Erdoğan Appropriates the Cultural Heritage of Turkey’s Minorities

In south-eastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, the government has undertaken a revision of history. Islamisation of cultural and religious sites, territorial reorganisation: every effort is being made to impose Sunni Islam as the driving force of Turkish identity by doing away with all the markers of ethnic and religious minorities.

The advocacy of nationalism and Islam, together with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s determination to go down in history as a nation builder, have given rise to an official rhetoric aimed at accentuating the homogenisation of a country when the origins of its population are in fact highly varied. Indeed, ever since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, governments have been at pains to rewrite the nation’s history of the. This historical revisionism has been illustrated by the renovation of a number of religious and cultural sites in the outlying regions of the country, along the border with Syria, which has all the appearances of an appropriation.

Officially, the founding keystone of modern Turkey in the 1920 was the war of independence led by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. That war was waged in the name of the unity of the Turkish people against the occupation of its territory by the imperial powers of Europe. Several Turkish historians claim that the uprising began in the South, near Hatay, a province of the Syrian vilayet (or administrative subdivision) of Alep, under French mandate at the time. Now the fact that this province did not become an integral part of Turkey until 1939, 12 years after the foundation of the Republic and after several attempts at independence, shows that during the national uprising, the population did not have only a single common goal, but also their own specific demands.

The oral memory of identity-based traumas

In 1923, Atatürk decided to renege on the Lausanne Treaty1 which guaranteed the Armenian and Kurdish communities their right to autonomy. If implemented, this provision would have amputated Turkey of large segments of its southern and eastern territories.

Accounts of the identity-based traumas and repression suffered by the populations of those regions, marginalised under both the Ottoman Empire and authoritarian Turkish regimes were handed down from one generation to the next by word of mouth.2 These both helped to preserve an alternative historical narrative specific to the local population, central to their identity as individuals and to perpetuate the communitarian markers of their group (dialects, beliefs, outstanding personalities). Most of the socio-ethnic and religious minorities who do not adhere to the Turko-Sunni definition of their identity are known to be hostile to both the state and the political parties associated with it at election time, and to see the government as exclusivist and discriminatory.

At first, the AKP sought to solve this hereditary dissension with a policy of “openness” (açilum) aimed at including the minorities and which took the form, after 2013, of a renewed interest in Turkey’s highly diversified cultural heritage. However, the government soon realised it was more to its advantage to divide the society and side with the Sunni majority.

The boom in mosque construction

The Turkish nation, object of the speeches and dreams of Erdoğan, is at best an abstract phantom, an immaterial entity over which he can wield power only by modifying the actual traces of history, i.e., by intervening there where history has left its mark. Now the activities and daily habits of the local populations are entirely bound up with their geographical habitat. And though they are often envisaged and evoked in timeless terms, these cultural characteristics are not immutable. They evolve along with society.

As the years go by, the AKP has shown considerable adaptability and has been able to counter the secular legacy of Kemalism under the pretext of religious freedom. Although the Turkish constitution includes secularism (laiklik) as one of its key pillars, the State is in control of all religious institutions and hence can use them any way it pleases. Since the AKP came to power in 2002, there has been an enormous expansion of the resources and personnel of the Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet).

Between 2007 and 2017, nearly 10,000 mosques have been built, making an overall total of 88,021, far more than necessary in terms of population density. Furthermore, law No. 6002, passed in 2010 to replace the 1965 law No. 633, “has clearly reduced the autonomy of the mosques and gives the Diyanet more power to control the flow of money at the local level.3 Thus the process of “sunnisisation” is mainly perceptible through this wholesale construction of mosques, as was confirmed in 2015 when the President inaugurated the one attached to the presidential palace: “Wherever there is a dome or a minaret, we know we are in the Muslim homeland”. It is, moreover, extremely difficult to obtain a permit to build a new church, while legal recourse against the construction of a mosque is never successful.

Territorial reorganisation to diminish the power of local authorities

Other, less blatant methods are used as well. In hopes of extending its influence to rural communities along the Syrian border, where ethnic and linguistic diversities are considerable, the AKP strives to make its presence felt by contributing to their development. Concretely, this is perceptible in every aspect of people’s lives (education, social activities, media) as well as in the administrative and urban reorganisation of the territory. Law No. 6360, enacted on 11 November 2012, provided for the creation of thirteen new metropolitan municipalities which had traditionally been regarded as suburbs (Tekirdağ, Balikesir, Manisa, Aydin, Denizli, Muğla, Trabzon, Hatay, Sanliurfa, Kahramanmaraş, Mardin, and Van). This centralising law diminished the powers of local authorities compared with those of the governmental representatives. For example, after 2014, “Antakya” (the modern name of the ancient city of Antioch) was renamed “Hatay” after the province in which it is located. The idea behind this change—Hatay is a purely Turkish name with no reference to Greek—is to bind the region more closely to Turkey.

