Minority demands unsettle Turks

ANKARA – As a child, Hrant Dink dreamt of becoming a detective, a hope that was shattered by Turkey’s unwritten rule that Jews and Christians may not join the police, the Foreign Ministry or become officers in the military. But Dink’s dream is now at the center of a growing debate in Turkey over minority rights sparked after European Union officials recommended that the bloc begin membership talks with Turkey but insisted that the country must improve its treatment of minorities. The debate, which is being carried out in newspapers, on television and in the streets, calls into question the very definition of what it is to be a Turk, a national identity that many regard as the glue that holds the country together. Is being Turkish a matter of ethnicity, religion, or simply citizenship? The controversy is so emotional that nationalists have been accusing supporters of minority rights of «treason» and attempting to break apart the country, while liberals are saying that nationalists are «violating freedom of thought.» At the heart of the conflict is whether all of the nation’s Muslims must consider themselves Turks, regardless of their backgrounds, and whether non-Muslim minorities can have equal rights. For some eight decades, the Turkish State insisted that all of the nation’s Muslims were Turks. Kurds, for example, were considered Turks and speaking Kurdish was illegal until 1991. Non-Muslims like Dink – an Armenian Christian journalist – have been blocked from key offices, including the national intelligence agency, amid questions of their loyalty. The debate almost came to blows this month at a press conference called by an official human rights body. A man grabbed a statement out of the hand of a professor and tore it up after the academic suggested equal treatment for minorities, including Muslim groups. «We don’t recognize this report, it is aimed at dividing the country,» Fahrettin Yokus shouted after he ripped the statement into pieces. «We are also against demands by the EU that are threatening our unity.» Ibrahim Kaboglu, chairman of the rights body which was created by the Prime Ministry, was so shaken that he asked for police protection saying that he could be targeted by extremists. «What the EU is saying is that we should treat all subcultures equally,» said Baskin Oran, who prepared the minority report for the prime minister’s office. «Civilization is multicultural.» Nationalists quickly petitioned the prosecutor’s office to file treason charges against Kaboglu and several other academics and activists who signed the statement that he read. EU demands The European Union report said that Turkey «has to comply with basic EU standards, which include the protection of minorities.» It also urged Turkey to grant more rights to ethnic Kurds and recognize Alawites, a religious sect rooted in Islam, as an ethnic minority, explosive suggestions in a nation where children open the school day by saying: «Happy is the man who says ‘I am a Turk.’» More than a quarter of Turkey’s 71 million people are either Kurds, Alawites or share both identities. «The nation is a whole. It cannot be seen as made up of pieces,» Gen. Ilker Basbug, deputy chief of the military said, reading from a statement about whether Muslim groups could be considered minorities. «If it is seen so… this would open the way to the breakup of the state.» President Ahmet Necdet Sezer dismissed the debate over minority rights as «destructive» and reminded people that the Constitution states, «Everyone bound to the Turkish State through the bond of citizenship is a Turk.» Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul ruled out any official recognition of Muslim minorities. «We shall never accept things such as this is a minority, that is a majority, which could bring political consequences,» Gul told the Cumhuriyet newspaper in an interview. Gul, however, said the government was trying to address «possible snags” in granting rights to non-Muslims. The issue goes back to the founding of the Turkish state in 1923 on the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, a theocratic state that considered all Muslims within its territory as subjects and Jews and Christians as protected minorities. The new Turkish state was based on Turkish nationalism and its founders considered all Muslims on its territory – regardless of their backgrounds – as Turks. That avoided tensions between Anatolian Turks and hundreds of thousands of Ottoman refugees from Greece, Bulgaria and Arab countries who fled to Turkey as the empire disintegrated. Many Turkish Muslims continued to regard Christians and Jews as foreigners and guests in their new state and there are still suspicions toward Greeks and Armenians who rose up against the Ottoman Empire as it collapsed. Those uprisings led to the forced expulsion of most of Anatolia’s Greeks as part of a population exchange. They also triggered one of the darkest chapters in modern Turkish history: the mass killings of Armenians which Armenians call genocide but Turkey refuses to acknowledge. The new definition of «Turkishness» was strictly enforced and there were repeated rebellions by Kurds, a group that dominates the southeast and speaks a language related to Persian. Many Turks fear that recognizing Kurds or Alawites as minorities could lead to the disintegration of the state into ethnic enclaves. They also suspect that Greeks and Armenians – who together number about 65,000 – might not be loyal citizens. There are a total of 130,000 non-Muslims in Turkey, less than 0.2 percent of the population. Sectarian clashes between Alawites and Sunnis – who form about 80 percent of the country – took place in the late 1970s and again in the 1990s. Many Alawites say they are discriminated against by Sunnis and that compulsory religion classes in schools have a Sunni curriculum. Many Sunnis consider Alawites to be heretics. For Dink, the issue was just about becoming a detective. «In my childhood, I dreamed of becoming a homicide detective,» Dink said on private NTV television. «But I was barred from becoming a detective in this country because I am seen as a security concern.» Dink said he was sad to see that Turkey was only recognizing its «multicultural identity and differences» due to foreign pressure. «Why don’t we solve our internal problems on our own?» he asked.