Bartın is a small and lovely Black Sea coastal city. It is only about a three-hour drive from Ankara. The town was in the headlines this week with a rather interesting SMS message from the provincial education director: Don’t let your children fall prey to infidel propaganda.
The Black Sea region of Turkey is often considered the most conservative, nationalist region of Turkey. The murder of Hrant Dink by a boy from the Black Sea region, attacks on Catholic priests and the fact that the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has almost no presence throughout the region testify to the nationalist and religious conservatism of the area. Yet, in this age, I would not expect a local education director go to the extent of condemning Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations as Christian propaganda and suggesting parents to save their children by not allowing such events.
“I want to make an appeal because of the approaching New Year” the director said in his message. He described Anatolia as a “99 percent Muslim land,” and condemned Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations as “incompatible with the traditions and customs of the people of Anatolia” and appealed to families to “save” their children at kindergarten or primary school ages in awareness that “New Year’s Eve celebrations are Christian propaganda, I thank you in advance for showing national sensitivity and not letting the subconscious of your children be occupied by such Christmas or New Year’s Eve celebrations.”
This was a message from a provincial top education official that somehow made the news. How many other shallow local and central government top bureaucrats share identical positions, but do not make the news, I have no estimation. Yet I am afraid the problem is not an “isolated exception” to Bartın.
How could it be? With such a conservative government in office constantly boasting about plans to carry Turkey to the pre-republican dark ages, what else can one expect from a local official? If a president is condemning modern Turkish of not being a language of science, literature or philosophy and insisting “irrespective of if they [secularists] want it or not, they will learn and teach Ottoman Turkish.”
This hegemonic governance understanding and growing autocratic tendencies, as well as rising religious conservatism, might eventually imperil the atmosphere of tolerance and the tradition of the cohabitation of sects and religions in this country, adding a new dimension to the already problematic ethnic Turkish-Kurdish separatist divide. Why don’t the rulers of this predominantly Sunni Muslim country look at what has been continuing in the mostly Muslim Arab neighborhood and see where sectarian politics brought it.
The current rulers of Turkey might be very much proud about themselves, but this country had, in its recent history, in the style of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), Muslim uprisings. Turkey suffered a lot from such Islamic rebellious movements. When the Greeks were approaching Ankara in the War of Liberation, there were some 30 uprisings throughout the country, all by such zealots. Was it not because of the 1925 radical Muslim-Kurdish uprising of Sheikh Said that Turkey was compelled to relinquish its claim over Mosul in exchange for an end to the British inciting rebellions in the country?
Over the past 90 years or so, Turkey has nurtured a democratic understanding through secular policies. Unfortunately, the secularism principle was sometimes misunderstood as atheism and a serious trauma was experienced by the pious segments of the society. Still, Turkey effectively managed to make democracy a way of life. The progressive Alevi segment of the society, the surviving pre-Islam shamanic traditions of Anatolian people and of course the tolerant Sufi interpretation of Islam helped Turks develop a coherent and tolerant relationship with all sects and all religions. The Ottomans, being a multi-cultural empire, helped as well to form a tradition of tolerance to all faiths in the Turkish society.
Now with a sectarian and radical conservative political Islamist understanding, Turkey should not lose its treasures. Rather than be buried in the obsessions of shallow minds, Turks must be proud of the history of this land. They must able to proudly say, for example, that Santa Claus, the inspiration for the Christmas tradition of the Christian world, was an Anatolian, he was from Myra, now Demre in Turkey.
Merry Christmas to you also Bartın’s education director, as well.