Yetvart Danzikyan: Davutoğlu’s “family” dinner

Yetvart Danzikyan on the official dinner Prime Minister Davutoğlu held for religious leaders: “This is, of course, a positive meeting, and the messages that have come out of the dinner are also positive. However, regarding the issue of representation, one must accept that there is something strange about the other side of the dinner table. It is part of the job of the Prime Minister to hold such meetings, but once you describe it as a “family” dinner, we have to ask what kind of family we are talking about here, and about those who have been left out.”

On January 2, Friday, Prime Minister Davutoğlu had dinner with the… You know… Well, were they the representatives of minority communities in Turkey? No, not really. Representatives of the non-Muslim minority communities? That’s how the official press agency Anadolu Agency chose to word it… But that’s still not it, these guys were men of god. And it is quite a mouthful, isn’t it, non-Muslim-minority-community-representatives. Anyway, we have a problem with the word representative, too. Whatever, it’s a hazardous issue. So, one by one, these are the people Prime Minister Davutoğlu met with:

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos, Deputy Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church Peter Stefanos, Turkey Chaldean Catholic Community Patriarchal Vicar François Yakan, Patriarchal Vicar of the Syriac Orthodox Church in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s envoy to the Vatican Mehmet Paçacı, Deputy Patriarch of the Turkey Syriac Catholic Church, Archbishop of the Turkey Armenian Catholic Church Levan Zekiyan, Chief Rabbi of the Jews of Turkey İsak Haleva, and Armenian Deputy Patriarch Aram Ateşyan.

President of the Presidency of Religious Affairs Prof. Dr. Mehmet Görmez, Grand Mufti of Istanbul Rahmi Yaran and President of the Directorate General of Foundations Adnan Ertem were reportedly also present at the dinner.

Great. Ultimately, this is a good thing. And the messages that came out of the dinner are also generally positive. ‘So what’s bugging you?’, you may ask, because it is obvious that something is troubling me. To be frank, the first question mark emerges at the point where the “Ottomanist” leaning of the AKP and especially Davutoğlu – although this is not a course of action unique to the AKP – is reinvigorated and legitimized precisely in such places. I say it is not a course of action unique to the AKP, let me first explain that point a little. Yes, it is a fact that since the founding of the Republic, the establishment has taken pains to perceive, and thus treat, ethnic components, that were forcibly reduced into minorities, as religious communities. The establishment conveys its messages to the Patriarchate, the Chief Rabbi and the Metropolitan Bishops, and makes a point of discerning and treating them as the spokespeople of their communities, and of having the communities to also act in accordance of this perception.

This method of the old, former establishment, ever proud of its secular appearance, clearly made things convenient. Because this meant that the question of “representation” was trapped within a religious, and therefore softened zone; and as long as religious services continued to be held at churches and synagogues and patriarchs, metropolitan bishops and chief rabbis were elected, it seemed as if these communities were maintaining a problem-free existence. This, of course, was a great convenience for the regime. Besides, in this way, members of these communities grew increasingly accustomed to seeing their representation and “equality” within this framework; and their remaining problems were either never mentioned, or were perceived as a different, broader problem, making it impossible to discuss them.

However, and quite naturally, this was what happened: The Republic, which took pride in building a “modern” – classless, unprivileged – nation, by forming a Presidency of Religious Affairs, held a monopoly over official Islam, thus not only completely destroyed the principle of secularism, but also effectively declared that it did not perceive other ethnic groups within the framework of a universal “Republic” or modern state, or in other words, as “equals”. Accompanied by all manners of fascistic implementations taking place behind the scenes, of course. To be frank, a comprehensive critique of the Republican regime’s claim of secularity from this viewpoint remains lacking to this day.

After the AKP came to power, and consolidated its position, it also took steps regarding this issue, within the framework of its reckoning with the regime. That is impossible to deny. However, we now faced a new, strange situation: While the Republic, or the old state, despite claiming to be a modern state, based its policy on this issue on religious representation, the AKP, too, within the framework of its following of the Ottoman example, based its own policy on this issue on religious representation. Thus, although certain things change in practice, many things in the main philosophy do not change, and in fact, this mentality has now taken even deeper roots. The following, for instance, are from Davutoğlu’s press declaration before the meeting:

“In the context of authentic cultural traditions, religious traditions, this picture that contains all the colours of our Turkey is important. On the other hand, it is also important in terms of the principle of equal citizenship. We have never discriminated between our citizens; citizenship has remained our main principle. Regardless of their religion, denomination or ethnic origin, the lives, properties, honour, intellect and integrity of all our citizens is sacred for us, as it is in all religions.”

