Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Birth of the Republic of Turkey and the story of the Pontian Muslim

Born out of the ashes of a Theocratic Empire consumed by war and Genocide, the “Turkish” nation, is the child of an ideological struggle that took place within the multiethnic millet-i-hakime of the Ottoman Caliphate. Roughly translated as “the dominant or governing people”, this social group was made up of the Empire’s Muslim subjects, while non-Muslims, were referred to as the millet-i-mankume, which translates to, “the dominated people” or “those born to be governed” [35]. These two social groups are associated with what is called the Millet system. Established after the conquest of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmet II, this system was adopted by the Ottoman Empire and grouped people not by nationality or ethnicity [1], but rather by religious affiliation [2].

“The millet system of the Ottomans”, says Kamel S. Abu Jaber, “may be defined as a political organization which granted to the non-Muslims the right to organize into communities possessing certain delegated powers, under their own ecclesiastical heads” [33]. In other words, each non-Muslim community made up its own separate millet with a certain amount of legal autonomy with little interference from the central Ottoman government. The main millets within the millet-i-mankume, throughout most of the Empire’s history, were Greek Orthodox (Millet-i-Rum), Jewish, Armenian (Millet-i-Ermeniyan) and Syrian Orthodox [34].

As a result of this system, for many Ottomans, the aspirational ancestor was not an Osmanli Turk, but rather Muhammad [35]; in fact, the term “Turk”, for most of Ottoman history was rejected by Muslim Ottomans and considered humiliating [3]. It was due to Crusaders [3] that it eventually became a common word for a member of the Muslim population of the Empire [2] [4]. It would not be until the 19th century that the idea of millets would gradually be altered and give rise to national identities built upon these religious communities. However, it wasn’t until the early 20th century that the millet-i-hakime would be transformed from the dominated religious community to an ethnic identity, a process that would witness several different competing ideologies battle each other for the hearts and minds of the Muslim Millet.

From Ottomanism to Pan-Turkism

The first of these ideologies is tied to a period in Ottoman History referred to as the Tanzimat [5]. Faced with growing nationalist movements, this reform era attempted to modernize the Empire in order to ensure its territorial integrity. The ideological answer that Muslim intellectuals both conceived and encouraged was called Ottomanism. The essence of which was the creation of a common Ottoman identity irrespective of religious or ethnic affiliation with equality for all under the law. This was seen, as a way to prevent any further loss of territory, as well as bring the Empire into the modern era.

To do this, Islamic law was set aside in favor of secular law [6], which officially began with the Imperial Rescript of the Rose Chamber in 1839, thus declaring equality for both Muslim and non-Muslim Ottomans before the law [7]. The era would also introduce such reforms as the establishment of the Meclis-I Maarif-I Umumiye in 1841, which was the prototype of the first Ottoman Parliament (1876); the first national identity cards (1844); the abolition of slavery (1847); the Hatt-I Humayun (1856) [8], which promised full legal equality for citizens regardless of religion; as well as the Nationality Law of 1869, which created a common Ottoman citizenship to name just a few.

Unfortunately, these many needed reforms and Ottomanism would be ultimately rejected by both Muslims and non-Muslims for different reasons, thus accelerating the decline of the Empire and allowing much more radical and racist ideologies to emerge. For Muslims, Ottomanism was seen as an attempt to eliminate their superiority within the Empire, and, therefore, they were not interested in any shared identity that would downgrade their social status. Non-Muslims, specifically the Patriarchates who ruled over the Christian Millets, portrayed many of the reforms in a negative light because they made it difficult for them to exploit their congregations. This was due to the elimination of arbitrary fees that priests exacted from church members, the establishment of fixed incomes for religious leaders, and the taking of an oath of devotion, in order to prevent bribery.

As a result of the failure of Ottomanism, Muslim intellectuals began to look for another way to safeguard the Empire’s territorial integrity and develop a modern national identity. This vacuum allowed two radical and racist ideologies the opportunity to exploit the rising tensions inside the Empire and replace Ottomanism, thus, setting the stage for the transformation of the multiethnic Muslim Millet into a Turkish National Identity. These two ideologies were Pan-Turkism and Pan-Turanism.

