Monday, September 20, 2004


In 1821, a mob of fanaticised muslims arrives at the Oecumenical Patriarchate en masse, lays hold of Patriarch and Ethnomartyr Gregorios V and proceeds to hang him. In September 1922, the bishop Chrysostomos of Smyrna is delivered to a raging mob of fanaticised muslims by Nureddin Pasha and is promptly torn to pieces. In September 1955, another fanaticised mob of muslims runs amuck in the streets of Constantinople, looting Greek shops, bashing and raping Greeks, burning churches and smashing tombstones. Is history being doomed to repeat itself, again and again?
One could be forgiven for thinking so, especially in the light of events taking place last week outside the Fanari district of Constantinople, the seat of the Oecumenical Patriarchate. A mob of fanaticised muslims held a protest outside its perimeter, bearing ancient Ottoman flags as well as (paradoxically enough) Azerbaijani flags. They demanded that the Patriarch be delivered to a "people's court" to be tried for "anti-Turkish behaviour." They also protested against the possible re-opening of the Halki Theological school, which was closed by Turkey in the seventies. They then hanged the Patriarch in effigy, while vowing to force open the "Gates of Hatred," these being the old gates of the Patriarchate, from which Patriarch Gregorios was hanged and which have remained closed as a protest against intolerance and persecution ever since.
The timing of the protest was particularly interesting, as it came on the 49th anniversary of those same riots of 1955 that decimated the Greek population of Constantinople, forcing thousands into exile. It certainly did send shivers up the spines of the few remaining Greeks of the City, as well as those who once lived through persecution there. On the face of it, it would seem then, as it does to many ex-Constantinopolitans living here in Melbourne, that nothing has really changed in Turkey.
This is a particularly worrying thought, especially for a Turkey that is trying desperately to assume a European profile of late. Already great strides have been made in this direction with Prime Minister Erdogan showing an unusual inclination for rapproachment with Greece. For the first time in many years, talk of re-opening the Theological School of Halki and handing back control of the Patriarchal property trust, wrongly appropriated by previous governments seems to be concrete rather than empty rhetoric. And then this happens, an event that scratches sores that have barely healed.
The perpetrators of this heinous act of terrorism belong to the ultra-nationalist "Grey Wolves," the same group responsible for the death of Solomos Solomou in Cyprus as well as the recent bombing of St Mamas Church in Turkish-occupied Cyprus. For this detestable group of terrorists, murder, sabotage and threats of violence against religious leaders are praiseworthy acts and nothing is sacred.
It is commendable that the Turkish police disbanded the protesters quickly and took pains to ensure that no one came to harm. Yet the mere existence of such a group begs the question: How can a state with aspirations of joining the European Union tolerate the presence of terrorist organizations that threaten minorities within it? One cannot help but think that a certain section of Turkey's elite is not entirely comfortable with the new image of tolerant and democratic Europeanisation and is sponsoring a wave of nationalist reaction. The army in particular, has been raised on a Kemalist theory of the exclusivity of the Turkish identity, whereby there is no room for minorities in the national myth. Indeed the Kemalist state was founded upon the elimination of such minorities. It is worthwhile to note that this institution, which has dominated the Turkish political process since the inception of the Turkish Republic, stands to lose much from the increasing openness of Turkish society to Europe. It stands to lose a stranglehold over the nation's political life it has enjoyed for eighty years. And the affiliations of some of the Grey Wolves to the Turkish army are unsettling to say the least.
Today, as at the time when Kemal Ataturk abolished the caliphate and 'invented' Turkey, the Turkish people are at the crossroads. They are being called upon to review their sense of identity once more. 'Grey Wolves' and other terrorists who preach racial purism ignore their own societal context at their peril. There are significant Greek-speaking muslim populations living in Turkey. One Greek-speaking author, Tanyu Izbek was recently awarded the Ikpeci prize for her novel written in the Cretan dialect, as it is spoken in the region of Gunda (Moschonissia.) The identity review process is not without teething problems and violent reaction is a lamentable but foreseeable consequence of this, by a demented fringe that still cannot spare a place for peace-loving minorities within the wider sphere of Turkish society. They threaten them, because they themselves feel threatened by the 'other,' though that other has always existed within their midst, and within them.
The vast majority of Turks deplore physical violence and intimidation. And yet, as American President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in response to the Armenian Genocide early last century, this is of no use if they do not make "their fine feelings manifest." Europe can impose as many guidelines as it likes and governments can do the same but unless the grass-roots of Turkish society takes a stand against terrorism and intimidation by whichever groups are bent on perpetuating social discord and terror, then they will consign themselves to an eternity of stultifying introspection and fear.
One of the most common complaints of Greeks by Turks is that Greeks are obsessed with ancient injuries and the past in general, bringing up issues that died generations ago. This is often thrown up as an excuse for the difficulties in achieving a Greco-Turkish reconciliation. Yet reconciliation requires positive steps on both sides. The Turkish government could facilitate in directing public opinion towards creating a more harmonious and tolerant society by legislating to protect the rights of its Christian minorities and promoting pluralism. That it is already doing this, by returning houses wrongly seized by the gendamerie to returning Assyrian refugees in Mardin is a promising sign. It could use such Christian minorities as goodwill ambassadors to the west. Finally, in an increasingly insecure world, it must take a stand against terrorism and racism of any kind, especially that of the Grey Wolves and the sinister powerbrokers who hide behind the ugly shadow that they cast over Turkish society.
Unfortunately, Christian minorities have long been pawns in Turkey's conflicts with its neighbours. As such, they have never been accepted as valid members of Turkish society, despite the fact that many are the aboriginal inhabitants of Anatolia. Rather than be provoked to similar rash reactions however, the whole world must assist Turkey to cast off its attachment to homogeneity and embrace the diversity that made the Ottoman Empire a vibrant mosaic of cultures. Greece in particular has a responsibility, without conceding anything, to take Turkey by the arm only when she is ready, and lead her into a peaceful Europe where all are welcome, free from persecution, and respected.

published in NKEE on 20 September 2004