Throughout my stay in Istanbul during June 13-27, I remained intrigued about one thing: the Byzantine Greek Christians ruled over Turkey for around thousand years when they lost to the Ottoman Muslims in 1453 AD. There must have been Christian population across Turkey and beyond in the extended territories of the Ottomans. Where did they go? What happened to them during 1453-1923? What happened to them in the Republican Turkey — after 1923? I didn’t find answers to these. I didn’t find certain academics and journalists in Istanbul from whom I could have enquired.
My own study about Turkey has been less than elementary — very limited. Our undergraduate course in the history of modern world was confined to briefly studying Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938). Our course on the Khilafat Movement in India is not focusing much upon why and how the institution of Sunni Caliphate came to Turkey (1517-1923) and why the Indian Muslim leadership become so much concerned about it by 1920. I was always intrigued deeply about an issue: the Young Turk Movement under Ataturk’s leadership wanted republican system to replace the Caliphate whereas the Muslim leadership of India mobilised Muslims for preservation of the Caliphate. Within a short period of less than three decades, not for the first time in the first half of the 20th century, the subcontinent’s Muslims would be terribly misled by their own leaders.
Notwithstanding my puzzles, I never made adequate attempts to explore answers to the above questions.
As I sat down to revise my doctoral dissertation in order to develop it into a book in the first decade of this century, I came across the book Islamist Mobilization in Turkey: A Study in Vernacular Politics (2002) by American anthropologist Jenny B White. It found out that despite Turkey being a cosmopolitan frontier and a model of secular modernisation, at the grass-root level, it was gradually giving way to Islamist Welfare Party in the 1990s. By 1996-97, this was becoming the largest party. The Turkish urban middle classes were getting attracted towards it. The Welfare Party and its ideological partners and incarnates were sought to be banned in 1998 and 2001. Yet, its popularity kept growing. [Let it be added here that by 2011, the Welfare Parties have emerged in the Indian subcontinent as well. This is an affiliate of the Jamaat-e-Islami. Masooda Bano has explored this in EPW, vol. 47, issue 1, January 07, 2012].
White demonstrated how everyday concerns and interpersonal relations, rather than Islamic dogma, helped the Welfare activists gain access to community networks, building on continuing face-to-face relationships by way of interactions with constituents through trusted neighbours. The Islamic political networks, based on cultural understandings of relationships, duties, and trust, the Islamic activists sustained cohesion despite contradictory agendas and beliefs. The civic organisations, through local relationships, ensured the autonomy of these networks from the national political organisations in whose service they appeared to act, particularly in the spheres of municipal administration. Just as the BJP-Sangh Pariwar gained dominance also through its works among the tribal areas, as demonstrated by Tariq Thachil, in his book, Elite Parties, Poor Voters: How Social Services Win Votes in India (2014). His latest co-authored book, Migrants and Machine Politics (2023), demonstrates how the dominant party “exploits the urban poor to stifle competition, foster ethnic favoritism, and entrench vote buying”.
To my book, though focusing only on Bihar, the growth of the majoritarian politics in the 1980-90s and in the 2000s found some parallel with Turkey, as analyzed by White. Though, unlike India, Turkey hasn’t got multi-religious, multi-lingual (and ‘multi-cultural’) societies. Yet, rise of the new social classes, accompanied and followed by the rise of majoritarianism, offered certain parallel or a comparative perspective.
In the Hindi belt of India, through Hindi (vernacular) newspapers, the religious Right wing majoritarianism was rising (getting fuelled), just as according to White, the Turkish vernacular space (grass-root political process) was giving way to the Islamists.
Yet, my puzzle persisted, because of the differences between the demographics and histories of the two countries.
