Turkey’s Minorities : The Challenges Of « Proximity Alterity »

Interview with Samim Akgönül, Historian & Political Scientist, Professor at the University of Strasbourg 
Interview held by Tania Gisselbrecht, Project Associate @BridgingEurope
Seen from Brussels, Turkey’s minorities’ issue is certainly regarded as a major stumbling block to the EU-Turkey dialogue. As a country seeking accession to the European Union, Turkey is expected to comply with basic European and international standards, which include the protection of minorities since the introduction of the Copenhagen criteria. Hence the EU is adopting a technical stance regarding this matter: its chief concern is to bring Turkey to set up minorities’ protection standards in line with the political Copenhagen eligibility criteria (Human Rights, Democracy, Rule of law – which are Council of Europe’s principles- plus a new pillar, the “protection of minorities”).
This approach somehow fails to comprehend the historical and sociological dimensions of the minority issue. Turkey’s reluctance to fully recognize and protect minorities within its borders originates in a restrictive understanding of the term ‘minority’. Turkey’s standpoint is intrinsically linked to the very foundations of the Turkish Republic and its narrow conception of the Nation. By erecting ‘Turkishness’ as an exclusivist basis for citizenship on the multicultural and multi-confessional remnants of the Ottoman Empire, the State has sown the seed of conflict. In other words, violations of minority rights can be viewed as the symptoms of a congenital disease that, with time, also contaminated the collective unconscious.

How does Turkey define the word ‘minority’? Why does its interpretation differ from international standards?

Turkey’ refers to the Treaty of Lausanne as the source for recognition and protection of minorities. However Turkey’s understanding of the word ‘minority’ is based on its own reading of the Treaty’s provisions. As a matter of fact, the Treaty’s section pertaining to minorities does not only cite religious minorities. Linguistic (therefore ethnic) minorities are also protected without any of these being specifically mentioned. But in practice, Turkey has narrowed down the Lausanne definition of minorities on the basis of a religious belonging. Today the country is still acting as if there were only the non-Muslims, and among non-Muslims as if there were only Armenians, Greeks and Jews to count as minorities. Five centuries under the Ottoman millet system have certainly shaped this restrictive understanding. Under the millet, religion was indeed the unique criterion used to determine someone’s identity status. Besides the concept has been applied only to specific non-Muslims. Only those forcibly displaced to Istanbul (where it was easier to keep them under control) benefited from this status. Anatolia-based non-Muslims like rural Armenians from Diyarbakir and Mardin, Assyrians and Chaldeans from the South-East, Jews in Eastern Thrace, have been kept outside the minority system. Basically, the original Lausanne terminology has been both truncated and very partially implemented.

It is true that the definition of a minority depends on how the majority defines itself. If territoriality is the main criterion used by a given society to describe its identity, then people born outside the borders are considered to be a minority. If the criterion is ethnic, the minority will be an ethnic one. Where religious belonging is the criterion like in Turkey, minorities are religious. So in today’s Turkey, the word ‘azınlık’ (‘minority’ in modern Turkish) is politically and technically understood as ‘religious minority’. However, from a sociological standpoint, minorities do not exclusively depend on the State perception, this status is also a social reality. Thus it is impossible to reduce the minority issue to a religious issue as Turkey did. Accordingly Kurds, Laz, Alevis, Greeks, Assyro-Chaldeans etc are all minorities. In Turkey interestingly, neither do the State authorities recognize these groups as minorities, nor do those groups accept the minority label (due to its negative connotation).

Can a constitutional change be the key to the advancement of minorities ?

Of course, it is an absolute necessity to modify the constitution. But notwithstanding any constitutional revision (the constitution already provides for all citizens equality), Turkey’s priority should be to deconstruct the State’s and the society’s very foundations. Those were hastily built with incompatible materials borrowed from various other national systems. Today cracks are too deep to be simply repaired. What is needed is a new education system with new history books, a new culture (literature, music, art) that would no longer hinge on the flawed and invented concept of ‘Turkishness’. Turkey needs a decentralization of identity, a political decentralization so that all communities can feel at home.

Is the State in a capacity to achieve such a goal ?

