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


In its Nov. 22nd issue, Frontpage Magazine posted an article by Gamaliel Isaac, entitled "Turkey's Dark Past." Mr. Isaac's piece was basically an attempt to rebut of one of my previous articles, "European Muslims and The Quest For the Soul of Islam." I have argued there that, among many other things, Turkey has had an Islamic heritage free of anti-Westernism and anti-Semitism and has now an atmosphere quite favorable to open society. Further, I suggested that the West should certainly support Turkey's entry into the European Union, noting that this would blur the "civilizational" boundaries and create a model for other Muslim nations.

Mr. Isaac did not agree with these points and presented several quotes and comments about Turkey's alleged "dark past." This past, according to Isaac, was rife with anti-Christian and anti-Jewish hatred.

 

I believe that Mr. Isaac is deeply mistaken about this. But I am glad that he brought up such criticism, because it will help me to unveil some myths and biases about Turkey and Islam in general. The "dark past" in question is "dark" because of those myths and biases. To illuminate it, we have to revisit Mr. Isaac's article.

 

The Turks and the Armenians

 

Mr. Isaac's article starts with a long quote from Srdja ("Sergei") Trifkovic, author of the anti-Islamic polemic The Sword and the Prophet.

 

The first paragraph Mr. Isaac quotes from Trifkovic is about "the history of the Turkish oppression of the Armenian Christians." Since Armenians lived peacefully and flourished under Turkish (Ottoman) rule for many centuries until the late 1800's, that "history" would at worst refer to a short period in Ottoman experience. Moreover, it is not a "history of oppression" but the history of a clash between Armenians and Turks, a clash in which both, but especially the former, were inspired by nationalism, which was a new phenomenon in Ottoman lands.

 

To call the Armenian-Turkish clash "oppression" or a "genocide" of Armenians would be to see only side of reality. In his book, Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922, historian Justin McCarthy tells us about that much-neglected side, too. He also tells about the emergence of mutual hatred between Ottoman Muslims and Armenians. According to McCarthy:

 

The period that led up to World War I was one of increased polarization in the east. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 resulted in further additions to the de facto population exchange of Muslims to Anatolia and Armenians to the Caucasus. The wartime aid given the Ottomans by Caucasian Muslims and aid given the Russians by Anatolian Armenians reinforced the primacy of ethnic and religious affiliation over loyalty to governments. In Anatolia, Armenian revolutionary agitation and Kurdish raids both exacerbated the hatred and divisions between Armenians and Muslims. In the Caucasus, the same hatred and divisions surfaced in a bloody fashion during the Revolution of 1905.[1]

 

The "Armenian revolutionary agitation" is deliberately neglected by those who argue that Armenians experienced a Holocaust under Ottoman rule. They truly suffered, especially in 1915, and I am in no way willing to minimize or trivialize that tragedy. But that was not a "holocaust." In the real Holocaust, Nazis exterminated 6,000,000 Jews simply out of an unprovoked, sadistic hatred of the Jews. What happened in 1915, and beforehand, was mutual killing in which the Armenian loss was greater than that of the Muslims (Turks and Kurds), but in which the brutality was pretty similar on both sides. In the words of Bernard Lewis, a most authoritative commentator on the Middle East, "the suffering of the Armenians was limited both in time and space to the Ottoman Empire and, even there, only to the last two decades of Ottoman history. More important, it was a struggle, however unequal, about real issues; it was never associated with either the demonic beliefs or the almost physical hatred which inspired and directed anti-Semitism in Europe and sometimes elsewhere."[2]

 

Justin McCarthy sums up the nature of the struggle between Armenians and Turks:

 

"In 1895 in Anatolia and in 1905 in the Caucasus, inter-communal warfare broke out. Prior to that time, Muslims and Armenians had supported either the Russian or the Ottoman empires. Now the Muslims and Armenians had set about killing each other in their villages and cities. This war was not a thing of armies, but of peoples. It had been building for almost a century, brought about by Russian invasion, Armenian nationalism, and Ottoman weakness. By 1910, the polarization that was soon to result in mutual disaster was probably inevitable. Blood had been shed and revenge was expected and desired. Whatever their individual intentions, Muslims knew they were at risk from the Armenians, and Armenians knew they were at risk from the Muslims. Once World War I began, each side naturally assumed the worst of the other, and acted accordingly."[3]

 

Thus when we deal with the fate of Armenians of the Ottoman Empire, we should see both sides of the tragedy in question.

 

What Trifkovic -- Mr. Isaac's trusted source on Ottoman history -- does is to strip events of their true historical contexts, present inter-communal conflicts as unilateral aggressions, and show exceptional cases of violence as the norm.