Recently, I came across another of White’s books, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks (2012). In this, she clarifies that “the Turkish government under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has managed to minimise the conflict with its neighboring countries, took the global trade to an unprecedented level and showed willingness to recognise some of the minority and individual rights that were traditionally overlooked by the Turkish Republic”. Muslim nationalism of the AKP adopts an “unorthodox view of the nation and its borders” that is “modeled on a more flexible and inclusive Ottoman past”. The Ottoman Millet System of the Sunni Islam is treating the Alevis, the Kurds, the Christians and the Jews as separate, unequal, but tolerated group. This new paradigm, White says, has been highly instrumental in emancipating Muslim women by placing the emphasis on their individuality. But she also adds that once the power becomes consolidated it tends to replay the traditional gender norms by demanding women to prioritise their traditional roles as mothers, daughters, sisters and wives over their individuality. It is for this reason that even though women do have a strong presence in the Islamic movements in Turkey, their status “does not extend to decision-making roles”.
I discovered that White has written many more books, including fiction, which I may be looking into soon. As of now, I got interested in knowing about the thin and negligible presence of the Christians in the Turkish society. My pursuit to find its answer took me to certain literature.
Quite incidentally, exactly 100 years ago, in 1923, something strange and tragic had happened.
This was called 1923 Greek-Turkish population exchange. It forcibly relocated one and a half million people: Muslims in Greece were resettled in Turkey, and Greek Orthodox Christians in Turkey were moved to Greece. This was done under the Treaty of Lausanne, 1923. “This landmark event set a legal precedent for population management on the basis of religious or ethnic difference. Similar segregative policies—such as creating walls, partitions, and apartheids—have followed in its wake. Strikingly, the exchange was purportedly enacted as a means to achieve peace,” notes Humanism in Ruins: Entangled Legacies of the Greek-Turkish Population Exchange by Asli Igsiz.
Since the Russo-Turkish wars of 1878, a conscious ethnic restructuring of Anatolia was under process during the Ottoman rule. Both the Ottoman and their predecessors, the Byzantines, had a tradition of population transfer in order to attain imperial consolidation. Later on, it also became a punitive measure to subjugate the rebel groups through the method of population transfer. This is better explained by Turkish sociologist Fatma Müge Göçek of Michigan University. Nesim Seker calls it “forced migration”.
Simply put, as the Ottoman began to lose its territories, the Turkish people settled in those territories became insecure and had to settle down in Turkey. Similarly, the Greeks and Armenians, in Turkey, who were Christians, too became insecure. They were relocated out of Turkey. Thus, ethno-religious strife became frequent and potential problem.
The 1924 Constitution of the Republican era stated that “the people of Turkey, regardless of religion and race, are Turks as regards citizenship”. At first sight, this defined citizenship as membership of the political community regardless of ethnic origin; however, this did not come to mean that ethnicity was entirely disregarded. Cultural and linguistic assimilation into Turkishness, which was defined around secular and overtly ethnic nationalist terms, was the principal end, and repression, settlement and deportation were the principal means of demographic engineering in the early Turkish Republic. ‘Turcification’ policies encompassed curbing non-Muslim communities’ minority rights, which had been granted in the Lausanne Settlement (1923) and orcing the public use of Turkish language under the motto ‘citizen, speak Turkish’ to promoting Muslim immigration from the Balkans in order to strengthen “the cohesion and homogeneity of Turkish nation”, settling new immigrants among the Kurdish population to provide a Turkish majority in overwhelmingly Kurdish-populated areas and dispersing the Kurdish population among the Turks through a Settlement Law enacted in 1934, and finally, changing place names, a policy Öktem (2009) calls ‘toponymical engineering’.
There are many more examples of the Turcification policy, but at the moment it is proper to conclude that the Turcification motive of Turkish nationalism was not restricted to the First World War and early Republican periods but extended well into the end of the 20th century, explains Nesim Seker (2013). Another study (2017) of Merve Akgul demonstrates the ethnic homogenisation in Istanbul during 1950-85, through toponymic practices (renaming, of streets) in Istanbul. “Renaming targeted the past and the heritage from non-Muslims. With macro-scale anti-minority implementations of the republican era, demographic diversity of the city faded away and non-Muslim presence disappeared in the public sphere and all aspects of everyday life” of Istanbul.
