The Making of a Racist Myth | Bulent Gokay


When General İlker Basbuğ, the highest ranking officer in 2010, in an interview on a popular TV show, defined some citizens as «people who don’t really have Turkish blood in their veins», he was revealing just the tip of an iceberg. General Basbuğ here was merely repeating what was established as one of the foundation stones of the new «modern» Turkish identity under the founding father of Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Following the departure of the last Greek soldiers from Anatolian soil on 15 September 1922, the ceasefire of 11 October and the evacuation of eastern Thrace by the Greek army, the Lausanne peace conference opened. While the conference maintained suspense over the conclusion of peace, the year 1923 marked the establishment of the basic institutions, as well as the policies, of new Turkey. During this time, Mustafa Kemal developed his critique of economic backwardness of his country and its Islamic culture, and introduced his main goal as how to achieve western standards of political and economic management, in other words «to make Turkey European».

Ataturk genuinely believed that the new Turkey should cut all its «Eastern / Muslim» origins adrift and define itself as part of the «white / Western» civilization. He tried to prove this in many different ways for the rest of his life. The Turkish delegation at Lausanne sought to convince the British, French and Italian delegates that the Ankara government had nothing in common with the «old Eastern/ Muslim Turk» represented by the Ottoman Empire.

Despite the fact that Mustafa Kemal died 77 years ago his enigmatic power still exerts a complex and far reaching influence on Turkish-identity today – even in the face of rising Islamism under AK Party since 2002. For all the current tensions between them as separate ideologies, Kemalism and Islamism have never been totally separate when it comes to the definition of Turkish national identity. Mustafa Kemal’s name and ideas still continue to provide a symbol, a readily available concept and an idealised figure for millions of Turkish men and women. His life and ideas have been raised to cult status almost to the point of folly. From the 1920s onwards every new generation has grown up with a fair dose of indoctrination on Ataturk, «the father of Turks», and on Ataturkism, a DIY ideology adopted and practiced by Turkey’s ruling elite.

Turks – a «white» European race

It was first in the 19th century, there were attempts to describe the Turks as an ethnic group, as part of the white European Aryan race(s). These were in line with the general «scientific» context existing in the 19th-century Europe where the concept of race was a preoccupation for the growing human sciences. A large number of so-called scientific researchers were involved in developing the concept of Aryan supremacy, which later fuelled the institutional racism of Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s. To a large extent, Mustafa Kemal’s thinking was influenced by these authors when he initiated his version of Turkish-ness in the 1920s, with the grand design of providing some comfort and an extra boost for Turkish national pride and self-esteem which had been sadly undermined during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. To serve this purpose, history writing was tailored to produce a tool in the search for a national identity. From then onwards started an official process of drafting / constructing historical narratives for the younger generation(s) as well as imposing a new identity from above. The Turkish Historical Society became the major instrument for manufacturing a kind of Turkish history to support the Kemalist version of new Turkish identity. As a result, a mixture of facts and half-baked comments and a considerable number of simple mistakes were proclaimed as official history, and teams of researchers were employed to dig out relevant evidence to develop further the main premises of this official account. In a state-sponsored systematic effort, missionary scientists were employed to prove the identicalness of the Turkish race and the «white» race by verifying that ancient Turks were indeed the real ancestors of modern European Aryan race(s). In doing so, a selective reconstruction of historical events took place in order to suppress the Ottoman past and pursue Kemalism’s specific political goal of providing a fresh new start under white European flag. The central theme of this process, constructing a new Turkish identity, was the rejection of the Ottoman-Islamic past by glorifying the – invented – pre-Islamic past of the Turks, and presenting it as the original source of all white Western history.

Hence, the new Turkey, from the start, identified itself directly and immediately with the history, culture and perceptions of the western world, claiming a total break with the Ottoman and Islamic past. By 1925 an independent Turkish Republic was firmly established with its new western institutions and militantly secular modernising ideology. A completely new social order was created under the rule of its small secular military 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 state institutions and society today.

