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How Nationalism and History Clash in Turkey

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    2004.10.01 Arab News: The Middle East s Leading English Language Daily Saturday, 1, October, 2005 (27, Sha`ban, 1426) How Nationalism and History Clash in
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 4, 2005
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      2004.10.01 Arab News:

      The Middle East's Leading English Language Daily
      Saturday, 1, October, 2005 (27, Sha`ban, 1426)

      How Nationalism and History Clash in Turkey

      Karl Vick, The Washington Post -

      ISTANBUL, Turkey, 1 October 2005 - The exhibit opened 50 years to
      the day after the mayhem it chronicled in the cobblestone street
      right outside the gallery.
      Captured on black-and-white glossies was a modern-day pogrom, a
      massive, state-sponsored assault on a foreign community that awoke on
      the morning of Sept. 6, 1955, still feeling safe in Istanbul. By
      sunset a day later, a mob of perhaps 100,000 Turks had attacked
      foreigners' homes, schools and churches, and filled whole streets
      with the contents of the ruined shops that lined them. In the
      aftermath of the attack, a city for centuries renowned for its
      diversity steadily purged itself of almost everyone who could not
      claim to be Turkish.

      The exhibit at Karsi Artworks attempts to confront that history,
      dubbed the Events of Sept. 6-7, in the era before "ethnic cleansing''
      entered the popular lexicon. But when ultranationalist thugs swarmed
      into the gallery on opening night - throwing eggs, tearing down
      photos and chanting "Love it or leave it!'' - the question became
      whether it really is history at all.

      "Just like what happened 50 years ago,'' said Mahmut Erol Celik, a
      retired civil servant emerging from the defaced exhibit. "It's the
      same mentality. That's what's so embarrassing.''

      Appearances have lately counted for a lot in Turkey. Under intense
      international scrutiny, its government hopes to begin negotiations
      Oct. 3 that should conclude with Turkey as a member of the European
      Union. Even if the process takes 15 years, as many predict, the
      result would apparently fulfill an ambition such as that which drove
      modern Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who preached that the
      country's future lay firmly with the West.

      But questions arise almost daily about whether either side wants to
      proceed. Europe's mixed feelings about absorbing Turkey's large, poor
      and overwhelmingly Muslim population are well known. But Turkey
      harbors its own ambivalence, apparently rooted in the recurring
      question of how much the country cares about the world beyond its own
      borders.

      That question came up again this month, when a Turkish court made
      headlines by barring a handful of scholars from gathering to discuss
      the deaths in 1915 of perhaps a million ethnic Armenians, in
      circumstances that Armenia and many independent scholars describe as
      genocide but Turkey calls the consequences of war.

      The disagreement has poisoned relations between the neighboring
      nations for decades with an obsessiveness that overtakes Turkish
      efforts to appear poised. This summer, readers of Time magazine's
      international edition found a DVD tucked into a four-page ad for
      Turkish tourism. The disc included 13 minutes of commercials and an
      hour-long propaganda film accusing Armenians of slaughtering Turks.

      "It's not a polemic,'' said a spokeswoman for the Ankara Chamber of
      Commerce, which paid for the disorienting mix of polished commercials
      and grainy footage of dead bodies. "We just wanted to position Turkey
      on this issue.''

      Last May, the prospect of scholars gathering for an independent
      assessment of the controversy brought a chilling warning from
      Turkey's justice minister, who called them "traitors.'' After
      objections from the EU, the scrapped conference was rescheduled and
      was finally held this month, but not without an accompanying
      demonstration by Turkish nationalists. Also this month, a prosecutor
      filed charges against Orhan Pamuk, the country's most acclaimed
      novelist, for observing that the Armenian issue was off-limits in the
      country.

      "There is no other country which harms its own interests this much,''
      Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said.

      But then few other countries are so nationalistic. Turks are raised
      to believe that Turkey is surrounded by enemies and can rely only on
      itself. The unitary notion of the state views all citizens as ethnic
      Turks and regards any other presence as a dire threat.

      So there was deep concern in official circles in September when Pope
      Benedict XVI made plans to travel to Istanbul at the invitation of
      Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the ethnic Greek who serves as
      spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians. The
      Orthodox patriarchy remained in Istanbul, then called Constantinople,
      after the city was overtaken by Muslims half a millennium ago. But
      modern Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the patriarch's authority
      and hastened to issue its own official invitation to the pope, who
      obliged by postponing his trip.

      To cultivate Europe, the government also invited Catholic, Orthodox,
      Jewish, Assyrian Christian and Muslim leaders to an ecumenical
      conference due to conclude four days before the crucial opening of
      the prospective EU negotiations, which one analyst predicted will be
      "contentious.''

      "When a country is embarking on a major negotiation process, when
      it's trying to eradicate old taboos and embrace modern norms, you
      usually do that in the name of nation-building,'' said Katinka
      Barysch, an analyst at the London-based Center for European Reform.
      "As Turkey embarks on this, it invokes nationalism. Which doesn't sit
      very well with the EU process.''

      Copyright: Arab News © 2003 All rights reserved.
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