Turkey Yesterday... and Today: An Interview with Jenny White

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Aaron Leonard is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to the History News Network. His writings can be found at www.aaronleonard.net.

Anthropologist and Boston University professor Jenny White has just published The Winter Thief, the third book in her “Kamil Pasha” historical novel series.  The book takes place in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire as Kamil, an Ottoman magistrate, investigates a bank bombing and illegal weapons shipment.  As events unfold he ends up in the midst of a massacre of Armenians in eastern Anatolia.  I sat down with Professor White in a cafe near the New York University campus to talk about her novel.

For a detective (or magistrate) novel I was impressed with the body count. This was not Columbo or Monk with just two or three corpses to account for. There were many people dying, some quite horribly.  Given the book takes place at the end of the nineteenth century in the Ottoman Empire, how close to reality is this?

One reviewer objected to my going from intimate family relationships at the beginning of the book to mass murder at the end.  I wondered why that disturbed the reviewer.  Mass murders don’t happen without individual people playing a part in them.  Maybe we’re so used to reading about them in separate narratives -- one as a history narrative at the macro level and one as a narrative of interpersonal relationships.

What interests me is what happens to people when they are placed in these horrible situations, where right and wrong isn’t clear any more.  What kinds of choices do you end up making?  If you had to defend your family, what would you do?  How far would you go, and how would you live with that?  You can’t ask questions like that unless you put people in situations that are truly horrible.

What was the historical context?

In the period of the 1880s and the preceding decades, the Ottoman Empire lost many of its provinces to local independence movements and revolts that were supported by Russia and the European powers.  Russia occupied a big chunk of the eastern provinces.  Istanbul, the capital, was filling with Muslim refugees.  The Sultan was head of a dynasty that stretched five hundred years, which gave him his legitimacy as ruler.  He was also the caliph, head of all Muslims in the world, which gave him additional legitimacy.  So, in many ways, the Ottoman Empire was a secular bureaucratic government that, at its highest point, ruled a multi-denominational and multiethnic empire that covered most of North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and parts of Europe.

So this is a reasonably sedate period, but are there elements where you can see where World War I came from and all that surrounded it?

There is rising tension, but things haven’t blown up yet in the center of the empire.  The events in The Winter Thief presage actual events eight years later, when Armenian nationalists really do blow up the Imperial Ottoman Bank, unleashing a pogrom that killed thousands of Armenians in Istanbul.  The Ottomans feared that the Armenians were working together with the Russians to take more Ottoman territory.

In describing Sultan Abdulhamid you write he “was fanatically religious and tirelessly modern.”  Could you explain what you mean?

The sultan loved opera and had the latest Sherlock Holmes mysteries translated and read to him.  He modernized education and the army, and built railroads, believing that the success of the empire’s European opponents was due to their superior technology.  He wanted to modernize the empire in order better to safeguard it.  He and previous nineteenth century sultans had sent their best officers to France and Prussia to study military matters.  When they come back, they modernized the government and lived secular, urban, modern lifestyles, but also demanded the reinstatement of a parliament and brought back nationalist ideas.  The Young Turks that eventually overthrew the sultan and founded the nation state of Turkey in 1923 were from this group.

Sultan Abdulhamid in the 1880s also surrounded himself with Muslim scholars and sheikhs.  Since what remained of the empire was more and more Muslim as the European provinces became independent, the sultan proposed that a focus on Islam (“We are all Muslims”) might be a way to unite the fracturing empire.  A decade earlier, there had been a parliament to advise the sultan, but when it criticized him, he closed it down. This was a bone of contention for decades and led eventually to the sultan’s overthrow.

Other people disputed a pan-Islamic identity because they felt that the Ottoman Empire’s strength lay in its diversity.  They believed that if the minorities were given more rights to participate in governing themselves, they wouldn’t rebel against the empire. Local councils were set up, but weren’t particularly effective.   Kamil – the special prosecutor in The Winter Thief – is a modernist who believes in the intrinsic virtue of a multi-ethnic, multi-denominational empire ruled by a just and secular bureaucracy.  He tries to defend this principle against all odds.  There actually was a pasha (a Turkish lord), governor of an Ottoman province, who tried to protect his Armenian residents during the anti-Armenian violence of 1915, much as Kamil does in The Winter Thief.

