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The perception of non-Muslims: From rights of the ‘gavur’ to present time

by Ahmet Yıldız* / Today’s Zaman

05 March 2012, Monday / ,

The protest rally held at İstanbul’s Taksim Square to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Khojaly massacre was marked by the discourse of a racist, but considered marginal, group.
The slogan, amongst others chanted at the rally, which is most pertinent for the content of this piece, was “You are all Armenians; you are all sons of bitches!” This slogan, which established a link between being Armenian and being a son of bitch, was a response to a placard at the funeral of Hrant Dink which read, “We are all Armenians; we are all Hrant.” We have once more witnessed that nationalism means you should be supportive of your fellow countrymen rather than of what and who is right, and for this reason, justice cannot co-exist with nationalism. While one would think that the religion and nationality of those who have been victimized should not matter, we can say from what we experienced last week that many people find both the religion and nationality of the victims to be important.

The negative political discourse conveyed by nationalism deserves closer attention because it demonstrates the relationship between language and power. A review of the political discourse dominant in different historical periods teaches a great deal about the socio-political structure of power. The terms “Near East,” “Middle East” and “Far East” reflect the imperial British imagination. Defining “İttihad-ı Islam” (Islamic Unity) as pan-Islamism seeks to undermine the positive meaning of the term. Derogatory terms such as “Zo zo,” used in reference to Armenians, and “Lo Lo,” used in reference to Kurds, represent the approach of pro-Turkish and Kemalist nationalism toward Armenians and Kurds. The relegation of the term “jihad” to holy war meets the needs of Western opponents to Islam toward the otherization and alienation of the followers of the belief.

You will notice some interesting points if you look at the modernization process of the Ottoman state from this perspective. In the aftermath of the Decree of Reforms, an important stage that pointed to the end of the nation-state system, the use of some traditional notions and discriminatory terms for other nations or ethnic groups was restricted or completely banned in the public sphere. These included “gavur,” derived from the Arabic word “kafir” (infidel), “poor subjects,” and “çifut,” derived from the Persian word “juhood.” The term çifut was used to refer to a state of complexity and untidiness, but it was not yet used as a racist remark in the modern system. The course of development of the term gavur was interesting.

Sultan Mahmud II’s nickname

The nickname of Sultan Mahmud II, who forced the Muslim people to wear fezzes and pants, was “gavur sultan.” The term kafir literally meant a person who covered the truth and an individual who denied Islam, but it also meant merciless and stubborn. We see the manifestation and reflection of this in the aftermath of the Second Constitutional era in a work by Said Nursi, “Münazarat,” authored in 1911, where some questions about the constitutional monarchy were discussed with Kurdish tribes.

“Question: Some Young Turks said: ‘You should not call Christians gavur because they are monotheists.’ Why should we not call an infidel kafir (infidel)? Answer: It is like you do not call a blind man blind because it is torture. We should omit torture. Secondly, kafir (infidel) has two meanings. First, the one which comes to mind is atheist, and a man who denies the existence of Allah. We do not have the right to use this term to describe people who are monotheists. Secondly, it also means a person who denies our prophet and Islam. We have the right to use the term with this meaning to describe them. And they actually agree with it. However, because the former meaning appears to have dominated, this term has been humiliating to these people.” For the members of Kurdish tribes, not being allowed to call a proper gavur a gavur is not reconcilable with Kurdish patriotism and Islamic glory.

Describing a gavur as a gavur

However, it should also be noted that the notion gavur did not traditionally have a negative connotation. The relationship between the Millet-i hakime (the maintainer of the nation) and the subject nations in the system of nations relies on the principle of the maintainer protecting its subjects. This was popularly known as the right of the gavur. Under Islam, the violation of individual rights is reparable only if the forgiveness of the victim is secured. It is proper to do this while the victim is still alive. While it is possible to gain the forgiveness of Muslims in the afterlife, the forgiveness of a non-Muslim can only be secured in this world. A Muslim cannot die without having settled his accounts with non-Muslims. For this reason, the Muslim people have always been careful about protecting and honoring the rights of non-Muslims. Blood feuds were a major problem for Muslims alone; there were no blood feuds between Muslims and non-Muslims because that would have meant a violation of the rights of the gavur. One of the things that fathers asked their sons to do as they were dying was to rid themselves of any burdens or obligations associated with the breach of this right.

