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What's Right With Turkey (Continued) By: Mustafa Akyol
FrontPageMagazine.com | Friday, December 03, 2004


Cyprus Revisited

Mr. Isaac continues his case by asking about the "war verses" in the Koran, and I have explained the necessary exegesis on those verses here and here 

However, his flawed method -- that is, stripping historical events from their contexts -- is apparent in his article in many instances. His comments about Cyprus are exactly of that fashion. He starts telling about the island's history of violence by saying that "[in] 1974 Turkey invaded Cyprus," and continues with the effects of that occupation that he finds destructive. 

 

One wonders why Turkey occupied the island in the first place. The answer is one that anybody with a knowledge in recent history would know: from the early 1960's the nationalist Greek movement in Cyprus carried out a bloody terrorist war against the Turkish minority. Many Turkish villages were attacked, their inhabitants tortured and killed, their women raped. Further information about those Greek atrocities can be found here.

 

Actually, just very recently, on November 22, the Greek daily Alithia published a shocking exposé of the ex-EOKA guerilla Andreas Dimitriu, describing how his comrades massacred eighty-nine innocent Turkish peasants in the village of Taskent (Tohni). Such cold-blooded massacres were carried out with the support of the Greek secret service, Dimitriu added.

 

The sole aim of the Turkish occupation of Cyprus was the saving of Cypriot Turks from ruthless ethnic cleansing. Besides, just a week before that, an ultra-nationalist junta had overthrown the legitimate -- but already very Greek-dominated -- government of Cyprus. A full-scale extermination of Turkish Cypriots was imminent, and that is why Turkish troops landed on the island on July 20, 1974, based on the international agreement on Cyprus that had given Turkey a guarantor status. It was a military expedition to save and liberate the endangered Turks.

 

I am sure the Greek side has a different perception. They tend to remember not the EOKA massacres but the death of their troops and guerrillas during combat with the occupying Turkish army and some excesses that individuals in the latter committed. These different perceptions can be discussed and judged, and a fair history of the Turkish-Greek clash on the island can be written. I am all for it.

 

But in Mr. Isaac's article, we only read the Greek perception. He only sees and mentions their suffering, but completely neglects that of the Turks. And that is what people call bias.

 

 Turks and Jews: A History of Friendship

 

When we look at the second basic premise in Mr. Isaac's article -- that Turkish history is riddled with anti-Semitism -- his bias becomes even more obvious: because Turkey has a really good record on this, and this is acknowledged not only by Muslims Turks like me, but by Jews themselves.

 

If Mr. Isaac gets a chance to read some important books by Bernard Lewis, such as Semites and Anti-Semites or the Jews of Islam, he will see that Islamdom in general and Turkey in particular have a much better record of tolerance and co-existence with Jews than Christendom has.

 

Another individual who has done a great deal of work on this topic is Mr. Naim Avigdor Guleryuz. He is one of the prominent leaders of the Turkish Jewish community. He is the founder and curator of the Jewish Museum in Istanbul, among his many other important titles. In a study entitled The History of Turkish Jews, which is also available on-line, he explains that the Ottoman Empire was significantly tolerant and hospitable to Jews from its very beginning:

 

"When the Ottomans captured Bursa in 1326 and made it their capital, they found a Jewish community oppressed under Byzantine rule. The Jews welcomed the Ottomans as saviors. Sultan Orhan gave them permission to build the Etz ha-Hayyim (Tree of Life) synagogue which remained in service until the 1940s ...

Early in the 14th century, when the Ottomans had established their capital at Edirne, Jews from Europe, including Karaites, migrated there. Similarly, Jews expelled from Hungary in 1376, from France by Charles VI in September 1394, and from Sicily early in the 15th century found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. In the 1420s, Jews from Salonika, then under Venetian control, fled to Edirne. . .

Ottoman rule was much kinder than Byzantine rule had been. In fact, from the early 15th century on, the Ottomans actively encouraged Jewish immigration. A letter sent by Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati (from Edirne) to Jewish communities in Europe in the first part of the century 'invited his co-religionists to leave the torments they were enduring in Christendom and to seek safety and prosperity in Turkey ... '

When Mehmet II 'the Conqueror' took Constantinople in 1453, he encountered an oppressed Romaniot (Byzantine) Jewish community which welcomed him with enthusiasm. Sultan Mehmet II issued a proclamation to all Jews '... to ascend the site of the Imperial Throne, to dwell in the best of the land, each beneath his Dine and his fig tree, with silver and with gold, with wealth and with cattle ... ' In 1470, Jews expelled from Bavaria by Ludvig X found refuge in the Ottoman Empire."

 

One memorable example of Ottoman generosity was their welcoming the Jews of Spain which were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. Mr. Guleryuz states:

 

In the faraway Ottoman Empire, one ruler extended an immediate welcome to the persecuted Jews of Spain, the Sephardim. He was the Sultan Bayazid II ... This humanitarianism demonstrated at that time, was consistent with the beneficence and goodwill traditionally displayed by the Turkish government and people towards those of different creeds, cultures and backgrounds. Indeed, Turkey could serve as a model to be emulated by any nation which finds refugees from any of the four corners of the world standing at its doors ... In 1992, Turkish Jewry celebrated not only the anniversary of this gracious welcome, but also the remarkable spirit of tolerance and acceptance which has characterized the whole Jewish experience in Turkey ... 