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. The second Turkish Historical Congress met in Istanbul in 1937, where further desperate steps were taken to prove that the Turks were an integral part of the group of white European races. The «scientific» origins of Turkish-ness, blood and hereditable ties were debated openly during these two congresses, and an agreement was reached on essential purity and supremacy of Turkish blood. Eugene Pittard, the Swiss anthropologist whose work was perceived and practiced as a racist account of humanity, not only participated but was announced as the honorary president. Since then the administrative apparatus has been using «race» as an evaluative criterion for the citizens of Turkey. But of course, this was not always the most obvious aspect of Kemalist nation-building process. There was also another level where recognition of a citizenship based on universal rights of the entire population was clearly pronounced. However, like many other nationalist ideologies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Turkish nation-building happened within the context of a particular hierarchy of races according to which non-Turkish groups were considered second class / inferior compared with the dominant group of Turks.

Racial Hierarchy describes the categorization of various races on the basis of their physical and perceived attributes. Based on these characteristics the races are ranked at the top or at the bottom of the Hierarchy. This structure of racial hierarchy helps to shape the power and the prejudices of each race. At the top of this hierarchy are whites (European and North American) due to the deep-rooted and profound historical reasons. White groups have been the global top dogs for half a millennium, ever since Chinese civilisation went into decline. With global hegemony, whites have long commanded respect, as well as triggering fear and resentment, among other races. The founders of the Turkish Republic accepted this hierarchy of races uncritically and tried to present Turks as part of the dominant white group. During the history of the last 90 years, there were numerous occasions where the Republic’s various minorities, non-Muslim groups as well as Muslim Kurds and Alawites, were considered inferior «races» and dealt with prejudice and discrimination and open hostility. It is worth noting that in this process the terms «Turkish blood» and «Turkish ethnicity» were being used interchangeably in some official documents.

At the beginning of the republican era, the nation-making project initiated / imposed by Mustafa Kemal and his close associates sought to create an ethnically homogeneous Turkey, a «pure Turkish Turkey». The population exchanges between Turkey and Greece as it was signed with the 1923 Lausanne Treaty should be considered within this context, i.e. clearing Turkey from non-Turkish elements. The forced Greco-Turkish population exchange was widely discussed at the heart of ethnic population policy. Therefore, it is not surprising that later in the 1930s in racist German press there was a growing debate on Ataturk’s policies and reforms, and attempts to interpret them in connection to the Nazi’s principle of ethnic homogeneity. The perception of Turkey’s «ethnically homogeneous» success story appears quite explicitly in the Nazi discourse during the interwar period. Being against multi-ethnic entities Nazi commentators praised the so-called ethnic cleansing of Anatolia, from the 1915 Armenian deportations (first major brutal act of ethnic cleansing of the 20th century) to 1923 Greco-Turkish population exchange, calling for the adaptation of «Turkish method» for an effective solution to the minority questions.

Victim Complex

Mustafa Kemal belonged to the generation of officers and administrators who had become partially Westernised in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was criticising the «Eastern» in almost exactly in the same terms as any Western orientalist. Mustafa Kemal and his followers believed that Western aggression at the end of the First World War was the result of the «irrational» policies of the «old» Ottoman regime which were in turn due to the outmoded mentality of the «old Turk». They therefore wanted to ward off Western aggression by ultimately becoming part of the powerful Western bloc and adopting Western perceptions, in other words, by cutting all links with the «old», the Ottoman. This can be seen as a tangle of the victim complex: the victimised came to share the philosophy of the oppressor, which was that, among the people, there were «old» and «new» and that the key matter was the survival of the «new». Thus, the objective of the oppressed people came to be that of joining the «new», represented by the West. Kemalist nationalism, thus, originated in the misunderstandings and prejudices with which Europeans had long viewed the «East», the Oriental, and «the Ottoman Turk». Like any Western-centric, Orientalist critic, Mustafa Kemal always looked upon the Ottoman heritage with disdain, referring to it very seldom, and then only to condemn that period roundly. The Ottoman past was considered as representing the «antiquated», «medieval» and «decrepit». For Mustafa Kemal, the Ottoman period had no value, no merit, no authority, and therefore he believed that there was to be no relationship between the new Turkey and the old.

The denial of the past and the irresistible attraction of the West, which was considered truly civilised, were accompanied by a desperate attempt to create a « new» Turkish national identity. The Turkification project as a part of this modernisation process has been conceptualised upon a racist basis, considering the origin of the Turks as part of the white Aryan race. 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 always remained as «enlightened natives». In other words, «modern» Turkey was accepted as a useful outsider and an incorporated weak partner for the West, and has stayed as such until now. However, the self-perceptions of individual members of the country have remained closely rooted in the identity-formation processes of those early 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 national identity are coming to the fore more and more. As Turkey is moving deep into the twenty first century, a sense of confusion about ethnicity, nationhood, religion, secularity and the country’s role in the world is very pronounced.

