulations were abolished.

The Turkish War of National Liberation, fought against the most powerful imperial states of the time, culminated in a military and diplomatic victory for the Turkish people who achieved full independence and sovereignty at Lausanne. For many years to come, this victory would serve as a source of inspiration for several nations in their struggles against Western imperialism and independence.”

Urban Renewal in Istanbul – Tilting at windmills

Kült mkz

Former St Euphemia School and Eglise N.D. du Rosaire

Dilek and I went to a concert of classical music last night. The setting was a small but beautifully restored Roman Catholic church in the Istanbul district of Rasimpaşa. There was a chamber orchestra and a talented young pianist, Nilüfer Kıyıcılardan, playing a programme of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart.

We arrived twenty minutes early and were fortunate to find two of the last unclaimed seats – somewhat surprising, given that the venue is not on any well-beaten social track, and the event had received little publicity. I had stumbled upon it accidentally during the week while researching for this post.

These days Istanbul resembles what I imagine New York City to have been during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – a vast construction site. Tunnels are driving under, and bridges over the Bosporus and the Gulf of Izmit; subterranean Metro lines burrow in all directions beneath the city; vast commercial and residential projects rise to the winter sky; hectares of run-down inner city blocks are giving way to new up-market apartments; and domed monumental mosques springing up to occupy landmark sites; all presided over by multitudes of arachnoid construction cranes.

1453

‘1453’ – a new conquest of Istanbul by megalomaniac developers

Not everyone is happy, of course. I wrote a piece some years ago on a conflict between local residents and guests at an art gallery opening that made international news at the time. Many of us prefer shopping in local traditional small businesses to the homogeneity of climate-controlled malls; and have questions about the wisdom of allowing the national economy to be dominated by a bloated and parasitic financial sector. Local residents whose families may have lived in a neighbourhood for generations are resentful of being pushed out by the new urban yuppie class – some of the latter even mourn the loss of traditional colour that inevitably accompanies such development. Lovers of the atmospheric decay that characterised old Istanbul in recent memory have issues with way restoration is carried out on world heritage buildings. And then there are the megalomaniac property developers who seem to ride roughshod with impunity over zoning and town-planning regulations.

Yeldeğirmeni (1)

Abdülhamit I’s windmills

Me? I’m ambivalent, I guess. I’m appalled when I look out a window on our university campus and see the abomination of the Ağaoğlu ‘1453’ development blighting what was once a forested landscape. On the other hand, I love the Marmaray Metro, and feel sorry for those who refuse to ride it for fear that the waters of the Bosporus will pour in upon them while their train is half way through. I’m a fatalist when it comes to such matters. But I want to tell you about my recent discovery – the Yeldeğirmeni neighbourhood of Kadıköy.

One thing I learned is that the neighbourhood goes by two names. Until recently it was known by its official one, Rasimpaşa, after a small mosque dedicated to a relatively minor Ottoman official who served as mayor of Istanbul for a couple of months in 1878. Tradition says that Rasim’s loving wife, Ikbal Hanim, had the mosque built on the site of an earlier ruin. Be that as it may, more picturesque, and arguably more significant is the district’s earlier history.

Valpreda bn 1

Italian Valpreda Apartment Building

Tourist brochures about Istanbul often mention that Khalkedon (Kadıköy) was originally a larger city than Byzantium/Constantinople across the water. The name is translated as ‘City of the Blind’ in tribute, apparently, to the failure of its inhabitants to recognise the obvious superiority of the other site. Dating from 675 BCE, its defensive walls are believed to have extended as far as Rasimpaşa.

The Asian city’s importance waned after the foundation of Constantinople as capital of the eastern Roman Empire. Following its conquest by the Ottomans, its environs became a popular location for the city’s elite to build summer mansions on the banks of the Haydarpaşa Stream that once flowed there. There were also barracks and a training ground for imperial cavalry and infantry. The Marmaray Metro line currently terminates at a station in front of the modern Tepe Nautilus shopping mall. The station is called Ayrılık Çeşmesi, and the eponymous fountain was the gathering point for Ottoman armies departing on campaigns to the east, and caravans of pilgrims setting out for Mecca. As an interesting aside, the fountain is said to have been commissioned by Kızlarağası Gazanfer Ağa – whose title refers to his responsibility for the ladies of the imperial harem. Nice work if you can get it! In the late 18th century, Sultan Abdülhamit I had several windmills erected to supply the needs of the military and local residents – and from the Turkish word for windmill (yel değirmeni) comes the name that is supplanting the memory of that short-lived city mayor.

