Nine people, including six children, died in a flood that devastated Samsun. Murat Karayılan, the number one of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) military wing, denied many of the statements he had made in an interview with Avni Özgürel. With the passage of a new package of judicial reforms, discussions began for the release from prison of several deputies who were in jail when they were elected to office. And, in a very important development, the president of the Religious Affairs Directorate, Professor Mehmet Görmez, made an historic statement during his visit to Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. These were some of the important agenda items in the country.
As a matter of fact, each of them deserves a lengthy article. Yet, particularly the remarks by the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate made during his visit to Patriarch Bartholomew are vitally important, I believe. Görmez made important remarks both during and after his visit. And the Holy Patriarch underlined the importance of peace and fraternity in the settling of problems with his usual elegant attitude that is expected of clerics.
We know what the Patriarch’s complaints are about; he is primarily concerned with the obstacles before the opening of new monasteries for the training of clerics and the reopening of the Halki Seminary on the island of Heybeliada, near İstanbul, which was closed down in the early 1970s.
During the time the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has been at the helm of the country, major changes have been seen in the discriminatory and hostile attitudes against non-Muslim minorities that were widespread in the past. This is significant, as the most salient characteristic of the neo-nationalist (ulusalcı) and Kemalist tutelage was the policy of discrimination against non-Turks. Despite the Kemalist republic’s claims of being a contemporary, modern and secular administration, it actually nurtured many fascist practices that were visible both during the single-party regime and the multi-party regime that was in effect introduced only after the 1950s.
These practices were not coincidental or based on conjuncture. It was a conscious choice by Kemalists and this formed one of the distinguishing characteristics of the state. Anyone who did not comply with the citizen stereotypes the Kemalists formulated and imposed on the country with a top-down policy would be seen as an enemy of the state and would face oppression. Thus, Muslims, Alevis, Kurds and, of course, non-Muslims became the usual targets of this oppression. These groups actually equated to about 90 percent of society. In the end, a minority dictatorship was established. The majority of the general public was excluded from the state and the rights of citizens. Non-Muslims were at the bottom of the pyramid of “others.” And they paid a big price in terms of their numbers and came to the brink of extinction. The non-Muslim population accounted for 40 percent of the total population in run up to World War I but today is only represented by one out of every thousand. This was made possible by the social engineering projects of the Community of Union and Progress (CUP) and their followers, the Kemalists.
Warding off mentality of state apparatus
One of the major changes the ruling AK Party has made since 2002 has been through its efforts to ward of this mentality from the state apparatus. It is not surprising at all for a conservative party having a religious voters’ base to undertake these efforts. As a Christian, I can understand well where this comes from. Indeed, although they glorified Western values, Kemalists actually pursued a policy that sidelined conscience. This was in stark contrast to the sense of justice, a central concept of religion. The unfair practices against non-Muslims had created a major source of income for the Kemalist elites. But those who were truly Muslim felt disgust against these policies. Moreover, Muslims themselves could not exercise their rights as citizens for many years due to pressure from the state. In other words, the removal of anti-democratic provisions from the Law on Foundations, the preliminary steps taken toward the return of unfairly confiscated properties to non-Muslim minorities and allowing the reopening of the Halki Seminary --which I will discuss below-- meant for the AK Party the fulfillment of an Islamic injunction to administer justice rather than a democratic requirement.
The Religious Affairs Directorate is an institution established by Kemalists to keep religion in check, although it was fundamentally against the principle of secularism. Using this institution, the state attempted to establish a secular identity practically imposed as a single-sect religion and to keep banned religious communities and orders under tight control. In this way, it was actually trying to prevent political Islam, which it saw as a threat. However, there had never been a fundamentalist threat in Ottoman or Turkish history. Only the founding fathers of the republic saw religion as a threatening and despicable thing. They believed religion was the reason for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its defeat by the West. In other words, the Ottoman Empire remained backward and came to the brink of destruction because of Islam, they would say. Their analysis was so simple. Just as the West had kept Christianity under tight control, they, too, had to do so. Their minds were not only very confused but also lacked the capacity to correctly analyze historical events. It is too late to explain to them that there were no social engineering efforts in Europe but that an underlying movement created the bourgeoisie and that enlightenment and reform were not implemented by the state but developed at monasteries.
Turkey, which for a long time has needed to apologize to its non-Muslim minorities, who have been struggling to obtain their most basic religious right to train their own clerics, may be able to rectify this during the AK Party’s term. Turkey has been violating this right for years despite a promise to grant it under the Treaty of Lausanne, which it glorifies as its founding agreement. Although the state provides funds to a single sect via the Religious Affairs Directorate, it does not allow non-Muslim minorities to establish a school to educate clerics with their own funds. But I think this historic error will be fixed thanks to Görmez’s remarks.
Görmez said: “We believe the Patriarchate has the right to educate its own clerics. We have made it clear that it is wrong to be dependent on other countries for the training of clerics. A religious community’s dependence on other countries to educate their own theologians does not befit Turkey as a major country.”
Following his visit with the Patriarch, he continued to discuss this matter. “I believe the principle of reciprocity is not moral, particularly with respect to the rights and freedoms, although the modern world is attaching importance to it. If a country says, ‘If you grant rights to Muslims or the religious people in your country, I will do the same with those in my country, or if you do any injustice to them in your country, I will do the same with those in my country,’ this is something I cannot see as befitting a major country or a major civilization,” he said.
Görmez criticizes the principle of reciprocity Turkey implements with regards to Greek citizens in Turkey vis-à-vis Greece’s attitude toward Turks in Western Thrace.
In line with this principle, whatever Greece does to the Turkish minority in Greece, Turkey will reciprocate with the Greek minority in Turkey, and this principle has been in practice for years. This policy might have been regarded as a normal state policy during World War I, but today it is a crime to implement it. Civilized states do not see their citizens as slaves and do not discriminate amongst their citizens based on race, religion or color. Görmez repeated this in his capacity as a state official. And he did so as the first president of the Religious Affairs Directorate to pay a visit to the Patriarch in years.
No one can say that this visit and Görmez’s remarks are coincidental. Previously, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç made similar remarks. I think the AK Party is testing the waters before bringing the matter of reopening the Halki Seminary to the agenda. As a matter of fact, the ruling party is, through the Religious Affairs Directorate, easing the conscience of its religious voter base about this highly politicized matter that has been overshadowed by prejudice.
But I think the people in Turkey are already ready for this belated reform. And the government can move more speedily to be rid of this disgraceful fascist practice. Still, we need to acknowledge that this was an historic move.