The former, emerged from an Islamic modernization movement inside the Russian Empire in the 1840s, and the latter was developed by Ottoman Officers studying in Imperial Germany in the 1870s. Pan-Turkism at its essence was a nationalistic movement for the cultural and political unification of all Turkic peoples while Pan-Turanism called for a much broader union of not just Turkic peoples, but the whole Turanid race. In the early 1900s, exiled Intellectual leaders espousing Pan-Turkism fled to the Ottoman Empire and found fertile ground to spread their ideas due to the failure of Ottomanism. Soon these concepts would flourish inside the Muslim Millet and eventually be officially adopted by the then ruling secularist reform party, known as the Committee of Union and Progress (İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti).

Ittihatism’s failure becomes Kemalism’s opportunity

At the end of the First World War, the Ottoman Empire lay in ashes. The Ittihatist attempt in building a glorious Turkish identity and restoring the Empire’s shattered pride [9] had failed and instead led to the first Holocaust of the 20th century,  commonly referred to as the Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian Genocides [10] [11]. However, out of the smoldering ashes of the defeated Empire emerged a man, a former Ittihatist, who viewed Pan-Turkic dreams as impossible for the time being and instead promoted an exclusively Anatolian version of Pan-Turkism in an attempt at preserving the remaining Anatolian heart of the Empire. His name was Mustafa Kemal, and his ideals would become the basis for an ideology, which eventually took on his name. Kemalism, in the end, was the winner by default of this ideological effort to transform the Muslim millet into an ethnic community.

The Kemalists, moved quickly to abolish the Ottoman Sultanate and proclaim a new republic, the Republic of Turkey, hence, officially transforming the Muslim Millet, on paper, into the Turkish nation. Affected by the dissolution of the Empire, which they view as the result of the Millet system’s failure and the ineffective experimentation with Ottomanism, Kemalists defined the “Turkish people” as “those who protect and promote the moral, spiritual, cultural and humanistic values of the Turkish Nation” [12].

Forging a Turkish Identity out of numerous indigenous cultures

The “Turkish” nation was not some instantaneous creation from the moment the Kemalists established the Republic of Turkey; to the contrary it was the result of a slow policy of Turkification, which took former Ottoman Muslim subjects of different ethnic origins and transformed them into a Turkish-Speaking citizenry united under Kemalism. At the time of the declaration of the Republic of Turkey, only a handful of Western Educated intelligentsia identified as Turkish, and, therefore, Kemal’s first order of business was propagating the Turkish identity [3].

The need to accomplish this, as well as to modernize Turkey, resulted in the Ataturk Devrimleri or Ataturk Reforms. These were a series of political, cultural, social and economic changes that were designed to transform the Ottoman Empire into a secular Turkish nation-state. This process began with the Kemalists dissolving the Ottoman Sultanate on November 1, 1922 and proclaiming the Republic of Turkey on October 29, 1923. After which, the Ottoman Caliphate would be abolished on March 3, 1924 [38] and also the millet system in 1926[38]. These, as well as other changes, paved the way for various social reforms, such as the adoption of a new Turkish alphabet on November 1, 1928[38].  The most radical changes would occur in 1934 with the Surname Law and the Settlement Law.

The former was adopted on June 21, 1934, and required all Turkish citizens to adopt surnames [36] [38]. For Muslim citizens, this would mean adopting Western-style surnames for the first time, while, for Christian and Jewish citizens who already were using surnames, it would mean adopting Turkified names [35]. The latter was issued on June 14 of the same year [37] as a way to homogenize or Turkify regions within the fledgling republic. As such, it was designed to transform the demographics of certain strategically sensitive areas, in favor of inhabitants deemed part of ‘Turkish Culture”. A process which, then Minister of the Interior, Sukru Kaya felt would, “create a country speaking with one language, thinking in the same way and sharing the same sentiment” [37].

The story of the Pontian Muslim

One of the many different Muslim communities that underwent this process of Turkification was the Ethnic Greek Muslims living in the Black Sea coastal region of Pontos. These ethnic Greeks, known simply as Pontians [13] [14], have had a continuous presence around the Black Sea since at least 700 BC [15]. Regardless of their religious affiliation, whether Roum Orthodox Christian or Muslim, Pontians are undeniably a culturally and linguistically distinct population of Asia Minor, who meet the criteria to be considered the Indigenous people of the region of Pontos as, they are the descendants of the regions native inhabitants prior to the Ottoman invasion of Asia Minor.

