By Timothy Drayton
Ian Thomson appears to use his review of The Red-Haired Woman, Orhan Pamuk’s latest novel, (“Political parable dissects politics of modern Turkey”, Sunday Mail, September 10) as a flimsy pretext to launch a vitriolic attack on the founder of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. This might be acceptable if these attacks had some factual basis, but what Thomson does is to put forward a string of fallacies.
Initially, he describes Ataturk as being a Turkish nationalist. There is truth to this, Ataturk was first and foremost a moderniser who wished to replace the defunct Ottoman order with a modern, secular state. But given that this was a time in history when the prevailing axiom was that a nation state was to be based on nationalism and a single national language and identity, to use nationalism as a stick to beat Ataturk with when he established the new state on this basis is somewhat disingenuous. It must be borne in mind that the Ottoman elite despised the Turkish language and Turkishness as being primitive and boorish. In that context, firmly basing the identity of the new state on the language and ethnicity of the majority of the population was a bold and progressive move.
Thomson claims that Ataturk purged Istanbul of its “hated Greek community” which is a blatant fabrication. The complex Treaty of Lausanne that made provision in international law for the existence of the new Republic of Turkey imposed an exchange of populations whereby the Turkish population of Greece would be moved to Turkey and the Greek population of Turkey to Greece. However, one important exception was the Greek community of Istanbul, which was permitted to remain. It is thus a blatant misrepresentation to say that the Greek community was forced to leave Istanbul in 1923 because it wasn’t.
There may have been a more factual basis had Thomson claimed that Ataturk bore sole responsibility for the expulsion of the Greek community – apart from that in Istanbul in 1923 – although, quite frankly, if you are going to blame Ataturk personally for every consequence of the Treaty of Lausanne which was negotiated among multiple parties, and which he was not personally involved in negotiating, you might just as well also blame him for the forced expulsion of the Turkish population from Crete, where they made up about half the population, under the same treaty.
The truth is that the three main non-Islamic communities of the Greeks, Armenians and Jews continued to dominate commercial life of Istanbul for the duration of Ataturk’s presidency. The first major attack on these communities came in the form of the punitive Wealth Tax, which almost entirely targeted non-Muslims, that was imposed at the time of World War II by the less competent and more dictatorial Mustafa İnonu, who took over as president following Ataturk’s death. The true blow came in the events of the night of September 6-7, 1955 when mobs destroyed virtually all immovable property owned by non-Muslims.
Full light has yet to be shone on this horrendous pogrom, but what is clear is that this was an action that was coordinated from the very top. In this context, it must be noted that this shameful event occurred during the time in government – 1950-1960 – of the Democrat Party, a party that opposed the reforms introduced by Ataturk.
Thomson tells us that the Greek community in Istanbul was “hated” without making clear by whom. I have lived in Turkey for a long time, and I would suggest that you will find hatred for members of non-Muslim minorities far stronger among Islamists than secularists, but I would also find it to be a crass simplification to suggest that they are universally hated. I have been acquainted with Armenians living in Istanbul, and I notice that their workplaces and homes tend to be adorned with a portrait of Ataturk. I gained the clear impression that this community is grateful to the secular order, however flawed, that Ataturk introduced which grants them equal citizenship status and equal standing, at least in formal terms, before the state and law. They are well aware that alternative systems of governance could have grave, existential consequences for their community. I see no evidence that non-Muslim minorities suffered systematic state discrimination during Ataturk’s presidency.
We are told that Ataturk embarked on “the attempted erasure of Islam”. In fact, what Ataturk set out to do was create a secular state in place of a religious one. Secularism does not mean erasing religion, but moving religion to the private sphere and making the state neutral in religious terms.
I realise there exists a bizarre orientalist, and ultimately racist, view that liberal, secular democracy is suited to the advanced West and the primitive peoples of the Middle East are destined to live in ignorance and backwardness under benighted brutal dictatorships, but I do not subscribe to this crass view, and I see secularism as being the only way for people to live together in ethnically and religiously heterogenous states, the Middle East included. So, I believe that Ataturk was correct to make secularism one of the basic principles of the new republic.
I certainly believe that Ataturk, in common with many thinkers from Voltaire to Marx, saw religion as a backward force that keeps people in ignorance, and he wished to reduce its influence over public life as far as possible. However, the new state set up a Ministry of Religious Affairs that took over the running of mosques while all religious functionaries were employed as civil servants. The new regime also undertook a translation of the Koran into Turkish and made this work widely available. These are hardly the actions of a regime that is hell bent on erasing religion.
Thomson says that many historic Ottoman buildings were “burned down in arson attacks during the Atatürk presidency”. The kind of arson attacks he describes were, as far as I know, perpetrated by unscrupulous land developers who wanted to put up apartment blocks in places occupied by these protected buildings. Such events took place after World War II in the environment of bandit capitalism fostered under the right-wing parties, hostile to the reforms of the Republic and which dominated government in the post-war period. I am unaware of such attacks taking place during Ataturk’s presidency, and I would certainly refute the claim that the new regime did anything but protect the cultural heritage of the Ottoman period, even if its values diverged markedly from those of the failed empire. This is in sharp contradistinction to the cultural vandalism committed by the Islamic dictatorship now running Turkey, such as the demolition of the Emek cinema and the attempt to raze Gezi park.
Mr Thomson may not greatly care for Ataturk’s reforms, but when I look at the increasingly dysfunctional country that Turkey has become under the rule of Islamists whose ultimate goal is to turn the country by force into something resembling Saudi Arabia, but without the massive oil wealth that keeps the latter monstrosity afloat, I note that everything in the country that still functions owes its legacy to the system that Ataturk set up after 1923. I am reminded of his prescience and genius, while not losing sight of the fact that he pushed through these reforms by means that were every bit as dictatorial as those now used by Erdogan in the attempt to push the clock back.
Secular, republican Turkey is undergoing the greatest challenge to its existence since its inception, with the ruling Islamists now systematically stripping all non-religious content from public education until its sole function will remain that of indoctrinating religious zealots into blind obedience to the dictatorship of Erdogan and those who follow in the ruling dynasty he longs to create. Yet, I still hope that the secular republic will survive this onslaught and continue to chart the kind of progress that, through raising generations of well-educated administrators, engineers and businesspeople, has transformed Turkey into a serious industrial economy.
The alternative does not bode well for the Turkish people.
Timothy Drayton is a British freelance translator from Turkish and German into English who has lived in Cyprus since 2004