Synogogue

5659 in the Jewish calendar = 1898 C.E.

From the mid-19th century Rasimpaşa began to take on a more residential character. The present pattern of streets was laid out, and Istanbul’s first post office opened there. The city had always been prone to disastrous fires, and after a particularly bad one that devastated the Kuzguncuk district, Jewish families moved in and established Istanbul’s first apartment buildings. The Hemdat Israel Synagogue, one of the oldest surviving in Istanbul, entered service in 1899 after Sultan Abdülhamit II stepped in personally to moderate in a violent quarrel between the Jews and the Orthodox and Armenian communities. It seems Christians objected to the construction of a synagogue in the district. It is said that the Jewish community named the synagogue in a way that recognised their gratitude to the sultan for his assistance – the Hebrew consonants for ‘Hemdat’ can also be read as ‘Hamid’. Anyway, in the interests of natural justice, the Orthodox lot were allowed to erect their own place of worship, the church of Ayia Yeorgios, a few years later in 1906. Both buildings are still standing, though their congregations have been sadly depleted over the years.

Taş frn 2

Simits with a touch of history

Development became more rapid in the early 20th century with the building of the Haydarpaşa train station as a key link on the Berlin-Baghdad railway line. Italian stonemasons came to work on the project, as well as German architects, engineers and builders. The edifice that currently serves as Orhangazi Primary School was also built around this time to provide education for the children of the German professionals. Among the more noteworthy apartment blocks from this time are the five-storey Italian (Valpreda), Demirciyan and Kehribarcı buildings.

Underlining the multicultural character of the district, and the tolerant attitude of the Muslim Ottoman government, Roman Catholics even managed to get a big foot in the door. A gaggle of nuns calling themselves the Oblates[1] of the Assumption established a school in the name of St Euphemia in 1895. RC education continued here until some kind of dispute took place with the Republican government in 1934. As a result, the nuns departed and the school was taken over by the Turkish Ministry of Education, eventually assuming its present role as Kemal Ataturk Anatolian High School. Next door to the school is the small (now deconsecrated) church dedicated to Our Lady of the Most Sacred Rosary, where Dilek and I were privileged to hear last night’s delightful concert.

Street art 2

Mural-İst street art

A recent article in the Kadikoy Life magazine contains an interesting quote by a former resident of the district:

“The bakers, sweets and helva-sellers were Turkish; the grocers and restaurateurs, Greek; the greengrocers and chemists, Jewish; the butchers, Armenian, and the dairymen, Bulgarian. People from every religion and ethnic background lived happily together. Our neighbours to the right were Greek, the ones on the left were Turks; directly opposite were Armenians, next to them another Greek family, and on the far side, they were Jewish. Neighbourly relations were excellent; we all respected each other’s special days.”

Sadly, the tide of history brought cataclysmic events on to the world stage that destroyed the harmony of those halcyon days – waves of violent nationalism, the slaughter of the First World War, the Greek invasion of Anatolia, and the Turkish War of Liberation. The world would never be the same, and Istanbul suffered as much as anywhere.

Kamarad cafe

Cem and İnci brewing coffee for connoisseurs

I was motivated to explore the neighbourhood after visiting a café recently, run by the daughter of a friend. Trendy cafés are sprouting there like truffles in a Piedmont autumn, and Kamarad is one of the latest. İnci and Cem are catering to the true coffee connoisseur, importing beans from various sources in Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia) and South America (Honduras, Costa Rica, Columbia), roasting and grinding them on site, and offering delicious brews produced by the method of your choice: the familiar espresso machine and French press, or more esoteric techniques, chemex and V60. They are also supplying beans to other businesses nearby.

One of the more striking features of the new Kadıköy is the proliferation of enormous surrealistic outdoor murals that confront you unexpectedly as you stroll around the narrow back streets. Kadıköy Municipal Council has sponsored an annual street art festival, Mural-İst, for the last four years. Seven local and nine foreign artists have turned their talents to the enlivening of the neighbourhood, with impressive results.

