How Nationalism and History Clash in Turkey
- 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
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
"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
"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.''
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