MUSTAFA AKYOL > The Ecumenical Patriarch is right

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Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, visited the Turkish Parliament the other day. This was a first, for His All Holiness had visited the Turkish Parliament only once before, and only to attend the funeral of the late President Turgut Özal. But this time, he was invited by the Parliament’s Constitution Conciliation Commission, in which deputies from all parties work together to draft a new charter for Turkey. 

After his meeting at the commission, where he expressed his expectations from the new constitution, His All Holiness said the following to journalists:

“It is the first official invitation to non-Muslim minorities in Republican history. We don’t want to be second-class citizens. Unfortunately there have been injustices in the past. These are all slowly being rectified. A new Turkey is being born. We are leaving the meeting with hope and are extremely grateful.”

What a great summary that was. It underlined the bitter fact that throughout the history of the “secular” Turkish Republic, non-Muslims were seen as second-class citizens, if not enemies within. It also heralded that “a new Turkey is being born,” in which the anti-non-Muslim prejudices of the past were being abandoned “slowly.” (I, too, wish the change were faster.) The Ecumenical Patriarch also noted that this current transformation in Turkey made him, and his fellow Christians, hopeful and grateful.

Now, if you are among those who believe that Turkey is being drawn away from its bright secular past to an Islamist “darkness,” you might find these hard to believe. But please do believe the Ecumenical Patriarch, and let me explain to you why he is right.

His All Holiness is right, because the main threat to Turkey’s Christians and Jews has not been Islam, but Turkish nationalism. In fact Islam respects the religious rights of “the people of the book” – Jews and Christians – and that is why non-Muslims had freedom of worship throughout the Ottoman centuries. In the mid-19th century, the Ottoman Empire also gave equal citizenship rights to non-Muslims, leading to the appearance of many Christians and Jews in the Ottoman bureaucracy and Parliament. 

In the 20th century, however, both the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the nation-state model imported from continental Europe led to the emergence of Turkish nationalism. This secular yet illiberal ideology had little respect for “the people of the book” and wanted to create a non-Muslim-free Turkey – not for its love of Muslimness, but Turkishness. Hence came the ethnic cleansing of the Armenians, Greeks or the Assyrians, or the “Wealth Tax” on all non-Muslims including the Jews. 

Kemalism, the official ideology of the Turkish Republic, was the embodiment of this nationalist paradigm. Clueless Westerners often praised Kemalism for its “secularism” and “modernism,” but little they noticed that the persecution of Turkey’s Christians (and Kurds, for that matter), from which they rightfully complained, was carried out by none other than the Kemalist Jacobins and their sans-culottes. (By the latter, I refer to the vulgar ultra-nationalists of Turkey, whose ideology is a crude but natural reflection of that of the more sophisticated Kemalist elite.)

That is why post-Kemalist Turkey, just like the pre-Kemalist (Ottoman) one, will be more amiable to non-Muslims. And we are seeing the evidence of that day by day. 

P.S.: You might have noted that I did not call the Ecumenical Patriarchate “Fener Rum Orthodox Patriarchate” as the Turkish state and mainstream media does. For I believe that every religious institution has a right to define itself, a right that should be respected by others. 

P.P.S.: If you live in Ankara, you might join my talk and book signing tomorrow night, at 7 p.m., at the Turkish-American Association. Registration is required at www.taa-ankara.org.tr. 


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Notice on comments

Peter Lambson

3/6/2012 7:01:34 PM

Thank you, Mr. Akyol, for having the courage to use the Ecumenical Patriarch's correct title.

JJ Ahf

2/29/2012 2:24:10 AM

You guys have to be honest. Where do Christian in Turkey feel more secure? Where is life easier and betterfor them? In kemalist Izmir or islamic Konya?

B Medic

2/23/2012 11:56:35 PM

Regardless of what Atatürk and his fellows intended: The Turkish Republic has treated many of its ethnical and religious minorities very badly during its history. It is a nuisance and it must change.

Hasan Kutlay

2/23/2012 8:04:16 PM

Dhimmi's were 2nd class citizens,had to wear reckognizable clothes (sounds like jews under nazi-regime),had no right to build new preyhouses, were not allowed to spread their religion, apostates were killed. Reforms came becoz of European pressure.

Sue Coon

2/23/2012 4:45:10 PM

Turkey is not the only Muslim country to charge a "wealth tax", but Muslim countries allowed others to live in relative peace. I am an outsider. What I see happening is good. If only Turkey would address their justice system.

Luc Glucose

2/23/2012 1:25:29 PM

Except for there was a 'gavur' (non-muslim) tax under ottoman rule. and after 10 years of absolute majority 0 laws have been passed towards religious freedom. Alevis are still waiting for recognition of their places of worship. Why so naive Mustafa?

Vasiliki Limberis

2/22/2012 2:51:28 PM

This is brilliant, and all true. The minorities lived much better under the Ottomans than under the modern Turkish State. Turkey would be an even more vibrant place if it would allow the minorities legal status and equal protection under the law.

Köksüz Kosmopolit

2/22/2012 1:57:58 PM

Discrimination (and worse) against non-Muslims arose not from "Kemalist secularism" but from governments abandoning Atatürk's strict secularism to compromise with, or even to further, religion for their own political ends.

Sandra Jacoel

2/22/2012 1:42:55 PM

What is the title of your book? And from where may I purchase it in Australia? I enjoy your articles although rarely agree with some of the content

Sandra Jacoel

2/22/2012 1:39:56 PM

The Varlik /wealth tax was issued by Inonu, please correct me if i'm wrong, I may be. It was also aimed at Muslim Turks of certain wealth. In those days most people succesful in trade were your so called minorities and therefore seemingly hit harder
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