Therefore, the Islam-based hierarchical structure of the system of nations is built upon justice that is rooted in obligation. One of the reflections of this is that Muslims should be distinct from others. The Tanzimat system, which introduced a law of citizenship to replace this system, was criticized by people who were concerned that they would not be able to call the gavur a gavur because, regardless of whether one was Muslim, non-Muslim or a gavur, all people would wear the same outfits; as a result, people would not be ostracized, thereby removing any idea of supremacy from the public sphere. The success of Tanzimat and reforms to remove the term gavur from the official realm and public sphere has been limited. Being a gavur or not was one of the social references during the period between the Balkan Wars and the War of Independence that have been re-generated within a nationalistic context.

During the transition from empire to nation state, equality remained as an ideal. This time, the code of a dominant nation was reinvented with reference to a centrifugal factor of Turkishness. The political language and discourse of the Republican state has been reformed based on the principle of national unity and respect for the state associated with the ideal of equality, with no special privileges granted to any group. The notions of nation, civilization, homeland, state and subject, including those applicable to minorities, have been redefined. The royal class remained in power through the new holders of power, whereas minorities were described as Turks under the constitution. As noted by Eric Jan Zürcher, the principle of ideals replaced religion in the nationalistic sense, whereas the notion of “knowledge” in the religious sense has been converted into a positivist meaning.

The cosmopolitan and pluralist political language of the empire introduced the term loyal nation (millet-i sadıka). In the first quarter of the 19th century, all groups sought to create their own state while, among the non-Muslim communities, only Armenians, who were Christians, adopted the Ottoman as their own. Armenians were loyal to the state and for this reason, Armenians were appointed to crucial posts in the empire after the Greeks left. But when the Armenians joined others in “a race to establish” their own state after the 1876 war, enmity and hostility emerged between Muslim Turks and the Kurds, and Christian Armenians. The attempts by the Committee of Union and Progress to resolve this problem by relying on extreme measures, including deportation, introduced a fairly racist remark to our political literature: Ermeni dölü (the offspring of an Armenian). A generation of young people born to a large number of Armenian girls and women through forced marriages or rapes were collectively referred to as “Ermeni dölü” by the perpetrators of this process, too.

There is no need to explain that this term or description is humiliating and ignores all humane values. The association between being an Armenian and being a son of bitch, as well as the widespread use of the term son of an Armenian, the use of Armenian identity as a tool and the opportunity to humiliate others are indicative of the decline of the nationalistic political discourse and language, from once speaking of the rights of the gavur to discourse about “Ermeni dölü.”

The political horizon of nationalism is free of justice and fairness. The defensive reflex of nationalism, which is to justify its actions, negatively influences our approach toward the Armenian issue and converts it into a matter of “life or death” where national identity is concerned, and because of this, we sacrifice our humane sensitivities to nationalistic reflexes. Those who fail to criticize their own actions may consider themselves to be flawless. On a collective level, nations, if they look at their past from the prism of national pride and ego, would tend to exonerate themselves and justify their actions. A nationalistic stance externalizes the aspects and requirements of a humane stance. Turkey has to take its approach toward the Armenian issue and Armenian people based on grounds of justice and fairness and not that of partiality. If this is done, we would be able to see our part in the cases of rapes, lootings and treason, along with examples of fidelity, companionship and mercy. In this case, while we consider our own mistakes, in addition to the mistakes the Armenians committed, we would be concerned again about the rights of the gavurs and make progress toward an emphatic discourse rather than a language of conflict.

*Dr. Ahmet Yıldız is a political scientist.


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