The current state of affairs is the product of the State’s action. In 90 years, the State managed to forge a fake collective memory relying on the ‘State ideological apparatus’ (laws, school, political discourse) as described by Louis Althussser. People were made to believe that their ancestors came from Central Asia. But worse than this fallacy, the State succeeded in erasing the ‘Others’ from the collective memory. So the State can play a part in (initiating positive changes). But civil society has also the capacity to play a role. Civil society, who used to be almost absent, has strengthened itself in the late 90s and early 2000s notably with the support of the EU. Consequently conservative movements also entered the ranks of civil society. Today the democratic, humanist, pro-European civil society however seems to be losing ground to conservative movements. There is an influence battle raging within the civil society. Europe should continue to support and finance organizations (which advocates for human rights and democratic values).

The coming to terms with the traumatic past (the eradication of minorities) can be psychologically violent. It is also a destabilizing process insofar as for Turkey this would imply to bring down from his pedestal the tutelary figure of Atatürk, the father of the Republic.

That is right but there are means to confront history. Other countries were successful in addressing their past. From the moment the founding father become an abstract figure, from the moment he can be freely derided, he loses his sacred status. So there is no longer a need (to symbolically kill) the father, or to make him disappear. To reach this stage, long-term societal education is fundamental. Public education, culture are the vectors of (a new outlook.) But they are at risk to come under the conservative leadership. EU should support artists, universities, scientific research, civil society (in order to sustain the memorial process).

The current regime stands on a diametrically opposite ideological side than the founding fathers of the Republic. So why didn’t it yet initiated the Republic’s refondation ?

Beware ! This is a typically Western and erroneous vision. In fact, the present regime is following in the Republic’s founding fathers footsteps. First the founders of the Republic chose Islam as the criterion for belonging to Turkishness. Islamists flourished on the idea that Turks are Muslims and on the uniqueness of Islam. Secondly, the Republic was based on the intention to model future generation, (the perfect Turk). The same method is applied today using the very same tools to produce the perfect Muslim. Thirdly, the State’s ideological tools created by the Republic’s founding fathers (legislation, education, press under control…) are recreated today alongside Turco-Islamism. Some observers, including myself, believed the conservatives would change these tools. But when they morphed into Islamists and rose to power, the conservatives did not want anymore to alter this very convenient apparatus. The current system is nothing but a pale copy of the 30s’s (State structures). Focusing superficially on the veil issue, one gets the impression that there are two opposite blocks. In reality, the two blocks are converging. I am afraid that the pendulum which had swung to one extreme is now swinging back proportionally in the opposite direction using the same means of coercion; unfortunately the axis remains the same.

When did the minority issue gained political momentum in Turkey ?

The situation evolved in the 1990s. Turkey then witnessed the emergence of a wave of nostalgia for the Istanbul of the 1960s. This unexpected fad praised the modernity and multiculturalism of the city’s old minorities. Why had the intellectual and cultural elites developed this sudden interest for minorities? I made the cynical assessment that this phenomena was linked to the discovery of a new and disturbing ‘alterity’. The civil unrest and the rural exodus had driven many Kurds to Western Turkish towns. “White Turks” (urbanized and westernized Turks from Western Turkey) then unconsciously realized that the older ‘alterity’ was far more “modern”, Europeanized and pleasant than this new one. Parallel to the literature lamenting the departure of the non-Muslims, romantically documenting ‘the fading colors of the rainbow’, other publications were decrying Istanbul as being a large village inhabited by people deprived of urban manners. Contempt (for the present) vs. sanctification, hagiography of the past. The discovery of the new ‘alterity’ made the older one more precious. The sincerity of that interest for the lost minorities cannot be questioned. But back then nobody had analyzed what could have triggered this wave of nostalgia It cannot be excluded that this phenomenon was a form of guilt trip. In Turkey, when a dead man dies, people say « what beautiful eyes he had« . The saying means that it is easy to praise a dead man. While praising the old minorities, white Turks forgot that themselves, their parents or their social class (which used to be very nationalist 30 years before) had contributed to eradicate the groups they were paying tribute to. Nevertheless the whole experience has had the virtue of bringing the minority issue to the public agenda. It also initiated a synergy between all the concerned minorities, the intellectuals from the democratic left, the least militarized fringe of the Kurds who believed in political struggle, and feminist and LGBT groups.

