Seyla Benhabib writes on changing attitudes in Turkish society, new openness about the Armenian genocide and the country’s multicultural legacy
The Autumn of 2005 was a fateful one in the history of the Turkish Republic which celebrated its 42nd anniversary on October 29, 2005. Parallel to the beginning of formal accession talks with the European Union on October 3, the Turkish public sphere experienced the first serious attempts in the country at “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (coming to terms with the past.) The much publicized conference on “Ottoman Armenians during the Demise of the Empire” finally took place at Bilgi University on September 25-26, and since then denunciations, recriminations, and insults have followed the organizers and participants in the nationalist and Kemalist Turkish media.
Yet something remarkable has happened: the events of 1915, in which more than one million Armenians were murdered in Ottoman provinces, are now being discussed openly; the debate is not about whether these events occurred at all (even that was contested for a long time) but whether they constitute genocide against the Armenian people; whether they should be named crimes against humanity but not genocide; whether they can be construed as legitimate self-defence on the part of the Turkish military and population against the separatist aspirations of Armenian fighters (the Tashnak Party), etc. That the Armenian massacres were considered a war crime even by Atatürk himself and that the trials against the responsible Union and Progress Party officials, which took place in British occupied Istanbul in 1918, were followed avidly by a Turkish public, no longer stand to doubt. The curtain of forgetfulness which shrouded the traumatic origins of the Turkish Republic has finally been drawn aside.
Beginnings are always traumatic. Particularly in the political sphere the constitution of the body politic is accompanied by myths of origin which project onto the past the unity that the people wishes to achieve in the future. Plato called this “the noble lie;” Machiavelli recommended such uses of myth by the Prince; Rousseau wrote of “the divine legislator” whose authority grounded the laws. In Turkey’s case, the myths of founding, which continued well into the 1930’s under the influence of ultra-nationalist parties, had to create a unified nation out of the multilingual, multicultural and multi-faith patchwork of the Ottoman millet system.
In the course of mobilizing the Turkish nation amidst the ruins of an ageing and defunct Empire, an interesting reversal took place: the Ottoman Turks who were the rulers of the empire now became the victims of its declining fortunes. This reversal from ruler to victim, from Herr to Knecht (from master to bondsmen) – as Hegel would say – became historical reality for many with the partition of the Ottoman Empire as a consequence of the Sevres agreement. The “homeland” (Anavatan) was ripped apart.
In Turkey the words for la patrie, das Vaterland are conjoined with that for Mother – the “homeland” is the land of the Mother and its fragmentation among the victorious powers of the First World War – the British, French, Italians, Americans – was experienced as a bodily wound. These two traumatic psychic structures – that modern Turkey was founded upon a national war of liberation by people freeing themselves from victimhood; and that the West in general, but Europeans in particular, wanted to fragment and parcel out the homeland – are deeply rooted in the unconscious of the Turkish people.
One of the functions of myth in the establishment of modern nationalism is the creation of unity and commonalty out of the experience of heterogeneity, dissonance, and contradiction. The nation creates a community of equals among its members precisely by seeking recourse to myths of origin which then transport commonalty unto the realm of the immemorial past; the origins of the nation are shrouded in that past which must be narrated again and again in order not to be forgotten. In Homi Bhabha’s words, “nation” and “narration” inform one another.
The political history of modern nation-states since the mid-19th century shows an eventual transition – certainly not everywhere and at all times- from conceptions of commonalty, conceived as sameness, to commonality understood as the equality of right-bearing citizens. The modern nation-state becomes the site of liberal democracy when the myths of origin are questioned, challenged and analyzed by a mature citizenry in the light of the evidence of science and history and the self-questioning of reflective citizens.
Equality need no longer be conceived as sameness; rather, equality in a mature liberal democracy means the equality among those who are different – in religion, in ethnicity, in language, in sexual preference. Multiculturalism is not the invention of ethnic elites but a necessary moment in the evolution of democratic conceptions of equality, when the “Leitkultur,” (defining culture) which has so far silently and implicitly served as the foundation for the identity of the citizens, ceases to convince and common identity needs to be re-established without the denial of difference.
I will dare to suggest that in these days the Turkish Republic is experiencing just such a transition from “equality” understood as “sameness,” to “equality” understood as “equality in diversity.” The current struggles in Turkey over girls and women wearing headscarves in educational institutions and public places such as the National Assembly; the acknowledgement of the cultural and language rights of the Kurdish people; the recognition of Turkey’s multicultural legacy through the rediscovery of its Greek, Jewish and Armenian “traces” – are struggles in the transition to a mature democracy.