The Ottoman Empire colonised newly conquered territories by deportation (sürgün) and resettlement, often to populate empty lands and establish settlements in logistically useful places. As the Ottoman Empire expanded, its government relocated people from Anatolia to the Balkans to strengthen their hold over new territories, and also moved people from the conquered territory to Istanbul (Constantinople). In what is known as the Second Constitutional Era (1908-20), Ottoman lands became a safe haven for Muslim refugees (muhajir) from the Caucasus and the Balkans. After Ottoman defeat in the Russo-Turkish War (1878), Ottoman influence greatly declined in the Balkans. In the aftermath of this calamity and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, over a million Muslims were displaced.
The newly created Balkan states were seeking to create ethnically homogeneous states; mutual population exchange agreements with the ruling Unity and Progress Party in Turkey were seen as the best tool for this demographic engineering. The ruling party in Turkey also used a combination of conscription and resettlement as part of their strategy, resettling the Muslim muhajir from the Balkans in border towns to increase the Muslim population in areas that had historic non-Muslim majorities.
The rise of competing nationalism between 1876 and 1926 set the stage for these population transfers. Ottoman xenophobia was fueled by deepening nationalist and anti-colonial sentiment in the early 20th century. The Ottoman literati resented the humiliating capitulations that impeded the empire’s economic health. Separatist nationalist movements emerged from the non-Muslim communities of the Ottoman Empire who, as the main beneficiaries of the capitulations and constitutional reforms, faced hostility and resentment from the anti-imperialist factions.
But the genocide of the Armenians during the World War I (1915-16) was worst of all. Spearheaded by the ruling Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), it was implemented primarily through the mass murder of around 1 million Armenians during death marches to the Syrian Desert and the forced Islamisation of others, primarily women and children. This genocide put an end to more than 2,000 years of Armenian civilization in Eastern Anatolia. Together with the mass murder and expulsion of Assyrian or Syriac and Greek Orthodox Christians, it enabled the creation of an ethno-nationalist Turkish state, the Republic of Turkey. Around 14 per cent of Anatolian population comprised of the Armenian Christians in 1915. Although most Ottoman Armenians were peasants, they were overrepresented in commerce. As middleman minorities, despite the wealth of some Armenians, their overall political power was low, making them especially vulnerable.
It needs to be clarified here that from 1839 onwards, the Ottoman Sultans did try to make laws of equality. But all such measures were opposed and resented by the Muslim clergy, and the implementing authorities. From 1877 (Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s reign), the law itself started becoming hostile against the Armenians. He had set the Kurdish tribes against Armenians to kill them with impunity. The Young Turk Movement asserted to rectify these.
The First Balkan War (1912) resulted in the loss of almost all of the Ottoman Empire's European territory and the mass expulsion of Muslims from the Balkans. Ottoman Muslim society was incensed by the atrocities committed against Balkan Muslims, intensifying anti-Christian sentiment and leading to a desire for revenge. Blame for the loss was assigned to all Christians, including the Ottoman Armenians, many of whom had fought on the Ottoman side. The Balkan Wars put an end to the Ottomanist movement for pluralism and coexistence; instead, the CUP of the Yung Turks turned to an increasingly radical Turkish nationalism to preserve the empire. The CUP leaders such as Talaat and Enver Pasha came to blame non-Muslim population concentrations in strategic areas for many of the empire’s problems, concluding by mid-1914 that they were internal tumours to be excised. Of these, Ottoman Armenians were considered the most dangerous, because CUP leaders feared that their homeland in Anatolia—claimed as the last refuge of the Turkish nation—would break away from the empire as the Balkans had seceded.
