Ece Temelkuran on Turkey’s minority issues

There’s a fascinating and wide-ranging interview with Turkish journalist Ece Temelkuran on the New Left Project‘s website. Temelkuran has written extensively on Turkey’s issues with minorities and a lot on her book about Armenia. A few choice excerpts follow.

On the Armenian issue in Turkey today:

There is huge propaganda in the schools against Armenians, but it’s not only that. It’s on the street, it’s everywhere. ‘Armenian’ is a curse word in Turkish, still. And when you ask people about Armenians, you get this blank expression. It’s like you’ve entered the wrong password and their brain just stops, and the password is ‘Armenian’. They go blank. Especially in south-east Turkey, when you see an Armenian church and ask about it people will say ‘oh, it’s prehistoric’, although it dates back only to 1915. And when you insist on this question – ‘this is an Armenian church’, ‘where are the Armenians?’, etc. – if they don’t get angry with you they will say, ‘oh, the Armenians are gone. They are gone.’ And if you ask, ‘where did they go?’ ‘They went over the bridge’. And beyond that, it’s blank again. In Istanbul there are many Armenian buildings and you don’t really see them or think about them.

On Kurds and Armenians:

Well, when it comes to the Armenians the Kurds were also the perpetrators once. Today, politically, they have accepted their responsibility, while the state hasn’t yet. The BDP, a Kurdish party, offered such a declaration, acknowledging that ‘our ancestors did such and such to Armenians, and we apologise for that’. More broadly, for the time being, there is this undercurrent among people in Turkey, and it’s also true for Kurds, where people are looking back to try and discover their roots. And having Armenian roots became kind of ‘hip’. Now and then I hear people saying, ‘you know what? My grandmother had no relatives, so we might be Armenian’, or ‘I remember my grandfather talking in a weird language, so we might be Armenian too’. Especially after the death of Hrant [Dink, a prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist gunned down in 2007 by a Turkish nationalist], becoming Armenian started to be ‘cool’, and I think this represents another role for Turkish people – they don’t want to be the ‘perpetrators’ after Hrant’s death, because that killing touched their hearts, so they want to move to the ‘victim’ side by having Armenian roots.

On coming from the oppressor’s side:

Writing the book was intellectually challenging as well, because there was this ontological security issue. Although I don’t represent anyone but me, I was coming from the ‘side’ of the perpetrator, and I was telling the story of the oppressed. So do I have the right to do that? How should I do that? During my time in Oxford Bernhard Schlink, the writer of The Reader – he’s a German jurist and an author – was there giving seminars on collective memory and collective guilt, and I joined one of them. He was talking about his guilt, and his generation’s guilt, over the Holocaust. After a while, following the speech, a Palestinian Oxford student asked him what he thought about the ‘Holocaust industry’, and he said ‘there is no such thing’. I asked a question, ‘what do you think about the fact that a nation is building up its hostile foreign policy on your feeling of guilt?’ He said, ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ – no, he said ‘I cannot talk about it, because I am German.’ So that was a great example of this phenomenon where if you’re coming from the perpetrator’s side you’re obliged to shut up and not talk about it. And I don’t think that’s correct – we should talk about it.

That’s probably enough excerpts. Read the whole interview here.

I think the issues surrounding minorities in Turkey are, to a certain extent, unique because of the intensity of Turkish nationalism. Nationalism plays a bigger role in social consciousness here than it does in any other country I’ve been to, possibly with the exception of Israel. Chauvinism exists everywhere (we all know how common it is in the U.S.) but in relatively new nation-states like Turkey (and Israel) it is more pronounced, more public and more vehement.

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