That coalition was numerically small but influential thanks to its reliance on effective communication means. After the Gezi movement, which was somehow the culmination of the movement initiated in the 1990s, the government understood the danger of free communication means. To contain the civil society coalition, it is now restricting access to social networks, press freedom. For instance, the 2008 “ Özür diliyorum /I apologise “ petition was widely circulated, quickly gathered more than 30 000 signatures and generated intense debate. On the contrary, the Together we have a dream” petitionlaunched last May barely collected 800 signatures. It clearly indicates that civil society initiatives are losing their visibility. The power alone is setting the public agenda and civil society is stuck in a reactive posture. We need to reflect about the means to reverse this situation.

What is the appropriate pace for Turkey to come to terms with its past?

Two approaches can be envisioned in order to settle Turkey’s three identity crisis (religious identity, ethnic (linguistic) identity and gender identity). One school advocates for (empathy) with the majority whose outlook should be taken into consideration for a work of persuasion to be effective. Action should be gradual in order to accommodate the majority’s concerns. The second option is shock therapy. According to this preference, taboo are meant to be broken, foundations to be shaken and the majority must be confronted with the past and the present. No approach is better than the other. Sometimes circumstances can dictate for the appropriate move. But more than often, for intellectuals or activists, it feels uncomfortable to choose between the two. That being said, in my opinion, we are nearing the end (of an era) which is not going to please the majority, the current situation is unsustainable. In the course of the 21st century, Turkey will have to alter the system. The time to end the hyper-centralized Jacobin State has come.

Does Europe have the means to accompany Turkey’s advancement of minorities ?

Europe used to have the means to do so. But its influence has diminished. The long-running story of EU accession has become a useless carrot and stick policy. Europe is partly responsible for that loss of influence. EU is a political entity with blurred contours, an atypical category (of international organization) which consequently does not have its own policies. Still Europe can accompany Turkey with due diligence. But Europe’s presence won’t be sufficient either. Let’s not forget that Hungary had been accompanied on its way to EU. Unfortunately the country integrated Europe without having settled its identity issues. Now these are resurfacing, against the backdrop of the rise of nationalism at European level. Nonetheless Europe’s absence, Europe’s indifference for Turkey could have dramatic consequences. Fortunately Europe is not limited to the EU. Turkey is anchored to Europe in its quality as early member of the Council of Europe which embodies the Europe of values. Turkey has contributed to the development of those values as a long-standing member of the organization so they are not unfamiliar foreign values. These values can also provide for a framework of action.

Is EU accession part of the Turkish minorities’ agenda ?

When the European issue gained momentum at the end of the 1990s / beginning of 2000s, large swathes of population, who for decades had been oppressed (Alevis, Kurds, non-Muslims, conservative Muslims), strongly supported accession. Among these groups, one is no longer discriminated against because it has risen to power : the conservative Muslims. Today this fringe of the population holds power (i.e. the capacity to influence society) and therefore no longer needs Europe for its legitimation. For this reason, support for the EU accession has diminished among the conservative population. (Mechanically) this has affected the society at large. Though being an ambivalent figure, Europe remains important for the other minorities. Indeed, according to the theory of Serge Moscovici developed in “La pscychologie des minorités actives”, once a minority grabs power and thus gets the legitimacy of domination, it immediately strikes back at other minorities. So for those who remain discriminated against in Turkey, Europe still embodies hope and democratization prospects.

                                   Kurds, victims of the regional turmoil 

The talks between the government and the PKK have been officially baptized ‘Çözüm süresi’ (resolution process). Why avoiding the ‘peace process’ terminology?

Ankara never acknowledged that a war was being waged on its territory. It only recognized the existence of a ‘Kurdish issue’. So the word ‘peace process’ is banned from official language. It is also impossible to speak of negotiations because the ‘resolution process’ is supported by the Turco-Islamic layers of the population. These people are quite nationalist and only accept the initiative because the Kurds are described as Muslims. Another chilling term has been crafted to convince the society that the process does not threaten the national unity :’milli birlik süreci’. national unity process

Notwithstanding the controversial denomination of the process are both sides sincere in their intention to achieve long-lasting peace ?