The old days will never return, of course, but the new/old district of Yeldeğirmeni may be showing the way to a better future.

—————————————————-

[1] Oblates, it seems, are one step down in the holy orders, following less stringent rules than is usual for monastic orders.

Proud to be a Turk

But what does it mean?

I’m not a big fan of The Economist, so you may be surprised by my endorsing an article from its pages. Well, credit where credit’s due. This piece appeared earlier this month, and I have to tell you, I think the writer got it pretty right:

multiculturalism-living-with-diversity-in-turkey-10-638

And one or two from New Zealand – making 68!

I AM A Turk, honest and hard-working.” So began the oath of allegiance to their country chanted by generations of schoolchildren before the practice was scrapped three years ago. This proud, flag-waving nation takes it as read that Turkishness goes beyond nationality. But what does it mean to be a Turk? Labels of ethnicity, language, religion and social class overlap in complex patterns. As a result, some citizens consider themselves more Turkish than others.

The modern Turkish republic emerged from a crucible of war, as the waning Ottoman empire between 1908 and 1922 fought in succession against Bulgarian nationalists and Italian colonisers in Libya, then against the British Empire, Russia and Arab nationalists during the first world war, and lastly against Greece. Genocide or not, awful things happened to Anatolia’s Armenians in 1915-17. There were many, and now there are few; nearly all of Turkey’s remaining 50,000 ethnic Armenians live in Istanbul. After the Greco-Turkish war of 1921-22 Turkey lost some 1.5 million Greeks too, in a population exchange that brought half a million ethnic Turks “home” from Greece. More ethnically Turkish or Muslim refugees poured into the new nation, fleeing from Russian revolution or from persecution in the Balkans, the Crimea and the Caucasus.

The young republic was mostly Turkish-speaking and overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Assimilation and urbanisation have made it even more so. Yet Turkey retains more of the ethnic and religious diversity of the Ottoman empire than is generally realised. Some 10m-15m of its citizens are Alevis, adherents to a syncretic offshoot of Shia Islam that is unique to Turkey. Other religious minorities include Jaafari Shia Muslims, Jews, Christians and Yazidis. Among the ethnic minorities, apart from Kurds and Armenians, are large numbers of Arabs, Albanians, Azeris, Bosniaks, Circassians, Georgians, Laz and Roma. Turkey is now also home to well over 2m refugees, mostly from Syria but also from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt and elsewhere.

Turkey's diversity

Missed me again – but I’m here too

In their determined push for modernisation, Ataturk’s followers imposed customs and ways of thought that came easily to sophisticates in Istanbul or Izmir but were resented further east. The superior airs of secular, cosmopolitan Kemalists have rankled ever since, particularly with country folk and with immigrants to the big cities. Some speak half-jokingly of a lingering divide between “white” Turks and “black”, marking the gap between those who cherish Ataturk’s legacy and those who resent it as an imposition.

Mr Erdogan has capitalised brilliantly on the deep grudge felt by “black” Turks. His credentials include his origins as the son of rural immigrants to a tough, working-class part of Istanbul, having worked as a pushcart vendor of simit, Turkey’s sesame-sprinkled progenitor of the bagel, and a pithy, populist style of delivery. On Republic Day last year, which handily fell just before November’s election, he made a speech evoking times when some people celebrated the holiday “with frocks, waltzes and champagne” while others gazed at this scene “half-starved, with no shoes and no jackets to wear”. Now, he concluded, Turkey is united. Even after two decades of such rhetoric, it goes down well with many voters.

Not quite united.

Yet a look at Turkey’s political map suggests a less than complete picture of unity. The half of the electorate that votes for Mr Erdogan does include some minority groups, but mostly represents the narrower, ethnically Turkish and Sunni Muslim mainstream. Of the three rival parties that make up the parliamentary opposition, the Nationalist Movement, or MHP, is also “properly” Turkish but represents the extreme right. Its most distinctive trait is reflexive hostility to all non-Turks, especially Kurds.

The largest opposition party, the CHP, sees itself as the direct heir to Ataturk. Pro-Western and centre-left, it embraces secularists of all stripes and has sought to focus on issues rather than identity politics. Yet to the dismay of its own leadership the CHP’s core constituency, as well as most of its MPs, are Alevis.

