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September 17, 2008, Wednesday

The dark side of nationalism: Sept. 6-7 incident

As a historic meeting took place in the first week of September between the Armenian and Turkish presidents, Turkey approached the anniversary of a fateful day when its dark forces got rid of most of the country's non-Muslim minorities.

I am talking about what went into history as the Sept. 6-7 (1955) incidents, a state-sponsored campaign designed to transfer capital from minority businessmen to Muslim Turks and to intimidate non-Turkish communities into leaving their homeland to clear the way for a homogeneous Turkish state. The grudge from the Balkan War (1912-1913) and World War I, during which Turks lost an empire due to the nationalistic movements of its subject peoples, was so firmly ingrained in the collective psyche that it had to find a way to vent somehow.

The remaining non-Muslim, non-Turkish minorities in what was declared in 1922 as the Republic of Turkey became the scapegoats of the grief, sense of loss and humiliation of the Turk. They were systematically harassed until a massive campaign was staged in İstanbul and in other cities where minorities resided in large communities. The whole event was triggered by Greece's appeal to the United Nations to demand self-determination for Cyprus. In order to get rid of or to subdue the Turkish minority, Greek ultranationalists (grouped under the umbrella of the National Organization of Cypriot Fighters [EOKA]), began to engage in terrorist activities against the ruling British mandate in 1954. The British government summoned Turkey and Greece to negotiate a peaceful solution to the problem in London the following year. The incumbent Democrat Party (DP) in Turkey wanted to stage a show of force to demonstrate how strong nationalist feelings were and that the annexation of Cyprus by Greece would lead to disaster. The rest is a human tragedy.

According to recent confessions and documents unavailable for decades, an agent of the then National Intelligence Agency (MAH) planted a bomb in the house where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, was born in Thessaloniki. Photographs of the bombed scene torn apart were fabricated days before and brought to İstanbul by the Turkish consul's wife to be served to the press. Truckloads of people from various towns were brought in to attack minority businesses, homes and shrines, the doors of which were marked either days before or the night of Sept. 5.

Business places and shops were looted, shrines were burnt and people beaten by the thousands -- 15 Greeks (two of them priests) and one Armenian died while hundreds were wounded and some women were reported raped. Loss of property and wealth was so high that it was forceful enough to drive the point home that non-Muslim, non-ethnic-Turkish minorities were not welcome in this country. They left their ancestral homes and country by the droves, leaving Turkey devoid of its cultural richness, economic entrepreneurship and the social milieu where tolerance would flourish out of cultural exchange.

The Turkish public never opened this locked chest of extreme aggressiveness and intolerance to differences and did not allow its collective psyche to be cleansed through confession and apology to the victims. Conversely, those who subverted national feelings into a heartless policy to get rid of cultural minorities defended their action as a political victory.

Gen. Sabri Yirmibeşoğlu, who served as the head of the Special War Department and later as the head of the Intelligence Department of the General Staff, confessed to Fatih Güllapoğlu, a journalist, during an interview in 1991. In his exact words, the general said: "…[T]ake the Sept. 6-7 incidents, it also was a Special War [Dept.] job. And it was a magnificent event. Let me ask you; was it not a magnificent event." (Interview published in the weekly Tempo, June 9-15, 1991, issue 24). And what about the young agent Oktay Engin, who planted the bomb in Thessaloniki? He was smuggled into Turkey by the Turkish Consulate in that city. He was enrolled in İstanbul University's school of law. After graduation he worked in various departments of the police and was finally appointed governor of Nev?ehir, a city in central Turkey.

That "magnificent" event broke the promise of the Turkish Republic to its non-Muslim, non-Turkish citizens regarding their legal equality and security and cast a heavy shadow over the regime regarding its justice and neutrality towards its citizens. The ensuing law cases ended up with no punishment of the alleged perpetrators and left a deep scar as to the existence of the rule of law in public administration. Such a catastrophe and betrayal of the state to its people could only be covered up with a projection of guilt to the very minorities that were themselves the victims. The public image of minorities, billed as the "fifth column" and always ready for treason, poisoned this country's politics. The common citizen was led to feel that there were enemies all around so they ought to be constantly on the alert for the subversion of the "other." Unfortunately, the "other" has always been one of us, differentiating and fragmenting the nation. So the "nation-state" which is so exalted in official rhetoric never had a restful moment because the nation has constantly fought amongst itself since the inception of the republic.

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