RACE AND RACISM IN MODERN TURKEY | Bulent Gokay


Syrian refugees pose in a disused house on June 28, 2014 in the Fikirtepe area of Istanbul. Hundreds of Syrian refugees live in emtpy houses in an area of 32 decares undergoing an urban transformation project in Fikirtepe, which is on standby due to ongoing negotiations between the owners of the houses and the company running the project.  AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE(Syrian refugees stand in a disused house on June 28, 2014 in the Fikirtepe area of Istanbul. AFP Photo / Ozan Kose)

 

While reading the passages below, written by Martin Jacques, I thought many of Martin’s observations can apply to the Turkish case.  Like Martin Jacques, I, until relatively recently, found race difficult to understand. It was never intuitive to me, simply because I was part of the dominant group in Turkey, and even in the UK because my skin color looks “white”, I hardly experienced racism myself. Not even the polite/ understated/ subtle everyday British racism did really bother me.  Just like Martin, I had to learn the meaning of color through the eyes of my wife, who is a Pakistani woman grew up in the UK.  It was my wife who made me to start understanding the difference, the difference about race, ethnicity, language, about which I would never have comprehended without her impact.

“there is a global racial hierarchy that helps to shape the power and the prejudices of each race. At the top of this hierarchy are whites. The reasons are deep-rooted and profound. White societies have been the global top dogs for half a millennium, ever since Chinese civilization went into decline. With global hegemony, first with Europe and then the US, whites have long commanded respect, as well as arousing fear and resentment, among other races. Being white confers a privilege, a special kind of deference, throughout the world, be it Kingston, Hong Kong, Delhi, Lagos – or even, despite the way it is portrayed in Britain, Harare. Whites are the only race that never suffers any kind of systemic racism anywhere in the world. And the impact of white racism has been far more profound and baneful than any other: it remains the only racism with global reach.

Being top of the pile means that whites are peculiarly and uniquely insensitive to race and racism, and the power relations this involves. We are invariably the beneficiaries, never the victims. Even when well-meaning, we remain strangely ignorant. The clout enjoyed by whites does not reside simply in an abstraction – western societies – but in the skin of each and every one of us. Whether we like it or not, in every corner of the planet we enjoy an extraordinary personal power bestowed by our color. It is something we are largely oblivious of, and consequently take for granted, irrespective of whether we are liberal or reactionary, backpackers, tourists or expatriate businessmen.

The existence of a de facto global racial hierarchy helps to shape the nature of racial prejudice exhibited by other races. Whites are universally respected, even when that respect is combined with strong resentment. A race generally defers to those above it in the hierarchy and is contemptuous of those below it.”

When you ask Turkish people “Is there racism against black people in Turkey?”, majority of them will give you answers like “No, not even one bit of it, I am a Turkish person myself and never ever seen or heard of it..”  But racism is everywhere, not only the kind of racism against Turkey’s largest ethnic minority group, the Kurds, but against all other ethnic and religious minorities as well. Especially if your skin color is darker than the majority Turkish people’s skin color.   The media is full of stories, almost daily on how black people, or Roma people, is subjected to racism in the streets of Istanbul even by the members of the police force.

Reconstructing modern Turkish identity — racism, global hierarchy of race

When General İlker Basbuğ, the highest ranking officer in Turkey until just a few years ago, defined some citizens as “people who don’t really have Turkish blood in their veins,” he was revealing just the tip of an ugly iceberg.  General Basbug here was simply repeating what was established as one of the foundation stones of the new Turkish identity under the founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  By 1925 an independent Turkish republic was firmly established with its new Western institutions and militantly secular modernizing ideology.  A completely new social order was created under the rule of a small secular elite.  The events of these early years mark an important watershed in the development of Turkish state ideology, which is still dominating most aspects of the Turkish state and society.  In 1932, a Turkish Historical Congress was convened in Ankara with the task of proving the theory that the Turks were indeed a white Aryan race originating in Central Asia where Western civilization was assumed to have originated.  In the second Turkish Historical Congress, which met in Istanbul in 1937, Eugene Pittard*, the Swiss anthropologist whose work was perceived and practiced as a racist account of humanity, participated as honorary president.

When Mustafa Kemal spoke of the future of his country in terms of a Western perception he was indeed registering the identity of the Turkish elite, of which he was a distinguished member.  The Western-oriented elite would, and indeed did, use this position to feel superior to their own people because they were able to articulate the “Eastern”, the “Oriental”, the “Muslim Turk”, to the “West”.  Yet, in their relationships with the Western world, they could only play the role of the “enlightened native“.  In other words, “modern” Turkey has always been in a position of outsider and of an incorporated weak partner for the West.  However, the perceptions of individual members of the country have remained closely rooted in those days, the days of the 1920s and 30s.

It is now more than 90 years since the establishment of the Republic, and in an ever more complex and impersonal society, the limitations and contradictions of Turkish identity are coming to the fore more and more.  As Turkey is moving deep into the 21st century, a sense of confusion about ethnicity, nationhood, religion, secular-ity and the country’s role in the world is very pronounced.

Every Turkish child still grows up memorizing Atatürk’s 1927 address to the youth, which says “the noble blood in your veins.” All primary and secondary schools still teach a “Turkish history” that starts with the Huns of Central Asia, giving an ethnic, not civic, sense of a nation. And nationalist demagogues speak of “pure Turks” in the country, clearly excluding the Kurds and all non-Muslims, and, recently sharply against (Muslim) Arabs, as the number of Syrian refugees increases fast in the country.  When in May 2014,  when reports came out that Syrians mugged someone in Ankara, local people stoned the building Syrians lived in and set it alight. Violence escalated, many were wounded and detained. There is increasing resentment of Syrians everywhere and they are being marginalized.

(Syrian refugee girls sit on boxes collected from garbage in central Ankara, Oct. 5, 2013. (photo by REUTERS/Umit Bektas)

Therefore, discussions of racism take on added importance with the recent influx of Syrian refugees in Turkey.  According to a recent survey, “blind patriotism” appears to be dominant among Turkish citizens.  “Blind patriotism” refers to reactions that may be described as “Whatever my country does, I support.”**

Syrian children play outside a disused house in the Fikirtepe area of Istanbul.

(Syrian children play outside a disused house in the Fikirtepe area of Istanbul. Ozan Kose / AFP/Getty Images)

The status of Syrian refugees in Turkey is a curious one: officially they’re considered as “guests” not “refugees”. This is because Turkey, being a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, is bound by a technicality– “geographical limitation”– which states that it can only grant refugee status to asylum seekers from Europe.  The lack of refugee status hinders outside oversight and assistance, and deprives the Syrians of rights guaranteed under international conventions. Syrian refugees in Turkey do not have the same rights like asylum seekers from non-European countries either.  They  cannot register with the UNHCR to apply for asylum in a third country. As a result, they continue living in limbo while relying on pitiful handouts in overcrowded and under-standard “guest” camps.

***

 

 
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* Pittard wrote his Race and History in 1926, where he sets out a definite relationship between race and social behavior based on a study of human skulls and brains and classified various racial group according to their intellectual capabilities.
** The report, titled “Nationalism in Turkey and the World,” was produced as part of the International Social Survey Program and deals with issues such as nationalism, citizenship and national identity. The organization conducted face-to-face interviews with 1,666 adults in 64 provinces, completing the research in March 2014.

 

This entry was posted in Cultural Studies, Current Affairs, Eurocentrism, Global Shift, History, International Relations, Orientalism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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