No Racism in Turkey? (Part 1)

“It’s just typical of those black guys” muttered the old man, tipsily marauding into our conversation with the bouncer outside.

In all fairness we had just left one of Istanbul’s biggest reggae bars, so if we’re talking statistics, then in all probability it was a black person who took Sumelya’s camera. But I doubt anyone was number-crunching.

Wisdom bore out of experience, and increasing indifference, told me not to bother tackling the old man’s racially-coated proclamation as we sat listing the details of the missing article and ignored his ramblings.

As legend has it, “there is no racism in Turkey”.

You are permitted to smile wryly, but it is not an outright lie when spoken here, and will explain why with two key factors; a scientific definition of racism and a great deal of societal denial.

First we must deal with definition, for not even the most outward of racists will acknowledge their own misguided fear of foreigners as being a racist one, and it is because of an over-simplification of the definition of racism that allows them to make offensive remarks without thinking.

It is the style of the time to use pre-prepared defence mechanisms, the most popular being; “I’m not a racist or anything but…”. Once this is clarified, one can summarily follow this with a comment so right-wing Atilla the Hun would blush. But although the follow-up may sound racist, it has been established that one is “not racist”. Thank God for that.

In Turkey, “I’m not racist but”, generally translates as “I’m not a nationalist but”, because although nationalism is as racist here as it is anywhere, racism would be an exaggeration on the accuser’s part. However, check out some of these genuine follow-up sentences I have heard, or do hear on a common basis. So, I’m not nationalist…

1) “But I hate the Kurds because they are terrorists”
2) “But I hate the Americans because they think we are terrorists”
3) “But I hate the Europeans because they think we are Arabs”
4) “But I hate the Arabs because they fought us at Canakkale”
5) “But I hate the Ottomans because they were not even Turkish” (except at Canakkale)

And it goes on. In my younger, feistier days in Turkey, I would hear these terrible generalisations and try to lecture the offender with my own woolly liberal views backed-up by historical facts. Then, feeling like his/her true nature was being revealed, out of nowhere came the defence mechanism again – but disguised as part of the debate itself. By far the most annoying of these defence mechanisms is “hey, you can’t say anything about the Kurds, I probably have more Kurdish friends than you”.

As I’ve mentioned, this miserable formula is much the same everywhere. If you are travelling in England for example, and want to sit in a pub preaching ignorant drivel, all you need to do is deliver your hate-speech and then state at the end that “I’m not racist, some of my best friends are black”. Just make sure none of them are present at the time [they never are].

But let us define terms. “Racism” in Turkey is understood as it is explained in the children’s dictionary: hating someone because of the colour of their skin. Does anyone fall into this category? Sure, society’s tribal fears can be pricked by visible differences such as skin and dress, but most people harbouring racist thoughts would prefer to attribute their distaste to socio-economic, historical, cultural, political or even scientific reasons, and would reject, quite justifiably in my opinion, the assumption that they simply don’t like certain skin-tones.

The difference is obvious in Turkey however, because whilst racism is present everywhere, its presence in public debate in the west means that people are forced to if not deal with, then at least suppress their ignorance. As an example which I hope to deal with in a separate, more succinct essay, I was once in a taxi talking to the diver about the number of foreign customers he recieves in Istanbul. He generally had no problem with the tourists except when it came to language problems, he said, although he explained "apart from the Africans - I hate them, they smell so bad". The significance of multi-cultural discourse in Britain was brought home to me when I simply replied "is that so?" which should be enough to imply "I don't agree with you". But the possibility that I might be offended was simply not counted on.

This absence, and the simplified understanding of racism in Turkey is a problem, but this is not without explanation. Particularly under both Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Ismet Inonu, Turkey’s hundreds of thousands of new immigrants from the surrounding areas were unashamedly assimilated to prevent the kind of fragmentation which destroyed the Ottoman Empire. In this time, the common Islamic faith of these new immigrants meant that there was no serious motivation for a “united in diversity” style discussion as happened in Western Europe in response to mass immigration there. Islam has always been considered a significant component in Turkish identity and subsequent “Turkification” policies since even before the republic.

Above all, this unscrutinised definition of racism also means that one can claim “there is no racism in Turkey”, because there are no laws which segregate races (even though there have been). And to a great extent, Turkey has been a melting pot for hundreds of different races for its insistence on citizenship-based nationalism. As Mustafa Kemal famously phrased it “How happy is one who calls himself Turk” Just as long as they call do themselves Turk it’s fine. The only problem arises when a minority, be it Alevi, Greek or Kurd, wish to make a gesture to assert their cultural identity. This ultimately beggars the question, “why would you want to exemplify our differences?” a question which relates to the Sevres Syndrome and paranoia of division, which is particularly acute in Turkey. Wishing to show difference reflects a form of ingratitude towards the generous ideals of the French nationalist model – we’re all in this together, why would you want to wreck the illusion?

This brings us to the linked subject of denial in society. A few years ago I read a great article by Radikal’s sports correspondent Ibrahim Altınsay. At a kick racism out of sports style conference he said, "There are some clichés in Turkey, the sentence, ‘There is no racism in Turkey’ is one of those". Altınsay was referring to a number of incidents that came up in 2006 when Samuel Eto decided to move here after a season of abusive chanting in Spain. But whilst Eto, being different in terms of ethnicity and citizenship, enjoyed the respect of fans in Turkey, a number of incidents at the same time reveal that discrimination of culturally different players in the Turkish periphery were sky high. Sivasspor’s Israeli striker Pini Balili was subject to some vile anti-Jewish chants, and it is a routine affair to shout politically-charged insults at Diyarbekirspor’s Kurdish fans on the very rumour that one of them has waved/once waved/wants to wave/might have seen a PKK flag.

The understanding of racism in black and white terms [for want of a better word] maintains the denial in society that nationalist declarations and generalisations constitute just one shade of racism. Take the article I wrote about teaching union Egitim Bir Sen, for example. Here, an official union leaked concerns to the public that bringing foreign teachers to Turkey would somehow ‘promote’ those teacher’s cultures. As if Turkey doesn’t promote it’s own culture enough, was my first thought, but at the same time, this was incredibly condescending for all involved; students, teachers and foreigners. At the same time, the charge that we might be secret missionaries beggars belief. And yet, I can’t find one article which deplores for what it is. Instigating fear of foreigners, racism in other words.

Of course, terminology is not important as long as ‘ignorance’ and ‘discrimination’ are confronted. But if the R-word retains a certain power that I can’t help feeling would really bring attention the severity of certain lines of thought which are unfortunately an accepted part of society here.

This is an article i'm writing on my own in order to write a more specific piece about perceptions of black people in Turkey. I'm just brain storming, but I hope it can form a stand-alone article at some point. Editing is underway.

Questions to answer:

Is it naive to view racism against black people and Kurds through the same prism?

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