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November 15, 2012, Thursday

İstanbul and Constantinople

When I was young, we lived in a “Greek house.” With its iron shutters, iron gate and high-rise ceiling, our house was different from those in its vicinity.

 I also remember seeing some female Greek tourists clinging to the walls of some houses in Çeşme, where we would go in the summer. Seeing those Greek women crying, my mother would also burst into cries. For many years, I have been unable to give any meaning to those tears. Our non-Muslims had melted into thin air, leaving behind their houses, streets, churches, fountains and other “remnants,” they have always continued to be part of our lives like some sinister ghost that we cannot ward off. Despite our history textbooks that carefully avoid any mention of them and despite their names erased meticulously from every place, it seemed, they have left some sort of tiny “reminders” across the country.

After many years, I started to ponder the country’s matters and issues, and I came to realize that the problem was a “social earthquake” that was far bigger than I as a kid could perceive. If the pre-1915 demographic percentages still applied to today’s Turkey, there would be 18 million non-Muslims living in the country. Just try to visualize 18 million non-Muslims, consisting mainly of Greeks, Armenians and Jews, living in Turkey. What sort of Turkey would it be?

We would presumably be more self-confident. We would have non-Muslim deputies in Parliament, just as was the case with the Ottoman Assembly of Deputies (Meclis-i Mebusan). And we would not have the Kurdish issue whatsoever. We wouldn’t be a society that has lost its memory.

For instance, we would not hang a placard reading “İstanbul since 1453” during a soccer match between Turkish and Greek national teams. My friend, Bekir Berat Özipek, who related this incident to me, said: “In essence, this placard gives the following message to Greek fans: ‘We don’t feel like we belong to this city. This city is yours, but we have just captured it’.” I don’t think there will be a better sentence that can explain gracefully the “mood” for carefully hiding Byzantine remnants and refraining from exhibiting them on the streets.

If we had not banished non-Muslims and if we had had the courage and honesty to face the misty passages of our history, we would surely not have taken offense from writing “Constantinople” beneath the signboard for “İstanbul.” We would have found the creative courage to re-open the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) as a church/mosque where Christians and Muslims can worship together and in peace. We would commemorate İstanbul’s Armenian architects with gratitude. We would refer to Sinan the architect, who gave so many magnificent works to the Ottoman Empire, with his original name that proves his Armenian roots, namely Armen Sinanyan. And we would bow in front of this great master respecting his real identity, and we would contemplate with ecstasy under this dome of nations where a myriad of races and religions have intermingled.

If we did not have such complexes, we would not have discussed whether the current successor of the Greek patriarch, whose autonomy Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror revived, is ecumenical or not, and we would be boasting with the fact that our country is hosting the leader and institution of the second largest sect of Christianity. If we really had had self-confidence, we would not have denied anything about our past, and we would have taken pride in both the Muslim and Christian identities of our country. We would not attempt to love only the physical beauty of İstanbul after denying its past. Our love wouldn’t be like the adoration a crude man feels toward the physical body of a woman.

If we had been honest, we would have more authentic knowledge about ourselves and our past, and our intelligence sharpened with honesty and self-awareness would make us give everyone their due place. We would not see murderers as heroes and true heroes as traitors.

If all this had happened, the heterogeneous texture coming from a diversity of religions, languages and races would be a great asset for us. Turkey would become an island of peace in its region. Do you think we can do it from now on?

Can we overcome the pestilence of nationalism that haunted us coming from the Balkans? Can we feel in our hearts the sorrows the Muslims of the Balkans and the Christians of Turkey suffer from this pathological nationalism? Can we get over the damage done to us by pathological nationalism and love İstanbul as Constantinople? What do you think?

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