The assimilative Islamisation of Armenians, carried out as a systemic state policy involving the bureaucracy, police, judiciary, and clergy, was a major structural component of the genocide. A secondary motivation for genocide was the destruction of the Armenian bourgeoisie to make room for a Turkish and Muslim middle class and build a statist ‘national economy’ controlled by Muslim Turks.
Later, in May 1955, another wave of genocide against the Greek and Armenian Christians was carried out in Istanbul, with the rioters under the state protection, as said, also by Orhan Pamuk, though, without details of the historical backdrop.
The Islamists of Turkey today look upon the westernised Muslims to be Crypto-Christians (and Crypto-Jews). What they hide is the fact that the Muslim descendants of the forcibly converted and assimilated Armenian Christians are referred by the Turkish people as the Crypto-Christians. It is just like the Muslims of late 16th and early 17th century Spain, who were referred to as Crypto-Muslims (L. P. Harvey’s two volumes on Islamic Spain could be a useful introductory reading).
Is there a fear among the Muslims across the globe that the Christian West might liquidate them, the way they were obliterated in Spain? Is there a similar fear among the Turkish Islamists that they might lose their power and culture to the West? Is there a similar fear among India’s Muslims for the fact that Muslims were rulers for several centuries in India? Is it because of such fears that Muslims remain over-receptive about the narratives of victimhood? Does such fear have anything to do with the fact that Islamic conquest of Spain obliterated pre-Islamic culture of the conquered territories, and what they did with the Armenians after the Balkan Wars, which continued even in the Republican Turkey?
Those who deny separatist political instinct in the poet Iqbal (1877-1938) tend to argue that Iqbal had proposed only the idea of population transfer in the face of the rising conflicts between the Hindus and Muslims. And that this clarification was provided by Iqbal in his correspondence with Edward Thompson. My specific query is that even if this argument of Iqbal is accepted, from where did Iqbal get the idea of population transfer? Did Iqbal get this idea from the Byzantine and Ottoman histories? If so, then why didn’t Iqbal acknowledge this part of recent and remote histories? Last but not the least query: if demographic engineering and population transfer or forced deportation was such an established historical practice as tool to rule, and since this was implemented as late as in 1923, then why did India suffer unprecedentedly terrible violence in 1947? If at all India’s partition had to happen, it should have happened after the population transfer, through some arrangement such as the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), rather than with massive violence. As I ask these questions pertaining to ethno-nationalism, I do keep in mind what V D Savarkar said on such issues in his later writings (and speeches after 1938).
Unlike Iqbal, Ambedkar, in his 1946 book, Pakistan or Partition of India, discusses Greece-Bulgaria and Greece-Turkey population exchange at length. He even admits that, “The scheme I have outlined is a copy of the same scheme”. Humans are so very expendable commodities for the rulers!
Nargis (my wife) has her own observation about Istanbul residential streets. She feels there is an uneasy, mysterious calmness among the residents of Istanbul as if they are waiting for some big tragedy to fall upon them. Do they harbour some kind of collective guilt, she asked. I replied that I too felt something, but it was vague for me. Now that she had asked me, I felt like she had clarified that vagueness, has perhaps unraveled that mystery.
I could recall a passage of Orhan Pamuk’s book Istanbul (p. 103): “Caught as the city is between traditional culture and Western culture, inhabited as it is by an ultra-rich minority and an impoverished majority, overrun as it is by wave after wave of immigrants, divided as it has always been along the lines of its many ethnic groups, Istanbul is a place where, for the past hundred and fifty years, no one has been able to feel completely at home.”
For a tourist, fun-visitor like us, figuring it out is difficult. But, given the troubled history of forced deportations, population transfers, demographic and ‘toponymical’ engineering, state sponsored massacres, ethno-nationalism even in the Republican era, etc., the mystery of uneasy calmness, or of collective guilt or fear or both, seems to unraveling, perhaps.
(Mohammad Sajjad is a professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University. Views expressed are personal.)