As I said above, the messages are quite positive. However, the discussion of the entire issue within the framework of “religious” communities and religious representation; the failure, still, to discuss the issue of “equality” within the logic of the modern state, and its exposition within the context of authentic cultural traditions and religious traditions, doesn’t all this reveal that we are in a problematic zone?

Let us first ask, for instance, what are Armenians for this state, in the most fundamental sense? A group of Christians? Yes, the Ottoman Empire might have perceived them like that, but can that perception be sustained today? Of course, Armenians are also Christians, but first and foremost, they are Armenians. The Church is undoubtedly important for them, and the Patriarch is of course important. But, first, religion does not encapsulate the life of all Armenians. There are Armenians who have nothing to do with religion, or those who do not place Christianity above and ahead of everything in their lives, and they are by no means few in number. As is the case with the Greeks. As is the case with the Jews.

Besides, let us imagine, for one moment, that it is so. I mean, that all the groups we mentioned above are formed of devout members. This would still mean that this type of representation and framework is a problematic one. Because, in this type of representation, are we not also confronted by this further problem:

Who has elected these people? After all, they are referred to as representatives, but let’s take a closer look at how they are elected. Yes, some Patriarchs are elected with community participation, but this is not the case for all sections of society, and besides – and this is quite an interesting point – the Armenian Community has been without a Patriarch for a long time now. Mutafyan, who is struggling with a grave illness, cannot fulfil his duty, and the present Patriarch, has been acting in proxy for 7 years. Therefore, the situation we implied above, does in fact underline a significant point. How accurate is it to call these figures representatives?

Secondly: In what “capacity” are you meeting the representatives of these religious communities (it should be clear by now that the word minority is not appropriate)? As the representative of the largest religious community? No? As the elected head of the executive power, that on appearance has no connection with religious representation. I would once again like to note that this meeting is of course positive, and that the messages that have come out of the dinner are also positive. However, regarding the issue of representation, one must accept that there is something strange about the other side of the dinner table. It is part of the job of the Prime Minister to hold such meetings, but once you describe it as a “family” dinner, we have to ask what kind of family we are talking about here, and also about those who have been left out.

There is a broad hint there. And it spells out that Davutoğlu sits there not as the representative of a modern state, but as the representative of the political authority that also contains the representation of Islam, the dominant religion. In other words, we see almost all the clues of a regression to the Ottoman system here. (The permission given to the construction of a new church in Yeşilköy, and its announcement on this occasion should be evaluated in this framework. Why, exactly, is this a task of the Prime Minister?) 

This, as far as I’m concerned, points to a greater problem beyond all the problems I have mentioned above: That we are now discussing all issues along the axis of “religion”. In the same manner that in public life in Turkey, and particularly in education, “religion” has penetrated everything, thus indicating a highly unpleasant course of affairs, we are now beginning to see forms of social relationship within the framework of the distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim. Therefore, while the establishment now codes the majority as “devout” and “non-devout” individuals, and as public life is reconstructed according to this new code, there is a possibility that minorities, too, will be perceived within this code of Muslims and non-Muslims.

This, I mean this policy on minorities, is according to some, a better stage than that of the former state. Because some foundation properties are being returned, the official discourse has become more moderate compared to the past, etc. However, this relative softening of the state’s stance does not mean “progress”. Because the place we could have arrived at in the year 2015, is for people to be treated equal as “individuals”, without reference to any other identity, and to find representation in fields other than religious representation, and to seek their rights in such frameworks. And the basis for that would not be authentic traditions, or arguments based around the terribly opaque concept of ancient civilisations that seems to have been pulled out of thin air, but constitutional and legal assurances.


Categories News Minorities

Tags Minority representative Minorities Ottoman Ahmet Davutoğlu Cemaat / Community





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Yetvart Danzikyan