Kurds have fought for decades to obtain little. Now that they are on the verge of obtaining more, they would be ready to sign a pact with the devil, so to say. They cannot be blamed for that. Most of the conflict’s 30 000 victims were Kurds. They are sincere.

On the AKP side, political interests and electoral gains might of course have motivated the peace project. However there is probably also a civilisational project in store; it is often the case with Islamists. The goal is to leave the legacy of a more conservative, more Islamized country. To achieve that, ethnic and linguistic issues have to be solved. The common basis for dialogue shall be Islam. The müsülman milleti in the Ottoman sense shall be the model. Whether one adheres to this project or not is irrelevant as far as the government’s sincerity is concerned. They are developing a new civilisational project like the Kemalists did. Only the foundations are being changed. This time it is Islam and not western modernity which will serve (as the source of inspiration).

Given the scale of the regional turmoil, can the process derail despite the sincerity of both sides ?

Unfortunately it can. External factors will have a huge impact on the ‘resolution process’. Until now the Turks have thought that their conflict with the Kurds was strictly a national issue. They have just realized that the situation is dependent on the (regional balance). It seems that Ankara is somehow discovering the ‘complicated Middle East’ to which it had long remain foreign. As a proof of that, in Turkey there are few International Relations specialists able to speak Arab, Farsi, or Hebrew. Ankara is now facing a tough dilemma : the impossible choice is between the Kurds and IS, a Frankenstein that Turkey has contributed to create. Which one is potentially the least dangerous neighbour ? So if there is any step back with the resolution process, it will be a consequence of the international context.

Are the old hatred between Kurdish and Armenians still left unspoken or are they being addressed ? [1]

There are less things left unspoken on this particular issue because Kurdish political leaders like Selahattin Demirtaş, Ahmet Türk and others voiced theirmea culpa concerning the participation of the Kurdish tribes to the genocide. And words were followed by concrete actions. The municipality of Sur, the most densely populated district of Dıyarbakır, has rehabilitated the local Armenian Church, put up road signs in Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian and made its website accessible in Turkish, Kurdish, Zazaki, Armenian. The Director of the presidential campaign of Demirtas is someone close to the Agos movement. This proximity might be the side-effect of their common struggle (to advance minorities rights). It is as well the consequence of a shared history. Now with the coming out of crypto-Armenians, the two community are rediscovering their common past. Both Kurds and Armenians used to be rural communities and to share the same geography. By the way, the ‘proximity alterity’ is the sharpest and most problematic of all. It is common to hear :“People hate each others because they don’t know each other”. But according to me, the opposite is true. It is not ignorance but proximity which breeds hate. ‘I am not a racist, my neighbor is Arab’. You hate who is the closest, who can represent a danger for your own group. The Turkish-Kurdish-Armenian conflict stems from this huge proximity. To be too similar, not different enough is a threat (to one’s own identity), therefore people fight against each other. Voltaire used to say that identity amounted to sameness.[2] Now it remains to be seen whether this rapprochement between Kurds and Armenians will pervade society as well.

Compared to other minority groups, Kurds have been more successful in advancing their own agenda. Is it because they resorted to violence?

Certainly not ! Their particular situation is linked to the way the Turkish Nation State was build. It was a three-stages process. 1. Extermination. People who could not be assimilated had to disappear. 2.Assimilation. People who could be assimilated, i.e. non-Turkish speaking Muslims, were assimilated. 3.Foklorisation. The characteristics of marginal groups who resisted assimilation were presented in a funny, non offending, folkloric manner. Today Laz are reminiscent of jokes, hamsi; Bosnians call to mind the Börek; Circassians are associated with tavuk…This three steps scheme was a success to the exception of Kurds. 1. They were not exterminated because they were Muslims and participate in the extermination campaign. 2. They could not be assimilated because they were indigenous and had their own social structures. The populations which were forcibly assimilated had come to Turkey over one century from the Balkans and the Caucasus. Kurds had not the feeling they needed to adjust to a different environment. So assimilation partially failed. 3. Their culture could not be folklorized because they were too numerous. Even if Kurds had not resorted to violence in the 80s, they would still be ahead of the other minorities because they simply did not fit in any of the three stages.

