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Turkey’s "race codes" and the Ottoman legacy

The revelation that modern Turkey continues secretly to classify its citizens according to religious criteria reflects the weight of the Ottoman past. It also has implications for those in the middle east seeking a state based on equality before law, says Vicken Cheterian.

Vicken Cheterian
20 August 2013

Only days before the verdict in the latest "Ergenekon" trials in Turkey, an equally important but far less publicised scandal was revealed by a small-circulation newspaper: the Armenian-Turkish weekly Agos. The paper, which established its reputation under the editorship of Hrant Dink, who was assassinated in January 2007, revealed on 1 August 2013 that the Turkish state was using “race codes” in official statistics to codify the religious belonging of its citizens.

The newspaper made the discovery after a family had applied to register its children with an Armenian school in Istanbul, and were then asked to prove that they had the so-called “2 code”. Agos went on to claim that the Turkish government codified its minority citizens  according to numbered categories: “1” for Greeks, “2” for Armenians, and “3” for Jews. Some Turkish newspapers, picking up the story, added that Assyrians were filed under “4”, and “others” under “5”.

A week after Agos's revelations, Turkey's interior ministry confirmed the practice. In a communiqué it declared: “A minority citizen’s race status is given to the education ministry depending on the nationality or race information taken from the state register of the Ottoman period.” Turkish official sources confirm that the practice has continued since 1923: that is, since the establishment of the modern Turkish republic. Although there have been rumours and allegations, this is the first time Turkish state officials have openly admitted to it.

At first glance it is surprising that for nine decades the Turkish state has been operating “race codes” that enable it to collect information about the religious identity of its citizens. After all, the state still pretends to be secular: that is, to upholding the separation of political institutions (and especially the practice of justice) from influence by individual and collective religious beliefs. But the revelation also draws renewed attention to the continued power of the Ottoman legacy in modern Turkey, and is too important to be buried under the media's never-ending stream of headline news.

The Ottoman contradiction

At its heart, what Agos has exposed highlights the internal contradictions of the Ottoman empire, and thus its failure to reform itself in the 19th-century - a tragedy that has left its marks on post-Ottoman political systems. Indeed, the failure is freshly relevant today with regard to political battles both in Turkey and across the entire middle east. The outcome of these battles - whether building the rule of law, or allowing the "Arab spring" to decay and ultimately collapse - will depend to a great extent on how far the post-Ottoman inheritance is understood. 

The decline and fall of the Ottoman empire is a long story, but two key points stand out. The first is the the empire's incapacity to create conditions of equality to its subjects. The Ottoman state was constructed as theocratic. The majority, ruling religion was Sunni Muslim, but the “millet system” also recognised confessional communities (mainly Rum [i.e. Orthodox Greeks], Armenians and Jews as well as Muslims); these were guaranteed religious freedom and self-rule in exchange for loyalty.

The power of the empire weakened throughout the 19th century, and the theocratic nature of its political system became increasingly pronounced. Around 40% of the population of the empire was then non-Muslim, mainly belonging to various Christian denominations, yet they were not admitted to be equal under the Ottoman juridical system. For example, Muslims but not Christians had the right to bear arms, a rule that reflected a division of labour whereby the former served in the army and state bureaucracy while the latter were mainly artisans, traders, and farmers. 

The empire's growing crisis, including its financial problems, led to increased taxes being imposed on the Christian population, igniting successive revolts that were met by outright massacres. Any struggle between Muslims and Christians, for example between Armenians and Kurds over land in eastern Anatolia, tended to remain unequal, for only the former group was armed and supported by the state bureaucracy. This formed the background of European powers' intervention in Ottoman internal affairs, where they both demanded reforms and advanced their own imperial interests.

The Ottoman state made various reform attempts. The most important was the “tanzimat” that began in 1839, which aimed at guaranteeing all Ottoman subjects civil rights. The declaration of Hatt-i Humayun in 1856 affirmed equality of treatment regardless of religion or creed. Yet neither equality nor guarantees of security resulted, for both the Sultan himself and powerful religious networks sabotaged the reforms' application. It was often the case that a formal declaration of reform was the prelude to great violence against minorities.

Here is the second important point about Ottoman decline: legal reform had no impact in practice, in fact it could even have the opposite effect. In the end, the inability of the Ottoman state to reform led to its demise. The Balkan peoples revolted one after the other, and by then continuous Ottoman massacres and threats could not save the empire.

The political failure

What happened after collapse? What is most striking about the post-Ottoman political systems is that amid much talk of “modernism”  and “secularism”, the old practice - of regimes considering their people as subjects who were part of a millet, rather than as citizens enjoying legal rights - continued.

