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Turkish Racism: An Unpleasant Story

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] Last week Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ said something very bizarre. It came in an interview on a popular TV show, where he was criticizing the harsh critics of his institution in the Turkish media. “I don’t believe,” the irritated general suddenly noted, “those people really have Turkish blood in their veins.”The term “Turkish blood” sounded weird to many people, including myself. For we have been told for decades by our statesmen that “being a Turk” meant nothing but “being a citizen of Turkey.” We have been reaffirmed that “Atatürk’s nationalism,” which is enshrined in our military-drafted constitution as an “un-amendable” principle, has nothing to do with ethnicity and race, which the term “blood” obviously invokes. Why, then, the top general was speaking this way? Blood and skulls Not because he is an ideological racist, I guess. Gen. Başbuğ, to his credit, has actually shown himself to be more democratically minded than many of his colleagues. If you have a chance to ask him what he meant by “Turkish blood,” I suppose he will explain that he “did not mean it in that sense.” But it still needs an explanation why such disturbing jargon just slipped out of his mouth. And the explanation is not hard to find: Racism, unfortunately, has been a nasty undercurrent of the nation-building project that the Turkish Republic initiated in the late 20’s. It especially peaked in the 30’s, when it was popular in the West, too. It, ironically, emerged as a part of Turkey’s “Westernization” effort. A story you might have read in this paper last Friday illustrated an interesting incident from that period. The tomb of Sinan, the most acclaimed architect of the Ottoman Empire, was opened in 1935 by a team formed by the Turkish Historical Society, which was founded by Atatürk four years earlier. Their aim was to measure Sinan’s centuries-old skull in order to prove that he was of “pure Turkish stock” — something the multi-ethnic Ottomans would never have minded. This was just one of the many mind-boggling episodes from the 30’s — that most illiberal era in modern Turkish history. The regime, which wanted to wipe out the Ottoman/Islamic heritage and give a new identity and a source of pride to the nation, had found the solution partly in racism. The First Turkish Historical Congress held in Ankara in 1932 was the first big step. In the 10-day-long official gathering, many “scientists” presented many “findings” about the origins of the Turkish people. Dr. Reşit Galip, a passionate supporter of Atatürk, defined this “superior race” as “the tall, white, thin-nosed, proper-lipped, often blue-eyed Alpin race,” known for virtues such as “civility, heroism, and artistic and social talent.” Another speaker, Dr. Şevket Aziz Kansu, presented a blue-eyed and well-built peasant couple and their “offspring” to the congress, defining them as ideal samples of Turkish stock. He was passionately applauded when he returned to Atatürk, who presided over the hall, and greeted him as the hailed leader of this “highly evolved” race. Atatürk also felt proud that year when a young Turkish lady, Keriman Halis, became Miss World. “I knew,” he said, “that the Turkish race is the most beautiful one.” Soon, he ordered his adopted daughter, Afet İnan, to undertake more research on this important topic. After studying history in Switzerland, the young and idealist İnan embarked on a mission to carry out “anthropometric studies” in Turkey. With full official support, she began a countrywide campaign of “cephalometry” (measuring the skulls of living people), “craniometry” (measuring the skulls of dead people), and “phrenology” (inferring characteristics from skull features). A staggering 64,000 people are known to have been “measured” during this campaign — and many graves were opened, including that of Sinan. Traces of an ugly past The lunacy calmed down with Atatürk’s death in 1938. In the aftermath of World War II the project was abandoned, as Turkey silently walked away from officially sponsored racism. A problem remained, though. Some other countries had embraced racism in the 30’s, too, often with much more tragic results than in Turkey. But after World War II, those countries opened a new chapter in their histories, realizing their between-war madness as a terrible mistake. In Turkey, however, the between-war era — with all its racist and fascist tendencies — became not questioned, let alone rejected, but instead sanctified. That’s why over-nationalist and sometimes outright racist themes still exist in our “national” discourse. Every Turkish child still grows up memorizing Atatürk’s 1927 address to the youth, which glorifies “the noble blood in your veins.” Schools still teach a “Turkish history” that starts with the Huns of Central Asia, giving an ethnic, not civic, sense of a nation. And nationalist demagogues speak of “pure Turks” in the country, clearly excluding the Kurds and non-Muslims, and, alas, even the liberals who question national taboos. Knowingly or not, Gen. Başbuğ has just contributed to that racist mindset. An apology or at least a correction from him would be helpful. For no county can really become democratic with a blood-venerating official rhetoric.
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