                                 Alevism : an identity in construction 

The Alevi identity is debated within the community itself. But one must underline that this is a new phenomenon. The Alevi identity is debated within the Alevi community because this issue emerged within Turkish society. In other words, from the moment their own identity starts to be discussed outside their communities, minorities begin to discuss their belonging in their own terms. Since the religious identity is occupying the forefront of the Turkish public debate, the Alevis tend to primarily focus on the defence of their religion. So this is a contextual, situational debate. However there are also structural explanations to that evolution. Since the 1960s, under the impact of rural exodus and the ensuing urban boom, Alevism has morphed into an urban identity. That transformation is a total reversal from Alevism’s original status. Since the 13th and 14th centuries, Alevism had been an essentially rural phenomenon characterized by a plurality of identities, varying from one locality to the other. Back then it was Bektashism, Alevism’s brotherhood version, that used to be considered as the urban, intellectual, and more dogmatic manifestation of Alevism. As of today, we observe the opposite. Alevis are to be found in urban centers while Bektashism remained in rural areas.

That reversal is having an extraordinary impact : for centuries, Alevism in its rural form never engaged in dogmatic arguments about its very nature. Essentially because everybody knew what it was. Every faith which is transferred to a new environment faces a new imperative: to define itself. The urbanization of Alevism has thus led to the centralization of its definition. Three ‘trends’ co-exist within the Alevi community. One current considers Alevism like a branch of Islam. In the Turkish context, where Islam is highly visible, it is indeed more opportune for a community to define itself as belonging to the mainstream religion than remaining outside. Basically this claimed sense of belonging is motivated by the potential external rewards (social recognition/acceptance) that affiliation to Islam can offer.

The second school of thought describes Alevism like a distinct faith. Alevism certainly borrows some of its features to Islam but its degree of syncretism is so high that one has to consider it as a religion of its own kind. The third conception of Alevism is probably the most ancient and structured one. It comprehends Alevism as a way of life, a philosophy, based on a corpus of religious, social and cultural values. As such, Alevism reaches beyond religion.

The redefinition of Alevism around its confessional identity is a mimetic reaction to the confessionalization of the whole Turkish society. On one hand, confessionalization allows for public visibility; on the other hand, since Alevism is not exclusively a religion, confessionalization is achieved to the detriment of Alevis’ social, cultural and political identity. And this is occurring, so to say, despite themselves, without the community’s awareness. Given the religious nature of the identity debate, the community is starting to use the same vocabulary as other institutionalized religions and to engage with issues that have so far been foreign to its concerns. One of them being the recognition of the places of worship.

In the face of demands for the recognition of Alevi places of worship, the State has developed an interesting discourse. For the government, the cemevi (the Alevi place of worship) does not exist. (so there is no need for recognition) There are only ev (private houses) where the cem ceremony is performed. Actually this stance is historically correct. In times when Alevism was still a rural phenomena there were no cemevi dedicated to the cult, only private houses where the cem was performed. Conversely in the urban environment, to gather in a private house in order to pray is no longer possible. The construction of places of worship marks the institutionalization of the religious practice. This process goes hand in hand with new mental representations and discursive constructions of Alevism which are hinging on the vocabulary, categories, and issues referred to in monotheist religions. For instance, some voices are now questioning the status of Alevis spiritual leaders, baba and dede (claims in favor of the recognition and remuneration by the State) who up to now had never been envisioned as clergymen. All those on-going transformations explain why today it remains difficult to define Alevism.

Numerically speaking, Alevis represent the most important minority group in Turkey. However their community struggle for recognition does not seem to receive the same echo as the other minorities voices? What undermines their struggle ?

The main reason for the community’s discretion is the tradition of secret it has been clinging to in order to protect itself against persecutions and the dogmatization of Sunnism which developed in the 16th century. They never publicly professed their belonging to Alevism. The second reason explaining their caution lies in the conviction that the Republic had settled their interests for good. In a system shaped by secularism, Jacobinism and state control over Sunni religion, they felt protected. They were satisfied with the structure of state. However the rise of Sunni radicalism in the 1990s altered that sense of safety. The Sivas massacre in 1993 definitively marks a turning point. Alevis understood they were no longer safe. The (trauma) inaugurated a new phase of public assertion of Alevism. Finally, the above mentioned internal rifts also contribute to the relatively unassuming presence of Alevis in the public debate. But this factor remains marginal because of its contextual nature. The internal divisions only reflect the struggle of the community’s to adjust to an environment shaped by religion.

