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Is Greece Any Better Than Turkey?

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] Whenever I write something that criticizes a particular country, for problems on sensitive issues such as religious freedom, I always get the same reaction: The supporters of that country send me irritated messages asking, “Why don’t you look at the problems on the other side?” That happened again after my latest piece for these pages, “De-crucifying Turkey’s Christians.” There, I criticized Turkey for not respecting the rights of its Greek Orthodox citizens enough. In response, I got several emails asking me why I did not address the troubles of the Turkish community in Greece. Particularly, a Turk living in the United States sent me a long letter – a kind one, I should note – listing various misdeeds of the Greek government. No mosque in the city Let me share with you some of those points. First, there is the shameful fact that Athens is the only European capital without a mosque, although Greece is the home of more than 700,000 Muslims. (There were dozens of mosques there during the Ottoman period, but all were either destroyed or converted into churches in the 19th century.) In that regard, Turkey seems freer than Greece. We have many churches (and synagogues) in Istanbul and elsewhere in the country. And although we have lunatics who would like to see these non-Muslim sanctuaries closed down, they are holding services freely. Yet other problems in Greece that my U.S.-based Turkish reader listed carefully looked very familiar to me. To be more precise, they sounded very similar to Turkey’s longtime policies toward its own Kurdish population. Greece, to begin with, simply calls its Turks “Muslims,” denying the fact that they are not just religiously but also ethnically different from the majority. That’s why a 2001 decision by a Greek court disallowed the founding of the “Cultural Association of Turkish Women of the Region of Rodopi.” The court argued that the term “Turkish women” could “mislead the public regarding the origin of its members.” My U.S.-based Turkish reader summed up what this court decision, and similar ones, amounted to: “Greece restricts the use of the words ‘Turkish’ and ‘minority’ in the naming of organizations, thus impairing the cultural identity of the Turkish minority.” Well, just replace the words “Greece” and “Turks” in the sentence above with “Turkey” and “Kurds” and you will see that they fit perfectly. My Turkish reader was also telling me how Greece hinders the political rights of the Turkish minority. The government “appointed muftis as opposed to permitting their popular election,” and a “3 percent election hurdle has been erected for independent Turkish minority candidates to force them to join Greek political parties.” Again, it sounds very familiar. Over the years, our state has done everything to minimize the democratic self-representation of our Kurdish populace. As everybody knows, one reason for our 10 percent electoral threshold is to keep the pro-Kurdish parties out of the parliament. The problems in Greece are abundant, and a Human Rights Watch report summarizes them by noting, “Turks suffer a host of human rights violations.” It also adds, “The Greek state has for the most part been unable to accept the fact that one can be a loyal Greek citizen and, at the same time, an ethnic Turk proud of his or her culture and religion.” Again, replace the words “Greek” and “Turk” here with “Turkey” and “Kurd” and you will get a perfect match. Both sides of the Aegean, it seems, are haunted by similar fears, and drawn into similarly bad solutions. Westerners and Muslims The “mainstream” media on both sides are also similar in the way that they focus only on the problems of the other side. We Turks keep complaining about the limited rights of our brethren in Western Thrace, whereas Greeks keep complaining about the limited rights of their brethren, and Ecumenical Patriarchate, in Istanbul. But this unprincipled rhetoric inspires no one, and thus changes nothing. In other (Biblical) words, nothing really changes when you say, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” while you don’t see the “plank” in your own eye. In fact, the same problem exists on a global scale. Westerners, for example, are wrong when they only blame the Muslim world for its lack of freedoms, but do not see their own partial role in its making – historically through colonialism, support for dictatorial regimes, or double standards in international affairs. Muslims, in return, are wrong when they only speak about such sins of the West, but never honestly address why minorities, women or “apostates” are not free, and are even threatened, in their part of the world. The right thing to do is to criticize not only the alien nation or civilization, but also our own kin. Only then, we will be talking honestly. And only then, we will be making a difference.
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