The first 90 years of the Republic of Turkey and its President's gift

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:38:49

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s gift for the 90th birthday of the Republic of Turkey — proclaimed on Oct. 29, 1923 — was an Ottoman dream come true.

The Marmaray railway linking Istanbul’s two shores, the dream of Sultan Abdulmecit 153 years ago, was inaugurated in a ceremony attended by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Romanian Prime Minister Traian Basescu, Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud and nine ministers from eight countries. Europe and Asia are now connected via an undersea tunnel, but the pieces of Turkish society, fractured by a singularist official ideology, are yet to be united after nine decades.

Many groups — Kurds, whose identity was denied until recently; assimilated ethnic minorities; troubled Christians; Alevis and Jafaris ostracized on sectarian grounds; women who have paid dearly for wearing the veil and people barred from public service on ideological grounds — are all eager to see the republic mature in a way that would embrace them all. Even though EU-prompted reforms have led to significant progress, the score-settling in society, perpetuated by the republic’s immaturity problem, is continuing in the form of bickering over secularism, Turkishness and identity. The tensions have marred the republic’s anniversary celebrations.

Living with uneasiness

In its Oct. 29 issue, Radikal handed the pen to those the republic has orphaned, and asked them to describe the republic of their dreams. Rober Koptas, editor-in-chief of the Armenian minority’s Agos, shared three striking memories. The first was about a basketball game between the Turkish club Efes and the Greek Aris in 1993, when Koptas was a student in Istanbul’s Surp Hac High School. He recalled how after the Armenian boys rooted for Efes, their windows were broken by stone-throwing Turks, who attacked the Armenian school to avenge the attack on Efes players by Greek fans at the end of the game. In a second story, Koptas recalled how his blood froze at the sight of a poster he saw in Istanbul in 1989 on his way to the Karagozyan Orphanage. The poster read, “The Armenian dog will drown if we only spit on him,” a message of support for the Azeri in Nagorno-Karabakh by the ultra-nationalist Ulku Ocaklari association! Koptas’s third story concerned the surname law in the early years of the republic. He recounted how, in 1934, his grandfather failed to officially register his family name — Sirvanyan — because of a provision that banned “names of foreign races and nations.” The clerk decided that “Koptas” was the appropriate surname for the family. “Violence is at the core of all three stories. I guess the republic, to which I belong as a citizen, means, primarily, violence to me. … I do not celebrate Oct. 29 because I have seen that violence. … I dream of a free, democratic and violence-free republic that ostracizes none of us,” Koptas concluded.

Many things have changed over the years, but unfortunately, that bloodthirsty poster remains pasted in many minds. “We have remained only a handful of people in Istanbul, but we are still living with the uneasiness of a pigeon,” a Syriac businessman told me privately. The climate that would eradicate his fears remains a remote prospect. In another article for Radikal, ethnic Greek scholar Nikolaos Stelya recounted the grim years after the Turkish-Greek population exchange under the Lausanne Treaty, which saw the remaining Greeks dispossessed and forced to emigrate. Stelya wrote, “Before we speak of re-opening the Greek Orthodox seminary, the return of community properties and a state apology, there is one reality we have to focus on: All colors of this country must lead an equal and free life.”

Inadequate reforms

Kurdish writer Fehim Isik, for his part, underscored how the policies aimed at building a Turkish identity crushed the Kurds and summed up the outcome of the Kurdish resistance. Isik wrote, “At the 90th anniversary of the republic today, the Kurdish struggle has torn down the policy of rejection and denial. Yet many demands pertaining to equal citizenship rights — from education in the mother tongue to self-administration — are yet to be obtained.” And what does the republic mean for Alevis? Here is an answer, penned by Ali Kenanoglu, chairman of the Hubyar Sultan Alevi Culture Association: “In Ottoman times, the Alevis existed as a community and were mostly seen as people of 'perverted' beliefs, which kept them under persecution. With the republic, the Alevis became citizens and acquired a certain sense of security. But soon the republic began to reveal its true face and banned the dervish convents. … The system, on one hand, banned Alevism and subjected Alevis to occasional massacres, but, on the other hand, it appointed the same cornered Alevis as the republic’s guardians, out of fear of Shariah. … Today, in 2013, the Alevis are realizing that neither secularism nor a non-democratic, oppressive republic holds salvation for them. … Without democracy, the republic means nothing.” The republic’s traits are unsatisfactory, but, as Zaman columnist Ahmet Turan Alkan notes, no one is longing for the sultanate.

New republic needed

A number of steps have been taken forward recently: Ethnic identities have been recognized, though the demand for education in their mother tongues remains unmet; the racist “oath” recited by schoolchildren — starting with the line, “I’m Turkish, I’m honest,” and ending with “How happy is the one who says ‘I’m Turkish’” — has been abolished and public servants have been granted partial freedom to wear the headscarf. Such steps would have been expected to help ease the tensions. Yet, they have not only failed to be a remedy but are threatening to create fresh trouble due to the government’s confrontational policies and disregard for social consensus and the resistance of secularist, nationalist and neo-nationalist quarters. The frustration of prominent scholar Mehmet Altan sums up the stalemate of both the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the main opposition. Altan, who advocates a "second republic" as a solution to the problems and who had initially backed the AKP’s reformist agenda, wrote the following in his piece for Radikal: “If you only take a look at the first 28 pages of the AKP’s 2011 election declaration, you will see how the party has become an admirer and a hostage of Kemalism in just two years. Trying to get results while linking the solution of problems to the emotional fluctuations of ‘the one and only’ is stoking the emotional fluctuations of society itself, resulting in a collective ‘neurotic’ crisis. … After the ‘secularist’ version of Kemalism, we have now tried its ‘religionist’ form, only to find that it, too, has led us into a dead end.” The articles of Armenian, Greek, Kurdish, Alevi, rightist and leftist writers all lead to one conclusion: An all-encompassing republic is a must. There is progress in this direction, but it is not enough.