Around 20 % of the Alevis idenify themselves as Kurds . Does this common belonging foster any solidarity between these two groups?

If there is solidarity it is not based on identity factors. It is rather a class-based solidarity. Today in Turkey, the ranks of the radical left are mainly made up of Alevis, Turkish or Kurdish. Since they don’t claim their Alevism, their identity is not apparent. What is cementing their solidarity is their common ideological belonging, their class status.

Besides Kurds are quite conservative. Religious brotherhoods are very influential among them. On the opposite, the militant layers of the Kurdish population are rather Marxist-Leninist and sometimes atheists. These political activists neither state their Alevism nor their Sunnism. That being said, there is also a minority within the Kurdish minority : the Dersim (Tunceli) Alevis. Dersim Alevis are a separate, linguistic and local identity. For all these reasons, it is complicated to speak of solidarity between Kurds and Alevis. Together Kurds and Alevi Kurds fight solely for their ‘Kurdishness’, not for their rights as different minorities. It is only the political affiliation that is put to the fore.

What are Alevis’ strategies to defend their rights ?

Above all, they deny being a minority. The explanation is twofold. In the Turkish context, the word ‘minority’ is negatively charged. Belonging to a minority is perceived as being a second class citizen. Given the attitude of the State towards minorities throughout the last century, it is not an enviable position. This denial also reflects the position of one of the community’s segment according to which  Alevism is a branch of Islam. In both these instances, the ‘minority’ label is refused despite the fact that Alevism is in reality a minority.

Speaking of the Alevis, one should not forget that the identity debate within the Alevi community is historically speaking fairly recent. The movement has neither a hierarchical structure, nor an established and unique leadership, nor a strategic visibility. That is why the community follows multiple approaches that are hard to identify. Nonetheless the outlines, the philosophical and intellectual bases of the Alevi identity are currently being laid down.

Now that they have become more visible, they tend to alternatively follow two strategies: asking for their recognition as a distinct community or demanding equality as citizens. However both approaches are failing to find an echo as they are weakened by the official discourse. In fact, when some Alevis demand recognition as a community, they are told “there is no such thing as a community in Turkey, they are only citizens”. To those who chose to advocate in favor of equality, the State replies “all citizens are already equal by virtue of the constitution. So what more do you want ? ». But in practice, there is no equality.

                                          Armenians, a divided community

Is the Turkish Armenian community homogenous? Or like the Alevis does it experience internal rifts ?

From a sociological point of view, one shall first distinguish the ‘historical’ Armenian community (which comprises around 50 000 citizens mostly from the middle-class bourgeoisie) from the “illegal” Armenian immigrants (between 100 000 and 150 000) who live at the edges of the original community and belong to the lower classes. The rural face of the community has become anecdotic, a thing of the past. Beyond the sociological divide, the Armenian community is also exposed to political fault lines. The history of the community’s newspaper Agos and the recent quarrels involving prominent Armenian columnists from various newspapers with different affiliations demonstrate the nature of the infightings.

Since 1915, the Armenian community sought refuge in a strong culture of silence. The spark that changed that tradition was Hrant Dink, the founder of Agos. Coming from the radical left, he was an “a-religious” who had severed all ties with the Armenian Church, before re-establishing those ties. His conviction was that in order for the Armenian voice to be heard beyond the community itself, Turkish Armenians needed to address directly the Turkish audience and therefore publish in Turkish. This was a radical departure from the traditional stance. His choice enabled the Armenian community to become more audible. This posture also drew the attention and support of left wing intellectuals who started to contribute to Agos as well. Through the rapprochement between Agos and those intellectuals, the Armenian voice became more audible but also more inconvenient. Agos had become a platform around which various expressions of diversity crystallized.

