By Leonard Bektas
Turkey is a country that borders two cultural spheres, the Islamic and the European. The Anatolian peninsula has throughout time been one of the most sought-after lands in the Mediterranean because of its geographical advantages. Both the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers have their origin in eastern Anatolia which, throughout history, has made trade with the Middle East easy. Anatolia also has a mountainous coastline which gives protection against foreign invaders. These advantages, over time, led to different empires conquering the peninsula. As a consequence of this, Anatolia became the home for many different ethnic groups. Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Arameans, Assyrians and Kurds all inhabited parts of Anatolia. However, after the 1915 genocide and the burning of Smyrna (the city now called Izmir) in 1922 little of the Christian population in Anatolia remained.
The Turkish republic was formed on the 29th of October 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. At this point in time, most of the people inhabiting the Anatolian Turkish lands were Sunni Muslim Turks. Atatürk’s vision was a Turkish nation, for a Turkish people where one language and one culture was supposed to exist. This Turkification was forced on the population and led to large parts of the country’s ethnic minorities to abandon their culture to fit into the new Turkish republic. Greeks, Armenians, Arameans, Assyrians and Kurds had to assimilate and become Turkish.
The fact is however that the ethnic diversity that existed in Anatolia still exists, it has just been hidden underneath the surface. Large parts of Turkish society have Greek, Armenian, Kurdish, Aramean, Assyrian, and Arab DNA. This was taken advantage of by the current Turkish president, Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan. Erdoğan is allegedly a descendant of Circassian or Georgian Muslim refugees who fled genocide in the northern Caucasus at the hands of the Russians. During the first years of his presidency, he almost normalized relations with Armenia and argued for peace with the Kurds. However, since 2010, Erdoğan’s mask has slipped and he has become increasingly authoritarian. For instance, he has shut down numerous newspapers critical of his government and press freedom has therefore become increasingly restricted. He also cracked down hard on the Kurdish population in 2016 besieging central Diyarbakır and reducing it to rubble.
One of those who brought this topic into the public discourse was the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. Dink ran an Armenian newspaper in Turkey, and in 2004, he revealed that Sabiha Gökçen, a Turkish national icon, was in fact an Armenian genocide survivor that had been adopted by Atatürk. Dink was shot dead in the street by a far right ultranationalist Turk in 2007 after receiving multiple death threats. At his funeral hundreds of Turks, Armenians, and Kurds took to the streets shouting “Hepimiz Hrant Dink’iz” and “Hepimiz Ermeniyiz Hepimiz” which roughly translates to “we are all Armenian, we are all Hrant Dink”.
This topic also poses a question to those of us who originate in modern day Turkey but are of minority descent. Are we to see ourselves as part of Turkish society, or maybe more relevant, is Turkish society ready to welcome and accept us as part of that society? My family is of Armenian and Aramean descent and originates in a village called Kerburan, Dargeçit in Turkish, close to the Syrian border in the southeastern part of the country. They were forced to flee after the Cyprus war when anti-Christian sentiments gained popularity in the mid-1970s. The last Christian man in Kerburan was killed in the 1980s. I have family members that have visited since, but large parts of my family still do not consider themselves part of Turkey. This can largely be attributed to the harsh treatment of minorities and Turkification practiced by the Turkish state, as well as the continued denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide. For the diversity of Turkish society to be brought to the surface, Turkish society needs to confront its past and acknowledge its wrongdoings.
Finally, on a personal note, I struggle with this topic personally. On the one hand the Turkish state and Turkish society has harmed my family and my people historically. On the other hand, we are still from Turkey. Turkish people today are not responsible for what previous generations did and I am willing to move on and forgive given that the Turkish republic recognizes the Armenian genocide, which today sadly seems rather unlikely. I, like many of the hundreds of thousands of people who belong to the minorities that have been oppressed by the Turkish state, long for and want to visit the lands of our ancestors. I guess you could say that we are homesick of a place we used to call home.
Cover photo: Kadir Kritik
Leonard Bektas is studying the peace and development program at Uppsala University. He is also a board member of the Liberal Youth Party’s International Committee. In his spare time, Leonard plays football, studies conflict in the Middle East, and listens to Arab and Turkish music.