The third component of the opposition, the People’s Democratic party, or HDP, is outwardly an alliance of small parties and leftist groups that recently joined forces to cross the 10% threshold for entering parliament. But for all its inclusiveness, most of the HDP’s supporters and candidates are Kurds. Yet to many the problem with the HDP lies not with its ethnic profile but with what they see as its too-cosy relationship with the PKK, a Kurdish guerrilla group that has fought a sporadic insurgency against the state since the 1980s and is officially deemed a terrorist organisation.

Read the whole article.

Sebastian Martyrs and the Cult of Atatürk

October and November are big months in modern Turkey. Three important dates in the history of the Republic are commemorated:

  • 6 October – The liberation of Istanbul
  • 29 October – The foundation of the Republic
  • 10 November – The anniversary of the death of the founding president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Mustafa Kemal and friends in Sivas, September 1919

Mustafa Kemal and friends in Sivas, September 1919

I’ve been in this country long enough to have witnessed a few annual returns of these dates, and it seems to me that of late the celebrations have become somewhat muted. Possibly that’s understandable. The elitist old guard have taken a bit of a beating in recent years from the new political kid on the block, the Justice and Development Party. The AKP, to use its Turkish initials, ‘Islamic-rooted’ as the foreign press persistently tells us, has been governing the country since 2003. Despite vociferous opposition from the left, right and centre of the traditional political spectrum, the AKP has won majorities in five parliamentary elections, and succeeded in having its candidate elected president in the first general election ever held for that position.

The country’s military leaders, long-established protectors of the sanctity of the constitution (which they wrote), have been nudged back to the more conventional role of defending the state from outside threats. Middle-aged social mediaholics, prefacing their Facebook profile names with the initials TC (for Turkish Republic) are convinced that the country is plunging headlong into a dark medieval night of alcohol prohibition, judicial beheadings and compulsory black burqas for women. You can understand their despair, given their total inability to make an impact at the ballot box.

sivas_turkiye_haritasinda_yeri_nerede

Location of Sivas province

As for me, I’m an optimist. Foreign visitors to Turkey have long been puzzled by the seemingly idolatrous adulation accorded to statues, photographs and death masks of the nation’s founder. I, at least, have read enough about Atatürk’s achievements to sympathise with the veneration accorded him. In a nutshell, if it hadn’t been for Mustafa Kemal Pasha, no country remotely resembling the modern nation of Turkey would exist today.

I do feel, however, that the time is right for authorities to lay aside the conventional blind adoration and work towards a realistic appraisal of Atatürk the man. While this may require some acceptance of his human failings, it will, I am convinced, result in a more profound appreciation of the mental and moral strength required to overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against his people in those days.

I worked in a school for some years whose commitment to secular Kemalism would rank among the more dedicated. From the day they entered our doors, pupils were drilled in the minutest details of the great man’s life, the colour of his eyes (piercing blue), the names of his father, mother  and sister (Ali Rıza, Zübeyde and Makbule respectively), the colour of the family home in Salonika (pink); and encouraged to shed tears of grief at 9.05 am every 10th of November. By the time they reached high school, it was difficult to get them to attend school ceremonies on those most sacred days in the Republican calendar. Most of them had had enough. Which struck me as sad.

British troops in Karaköy, Istanbul, 1919

British troops in Karaköy, Istanbul, 1919

Another thing that struck me as sad – and somewhat surprising in view of the school’s dedication to the lore of secular republicanism, was how many of my students thought that the Liberation of Istanbul had something to do with the conquest of Byzantine Constantinople by the 15th century Sultan, Mehmet II. Very few seemed to be aware that, after leading the army of National Salvation to victory against the invading Greeks, and driving them out of Izmir, Mustafa Kemal turned his troops northwards towards Istanbul, faced down the threat of war with the mighty British Empire, and watched the invaders leave as they had come, without firing a shot. The disgrace to Great Britain actually led to the collapse of David Lloyd George’s government and Winston Churchill’s (temporary) exile to the political wilderness. Whether Kemal Pasha’s eyes were blue, brown or bloodshot red, you’d think that would be something worth telling kids about.

