Interview with Serdar M. Degirmencioglu,

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Eastern Europe, Interviews

On nation-building and nationalism

After the Ottoman Empire was dismantled, there needed to be a nation-state to replace it. As often happens in Europe, this notion of nation-state led to bloodshed. People had coexisted for centuries without treating each other as ethnic aliens; that was how the Ottoman Empire had been run.

But the nation-state needed a homogenous population. This led to ethnic cleansing of a sort – i.e., the population exchange of 1923. If you were to support such a thing today, many would think you are a criminal. But back then it was “public policy”. With the exception of those in Istanbul, the government shipped all the Greeks out of Turkey. No one asked them. They were kicked out in three days time. In return, Muslims from Greece – with the exception of Western Thrace – were pushed out. Citizens of Turkey didn’t know about this population exchange until the end of the 1980s, when books written about the topic emerged. The official history taught in schools did not go into such stuff. The same thing applied in Greece. In Greece, nationalism was pumped up, but the pumping up did not silence issues connected to the exchange. Survivors of the exchange kept up their traditions

Here, you did not hear about the ills of the nation-state for decades. If you dispute the legitimacy of the nation-state with those who were born here in the 1930s and 1940s, most of them would say negative things. The people who were exchanged did not think so. They co-existed with people of a different ethnic background and therefore they considered each other “neighbors”, not enemies.

The same thing applies to those of the same generation in Greece. Research shows that the first generation to suffer the exchange talked about their homeland and their neighbors in very positive terms. Their children did not know what co-existence was; they grew up in a nationalistic context, and turned toward nationalism. The third generation had it worst – they became hardcore nationalists. The key here was education: the job of schools is brainwashing of the nationalist persuasion.

Events in the year 2007 indicate where Turkey stands when dealing with the issue of ethnic identity. On January 19, an Armenian newspaper editor was assassinated. This was the first time the ethnic identity issue was addressed head on. If you look at the responses from conservative sectors, it sounds like outright racism, like blatant discrimination; but for them it’s the first instance of public debate. Now, the current government is not eager to engage this debate, fearing it would eventually lead to the acceptance of different languages, and the possibility of Islam not being treated as the sole power in this country. In sum, it would lead to more freedom. Most people are not interested in this discussion. But at least now, after the assassination, you can now read more about the demands and the history of Armenians in this country.

On the ruling party

The current government has basically complied with every single request and demand of the European Union. The current government wants the EU to be happy. But this is a game they are playing. They often put something into law superficially to make people happy. So, on paper, there is broadcasting in Kurdish and the possibility of teaching and learning Kurdish. But when it comes to one man teaching Kurds in their own language, he has to get a permit from the Ministry of Education. Everything is scrutinized before permission is finally granted. Often, a trivial reason is then used to close the operation down.

That said, changes are indicating a move in a positive direction. I speculate that there will be more freedom in Turkey in the near future. Until then, however, many will be killed jobs, many will lose their job, and many will be deprived of the freedom to use their native language. It will be a painful struggle.

On young people and identity

Look at YouTube. It’s a free-for-all platform. You can see real hatred brewing there. Major thugs and criminals are being displayed as heroes, particularly by fanatics on the far right. There is also a good amount of PKK materials on the site glorifying the fallen and brewing hatred. If you are a young person dealing with identity issues – ethnic, religious, sexual – the current context is not supportive.

Young people are very easily recruited into violence. This comes from their lack of power. At what appears to be a modern school in Istanbul, the superintendent has bodyguards. Having bodyguards and weapons are a reality for people who are “into” power. Guns are cheap. If you go to the northern part of Turkey, you will see a culture of guns. You have to have guns. The assassination of the Armenian journalist was carried out in that part of the country.

On Europe

The issue of Europe is a double-edged sword. More and more, people are turning against Europe. A lot of people are voting for harsh, hard-line parties. There is disillusionment. This country was built in the shadows of feelings of inferiority. This is the legacy of the republican state, which kept on saying that the West is way beyond us, and that we have to catch up with them. Deep down, people carry this sense of inferiority.

The more people in Europe push Turkey away, the more people in Turkey push Europe away. If you talk about this with young people, they say good things about being European. But they say bad things about what Europe has done. Most don’t know about the treatment of immigrants there. They can’t give you facts. Still, most young people have some kind of enmity. The further right they are, the more hostile they will be towards Europe. As the world, including Europe, swings to the right, people from different lands are growing apart.

On the media

Real stories about real people are hard to find. The media has turned wild in the worst sense. The TV puts up news that is not news. Fabrication is commonplace. It is difficult for a young person to figure out what information is out there.

We try to work against this by putting real stories together – those of peacemaking, of forgiveness, of community-building. We are trying to document what I call extreme forgiveness among the children of the assassinated or disappeared. This has never been done before in this country, or anywhere else. Living without a father is a big challenge. Do you grow up with hatred? Or do you overcome these negative feelings and offer forgiveness? If you go to certain cities in this country, you will be amazed: almost everyone you meet will know someone who has been assassinated, or who has disappeared. For most people living in the west of Turkey, this is not a reality. They would dispute the numbers. Go east and the issue of ethnic identity and violence is a much more important issue.

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