 

This type of distortion is also evident in Trifkovic's following statement:

 

"The bloodshed of 1915-1922 finally destroyed ancient Christian communities and cultures that had survived since Roman times -- groups like the Jacobites (Syrian Orthodox), Nestorians (Iraqi Orthodox), and Chaldaeans (Iraqi Catholic)..."

 

One might wonder how those Christian communities and cultures survived in the first place "since Roman times." The answer is what some people can't bear to hear nowadays: Islamic tolerance. The Christians in question had been under the rule of Arab and then Turkish governance for the preceding thirteen centuries, and they did pretty well in light of pre-modern standards.

 

What happened, we should ask, between 1915-1922? The answer is quite clear: Turkey and its Muslim peoples (Turk, Kurds, and other ethnic Muslim groups) were engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the Great Powers of Europe. Turkey joined WWI as an ally of Germany in 1915, and fought many bloody battles with the invading British, French, Russian, Italian and Greek forces. When the war ended in 1918, the destruction of Turkey began and Anatolia, the historical homeland of Turks, was invaded and carved up by these allies. This was followed by the Turkish War of Liberation, which secured the borders of modern Turkey.

 

During these long years of war, some of the Christian communities in Turkey aligned themselves with the invaders. As a result, they became targets of Turkish war effort in some cases. These were not justifiable phenomena, but they are were understandable. They were not examples of a Turkish onslaught against Christians, but rather of bitter inter-communal conflict in a time of severe crisis and destruction.

 

A better example to illustrate the historical truth in question and the way it is distorted by Trifkovic would be the bloodshed in Smyrna in 1922.

 

The Bloodshed in Smyrna -- With the Truth Behind

 

In Mr. Isaac's article, we read the following quote from Trifkovic:

 

"The burning of the Greek city of Smyrna and the massacre and scattering of its three hundred thousand Christian inhabitants is one of the most poignant - if not, after the vast outrages of the 20th century, the bloodiest - crimes in all history. It marked the end of the Greek community in Asia Minor. On the eve of its destruction, Smyrna was a bustling port and commercial center. It was a genuinely civilized, in the old-world sense, place. An American consul-general later remembered a busy social life that included teas, dances, musical afternoons, games of tennis and bridge, and soirees given in the salons of the highly cultured Armenian and Greek bourgeoisie. Sic gloria transit: sporadic killings of Christians, mostly Armenians, started as soon as the Turks overran it on September 9, 1922."

 

And the quote goes on with the details of "Turkish violence" against the Greeks in the city.

 

If a reader doesn't know much about the history of Turkey, what will he picture from this? A civilized Greek city invaded and destroyed by the savage Turkish hordes, right? Yes.

 

But nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that Smyrna (known as Izmir in Turkish) was an Ottoman city that included a Greek quarter, and the Turks were not invading Smyrna, they were liberating the city from the occupying Greek army. This army had started its invasion of Smyrna three and a half years before and then had occupied much of Western Anatolia.

 

During this occupation, local Greeks in Smyrna, who were Ottoman citizens, welcomed the invading Greek Army and aligned themselves with the intruders in nationalist zealotry. The intruders were incredibly brutal to the Muslim population of Anatolia. Many cases of the slaughter, rape and torture of Turkish Muslims are known. These, as one could expect, aroused a Turkish rage against the Greeks. The bloodshed in Smyrna in September, 1922 was an act of vengeance.

 

Ernest Hemingway is one of the Westerners who wrote in detail about what happened in Smyrna at the time. He was, like many others, highly critical of the Turks. Yet, again like many others, he neglected the other side of the truth. In a recent article in The Hemingway Review, author Matthew Stewart, Associate Professor of Humanities at Boston University, acknowledges:

 

" ... it should also be stated that Greek forces had engaged in unnecessary brutality during the Greek occupation of the Anatolian regions in question, first, upon their entry into Smyrna, and more particularly during their hasty retreat towards Smyrna in the final, losing stages of the war some three and a half years later. Arnold Toynbee, serving on the ground in an official oversight capacity, provides a noteworthy voice of contemporary protest against Greek misconduct (by present standards quite possibly amounting to war crimes). Indeed, the cycle of outrage and reprisal had unfortunately been woven into the history of the area long before the conflicts of 1919-22. In his fiction and reportage, Hemingway notes instances of cruelty originated by both sides, and perhaps, on the whole, comes down harder on the Greeks than the Turks."[4]

 

Of course this does not justify the bloodshed in Smyrna, but it helps us to see that what Trifkovic shows us as Turkish cruelty was simply the cruelty of war itself.

 

*

 

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