On the Road to EU

Turks or Trojans?
Part 3

By Alex Penman
Athens News

In their political quest for European Union membership, Turks are revisiting their ethnic origins. While some celebrate the central Asian origins of the Turkish race, others want to write themselves into European history by claiming. lineage from the ancient civilizations of Asia Minor

"We are all children of Byzantium ," Jacques Chirac said in mid-November in suppqrt of Turkey's EU
accession. But whose offspring is Turkey? The history is complex and Chirac's statement stirred a simmering debate in Turkey over identity.

Turks' reactions to Chirac's statement reveal the ambivalence of their stance towards Asia Minor's ancient inhabitants. Nationalistic and Islamic circles protested, claiming that the idea of having Christian lineage is preposterous. Those who could read in the claim support of Turkey's Europeaness cheered, claiming that Turks are successors of "all the people who inhabited these lands"

Turkish or Turkey-ish?

A Minority and Cultural Rights Report, issued in October by the Human Rights Advisory Committee of the Turkish prime ministry, held that the concept of 'Turk' is inevitably attached to a specific culture. Groups not belonging to the dominant Turcophone and Sunni-Muslim culture (some 40 percent of the people), may be happy to be citizens of the republic, but unhappy under the 'Turkish' tag.

Turkish identity is a centuries-old question, and a highly politicised one. The history of the country is one of vast change and influence.

Proposing to replace "Turkish" with "Turkey-ish" as an all-embracing tag for a multicultural society, the committee touched on issues laid to rest for 80 years.

Until recently, national identity and the minority question remained safely outside public debate. When the republic was founded in 1923, republican ideology 'resolved' the issues in a constitutional declaration. It called Turkey an indivisible Turkish homeland inhabited by one people, the Turks: "Whoever is bound to the state through citizenship is Turkish".

Ataturk, the founder of the republic, penned such phrases as "What a joy to be called a Turk", "Turkey belongs to Turks" and "A Turk is worth the world", These slogans adorn Turkey, carved on hills, painted on walls and on banners over highways and junctions.

A couple dance in front of giant turkish flags and
a huge poster of Ataturk, founder of the Turkish
Republic, during an event at Inonu Stadium,
downtown Istanbul, last May. As their country
braces for the start of entry talks with the
European Union in October, Turks are looking
for their identity between Asia and Europe

Despite this indoctrination of nationalism, the official state has a brewing crisis. Since many of the country's inhabitants are not ethnic Turks, the authorities fear identity debates will threaten to break the country apart. They hope to keep hold of 'Turk' as the constitutional name for citizenship, transcending ethnic and religious divides.

Turk equals Muslim?

While the word 'Turk' may be very old to the Christian West, it is new to Turks themselves only becoming a form of self-reference in the 20th century. The name first enters the European vocabulary through Byzantine sources, which called Turks a number of barbarian tribes migrating from the Asian steppes to Asia Minor, the Crimea and the Balkans - the Avars, Pechenegs, Huns and Khazars. Those invaders spoke dialects of language very close to modern Turkish.

As Turkish-speaking Seljuks overran the Byzantines and invaded Asia Minor in 1071, they
converted many of the Hellenised local Christians to Islam, making Turkish the lingua franca of Anatolia, the mountainous plateau in the heart of Asia Minor.

Crusaders and Byzantines alike referred to Seljuk dominions as Turkey or Turcomania, a name later bequeathed to the Ottoman fiefdoms. The Ottomans never referred to themselves as Turkish, reserving the term - which bore derogatory connotations - to the peasants of the Anatolian steppes, also known as Turkomans. They called their country House of Osman, and themselves and their language - a mixture of Turkish, Persian and Arabic - Ottoman. But since they conquered all Arab lands and assumed leadership of Islam, Europeans and the empire's Christians referred to all Muslims surrounding them as Turks.