Dink’s stance was met with three different types of reaction: disapproval from the diaspora who insisted on the necessity to recognize the genocide in order to move the Armenian agenda forward ; anger among the Armenians which reproached him for breaking the culture of silence and exposing the community; condemnation of his lack of radicalism for the reason that his struggle went beyond the defense of the sole Armenian cause. So two conflicting voices had emerged from within the Turkish Armenian community: the social/collective one focused on human rights and Turkey’s democratization, and the identitarian one. This rift ultimately reveals two conceptions of ‘Armenishness’: one representing a multiple belonging, standing for a multicultural egalitarian Turkey, and another one making no concession on its ‘Armenishness’, a (quasi nationalistic) version.

Diverging political leaning further divides the Armenian community. Like the columnist Etyen Mahçupyan, some members of the community have become staunch supporters of the AKP. In Mahçupyan’s eyes, his fellows Armenians are so blinded by their ‘Armenishness’, that they cannot see the constructive path that the conservatives are opening. He blames their angelism, their taking advantage of Hrant Dink’s heritage without offering new alternatives.

What is the impact of the discovery of ‘hidden Armenians’ on Turkish society ?

The hidden Armenians are a double taboo. First for the Turks. Within society, it is an open secret that Armenians girls or children were held captive and forced to convert in the wake of the genocide. Despite recent publication of personal testimonies in the media, or in literature, this reality remains taboo. By the way, the former Director of the National History Institute, now a MHP (ultranationalist) MP, said in the beginning of the 2000s : The State knows who is Armenian and who is not.

Crypto-Armenians are also a taboo for the Armenian community and above all for the diaspora.  Accepting the fact that 100 of thousand of Armenians were Islamized, that thousands of children and girls were rescued by Turks, implies nothing less than accepting to diminish the scale of the genocide. There is indeed a dispute over figures: shall conversions be subtracted from the numbers of the genocide victims? Personally I don’t think so: forced conversions, kidnapping, are a part of Genocide as well as expulsions and killings.

I have the impression that many people are now uncovering fictitious Armenian roots for themselves. Notably Kurds. Beyond the ‘romantic’ aspect of the story, it also enables them to position themselves on a double front, the Kurdish and the Armenian, in order to defend their rights. Funnily enough, the State used to debunk the Kurdish militants as Armenian offsprings. The intent was malignant but probably not totally wrong ! In general, this discussion is rather new, there are not enough statistics, field researches. The crypto-Armenians question should elicit more interest in the academia in order to get a clearer and less passionate picture.

The 1915 Armenian genocide is remembered every 24th April. The commemoration of the genocide’s centenary will take place next year. On the 25th April 2015, Turkey’s will also celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli victory, a founding event for the Republic. After extending his condolences to the Armenian community, will Erdoğan leave some margin of maneuver to the Armenians and the Turkish civil society in order for them to organize commemorative events?

Erdoğan is a man capable of leaving some margin of manoeuvre to convince people he is a democrat, while celebrating with nationalist pomp the Gallipoli victory in order to generate frictions. I foresee a difficult year 2015. Tensions are avoidable but won’t be avoided.

The diaspora is also divided. For one segment of the diaspora, there cannot be any positive outcome to the Armenian issue without the collaboration of the Turkish civil society. Other diaspora members denigrate all initiatives launched by the Turkish civil society. For instance, they view the supporters of petitions as State agents who aim at trimming the Armenian demands (recognition of genocide, excuses, payment of damages to the victims). For them, such initiatives contaminate and weaken the Armenian activism. That fringe of the diaspora considers that dialogue with Turkish State is useless, impossible. It simply wants to impose its demands.

Finally, do you think that Turkey will be able to resolve its identity problems for the 100th anniversary of the foundation of the Republic in 2023?

I hope that in the next decade, this « inflation of identity” will be finally overtaken. In the 1960’s leftist where thinking that identity issues where unimportant and dangerous for the class struggle. In the 2000’s social class identification has been completely abandoned for religious, ethnic, linguistic identifications. My hope is to see the comeback of social class perception including at the same time collective identities.  Turkey has a diverse society, and all fringes of this big “ ensemble “ deserves to express itself  and deserves to be heard in order to be able to construct social solidarities beyond identities.


[1] Some tribal Kurds who were organized into an auxiliary armed force called the ‘Hamidiye Alaylari’ or Hamidiye Brigades participated in the implementation of the genocide under the command of the government in Istanbul.

[2] « Identité. Ce terme scientifique ne signifie que même chose ; il pourrait être rendu en français par mêmeté. »


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