What about the ethnic cleansing that went on?

In the 1880s, the center – Istanbul – was fairly quiet, although increasingly tense because the empire was bleeding at the edges.  The city was full of refugees, different political and ideological factions, and widespread fear that the empire would be destroyed.  The Russians armed the Armenians in the east to help them take over more of the empire’s territory in Anatolia.  When the Russians’ own Bolshevik revolution took their attention away from the Ottoman territories, the Armenians were left in the lurch, leading to retaliation and mass forced migrations in which hundreds of thousands of Armenian civilians died.  This, however, was later, in the years surrounding WWI, not the 1880s.  Nevertheless, the fear of Armenian-Russian collusion was very strong even then, and allowed Vahid, the head of the secret police in The Winter Thief, to convince the sultan that a socialist commune that had been set up in a village in the east, and the illegal weapons and bank robbery, pointed to a Russian-backed Armenian revolt that must be suppressed.  There was no nationalist plot, of course – Vahid manufactured this  “threat” to the empire so that he could “foil” it and thereby earn a promotion.

It wasn’t unusual for empires to move groups of people if they revolted or were seen as problematic in some way.  The government would forcibly move them to a place where they had no natural allies and thus would be unable to cause any more trouble.  In the case of the Armenians, they were marched on foot from Central Anatolia to Syria, which is a very long way.  They weren’t properly protected, and most of them died on route or were killed before ever reaching Syria.

Some Armenians in Istanbul escaped relatively unharmed, and there are many stories coming out in Turkey now of people who believed themselves to be Muslim Turks, but who discovered that their grandmothers were Armenian.  These women had been adopted or forcibly converted as children by Ottoman army officers and their families.  One scholar I know has estimated that there are 200,000 or more of these hidden Armenians whose ancestors were taken from this refugee stream.

What does Turkey say about this today?

Turkey says that many Armenians were killed in the fog of war, as were many Muslims.  They put the number at 300,000 Armenians.  The Armenians say it was one and a half million.  Armenians say it was a purposeful annihilation of the Armenian people, rather than a consequence of war.

As I said earlier, what interests me is what happens to people when they are placed in these extreme situations, where what is right and what is wrong isn’t clear any more.  I grew up in Germany as a child, and all my relatives lived through WW2.  I’ve listened to many stories of their experiences during the war.  The larger historical events – the war itself, the Holocaust, the bombings – all are personal stories.  People they worked for and had relationships with, who engaged in acts of heroism or iniquity, or simply disappeared.  People who were friends and neighbors, but acted selfishly when the opportunity presented itself – or perhaps chose to protect their family over their neighbors and friends.  It’s not always easy to judge right and wrong when your choice is between two wrongs.

The minute you take away the law and people feel they can do whatever they want with impunity, the rules change.  Suddenly it’s possible to kill or turn in the person next door in order to take their land or possessions.  It’s not always the army that comes in and finishes people off, it’s ordinary people, like Vahid, who orchestrates a massacre to get a career promotion.  The tragedy of war is always personal.

What was the influence of Islam in the Ottoman Empire?   

The bureaucrats in Istanbul who ran the government for the Sultan were westernized people.  Kamil in The Winter Thief had been set to Cambridge, but the civil servants of the 1880s mostly trained in Germany and France.  They were living in a very Westernized way; many of them spoke French to one another, even back living in Istanbul.  They were Muslim, but lived a secular lifestyle.  Elite urban Muslim women veiled when they went outside, but the veils got thinner and thinner, so by the late nineteenth century, you could see right through them.  In the countryside, which in the 1880s was isolated because there were few roads, people lived a traditional, conservative lifestyle.  Turkish Islam was, and is, heavily flavored by Sufism, which is based on networks and rituals, rather than the text-based orthodoxy of, say, present-day Saudi Wahhabism.  Turks believe Turkish Islam to be more egalitarian and moderate than what they call  “Arab Islam.”  To be Turkish is to be Muslim, though, and although non-Muslims can be Turkish citizens, they are never fully accepted as Turkish.  Even secular Turks have this understanding of Turkishness as Muslim, though they are opposed to public demonstration of religiosity, like wearing the headscarf.

Where is Turkey at today politically, and in particular what is the relation of secularism to Islam?