Please do not misunderstand me: there is no inevitableness or teleology here. The experiment in otherness may prove to be too much for some, as is evidenced by the near-hysteria of the nationalist elements in the Turkish judiciary and the media; the experiment with otherness may turn to defensiveness, as may happen if the question of Armenian genocide is forced upon Turkey without sufficient public enlightenment and circulation of ideas; and finally, the experiment with otherness may fail if Turkey once more feels attacked by Europeans whose designs the majority do not trust.
Just as Turkey is struggling against its own myths of origin and working through its own traumas of beginnings, the European Union as well is attempting to stabilize its momentous political experiment by appealing to ideals of “core Europe”, the European nation, the values of Judeo-Christianity (where exactly, one has to ask, are the Jews of Europe?), the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. But we live in the age of the essential instability of all frozen categories of identity: the nation of Turkey can no more deny its own multicultural and multifaith origins than the European Union can draw its borders by fixating on religion and culture.
Paradoxically, at the very heart of Europe’s values is their own claim to universality – to the transcendence of the parochialisms of their own boundaries: Unlike Judaism, and much like Islam, Christianity is a proselytizing religion; the Renaissance rediscovered the human and not just the European; the Enlightenment was obsessed with the variety of cultures, customs and the laws beyond the boundaries of Europe. One need only recall Montaigne, Montesquieu, Diderot, Herder, Rousseau and Kant! Certainly the universality of these values does not imply that one is obliged to indiscriminately open the doors of the European Union. It does imply, however, that the Copenhagen criteria, and not any newly discovered fear of “l’etranger”, as the Muslim, must guide Europe’s negotiations with Turkey.
During the conference at Bilgi University and in the following days, many Turks came forward from all walks of life recounting stories of a usually female relative, a grandmother or an aunt, whose secret had become known to family members only eventually. In many villages, fleeing Armenian families had asked their Turkish neighbors to hide their children, and some had done so. These children survived, grew up, married and had Turkish offspring. A similar story can be told about many Jews in Salonica and the Balkans, who followed the false Messiah, Sabbatai Zvi, and converted to Islam in the 17th century when he did, in order to avoid being killed by the soldiers of the Sultan. Referred to as “Donmes” (those who turned), these descendants of the Sephardic-Jewish community, became loyal subjects of the Empire. In fact, one of the myths of my childhood, uttered secretly by my proud Jewish family, was the possibility that Atatürk, with his blue eyes and blonde hair, born in Salonica, could certainly not be Muslim but surely had Jewish blood in him!
In the Turkey of my youth in the 1950s and 1960s, while these stories were freely circulating in private, a homogenizing and stultifying sense of nationalism and patriotism reigned in the public sphere. Young Armenian, Jewish and Greek girls in the schools that I attended strove to speak “pure Turkish,” without an accent and with as few foreign words as possible. Yet every so often a slight twist of the tongue, a false vowel would betray us and we would feel public humiliation. Even as our achievements were rewarded and our work praised just like everybody else’s, we knew we were different; only we did not know when, how and if that difference would matter.
During the last month before my graduation from the American College of Girls in Istanbul in June 1970, I visited the apartment of my philosophy teacher – Mrs. Mathilde Kamber – a Turkish-Armenian citizen, who had studied with Hans Reichenbach at the University of Istanbul in the 1930’s, and from whom I had learned not only about the Greeks but about Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I was honoured to be invited to pick up my seminar paper at my teacher’s house. She had just returned from six months visiting relatives in California and was so happy about it! In the course of the conversation, she asked me, knowing that I had been accepted to Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, “Why don’t you go to Israel? It is such an impressive country!” I knew that as a teacher in a high school in Turkey, she could only say something like this in private and in great confidence. Yet her sentiment astonished me. Her sharing it with me was an acknowledgement that she and I were not really Turkish, and that I had a country to go to, whereas she only had relatives whom she might join in the USA.
What would she say today? Will Turkey on its 43rd anniversary become a place where this proud and brilliant Armenian woman might at last feel fully at home?
The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on November 26, 2005.
Seyla Benhabib, born in Istanbul, is the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University and Director of its Program in Ethics, Politics and Economics.