Turkey on Turkey-Day

Trigger warning: ethnic cleansing, genocide, linguistic imperialism

Earlier this week, almost everyone who watches the news had at least a little bit of a mild panic. A Russian military plane was shot down by Turkish forces after it veered slightly into their territory from the Syrian side of the border. While most outlets have offered soothing explanations of the situation – noting that Turkey’s NATO membership and Russia’s formidable military checked each other and prevent a misunderstanding from escalating into full fledged conflict – I think this speaks to the rather worrisome politics that have taken grip of Turkey.

Al Jazeera’s article on the recent incident gives a descriptive overview of what just happened and also provides a map that underscores just how deep into Syrian territory this Turkish province actually extends:

hatay plane incident

A piece by Gary Brecher from October paints a vivid picture of how such a comparatively Turkish population came to be lodged in the middle of the more diverse Syria. In a nutshell – ethnic cleansing on a mass scale. To any student of Turkish history that’s not surprising. Before the World War II seizure of this southern province, there was the Armenian Genocide during the first World War, and before that the long history of expelling Greeks, and before that the very genesis of the Turkish state with the help of Janissaries.

The Turks began their history in modern Turkey as a tiny ethnic group lost in the chaotic medieval east Mediterranean and emerged as the powerful heads of an Ottoman Empire not by accident, but from a consistent policy of conversion, Turkification, and ethnic cleansing. What is today Turkey’s Hatay Province began as the Sanjuk of Alexandretta – a part of the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon, with a significant Turkish minority that remained from the administrators of the recently fallen Ottoman Empire. That type of historical trajectory is common to most Turkish territory.

What reads to most of the rest of the world as a terrifying overreaction takes on another layer of meaning with the knowledge of that province’s history. The first priority of almost every settler state is the defense of its newly acquired territory, and Hatay is no different. While Arabic as a spoken language and Arab as an ethnic identity have both declined in popularity there at a staggering rate, a large portion of that province’s population continues to recall their family origins and to remember a kind of otherness within Turkey. That’s a vulnerability for the Turkish state, particularly with the on-going internecine conflicts raging on the other side of Hatay’s extensive border.

I have said before that the movements in Turkey seeking to strengthen their democracy aren’t incompatible with the push within the country to redefine their ethnic and religious identities in a confusing and globalizing world. That’s difficult, but it’s possible.

Bathed in a defense of the historical violence that served to create Turkey, however, a different fusion of older ideas of Turkish identity with modern senses of self might emerge from the Turkish state. That was what was hinted at by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan earlier this year, when he created a photo-op with the traditional military uniforms of the sixteen former incarnations of the Turkish empire (of varying actual ethnic composition).

erdogan sixteen turkish empires

There are other identities to be pulled out of Turkish national memory, including martial ones. Ceremonially and militarily, Erdoğan appears to have cast in his lot with that understanding of where he’s come from and what his country has to do to survive. For foreign powers intervening in Syria and various local contingents skirting the Turkish-Syrian border, that’s another risk to consider in the already difficult fight.

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