29 October was the date in 1923 when the newly established parliament of Turkey proclaimed the foundation of the Republic. It has enormous symbolic importance, and is celebrated annually as Turkey’s equivalent of America’s 4th, and France’s 14th of July. As an actual historical event, however, the proclamation was a formal acknowledgement of a situation that had already existed for over three years. The nation’s Republican parliament (Millet Meclisi) had been inaugurated on 23 April 1920, in the new capital city of Ankara. Nevertheless, Turkey without Istanbul would be inconceivable, and one might argue, therefore, that winning that city back from the armies of occupation was an event of unparalleled significance.

Undoubtedly the fledgling Republic of Turkey suffered a great loss when its first President passed away on 10 November 1938. On the other hand, they were lucky to get him at all. Few nations in the world have been blessed with a leader whose multi-faceted genius encompassed military victories against fearsome odds, constitutional revolution, and statesmanship on the international stage. And of course, no one lives forever. Have you ever paused to consider what might have happened to Christianity if Jesus Christ had been allowed to see out his three score years and ten, instead of being martyred in the prime of life at the age of 33? Atatürk made it to 57, and it could be argued that his best years were behind him. How would he have dealt with the traumas of the Second World War, and pressure to give his people the vote? Possibly it’s for the best that we didn’t have to find out.

Sivas's famous kangal dog

Sivas’s famous kangal dog

It does seem to me though, that the outpourings of grief on anniversaries of his death, sincere though they may be, militate against a genuine appreciation of Atatürk’s outstanding achievements. Certainly he lives on in true Turkish hearts, and in that sense, is not actually dead – but the reality is that he’s not coming back. The Republic needs to move on, and to do that, 10 November provides an opportunity to give thanks for his life, and to begin evaluating, with a vision unclouded by tears of mourning, exactly what relevance his legacy has for Turkey in the 21st century.

Strange to say, my inspiration for this post did not actually come from any of those dates listed above. Last week there was a festival held in our new park by the seaside at Maltepe. Entitled ‘Sivas Günleri’, it was a celebration of the cultural identity of a region in central Anatolia east of Ankara. Sivas, its citizens driving cars whose number plates are prefixed with ‘58’, is, in area, the second-largest of Turkey’s 81 provinces, and one of the most sparsely populated.

It was a very Turkish festival. Two large marquees had been erected in the vast public square of the new park. The larger of the two housed displays of Sivas’s various districts, displaying local handcrafts and traditional costumes, and serving tea and snacks to mustachioed middle-aged and elderly gentlemen, one assumes hailing from those parts. There was also a central auditorium with a stage from which various minor dignitaries were holding forth about whatever these kind of guys like to hold forth about – with a rather sparse audience exhibiting scant interest in what they had to say.

Help yourself

Mouth-watering Sivas cuisine

The adjacent marquee held more appeal, not only for me, but for the crowds in attendance. It contained a number of restaurants serving Sivas cuisine, and stalls purveying local produce: honey, fresh and dried fruit and vegetables, and a marvellous variety of peculiarly Turkish delicacies. I bought a doll in traditional costume for my granddaughter, Kiri, and a packet of sweets made from hazel nut paste, which were a taste sensation! Then, since it was around lunchtime, and my salivary glands were in a state of high excitement, I allowed myself to be enticed by the sight of lamb carcasses rotating on spits over hot coals, and sat down to a meal of sırık kebab. Words cannot describe . . .

But what has this got to do with the Turkish Republic and its revered founder, I hear you ask. Well, Sivas, in contrast to its current relative insignificance, has a very colourful history. My sources tell me there was a Hittite settlement in the area as early as 2,600 BCE, though little is known about the town until the Roman general and political luminary, Pompey, founded the city he named Megalopolis, which later became Sebaste. You may be interested to learn, as I was, that the name ‘Sebastian’ derives from the Latin adjective meaning a citizen of that city.

Apparently Sebaste was quite a hive of early Christianity, back in the days when the Roman Empire was trying to stamp it out – and consequently is remembered for a number of martyrs, by churches that go in for that sort of thing. One particularly memorable event involved forty soldiers back in the 4th century who, to demonstrate the error of their ways, were exposed naked overnight on a frozen lake in the middle of winter. Well, nights can get pretty chilly out there on the Anatolian steppe at an altitude of around 1,500 metres, and there weren’t many signs of life the next morning; but to make certain, local authorities had the bodies burned and the ashes cast into a nearby river.

