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Gönül blunders in remark on history

ANKARA - With remarks in honor of Atatürk, the ruling AKP’s defense minister recalls the population exchanges between Greece and Turkey after World War I, attracting criticism for his nationalist language and the drift toward pro-state stances.

by Izgi Güngör

The population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923, which led hundreds of thousands of people to leave their ancestral homelands, was revisited by a politician recently, putting the controversial 85-year process under scrutiny.

At the Turkish Embassy in Brussels on Monday, Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül said the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923 was a necessary step toward building a nation-state at the time.

The Prime Minister has recently come under fire for his use of more nationalist language and pro-state policies on some critical political issues, including the Kurdish problem, but this time it was Gönül who embraced the nationalist discourse.

"One of the great achievements of Atatürk, who abolished the caliphate to establish a nation, is the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923," he said, speaking at the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the death of modern Turkey’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. "Could Turkey be the same national country had the Greek community still lived in the Aegean or Armenians lived in many parts of Turkey. We can’t ignore the contribution of those [the Armenians] who feel themselves victim due to the expulsion that resulted in the removal of many Armenians from Anatolia."

Although Gönül made a public excuse saying his words were misunderstood, the experts reacted strongly to his remarks.

"A nation-building process is a homogeneity project and was what all the world’s countries were trying to do at that time. He didn’t bring attention to this fact, instead he presented the issue as if the population exchange was a desirable and positive thing," Soli Özel, political science professor at Bilgi University told the Hurriyet Daily News & Economic Review. "He was expected to say that after 80 years the move has resulted in social and cultural impoverishment for Turkey," he said.

Gönül also said neither Greece nor Turkey wanted different religious elements in their societies as they formed their identity at the time, implying that it wasn’t a one-sided event and the exchange was desirable by both communities.

The exchange took place between Turkish citizens of the Greek Orthodox religion established in Turkish territory and of Greek citizens of the Muslim religion established in Greek territory under the Treaty of Lausanne signed by the Greek and Turkish governments in 1923.  About 400,000 Turks moved from Greece to Anatolia and about 1.1 million Greeks moved from Anatolia and Eastern Thrace to Greece in the exchange.

Racist discourse

For retired ambassador Yalım Eralp, Gönül’s remarks were unfortunate as his remarks echoed of racist language.   "Should the existence of Turks in Germany disturb Germany, for instance?" he said.  

"Turkey was a war-weary country at the time and it had some concerns about its unity. The exchange was vital in the social and political context of the time. Gönül however ignores these facts; his intention is totally different. His remarks are racist," Eralp said. 

Criticizing Gönül’s remarks, Professor Baskın Oran said the displacement of Greeks and Armenians from Anatolia delayed Turkey’s industrialization, economically speaking, by at least 50 years and the ethnic and religious cleanups eliminated Turkey’s pluralism, politically speaking.

Oran implied it was the deep conservatism and limited worldview embraced by both the founders of and voters for the ruling Justice and Development Party that have inspired its politicians to reveal such thoughts. Other political scientists related the population exchange to the 14 points, a peace program presented at the end of World War I by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson is defense of autonomous development for non-Turkish people of the Ottoman Empire.

Homogeneus society

For Nilüfer Narlı, sociology professor at Bahçeşehir University, the story had two sides and its historical context should be considered.  "In the 1920’s we didn’t talk about multi-cultural societies. It is something that we talk about right now, in the 21st century. The concepts of nation-state and nationalism were the dominating ideas at the time," she said. "Likewise not only Turkey but Greece tried to establish an identity and society based on homogeneity. Greece sought a new national identity and developed one by differentiating itself from all elements related to the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. Even the hostility became part of  their new identity," she said.

Foreign policy expert Mensur Akgün, meanwhile, said Gönül had no right to make such sociological and political comments on population exchange, a topic current international law considers a crime. "He praises a Turkish nation that hosts no minorities. He doesn’t see the multi-cultural composition of the society," he said.

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