The Turks who feel like a non-Muslim minority

The Turks who feel like a non-Muslim minority

Every year the Japanese government gives scholarships to foreign students willing to study in Japan. Until recently, few from Turkey had ever shown much interest in going to Japan. But this year there has apparently been a record number of applications.

This sudden urge to go to Japan can hardly be due to a rise in Japan’s popularity. Rather, it is in line with a general trend in Turkey of those who feel threatened by the extreme polarization in the country.

In addition to the “first-timers” - those who have decided to leave Turkey for the first time - there is also another category: Turks who used to live abroad, decided to return to Turkey in the mid-2000s, and are now seeking to leave again.

A former university rector recently told me that in the mid-2000s, when Turkey’s star was rising, “we convinced very bright and successful academics to leave their highly beneficial positions and come back to live in Turkey.”

“As we were preparing to retire by the mid-2010s, we were preparing the next generation to transfer the university’s administration to their skillful hands. Now they are looking to go back abroad,” he added.

This exodus is almost reminiscent of the exodus of many non-Muslim minorities from Turkey. Feeling unwanted, and worse, threatened by the Muslim majority in the country, the number of non-Muslim communities in Turkey has been on a steady decline ever since the final years of the Ottoman Empire.

Those who found a way left, while those who stayed behind lived under the often hostile watch of the majority. The better educated and culturally and socially more sophisticated urban minorities lived with the constant frustration of having to be governed by political classes reflecting the less educated and less sophisticated rural Anatolian masses. Their skills could have been valued and used but they were instead looked down on and disregarded due to jealousy of those skills.

In contrast to some among the ruling class who came from the Balkans or the Caucasus, the minorities have lived in these lands for centuries. But they have been forced to feel like they were no longer at home, while also being under constant suspicion of being potential allies of “foreign forces.” Today they have dwindled to such tiny numbers that they feel like there is little left to do to change the situation, which has been going on for many decades.

This probably reflects a similar psychology of some segments of the Turkish society. Among the latest targets of today’s ruling elites are graduates of Turkey’s best universities. Ankara’s former mayor Melih Gökçek was in a constant feud with the capital’s prestigious Middle East Technical University, while President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently criticized Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University for not embracing “national and local” values. Culture Minister Numan Kurtulmuş has also criticized Republican-era policies of “making people listen to Tchaikovsky” based on the idea that this will make the nation progress.

Today, around 25 percent of Turkey’s eligible voters vote for a political party, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), that was accused during the 2017 referendum campaign of being on the same front as terrorists because it and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) supported the “No” vote. So the CHP, a party that has received the votes of millions of citizens, is now accused of indirectly collaborating with foreign forces. In recent weeks there has been a tendency to label all those who are not supportive of the “national alliance” formed by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) as sympathizers of terrorists, collaborators of foreign agents and traitors.

Some among those who do not endorse this “national alliance” feel frustrated, just like the non-Muslim minorities have long felt marginalized. They feel that there is little they can do to change the current situation.

But while non-Muslim minorities and those who feel threatened by the current political mood may share the same concerns and frustrations, there is a big discrepancy in terms of their numbers. While the former make up a tiny minority, the latter amount to millions of citizens. Unfortunately, both suffer from disunity and a reign of fear that makes them want to leave, which only works in favor of those who are spreading the fear.

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