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Following December´s EU Summit, Turkey Forced to Reassess Issue of `Minorities´

By Jon Gorvett

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East pages 48-49 March 2005 Issue

Talking Turkey

TURKISH PRIME MINISTER Recip Tayyip Erdogan certainly was not exaggerating when he told the nation after December’s historic European Union summit that “We have a difficult journey ahead of us, littered with obstacles.” While Turkey now has a date to start EU membership talks later this year, a whole string of tough issues still waits to be resolved-and with nothing guaranteed on any side.

Yet while the difficulty of Turkey’s relationship with Cyprus grabbed most of the worry-along with a skillfully obscured question mark over the status of any “permanent” conditions on Turkey’s membership, such as freedom of movement-one of the thorniest issues in the year ahead is likely to be that of “minorities.”

This touches on a real raw nerve in Ankara and elsewhere in the country, and already is causing a degree of outraged debate.

The issue concerns EU views of Turkey’s patchwork of religious, linguistic and ethnic groups. While the nation’s Kurds are probably the most well known of these, there are literally dozens of others that are less high profile. These range from the Laz-the Black Sea people who have their own language and culture-to the Yoruks, originally nomadic people of the Anatolian steppes. There also are many ethnic groups that arrived in Turkey during the rollback of the Ottoman Empire, with Caucasians and Circassians, Slavs and Albanians forming considerable groups, almost all of whom have also become integrated with other Anatolian-based ethnicities. Ironically enough, many of these groups were ethnically cleansed in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries-from the Balkans in particular-because they had become identified via their Muslim religion with “the Turks.”

Crosscutting through these ethnic identities, moreover, are religious ones. There are a multiplicity of groups within Islam itself, in addition to the major fault line of Shi’i and Sunni, with the largest-and most problematic-of these others in Turkey being the Alevis.

Indeed, some would argue that the division between the Alevis and Sunnis is sufficiently wide for the Alevis not to be considered Muslim at all. It is in this controversial area, too, that the EU has recently jumped feet first.

In the lead up to the EU summit last December which fixed a date for Turkey to start membership talks, the suggestion came from Brussels that the Alevis should be considered a “minority.” In mathematical terms, with anywhere between 5 million and 12 million Alevis in Turkey, a country of around 60 million, a minority they clearly are.
But in Turkey, as elsewhere, the definition of “minority” has far more political and social baggage attached to it than simple statistics.

At the end of the conflict that led to the founding of modern Turkey, back in the 1920s, the peace treaty that established the state’s frontiers contained provision for the security of three officially recognized “minorities”-the Armenians, Greeks and Jews. These were, of course, religious groups as well as ethnic, representing the old Ottoman Empire’s three largest non-Muslim communities. This dovetailed with Ottoman administrative practice, which had always used religion to define the status of its citizens.

Since then, all three official minorities have declined in numbers to the point where the Greek community numbers no more than a couple of thousand, the Armenians perhaps five times that and the Jews ten times. The Greek community, in particular, became the whipping boy for decades of antagonism between Greece and Turkey, with major anti-Greek riots in the 1950s and 1960s causing much of the community to emigrate. Given the widespread view that to be a Turk is also to be a Muslim, most Muslim Turks view all three minorities with some degree of suspicion. As a result of this-along with the tendency of states such as Greece, Armenia and Israel to see these people as overseas communities that should have some allegiance to them-they often are seen as basically foreigners. Discrimination against them has been commonplace over the years.

To be identified as a “minority,” therefore, is seen by many in Turkey as highly negative. Rather than as a way of guaranteeing cultural and educational rights and combating discrimination, it often is seen as a form of alienation, division and a kind of singling out. And Turkey’s history is replete with examples of why being “singled out” is not a good thing. Likewise, the Turkish Republic’s stated principle of unity has sometimes been a defense for different religious groupings, who are able to point to shared citizenship as a testament to their loyalty. As a result, some of the loudest voices against the idea of the Alevis being a minority have been Alevis themselves.

The Ambiguity of Alevism

Too, because of religion’s key role in the definition of minority, this dispute also has focused on the argument over what Alevism actually is. Here, the community has become divided, with some arguing that it is quite a distinct religious position from Islam, while others argue that it is a subset-either of Shi’i Islam, or a combination of Shi’i and Anatolian animist beliefs that predate the arrival of Islam.

The former idea is clearly the more risky, as it plays along with the beliefs of many Sunnis that there was always something a bit dodgy about the Alevis. They do not pray five times a day, do not go to mosque, but instead to their own temple, known as a cemevi. They also do not observe Ramadan and other mainstream Muslim festivals, while they do celebrate days that look suspiciously like Christmas, Easter and Epiphany, leading some to conclude that old Christian festivals from pre-Islamic Anatolia have lived on with them. At the same time, their women and men pray together and have no prohibition on alcohol.
They see Ali, rather than Mohammed, as the key figure in Islam, linking them to Shi’ism, yet from this, too, they greatly differ.

They traditionally have voted for the left, and have provided the country with some of its best-known and most radical secularists-both bad marks for the traditionally right-wing Islamists, whose party now runs the country.

Yet at the same time, it is also the idea that most strongly lays the basis for defining the Alevis as a minority. Advocates argue that this is the best way to counter discrimination, which for many Alevis is very real. Even those who are opposed to the idea of minority status concede that Alevism is marginalized and officially excluded.

While the country allows Jewish, Greek and Armenian schools, Alevis go to state schools, where Sunni ideas are taught and their existence denied. The community overall has a generally lower standard of living, while the religion enjoys no official financial support, unlike Sunni Islam, which is administered in Turkey via an official government body.

The EU’s intervention in the issue may have mixed results, then.

Anything that appears to attack social unity-perceived as a denial of difference-is widely frowned on. This is particularly true when it comes from the Europeans, who, Turks are still taught, have long sought to divide Turkey as a way of dominating it. Before the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which established the minorities, was the never-implemented 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which saw the Ottoman Empire carved up like a Thanksgiving Turkey by World War One’s victorious Allied powers. The Europeans, many Turks still believe, have a “Sèvres mentality.”

The road to EU membership, therefore, is sure to be a bumpy one.

Jon Gorvett is a free-lance journalist based in Istanbul.


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