 

The celebration was spearheaded by the Quincentennial Foundation, which was founded in Istanbul in 1989, by the leaders of the Turkish Jewish community and by some prominent Muslims in Turkish public life. The Foundation still carries out many activities that present the historical friendship between Muslim Turks and Jews as an "example for humanity."

 

Mr. Guleryuz tells about other milestones in that exemplary experience:

 

Over the centuries an increasing number of European Jews, escaping persecution in their native countries, settled in the Ottoman Empire. In 1537 the Jews expelled from Apulia (Italy) after the city fell under Papal control, in 1542 those expelled from Bohemia by King Ferdinand found a safe haven in the Ottoman Empire. In March of 1556, Sultan Suleyman 'the Magnificent' wrote a letter to Pope Paul IV asking for the immediate release of the Ancona Marranos, which he declared to be Ottoman citizens. The Pope had no other alternative than to release them, the Ottoman Empire being the 'Super Power' of those days.

 

And what about the dhimma status given to Jews and Christians in Ottoman lands? While it is true that this involved a second class citizen status in today's terms, it was quite advanced and preferred in those pre-modern times.[5] Thus, no wonder, as Guleryuz explains:

 

Ottoman diplomacy was often carried out by Jews ... In the free air of the Ottoman Empire, Jewish literature flourished. On October 27, 1840 Sultan Abdulmecid issued his famous ferman concerning the 'Blood Libel Accusation' saying: '... and for the love we bear to our subjects, we cannot permit the Jewish nation, whose innocence for the crime alleged against them is evident, to be worried and tormented as a consequence of accusations which have not the least foundation in truth ..."

 

Maybe we should also add that the blood libel and other such standard anti-Semitic nonsense was unknown in Muslim lands until the 19th century. These were introduced to the Middle East by the "westernized" elite, who had been infected by the anti-Semitic plague from its ultimate source: Europe.

 

Struma and the Righteous Gentiles of Turkey

 

Mr. Isaac also writes about the "Turkish hostility to the Jews during World War II [which] led them to refuse to allow Jews to flee Hitler into Turkey." And he gives one instance -- simply because there is no other -- as evidence:

 

"In one instance 769 Jews packed into an old, dilapidated cattle boat called the Struma and made it to the shores of Turkey. The Turks denied them entry and eventually towed them out to sea where they sank."

 

Actually the Struma did not sink by herself, but was hit by a Russian submarine. But, yes, it is true and shameful that Turkish authorities did not welcome the unfortunate Holocaust survivors on the boat. But the reason was not "hostility to Jews," it was the narrow-minded fear of some officials who worried about the possible consequences of accepting Jewish refugees at a time when Nazi Germany seemed to be the conqueror of the world.

 

However, beyond this one instance, Turks indeed have a quite honorable record with regard to the Holocaust. Naim Avigdor Guleryuz explains:

 

"As early as 1933 Ataturk invited numbers of prominent German Jewish professors to flee Nazi Germany and settle in Turkey. During World War II Turkey served as a safe passage for many Jews fleeing the horrors of the Nazism. While the Jewish communities of Greece were wiped out almost completely by Hitler, the Turkish Jews remained secure. Several Turkish diplomats ... made every effort to save the Turkish Jews in the Nazi occupied countries, from the Holocaust. They succeeded. Mr. Salahattin Ulkumen, Consul General at Rhodes in 1943-1944, was recognized by the Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile "Hassid Umot ha'Olam" in June 1990. Turkey continues to be a shelter, a haven for all those who have to flee the dogmatism, intolerance and persecution."

 

Actually the Turkish help to Jews during the Holocaust is so famous and memorable that recently a documentary film, named Desperate Hours, was produced on this issue. In a news story titled "Turkey Thanked for Saving Jews in Holocaust" which appears on The Canadian Jewish News, we read,

 

"Desperate Hours documents the ways Turkey, neutral until near the end of the war, helped both its Jewish citizens and other Jews escape the Nazis. A highlight is the story of Marseilles vice-consul Necdet Kent, who boarded a railway car full of Jews bound for Auschwitz, risking his own life in an attempt to persuade the Germans to send them back to France. He succeeded, but only three hours out of the station. “Other diplomats, those from the West, turned their heads. Turkey did not,” said B’nai Brith Canada executive vice-president Frank Dimant, who called the award a long overdue thank-you. Dimant said Turkey continues “to stand with the Jewish people” even as anti-Semitism looms again."

 

If Mr. Isaac decides to visit Turkey one day, I would be most pleased to take him to the Jewish Museum in Istanbul and show him the stand about those righteous Turkish gentiles who saved many Jews from the Holocaust -- among many other examples of Jewish-Turkish friendship. I am hopeful that Mr. Isaac, as a righteous Jew, would reconsider his views about Turkey and Islam then.