An Islam-rooted party has come to power, the AKP [Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/ Justice and Development Party].  It was elected by a landslide.  They are pro-EU and are orchestrating the process of meeting the criteria for membership.  To become an EU member, Turkey needs to change its laws and regulations, including regulating the army.  Parts of the secularist state bureaucracy and the army have been in positions of power since the founding of the republic -- and have several times brought down elected governments they thought were straying too far from the ideals of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, an officer and later Turkey’s first president.  The Kemalists believe that allowing the introduction of religion and ethnicity (like Kurdish identity) openly into Turkey’s public sphere will undermine the country’s unity and cause it to split apart.  They are now faced with a democratic electoral system and a powerful AKP that is undercutting their authority and their ability to step in if the country appears to be spiraling out of control.  Over the past few months, more than fifty officers, some of them high-ranking generals, have been arrested, accused of plotting a coup against the AKP.  Tensions are very high right now.

Many people in the West would assume that it’s the people with an Islamic background who would be anti-West, anti-EU, anti-globalization, but in Turkey that’s not the case.  The AKP is trying to get into the EU because the party believes it will make it easier to institute religious rights, individual rights that would make it impossible to ban wearing a headscarf to university, as is presently the case under the Kemalist system.  The EU membership process also reduces the power of the army.

They are pro-globalization.  The members of the new pious Muslim classes that have risen to political and economic prominence since the 1980s have set up huge businesses with global reach.  The AKP government is busy making economic ties with many disparate nations in order to secure Turkey’s economic and political security, including Arab countries, Iran, Russia, and  all the regions that used to be part of the Ottoman Empire.  The AKP believes that Turks are the inheritors of the Ottoman Empire, so why should there be a problem with boundaries?

The Kemalists are still focused on 1923, when the Europeans undermined the empire, and they remain suspicious of the intentions of the West, despite sharing a secular, Westernized lifestyle.  Some Kemalists are anti-globalization because they think Western ideas like freedom of speech will come in and, as a result, they will no longer be able to control divisive forces, and things will fall apart.  The courts have tried to control the Internet; YouTube has been banned for a couple of years.

I’m not leaving AKP completely off the hook either. They are extremely conservative.  They’ve passed laws that give people individual rights, but they don’t enforce them.  For instance, there are improvements of women’s rights on the books, but only twenty-six percent of women work and there are very few women in politics.

If the AKP controlled the military, do you think they would be more deliberate in instituting conservative policies?

Yes, I find that a scary thought.  At the moment the only major opposition party is irrelevant and ineffective.  The only real opposition is the military.  It’s the only safeguard that power won’t go to AKP’s head and they’ll do whatever they want.  In many ways, Turkey is reliving the same issues and choices that face Kamil in The Winter Thief:  modernization versus tradition, religion and secularism, the divisiveness of ethnicity and nationalism, and the corrosive forces of greed and power.

Jenny White is the author of The Sultan’s Seal (a finalist for the Ellis Peters Historical Crime Award), The Abyssinian Proof and The Winter Thief. She is a professor of anthropology at Boston University, specializing in Turkey, and has also published two nonfiction books about contemporary Turkey. For more information about Professor White, visit http://jennywhite.net/ and her blog regarding events in today’s Turkey at http://www.kamilpasha.com