Sivas's 4th century 40 martyrs

Sivas’s 4th century 40 martyrs

Continuing the tradition of misfortune, Sebaste’s location at the eastern reaches of the Byzantine Empire exposed it to the earliest depredations of Turkic invaders in the 11th century. By the 12th century it had become Turkish to the extent that it served as one of the capitals of the Seljuk Empire, and in 1408, was incorporated into the expanding Ottoman dominions. In spite of Muslim conquest, however, Armenian and Orthodox Christian communities survived, with their churches, into the 20th century.

The Republican connection dates from September 1919. British and French armies had occupied the Ottoman capital Istanbul at the end of the First World War, and their governments began the process of dismembering the empire according to plans they had been making in secret for some years. The last straw for Turkish patriots was when a Greek army, sponsored by the victorious allies, landed in Izmir, intent on re-claiming their once extensive Byzantine territories.

There is some debate about the circumstances surrounding Mustafa Kemal’s departure from Istanbul and arrival in the Black Sea port of Samsun on 19 May 1919. Nevertheless, that date is recognised in modern Turkey as the beginning of the War of Liberation (Kurtuluş Savaşı). He wasn’t alone, of course, but it was undoubtedly Kemal Pasha’s charisma that inspired his war-weary people to one further struggle. Two congresses were held, in Erzurum and Sivas, laying the groundwork for the forthcoming conflict, and these two cities are recognised as crucial in the foundation of the Republic.

Sivas has two other claims to fame. One is its status as the home of the kangal, a large breed of dog renowned as a guardian of livestock and villagers against wolves, bears and jackals.

The other, less honourable, is a shameful event that took place on 2 July, 1993. On that date, the city was the venue for a cultural festival attended by a gathering of artists, writers and intellectuals, many of whom were Alevi. A mob of religious extremists set fire to the Madımak Hotel where many of the visitors were staying, resulting in 35 deaths.

Stop the killing - there are better things in life

Stop the killing – there are better things in life

Again there is some debate about the reasons for the attack. Some say it was targeting a gentleman by the name of Aziz Nesrin, who had angered orthodox Sunni Muslims by translating Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel, ‘The Satanic Verses’, into Turkish. Others say it was more generally directed at the Alevi community as a whole. It was asserted at the time that local police stood by and allowed the arsonists to do their work unmolested. That’s entirely possible – although the government of the day did seem to do its best to bring perpetrators to justice.

Well, the 1990s are not so long ago, when you think about it. Those were bad times in Turkey, as opponents of the present government should not forget. The history of Sivas has a lot to teach us, if we choose to listen.

The Lasting Legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk

On 10 November people in Turkey pause to commemorate the achievements of the revered founder of their republic, on the anniversary of his death in 1938. I’m reblogging this tribute published on the website of the Turkish Coalition of America:

ataturk-10-2“On November 10th, TCA paid tribute to the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who led the Turkish National War of Liberation, founded the modern Republic of Turkey and launched an extraordinary series of reforms that continue to inspire the Turkish nation. World-over, Ataturk is honored as one of the greatest national leaders of the 20th Century. In the words of Scottish historian, Patrick Balfour (the 3rd Baron Kinross): “the soldier in Ataturk had saved his country, the statesman in him had won for it the honorable peace, the reformer in him was now to make of it a new country.”

Ataturk: The Soldier

Ataturk: The Statesman

Ataturk: The Reformer

Please click here to listen to the speech of President John F. Kennedy delivered in 1963 on the 25th anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s passing.” 

Read the whole article.

The 1955 Istanbul Riots – Democracy in the good old days

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.

Aftermath of the 1955 Istanbul riots

Aftermath of the 1955 Istanbul riots

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.

Scenes of destruction the day after

Scenes of destruction the day after

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.

PM Adnan Menderes on the cover of Time - and the background is interesting

PM Adnan Menderes on the cover of Time – and the background is interesting

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.’

Brits take over Cyprus from the Ottomans, 1878

Brits take over Cyprus from the Ottomans, 1878

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.

Gladio - NATO's secret armies

Gladio – NATO’s secret armies

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