University News

Seminar explores conflict in Turkey

A Watson fellow cites rifts between Muslims and Christians as a key obstacle to pluralism

Senior Staff Writer
Thursday, January 31, 2013

In the first of several Watson Middle East seminars, Nukhet Sandal argued Christian minorities in Turkey face discrimination.

The popular notion that Turkey is a model democracy is incorrect, Nukhet Sandal, postdoctoral fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies, argued in a research presentation Wednesday

Sandal presented her research — concerning differential treatment of religious minorities in Turkey — to about 30 scholars and students at the institute’s Birkelund Boardroom yesterday. The talk was the first in a series of luncheon seminars sponsored by the Middle East Studies department and filled the room over capacity.

Sandal, who was raised in Turkey, spent 20 minutes giving her presentation, titled “Public Theologies of Citizenship in the Middle East: Revisiting the Turkish Model.” She began by describing some of the religious rifts that exist today in Turkey, from ethno-religious conflicts between the Muslim majority and Christian minority to the dissemination of pamphlets by religious institutions offering commentary on the question “Who is a Turkish citizen?” She framed her presentation by arguing that, even in a purportedly secular state like Turkey, “public theologies” — religiously animated attempts at addressing broader societal questions — arise and define boundaries between “citizens” and “non-citizens,” leading to conflict.

In her analysis, Sandal explained four “dimensions” that make up public theologies — the substantive, spiritual, spatial and temporal — and acknowledged her potential for bias, having grown up in a mostly secular family.  Religious minorities — mainly different sects of Christians — do not receive equal treatment, she said, highlighting the tacit conviction that despite Turkey’s facade of pluralism, Muslims can legitimately claim to be “the highest category” of citizens. Under the Ottoman millet system, which was supposed to protect religious minority subjects of the Ottoman Empire, political leadership only dealt with religious leaders instead of with full civil societies.

“That system cannot work anymore,” Sandal said. “These (minority) populations do not get along with each other now.”

Touching on contemporary politics, she argued that issues like Turkey’s attempts to join the European Union and the rise of Kurdish nationalism have displaced attention from these longstanding issues of citizenship and nationhood. “Christians are happier now,” she said, but this sentiment belies rifts that persist and result in sporadic hate crimes.

“There is an embedded public theology,” she said, citing “textbooks, laws, the practices of people through their lives,” as contributing factors in this phenomenon. When pressed on this issue during a question-and-answer period following the presentation, she identified “the Ottoman understanding of nationhood” and the “Neo-Ottoman dream of governance and foreign policy” — a reference to the expansive Ottoman empire once centered in Turkey ­— as reasons the public theology has persisted.

The talk prompted many questions from professors, probing Sandal’s research and offering comparative cases that might be illustrative. Professor of Political Science Ashutosh Varshney proposed Sandal’s research could be distilled into the question “Who owns the nation?”, a question he said played out in conflicts like the Sri Lankan civil war.

The formality of the talk receded during the questions period — Sandal joked about “doing field research” while going to the salon, and a professor prodding Sandal for clarity added that she did so “because we’re friends and I care.”

Despite her findings, Sandal said she was optimistic about Turkey’s future. “I don’t know how the process will be, but things have to change.”

“How can we create the most inclusive societies in the shortest time?” she asked. “It may require some sacrifices, but change will come.”

  • GSE

    Turkey is useful to superpowers only as mercenary pawns in the international rivalry and animosity. It has aptly demonstrated this in the two world wars as it sided with opposite war= masters

  • Arafat

    Turkey: The land of imprisoned journalists.

    (There are more imprisoned journalists in Turkey than anywhere else in the wrold.)

    It’s worth pointing out that the “Christian minority” makes up 1% of Turkey’s population with Muslims making up the other 99%. Turkey – once Christendoms second most important seat will soon be ethnically cleansed of all Christians; a Saudi Arabia lite, if you will.

    The secular country of Turkey is fast disappearing as Erdogan continues his Islamist push. Kiss what little democracy one currently sees in Turkey good-bye.

  • as2438

    Great article, Aparaajit. You captured the formal tone of Sandal’s presentation without losing her personality, or personal investment in the issue. I’m curious what she makes of the situation in Egypt today, with the Muslim Brotherhood at the helm and violence on the rise.

  • Arafat

    It would be perversely entertaining to examine what this panel of experts had to say about the utterly failed “Arab Spring” and even to hear what they are saying today about that backwards step in freedom throughout North Africa.
    My guess is they will as right about Turkey as they were about the Arab Spring.
    Who wrote the book about how dismal experts are in predicting future events? Ain’t it so.