The legacy was powerful. In 1908, with the Ittihadist (Young Turk) revolution in Turkey, the first “modernising” party had come to power in Istanbul, and planned a new political order. Most Ittihadist leaders were avowed atheists, but nevertheless they denied equality in law between Muslims and gavur (infidels), and launched a campaign of annihilation against religious minorities (Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks).

The Turkey led after 1923 by Kemal Ataturk - hailed by many in the west as a model of authoritarian modernism - declared itself to be secular even as it discriminated against - and secretly "coded" - religious minorities (which after war, genocide and expulsion collapsed). In the 1927 census, non-Muslim minorities constituted 2.5% of the Turkish population, down from 20% in 1906. In a country of 75 million today, the proportion is not more than 0.1%). The number of Armenians in Turkey is estimated at 60,000, Jews at 5,000, Assyrians at 3,000, and Greeks at 2,000. 

The coding of the minorities has consequences. There is anecdotal evidence that even grandchildren of converts from Christianity to Islam (which often happens under duress) are not only "filed" by state officials, but also regarded with suspicion: descendants of converts have been barred from accessing certain jobs, such as within the military, diplomatic service, or even as civilian pilots.

The policy of discrimination against minorities was also exercised collectively. This is shown by the controversy around the (Greek) Haghia Triada monastery on Heybeliada island with its theological school, confiscated by the Turkish authorities - along with 1,410 other properties belonging to minority foundations - in 1971. The confiscation of half the lands of the (Assyrian) Mor Gabriel monastery in 2008 is a more recent example, an act that is threatening the viability of this 1,700-year-old foundation.

This practice has not ended, despite continuous official claims. On 5 July 2013, the Mufti of Trabzon entered the Haghia Sophia church in the city with a group of believers, both to pray and to "reconvert" this former Byzantine church (it was turned into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest, then in 1964 into a museum). There is increasing pressure to change Istanbul's Haghia Sophia, now a museum, into a mosque.

When Caliph Omar ibn Al-Khattab entered Jerusalem he visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to receive the keys of the city from the Patriarch Sophronius. When he heard the call for prayer he hurried to leave the church and pray outside. When the priests invited him to pray inside the church he declined, saying that if he prayed inside the church Muslims after him would take that an excuse to convert the church into a mosque.

Yet, the example given by such companions was soon forgotten. Politics is the art of balancing power relations and making compromises, while religion is supposed to provide people with guidance of a "higher", moral type. The constant mixing of religion with politics has both failed to alleviate politics and corrupted religion by involving it in the daily practice of power and the crimes associated with it. In the 19th-century Ottoman world the major division of inequality was between the ruling Muslim majority and the Christian millet; in the middle east today it is upheaval and chaos caused by the disintegration of the political space on confessional lines, pitting Sunni and Shi'a Islam against each other, as a veil behind the developing power-struggle.

The next Arab model

This new Turkish scandal is relevant in two ways to the current debate over the Arab upheaval. The first is the much-discussed issue of whether Turkey can provide a role model for the future Arab political system. Both before and after the Arab spring, many argued that Turkey represented a harmonious synthesis between Islam and democracy, and suggested that Arab political currents should learn from it. Now, a series of events - the violent treatment of the Gezi park demonstrations, the latest Ergenekon episode and its attention to Turkey's "deep state”, the record numbers of imprisoned journalists, followed by the scandal of the race codes - shows that Turkey itself is moving further away from the rule of law, and is hardly in a position to suggest solutions for others.

The second area where Turkey is relevant is the revived debate about secularism. Many in the middle east associate secularism with political systems such as Ba'athism in Iraq and Syria, and Nasserism in Egypt. It's true that Lebanon continues to be a classic post-Ottoman system, in which the millet system survived and prospered; but the other three states also operated the millet system while pretending to be secular and modern - much like Kemalist Turkey. The Kemalist model also failed in other ways; although it managed to eliminate its Christian millet, it could not assimilate Turkey's Kurdish population in spite of several decades of imposed "Turkification".

Just like the nationalist regimes of the past, the Arab political movements that have emerged since 2011 continue to be ambivalent when it comes to the rule of law. Although they demand freedom, it is not clear what kind of institutional set-up many of those movements are seeking.

If the rule of law is the aim, then every citizen in that system should be treated equally in face of the justice system. It s not possible to have the rule of law for only one section of society, while other sections are treated as second-degree based on their religious beliefs (or lack of belief). In this domain, the question of race codes is a reminder that Turkey is still living under the long shadow of the Ottoman empire. For their part, the Arab political movements have still a long journey to make before they evolve from members of a millet into citizens. 

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