Although most Pontian Muslims today are Turkish-Speaking, some 5,000 [16] [17] have been able to preserve their ancestral language, which in Turkey is known as Rumca/Romeika, against all attempts to forcefully assimilate them into the mainstream national identity of the Republic of Turkey. Those indigenous Greek-Speaking Muslims are found primarily in Tonya, Macka, Surmene, Caykara, the Dernekpazari districts of Trabzon and the province of Kars. Most are descendants of inhabitants that converted to Islam around the 17th century. A fact, which has also been found to be true by the Ataturk Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies at Princeton University, Heath W. Lowry, with his research into Ottoman tax books, which have proven that modern-day Turks from Trabzon are of Greek origin [32].

The Struggle to rediscover ones ancestors

The story of this forgotten community has recently become more accessible to the general public, thanks to Pontian Muslim writers that have dared to speak out against the mainstream Turkish academia. One of these men is Omer Asan, author of the 1996 book Pontos Kulturu “Pontos Culture”, which focuses on the Greek Muslims of the Trabzon Province in Turkey. The book documents Omer’s ethnographic work in his native village in the Of district. Overall his book was received positively by academics as a valuable resource but became the center of controversy in 2002 [18]. This controversy began in December of 2001, when a show on Turkish TV ATV began a campaign against his book, which led to extremist circles calling Omer a “traitor” and “friend of Greece”. This eventually led to threats against him by supporters of the Nationalist Movement Party, MHP. An extremist organization, founded by Alparslan Turkes [19] [20] [21], which follows a Pan-Turanian/Pan-Turkism doctrine that dreams of creating Turan, the “Great Turkish Empire”. Known as “Ulkucu”, meaning “Idealists” [22], this party operates a youth organization commonly referred to as the Grey Wolves, which has been labeled a neo-fascist [23] [24] [25] [26] [27] organization accused of terrorism [23] [25].

In the end, the book was banned due to a verdict by the State Security Court in Istanbul [28], and Omer was charged with violating Article 8 of Turkey’s Anti-Terrorism Law for supporting “separatism” [29]. Thankfully, in 2003, Article 8 was abolished and Omer and his publisher were eventually acquitted [30].

From Omer's writings,  I learned that, “of the various Greek dialects in existence at the present day, Trabzon Greek, the language closest to ancient Greek and which, according to some, still retains some vestiges of the language of Homer, has been sacrificed to religious, national, and political intrigue and impotence. Although there is no prohibition of any kind in place, Trabzon Greek, labeled by religious bigots as a ‘giaour’ language, by nationalists as an ‘enemy’ language and by bureaucrats and politicians as a ‘separatist’ language, has the misfortune of being listed at the head of merely local, not national, languages” [2]. As I learned more about this small indigenous community, I began to start asking myself questions, like why aren't these Greek-Speaking Muslims discussed inside the greater Greek American community when issues concerning Hellenism in Turkey were brought up?

My research quickly led me to another Pontian Muslim writer named Vahit Tursun. Vahit hailed from the small town of Katohori in Trabzond, now called Otsena. In his article “The cost of Language”, Vahit states, “Romeika was for us a means of expression, of our flirting, our solidarity and help, of our smile and our happiness. It was a path leading us to love and being in love. For the first time, while we were in primary school, we experienced the problem regarding our native tongue. Each teacher appointed to our school would ban our speaking in it. Sometimes they would scare us and beat us so that we would not employ it. He asked us to turn in the person who spoke Romeika, but we didn’t listen to him. We kept joking and playing and making it up in our mother tongue. Little by little, we started wondering about our native language. We asked the grown-ups what language we were learning and speaking. We heard that the one we were learning was called ‘Turktse’ and the one we were speaking was called ‘Rumtze’. However, when we asked why we were learning a language other than the one we spoke, there was never a satisfactory answer. What was frequently recurring as an answer was, ‘You cannot become a human being with Romeika’. It is presumed we were educated and became human beings, though, in finishing school it is certain  we got acquainted with Turkish” [31].

The choice before us

As information becomes more available on the existence and experiences of Greek-Speaking Muslims in Turkey, unavoidable questions arise; will the Orthodox Christian majority of Greeks accept these Muslims as their ethnic kin? Can Turkish Society accept the ethnic Greek identity of some of its Muslim citizens without perceiving them as a threat? Unfortunately, the answers to such questions are being answered without a single word being uttered as the remaining Greek-Speaking Muslims fade away into history, the result of a continued process of assimilation, instigated by extremists, in order to whitewash the cultural mosaic that was Asia Minor. Although many inside Greek and Turkish society are likely to hate my conclusions, I dare to ask why. Why can’t these Pontian Muslims be viewed as ethnic Greeks? Why must an indigenous Greek-Speaking population inside Turkey be viewed with suspicion and hostility? More importantly, why has the issue of Human or even Linguistic Rights for Greek-Speaking Muslims in Turkey never been raised by a Greek Diaspora Advocacy Organization?