Every Turkish child still grows up memorizing Ataturk’s 1927 address to the youth, which says «the noble blood in your veins» and «how happy the one who says he is a Turk». All primary and secondary schools still teach a «Turkish» history that starts with the Huns of Central Asia, giving an exclusively ethnic, not civic, sense of a nation. And nationalist demagogues still 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.

Syrian refugees and rising tide of Turkish racism

Turkey has given refuge to at least 1.6 million Syrians since the beginning of the civil war in March 2011, according to UN figures. The Turkish government was initially praised for its open-door policy towards Syrian refugees and its humanitarian work in its camps. However, it was sharply criticised recently of failing to offer proper services and protection to them.   Currently only about 220,000 of the refugees live in the 22 state-run camps, and the authorities do not supply the rest, the remaining 1.38 million, who live outside the camps without shelter or food even though a cold winter has arrived. Insults and both openly and secret racism against the Syrians are all around, in the newspapers and on social media. They are considered the criminals of the future. One can see headlines almost daily such as «the threat of Syrian beggars», and warnings about that they will take away jobs from the real citizens, the Turks.
In May 2014, when reports came out that Syrians mugged someone in Ankara, local people stoned one of the buildings where Syrians lived in and set it alight. Violence escalated, many were wounded and detained. There is now increasing resentment of Syrians everywhere and they are being openly attacked and marginalized on a daily basis. There were some serious lynching attempts against Syrians in the border towns, Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa and Mardin. Anti-Syrian demonstrations, previously only in border towns and cities, now reached Istanbul, Ankara and many other western cities where hundreds of Turkish residents, armed with machetes and sticks, attacked Syrian refugees, their properties and businesses. Right-wing nationalist groups, together with some local gangs, are hunting Syrian refugees in city streets, and when caught, their prey are badly beaten. Every single day Turkish newspapers are full of such horrific incidents. The sad fact is that millions of ordinary Turkish citizens, who are not part of such fascist gangs, are just watching such incidents without offering any protection to their Syrian neighbours trying to survive increasingly in ever more desperate conditions.

The status of Syrian refugees in Turkey is also very curious: officially they are 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 as asylum seekers from non-European countries either. They cannot register with the UNHCR to apply for asylum in a third country. Consequently they live in limbo, dependent on pitiful hand-outs given in overcrowded and under-standard «guest» camps which are huge immigration prisons, where there is often no running water, and there is disease.

Therefore, discussions of racism take on added importance with the recent influx of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Turkish nationalism, like other nationalisms, has many different forms that have changed over time and been influenced by internal and external conditions. According to recent reports, there is an increasingly high level of harassment and racist attacks against Syrian refugees in Turkey. Racism, however, is not new in Turkey. Those supremacy-oriented ethnic and racist ideas have always been an integral part of Turkish nationalism, first emerged as a nasty undercurrent of the nation-building project in the early 20th century. Racist tones especially peaked in the 1920s and 30s, when all European states were adding racist ingredients to their nationalist ideologies, in particular in Italy and Germany. Similarly, early Turkish nationalism was shaped by a similar racist discourse, mainly borrowed from European racist texts of the 1920s and 30s. This was so explicit and widespread in that period, as can be seen in Mustafa Kemal’s famous 1927 speech addressing the Turkish Youth: «Oh! Turkish Youth, the strength you need exists in the pure blood in your veins!»

According to a recent survey, published in September 2014, «blind patriotism» appears to be dominant among Turkish citizens, even in the most urban parts of western Turkey. «Blind patriotism» – the act of allegiance to a cause without clear thought, a completely one-sided loyal commitment – here refers to reactions that may be described as «Whatever my country does, I support.» Sixty-nine percent of those surveyed said there is nothing to be ashamed of in the country’s history. All this explains why the definition of Turkish-ness, Turkish national identity and nationalism in Turkey continue to be exclusionary, chauvinist and race-based. Regarding the influx of refugees from Syria to Turkey, 65 percent of those surveyed agreed that refugees and other migrants increase the crime rate, while 63 percent said they believe refugees and migrants take away job opportunities from locals and 49 percent said immigrants slowly erode Turkish culture.

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