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Fahrettin Tahir - 4/5/2010

Haunting history
Mar 31st 2010 | From The Economist print edition

Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus. By Oliver Bullough. Allen Lane; 496 pages; £25. To be published in America by Basic Books in August. Buy from Amazon.co.uk
WESTERN colonialists have often behaved abominably but they usually repent of it later. Move east, though, and the picture becomes cloudier. Few now remember what happened to Circassia. As the Ottoman empire crumbled in the mid-19th century, Russia conquered the loosely held Turkish domains on the north-east coast of the Black Sea—and huge numbers of the anarchic, steely Circassian tribespeople died in what would today be termed a genocidal colonial war. Many more fled the killing grounds, crossing the Black Sea in leaky and overcrowded ships, many of them to die miserably in now-forgotten refugee camps on the Turkish coast. Around half the Circassian population of 2m perished.
Oliver Bullough’s first book marks him out as a distinguished researcher, observer and narrator. The opening chapters deal with a part of history wholly neglected in Russia. It is as if Americans had never heard of the Sioux, and Wounded Knee had become a tourist resort where the events of 1890 had faded from memory.
That is pretty much how surviving Circassians now see the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, which 150 years ago was the site of their final and greatest defeat and massacre. Mr Bullough tracks down their remnants, determined and despairing by turns, in Russia and in exile. His quest takes him from dirt-poor villages in Kosovo to influential bits of Jordanian officialdom. He paints a haunting portrait of a people blown to the winds by a forgotten storm.
His research is formidable. He unearths long-buried contemporary accounts of the killings, and desperate pleas for help buried in old files in the British Foreign Office. He matches this with accounts of the contemporary diasporas, often both nostalgic for what they have lost and disgusted by what they find when they return. If the tsarist conquest of the northern Caucasus was savage, what followed under communism was worse, including the Stalin-era deportations of whole nations to the steppes of Central Asia. A particularly harrowing account is of a wartime massacre in the Cherek valley in Balkaria (a Turkic-speaking district next door to the former Circassia). Like the murder of Polish officers at Katyn, this was carried out by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD—but then cynically blamed on the Germans. But whereas Poles have doggedly defended their history against falsifiers, the Circassians have been all but voiceless. One of Mr Bullough’s most powerful points is how little about the Circassians can be found even in works by specialist historians of the region.
The heirs to this history visit cruel, random destruction in terrorist attacks, bringing botched responses by the authorities. Mr Bullough unpicks the seizure, by terrorists claiming to be Chechen fighters, of the Beslan school in North Ossetia, a neighbouring republic in Russia’s Caucasus, in 2004. And he investigates the background of the women who have become suicide-bombers to avenge their husbands, sons and brothers—a tactic which, early indications suggest, was repeated in two attacks on the Moscow metro this week.
Russian and then Soviet rule brought literacy, electricity and roads to the region, and uprooted feudalism. But by Mr Bullough’s account, it would be a travesty to call that a civilising mission. It has come with a shocking mixture of brutality, incompetence and corruption, entrenching criminality on all sides.

Fahrettin Tahir - 4/5/2010

Here is the rewiev of a book about how Russians and their stooges dealt with moslems in the European regions of the Ottoman Empire they invaded.
It is what they did in the Caucasus. It is what they did in Crimea. It is what they did in the Balkans in 1877 and 1912. It is what they started to do in Anatolia in 1915.
There are 7 million Cherkess, descendants of the genocide described here, living in Turkey today. They were there in 1915, and realized perfectly well what Russia and her Armenian allies were going to do to them, if and when they won the war.
The review treats the events as an isolated incident. It is not. It is a part of along chain of genocides, down to and including the Cyprus pogroms against the Turks in the 1960ies and the Bosnian war in the 1990ies.

Fahrettin Tahir - 3/29/2010

correct: no reason for the Ottoman government to feel the Armenians a danger for the Moslem majority

Fahrettin Tahir - 3/29/2010

When all these events happened, the European powers were invading Moslem majoroty provinces of European Turkey and slaughtering and deporting the Moslems who lived there to turn the Christians into the majoritied they are today in Greece, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia etc.

In all 5 millions were murdered, around 30 million citizen of Turkey are descended from those deported from what was European Turkey. These are the Turkish secularists. They are tramatized especially since the Christian world keeps denying this genocide. They are Europeans and do not trust the West.

( That is 15 millions from the Balkans, 5 million Crimean tatars, 7 Million Caucasian Moslems and 3 Million Azeri)

The AKP ara Anatolians and were first very naive in their trust in the West. They thought the secularists had been producing problems. They saw no reason for the West to be racistically anti Turkish.

By now they too have realized how racistically anti Turkish the West ist. Mrs. Mekrel, the German PM will now visit Turkey and a new ugly eclat is quite possible.

Fahrettin Tahir - 3/29/2010

The author here claims the Armenians were left unprotected by the Russian revolution and so deported.

This is the claim Turks were out to get the Armenians and did so when Russian protection failed.

This is a lie.

The Armenians were deported in 1915 when Russia looked like winning the war. Their plan was the deportation the Moslems of East Anatolia to make space for the Armenians. This preciptated the deportation.

The Russian revolution was 1917. If it had happened in 1915 there would have been rop reason for the Ottoman government to feel the Armenians a danger for the Moslem majority.