As new genetic evidence appears to prove that most citizens of Turkey are descendants of the indigenous, once Christian, inhabitants of the region [39]. The time will come when Greeks will have to determine just what is the criterion for being considered Greek? Will it remain set as being a Greek Orthodox Christian or will we finally open our minds and hearts to realize that it is not religion that makes one Greek, but rather language and a common ancestral heritage?


[1] Ortaylı, İlber (2006) (in Turkish), Son İmparatorluk Osmanlı [The Last Empire: Ottoman Empire], İstanbul: Timaş Yayınları (Timaş Press), pp. 87–89,

[3] ÖZDOĞAN, Mehment. 1998. Ideology andarchaeology in Turkey, in L. Meskell (ed.). Archaeology under fire. Nationalism, politics and heritage in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East: 111-24. London: Routledge. 
[4] Definition of Turk, Oxford Dictionary. 
[5] Cleveland, William L & Martin Bunton, A History of the Modern Middle East: 4th Edition, Westview Press: 2009, p. 82.
[7] The Invention of Tradition as Public Image in the Late Ottoman Empire, 1808 to 1908, Selim Deringil, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Jan., 1993), pp. 3-29

[8] Osman Nuri, Ahmet Refik, Abdülhamid-i Sani ve Devr-i Saltanatı: Hayat-i Hususiye ve Siyasiyesi, Kitaphane-yi İslam ve Askeri, 1911
[9] Caravans to Oblivion: The Armenian Genocide, 1915 (Hardcover) by G. S. Graber

[10] Assyrian International News Agency, International Genocide Scholars Association Officially Recognizes Assyrian, Greek Genocides, Retrieved on 2007-12-15. 
[11] Young Turks and the Armenian Genocide, Armenian National Institute
[12] Republic Of Turkey Ministry Of National Education. "Turkish National Education System". T.C. Government. Retrieved 2008-02-20. 
[13] Alan John Day, Roger East, Richard Thomas (2002). A Political and Economic Dictionary of Eastern Europe. Psychology Press. p. 454.
[14] Totten, Samuel; Bartrop, Paul Robert; Jacobs, Steven L. (2008). Dictionary of Genocide: A-L. ABC-CLIO. p. 337.
[15] Wood, Michael (2005). In Search of Myths & Heroes: Exploring Four Epic Legends of the World. University of California Press. p. 109.

[16] Drettas, Georges.  Aspects pontiques (1997)
[17] Mackridge, Peter. Greek-Speaking Moslems of North-East Turkey:Prolegomena to Study of the Ophitic Sub-Dialect of Pontic. In: Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 11, 1987.
[22] Değer, M. Emin (1978) (in Turkish). CIA, Kontrgerilla ve Türkiye. Ankara: Kendi Yayını. p. 119. "MHP lideri Türkeş, Ülkü Ocaklarını meşru müdafaa yaptığını söyler. Ülkü Ocakları Genel Başkanı da, 'bizim istihbarat örgütümüz devletin örgütünden güçlüdür' demektedir."

[24] Political Terrorism, by Alex Peter Schmid, A. J. Jongman, Michael Stohl, Transaction Publishers, 2005p. 674
[25] The Nature of Fascism, by Roger Griffin, Routledge, 1993, p. 171
[26] Political Parties and Terrorist Groups, by Leonard Weinberg, Ami Pedahzur, Arie Perliger, Routledge, 2003, p. 45

[29] Pontos Kültürü' yargılandı - 11-07-2002 Özgür Politika
[30] English PEN. "Omer ASAN".
[31] Tursun, Vahit. The cost of language
[32] Lowry, Heath W. The Islamization & Turkification of the City of Trabzon (Trebizond), 1461-1583  
[34] Stanford J. Shaw, "Dynamics of Ottoman Society and administration", in "History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey"

[35] Appelbaum, Diana Muir. Islamic Supremacy Alive and Well in AnkaraTurkey, Past and Future. Middle East Quarterly. Winter 2013, pp. 3-15 

[36] 1934 in history, Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
[38] Chronology of Major Kemalist Reforms. U.S. Library of Congress  
[39] Uğur Hodoğlugil and Robert W. Mahley, "Turkish Population Structure and Genetic Ancestry Reveal Relatedness among Eurasian Populations," Annals of Human Genetics, Mar. 2012, pp. 128–41.