Turkey and religious minorities: Less of a monolith

Analysis, posted 06.12.2015, from Turkey, in:
YESTERDAY'S general election in Turkey was a landmark in several different ways. The Islamist Justice and Development (AK) party saw a sharp drop in its vote, dealing a massive blow to the hopes of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a change in the constitution which would invest his office with executive powers. The pro-Kurdish HDP crossed the 10% threshold and entered parliament. And for the first time in half a century, there is a decent sprinkling of newly elected parliamentarians who are open about the fact their heritage is neither Muslim nor Turkish. As the daily Hurriyet reported, the new crop of deputies includes at least four people of Christian background: Selina Dogan, an Armenian lawyer who stood for the CHP, the secular-nationalist opposition party; Markar Esayan, a journalist with Armenian roots who ran on an AK party ticket; Garo Paylan, another Istanbul Armenian, who stood for the HDP; and Erol Dora, a lawyer of Syrian christian orthodox background. On top of that, two HDP deputies are Yazidis, members of another religious minority that has suffered terribly in neighbouring Iraq at the hands of Islamic State. The CHP ranks also include one Roma, and a good number of Alevis whose practice of Islam differs from the state-encouraged Sunni norm. The female share of parliamentary seats has risen to 18%, mainly thanks to the HDP's good gender balance; and the lady parliamentarians range from devout wearers of the Muslim headscarf to women who totally reject such garb. Although there is still a long way to go in the representation of women, "this is a dramatically different and more colourful picture than the all-male, monochrome and monofaith assemblies of decades past," says Karabekir Akkoyunlu, an assistant professor of Turkish studies at Graz University. And for history buffs this marks a modest reversal, at least, of a century-old trend towards homogeneity. Religious minorities had a significant role in the parliaments of the final years of the Ottoman era; the legislature elected in 1908 included 147 Muslim Turks, 26 Greek Orthodox, 14 Armenian Christians and four Jews. The Christian component fell after the Balkan wars of 1912-13 when the empire lost most of its European territories. But as late as November 1918, three Greek deputies were asking parliamentary questions about the suffering of their co-religionists. In the war that engulfed Anatolia over the following four years, relations between Christians and Muslims broke down, and the founders of the new Turkish republic did not hide their view that the "treacherous" Christian minorities would have little or no role in the new order. There was a breakthrough when a Greek-Orthodox surgeon was elected to the Ankara parliament in 1935, and the parliament elected in 1950 was unusually diverse with three Greeks, three Armenians and four Jews; but these were exceptions. America's State Department reckons that non-Muslim minorities now make up less than 1% of Turkey's 80m people; they include 90,000 Armenians (including many migrant workers), 25,000 Roman Catholics, 23,000 Jews and 2,500 Greek Orthodox. There are still dozens of functioning Christian churches in the Istanbul area, such as the Armenian one pictured, but they face a perpetual struggle to gain permits to maintain and repair buildings, and to reclaim property that was taken by the state in various waves of confiscation. None of the new cohort of Christian-origin deputies is known to be especially devout. And nobody should expect sessions of the newly formed assembly to begin with lusty renderings of "Onward Christian Soldiers". The significant thing is not so much the beliefs or family background of the new parliamentarians, but the fact that they and their parties no longer find it necessary (as they would have a decade or two ago) to cover up their background. Among the many trends at work in Turkey's complex social mix is an increasing openness about true family stories. People no longer feel compelled to rewrite their personal sagas so as to eliminate any forebears who were neither Muslim nor Turkish. In short, the fluidity of Turkish society is now matched, to some degree, by its official representatives. That is an encouraging straw in the wind for hard-pressed minorities, ranging from isolated Roman-Catholic communities who fear for their safety to the Greek Orthodox adherents who yearn to reopen their famous Halki seminary, on an island near Istanbul. (That theological college has been closed since 1971 although it still hosts events such as the culture-and-ecology conference I am now attending.) Perhaps the most impressive bit of recent news is the open presence of an ethnic Armenian in the ranks of the CHP, the standard-bearer of the Turkish-nationalist ideology proclaimed by state founder Kemal Ataturk. "We do not want division in our society, we want to grow and develop together," declared the party's leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, when announcing her candidacy. Contrast that to earlier phases of the Turkish republic, when the approach of the political class to overcoming divisions was to pretend they did not exist.