 

Towards A Better Turkey

 

From the beginning I have been trying to show that Mr. Isaac's article, which pictured Turkey as a bastion of anti-Western and anti-Semitic hatred, is an astonishing distortion of the facts. But while defending Turkey's virtues, I am not trying to whitewash its sins and mistakes. I am not a die-hard nationalist and do criticize my country whenever she acts against the moral truths that I believe in.

 

Thus, I do stand against some cases of true intolerance we can find in Turkish history. And, although this might be a surprise to some Westerners, these cases are mostly from the Republican period, not from the preceding Ottoman one. It is a general rule that nation-states are less tolerant to cultural diversity than empires, and this holds true in this part of the world as well. This is wisely captured by Robert Kaplan in his most recent Atlantic Monthly article. Kaplan states:

 

"Who says empires are bad? The multi-ethnic Ottoman Turkish Empire, like the coeval multi-ethnic Hapsburg Austrian one, was more hospitable to minorities than the uni-ethnic democratic states that immediately succeeded it. The Ottoman caliphate welcomed Turkish, Kurdish, and other Muslims with open arms, and tolerated Christian Armenians and Jews. The secular-minded, modernizing "Young Turk" politicians who brought down the empire did not."

 

There are some understandable historical reasons for this. The Young Turks and their Republican inheritors faced the fall of a great empire mostly because of ethnic and religious conflict. The lesson they inferred was that ethnic and religious diversity was a dangerous concept and we should instead have a homogenized "fortress Turkey." This resulted in the suppression of Turkey's Kurds and, to a lesser extent, its religious minorities. The "religious majority," i.e. Sunni Turks, also had their share of difficulties from the iron hand of Kemalists -- those who produced a cult of personality from Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, our Founding Father, and turned his pragmatic policies into a dogmatic ideology.

 

That iron hand is responsible for probably the worst case of anti-Christian and anti-Jewish discrimination in Turkish history: the "wealth tax" that was imposed on Jews, Armenians and Greeks of Turkey during 1942-44. It was a very unjust taxation on the non-Muslim citizens in order to support creating a "genuinely Turkish" bourgeoisie. Had Mr. Isaac taken a closer look at Turkey, he could have used this to support his arguments.

 

However, Turkey has been growing up since then. The early Republican indoctrination has lost its impetus, but the target it wanted to achieve, i.e. modernity, is being absorbed by Turkey through democratization, economic development, the rise of the middle class and a more pluralistic public life. Thanks to the great reforms of the last few years, different ethnic and religious components in Turkey, including the non-Muslim minorities, are now freer than they have ever been before.

 

In this brave new Turkey, Islam is more visible and widespread than it was before, too, but this is not a fundamentalist backlash, as some Westerners like Mr. Isaac would fear. The influx of some radical Islamist rhetoric from the Middle East has radicalized a part of Turkey's Muslims youth since late 1970's, but this movement has lost its strength in the last decade. The rising new Islam in Turkey is not what you would find in the Middle East; it is democratic, modern, moderate and pro-Western. The war in Iraq stirred some controversy, as it did in the U.S. itself, but Turkey's sympathies still go well with America -- especially for conservatives like me, who admire it for being boldly "a nation under God," while most of Europe is still suffering under the disillusionments of 19th century materialism and cynicism.

 

In short, Turkey's history is much brighter than that which Mr. Isaac presented, and its dark spots are being illuminated more and more every day. That's why Turkey won't be a Trojan Horse in Europe as Mr. Isaac worries. On the contrary, it will gain a lot, but also add a lot to the "old" continent. I think, besides all our educated young manpower, booming economy, cultural heritage, and strategic strength, we Turks could even dare to add a philosophical insight to the extremely cynical continent: compassionate conservatism based on theistic values.

 

That is why I look forward to Turkey's accession into the EU. As I Turk, I don't just want Europe for Turkey; I also want Turkey for Europe.



[1] Justin McCarthy, Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922, Darwin Press, Princeton, NJ. 1995. p. 109

[2] Bernard Lewis, Semites and Anti-Semites, 1998, p. 21

[3] Justin McCarthy, Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922, Darwin Press, Princeton, NJ. 1995. p. 126

[4] Matthew Stewart, "It Was All a Pleasant Business: The Historical Context of 'On the Quai at Smyrna'", The Hemingway Review. Volume: 23, Issue 1, 2003. p. 58

[5] Actually, most non-Muslims in the Ottoman Empire were quite happy with the dhimma system. Jews were often merchants while the majority of Muslims were peasants.  So the Jews travelled all over the empire and also established its trade with the world. Jews also had a flourising printing industry and system of rabbinical schools.  Not a single Sephardic religious authority can be cited to the disfavor of the Ottoman state. Jews and Christians, under the dhimma, were exempt from military service. Thus some of them protested against abolition of the dhimma in Bosnia; they did not want to serve in the army.




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