This territorial reorganisation is part of an overall policy. Urban projects, renovations, municipal services and structures of assistance have developed more freely in Sunni neighbourhoods. Besides having been connected to the gas grid three years later, the Alawi neighbourhoods have little access to public transport. These reforms in territorial organisation are gradually modifying already precarious social balances in order to favour the emergence of a loyalist political structure in Hatay. And indeed, these initiatives did lead to an increase in the AKP’s score in the 2014 and 2015 elections. This policy, which was the object of a report by the Institut français de recherche internationale (IFRI), has been a way of influencing the city’s development along the lines of the AKP’s new all-Turkish model, under the pretext of enhancing and preserving the region’s cultural traits as a tourist attraction.

“Clean and smooth” renovations

The rising prominence of religious rhetoric via the dissemination of moral values and the national of version of Islam have sufficed to modify lifestyles through intimidation and social pressure without having to amend the constitution. A program of restoration of cultural and historical sites has been undertaken to emphasise the fact that religion is no longer a purely private affair but has entered the public sphere. In Hatay, in spite of wide demographic fluctuations4, several syncretic locations attest to a supra-communitarian identity linked to the history of the province. Seyh Yusuf el-Hakim’s tomb at Hrebiye, the tomb of the Muslim saint Hizir in Samandag and the mosque Habib-i Neccār in Antakya are three examples of sites that have been incorporated into local oral narratives shared by all.

And the way they have been renovated recently illustrates a change in perspective: their natural surroundings have disappeared and a plethora of inscriptions referring to the Koran have appeared. Visually, they are now “clean and neat” which is the signature of the AKP. Particularly smooth, straight and white, the pavements and stones used everywhere in these restorations are aimed at “sanitising” facades, walls and floors of the sites to give them a uniform appearance. Besides conveying the notion that the past was impure, this eradicates the historical stages of construction and hence all traces of the local history of these sites, managed today by municipalities increasingly dependant on the national power structure. And finally, several examples, from Hatay to Diyarbakir, show that when it is in the interest of the State, to “restore” means to repair but also to erase the better to recreate. This erasure takes several different forms. “According to several eye-witness accounts, the government has often taken over places of worship to convert them into mosques or to take advantage of their attractiveness to turn them into museums, as was the case with the cave of Saint Peter” near Antakya, one of the oldest churches of the Christian era still existent. Other sites which did not lend themselves to similar operations were simply closed down for so-called security reasons. The war in Syria and the terrorist attacks associated with it, as well as the repression brought about by the 2016 “coup,” have served to justify certain exceptional measures like the seven extensions of the state of emergency.

The orthodox church in Antakya was closed to visitors, as was the synagogue there. The confiscation by the State of places of worship belonging to minorities, such as the Syriac orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary, dating from the 3rd century AD along with other churches in south-east Turkey prompted the European Parliament to condemn this “lack of respect for religious freedom and discrimination against religious minorities.” In its 13 March 2019 resolution, the Parliament also states that these violations have come to a head with “the deliberate destruction of cultural heritage” in Cizre and Diyarbakir, classified by UNESCO as part of the world’s heritage, or the construction of the Ilisu dam at Hasankey, driving its inhabitants out of their ancestral city, now drowned in the waters of the Tigris. These governmental efforts to obliterate traces of a rich past highlight the AKP’s determination to make these sites of active religious heterodoxy into a passive cultural heritage, inaccessible to worshippers and ultimately forgotten.

The goal is to standardise Turkish society along the lines of Turkish Islamic normativity, the AKP’s ideal. This process is making it possible for the State to reassert its power in marginal structures and societies over which it previously had no control. It is clearly urgent to undertake meticulous documentation work on the cultural heritage of certain neglected regions before all those traces of the ancient world, gradually being erased, are lost forever.

1EDITOR’S NOTE: Peace treaty signed on 24 July 1923 in the Palais de Rumine in Lausanne (Switzerland). It was the last treaty to come out of WW1, in which Turkey was allied with Austria and Germany. It defined Turkey’s new frontiers after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and organised population displacements in order to ensure religious homogeneity.

2Esra Demirci Akyol, Esra Demirci Akyol, The Role of Memory in the Historiography of Hatay: Strategies of Identity Formation through Memory and History, VDM Verlag, 2009.

3Samuel W. Watters, “Developments in AKP Policy Toward Religion and Homogeneity », German Law Journal, Vol. 19, No. 02, 2018.