Sunday, April 11, 2010

State, Society, and Diversity

Today's Zaman columnist Ali Bulac recently penned a column in which he wrote that there seem to be few minority problems when Turkey is viewed from a "horizontal," or societal, perspective. Here, Bulac points to 9,000 marriages between Turks of different ethnic, linguistic, and religous backgrounds (I am curious about this statistic, and where it came from), but wrote that problems areise when Turkey is viewed from a "vertical" perspective, whereby the state, and curiously, intellectuals, are seen to "intervene" and "disrupt" the "internal harmony of society." From Bulac:

The society tends to retain its own diversity and unless there are concrete/material data, everyone is aware that everyone is different. The state, on the other hand, does not allow even the awareness of diversity to strike roots among the society because it is fearful of the public emergence or visibility of diversities due to the principle of equality among its citizens.

This is well evidenced by the fact that since its establishment, the state has not permitted a survey that would realistically show the distribution of different ethnicities across the country. Political scientists advocate two main views in this regard. According to the first view, identities cannot be researched. The society is already as it should be; it has fused all identities -- religious, factional, ethnic, racial, class -- and in the final analysis, this is the main factor that makes a society. The society should be regarded as a mosaic, and studies that would bring differences to the forefront would lead to conflict. We can say that this is the view commonly advocated by scientists influenced by the French republican tradition. Since 1870, France has not conducted any census or survey to find out what religious or ethnic diversities exist in the country.

Scholars from the democratic tradition, on the other hand, suggest that such surveys are needed to obtain the correct information about the society and to determine more consistent economic and social policies. In the Republic of Turkey, the last census in which the people were inquired about their mother tongue took place in 1965. Since then, they have been asked no question about their religion, sect or mother tongue. The concern here is: Since there is no definition of an identity agreed upon by all groups and because a secular identity has been imposed on society in a top-down manner, a study that would expose diversities present would disrupt the official system.

When the European Union defined, though without exhaustive discussions, Kurds and Alevis as “minorities” in its 2004 progress report, this created a major problem. This was a very strange definition because we borrowed the concept of a minority from European legislation. Historically, Islam dealt with non-Muslims with reference to a “dhimmi” status, which was acquired as a result of wars. Therefore, dhimmis do not represent a minority in the sense that Europeans understand it. The Ottoman Empire based social groupings on religion and identity. There was a “nation of Islam” which included Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Circassians, Georgians, Albanians, Bosnians, etc. Other than this, there was the “nation of miscellaneous elements” (millet-i saire). It should be noted that millet-i saire does not mean “other nations.” If these nations were defined as “millet-i aher” (other nations), then they would be “otherified.” Muslim states and the Ottoman Empire did not discriminate against non-Muslims but considered them within the category of miscellaneous nations. The work to draft a new and civilian constitution that Turkey needs should be encompassing.
I am a bit confused by what Bulac means here by "encompassing," and question his conclusion that there are not significant problems in Turkish society when it comes to minotirites. There is certainly plenty of antagonism and discrimination against minority groups that occurs independent of the state (though, it could perhaps be argued that most of this is largely a symtpom of state policies), as well as a good bit of what many have termed "neighborhood pressure" when it comes to accepting, embracing, and appreciating difference (see Feb. 10 post). Yet, the heart of what Bulac seems to be talking about when he draws a distinction between two schools of public thought, which he labels as republican and democratic, is important, and indeed one that Turkey, along with most other countries, have come to struggle with in recent years. Modern liberalism long relegated the importance of ethnic and religious differences among citizens, in doing "secularizing" citizenship to hold identities sepaarate from belonging to the state as irrelevant. However, importantly, citizenship in most states was not really ever "secular" in the sense that it was void of national, linguistic, or religious characteristics; rather, as in Turkey and France (the example Bulac gives), being a citizen often meant embracing a nationality, language, and religion not one's own, but that was tied to the nation-state identity in which one resided. Meanwhile, other identities in potential conflict with those promoted by the state were frequently repressed. This has certainly been the case in Turkey, as well as in most other nation-states.

I also sincerely question whether the European Union's use of the term "minority" is bizarre (and, to some, offensive) because it made little sense given the legacy of the Ottoman millet system. Rather, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne and Turkey's transformation as a modern-state/nation-building exercises seem to be the key point of dissent here. Under Lausanne as recognized by Turkey, only Greek Orthodox Christians ("Rum"), Armenian Orthodox Christians, and Jews were described as minorities with special status and rights, though this actually, in many cases, resulted in them being perceived and treated as second-class citizens. [Other Christian minorities, such as the Syriacs, have been denied such recognition (perhaps, even under the terms of Lausanne, illegally), as were non-Muslim minorities.]

Lausanne is more the rule of the game when it comes to Turkey's policies toward minorities than the Ottoman millet system, and nation-states and empires, of course, would naturally have very different relationships toward minorities. While Ottomanism was largely premised on an Islamic identity, Turkey is founded on a Turkish national idenitity whereby religion is superceded in importance to nationality. I am unsure exactly how Bulac is suggesting that the Ottoman understanding of "minority" and "nation" should be applied to Turkey, but certainly would welcome further elucidation from Bulac on this point.

Contemporary international law on minorities have defined "minority" -- for instance, the United Nations' 1979 Study on the Rights of Persons Belonging to Ethnic, Religious, and Linguistic Minorities, in which "minority" is defined as "a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population of a State, in a non-dominant position, whose members -- being nationals of a State -- poseess ethnic, religious, or linguistic characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population and show, if only implicitly, a sense of solidarity, directed towards preserving their culture, traditions, religion, or language." Does Bulac think individuals belonging to minority groups' inter-mixing with other groups somehow invalidate ties that hold these individuals together in a minority identity? Do fluidity and inter-group relations somehow lessen the degree of protection these groups are due to receive under international law? Bulac's lack of reference to contemporary international law makes me wary to stay the least, but perhaps I am misunderstanding something here.

CORRECTION 4/12 -- Bulac writes there are "more than 9 million men and women from different ethnic groups are married to each other." Still, where does the statistic come from?

1 comment:

Bulent Murtezaoglu said...

Not 9,000 nine million (9,000,000). Who knows where the figure came from. The leading paragraph about 'taqwa' should have clued you in anyway. He's talking about a history he's probably wishing into existence (yeah 1400 years, people in the Cuacaus and Albania/Bosnia instantly converted the moment the prophet got the message) and he's not really talking about non-Muslims at the outset. The bit about non-discrimination in Ottoman times is also patently false. He may be right about the view of minorities differing between the West and here, but claiming non-discrimination places the article out in the lala land.