The empire's Christians survived cherishing not only their religious identity, but also their languages, art and memories of statehood. Greeks looked up to Byzantium as an empire and faith, classical Greece as identity and culture. Bulgarians, Armenians and Serbians cleaved to their languages and the history and art of their respective Mediaeval kingdoms.

Turks, on the other hand, a community largely formed by converts, identified themselves with the multiethnic empire and Islam and did not develop any other points of collective reference: Turkish and non-Turkish Muslims alike formed the Umma, the Islamic community.

Citizen Turks united

In the nineteenth century, a series of reforms known as Tanzimat tried to save the crumbling empire by propagating an all-embracing Ottoman citizenship for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. 'Ottomanism' was a belated and unsuccessful attempt to counter Christian nationalisms with a notion of statehood not wholly dependent on Islam. Its ideological rival, Islamism, was abandoned when Muslims Albanians and Arabs rebelled.

Preservation of the multiethnic empire was impossible. Instead, Young Turks, the revolutionary party that depose'd Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1908, developed the idea of a homeland for the Turkish people.

If a national conscience emerged, ideas of collective identity would centre around contemporary racial and linguistic concepts different from the 'Islamic community', But what Turks did Young Turks have in mind? One strand, called Pan-Turkist, envisaged a union of all people speaking Turkic dialects, between the Aegean and China. The other, to which Ataturk subscribed and which ultimately prevailed, focused on Balkan and Asia Minor Turks.

Adoption of the name Turk coincided with the move for the creation of the nation-state and had to overcome opposition from educated Muslim Ottomans, who associated it with illiterate peasants.

Shevket Sureyva Aydemir, a collaborator of Ataturk's, narrates in his autobiography how his troops were appalled when he appealed to their patriotism in Gallipoli by saying, "We are all Turks." The Turkish Republic became the first state founded on an exclusively Turkish ideal. In his-war launched against invading Greeks, Ataturk called on Muslims of the land to unite,

Yet after independence and his reforms, Islam was excluded from the national characteristics he attributed to Turks in the school textbook he wrote. Rather, the characteristics included political unity and community of language, descent, historical and moral values. In the secular republic, the word Turk was 'secularised' and awarded a racial-cultural-historic dimension.

It is now commonly agreed upon and freely discussed that citizens of the Turkish Republic have little in common with the migrating hordes from central Asia, Rather, they are what many proudly proclaim "the children of the empire".

We are European

While discussions of Turkishness were until recently forbidden, the issue of Turks' relation to other Asia Minor peoples was freely and often debated. There are many who claim Turks are descendants of communities as diverse as the Hittites, Phrygians, Lycians, Trojans and Ionian and Byzantine Greeks.

Turks who claim a common European past are called Anatoliansts.They support the thesis that Turks are offspring of all civilisations that once flourished in Anatolia. One of the most prominent was the writer Cevat Sakir, known as the Fisherman of Halicarnassus. This strand of thought has always been espoused by politicians favouring Turkey's European ambitions.

Some have gone further to claim that Asia Minor people were Turkish themselves. The most notable was Turgut Ozal, who had in private expressed his regret that the name chosen for the country was Turkish and not Anatolian Republic - which in his view would have prevented the 1984-1999 Kurdish insurgency. In his book Turkey in Europe he claimed that Homer and the Ionian philosophers were Turkish.

The foreword to a 2001 Turkish ministry of culture Complete Guide to Turkey contains pronouncements like, "Herodotus, who was born here, said that the Turkish coast and sky were the most beautiful in the world... Lycian society, in Turkey, was the world's first republic... Ancient Romans employed Turkish cooks in their kitchens." More recently, some claimed that the Hollywood film Troy portrayed "our ancestors".

Even though these extreme notions stretch the historical truth, they are pait of a tendency that wants to see Turks as part of Europe.

Proponents of these views want to prove that the country is a member of the European past and destiny. Chirac's implication that Turkey and Europe share a common past further validated this camp.

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