ISTANBUL: Pursuit of happiness has many obstacles for minorities in

Today’s Zaman, Turkey
May 31 2014

Pursuit of happiness has many obstacles for minorities in Turkey

A view from a ceremony held in April 2012 to commemorate the
resurrection of Jesus Christ at the Antakya Orthodox Church, in
Antakya, the provincial capital of Hatay. (Photo: Cihan)

May 31, 2014, Saturday/ 16:30:00/ DUYGU ÇAKIR / ISTANBUL

`It might seem crazy what I’m about to say’ is a phrase that you might
have heard some people clapping and singing along to in the last
couple of weeks. The catchy lyrics are from Pharrell Williams’ song
`Happy,’ which is about the wonders of happiness.

The song `Happy’ has charmed many people with its `feel good’ message
and has generated many tributes, mainly linked to specific places such
as `Happy New York,’ `Happy Gaza’ and so on. However, when a `Happy
British Muslim’ video went viral on several social media platforms on
April 16, for the first time focusing on religious affiliation, it
created a lot of controversy. Two main reactions dominated: Some
people praised the video for having given a positive picture of
Muslims, while others criticized it as offensive to Muslims for not
portraying a realistic picture of being a Muslim minority in a
non-Muslim country. Turkey faces the same challenges with its
religious minorities; however, here the roles are reversed as the
majority of Turkish citizens consists of Sunni Muslims, with small
minorities of Jews, Alevi Muslims and Christian denominations such as
Catholics, Syriacs, Greek Orthodox and Protestants, among others. Many
of these minority groups in Turkey still face challenges and are
therefore often not happy with their life circumstances.

The pursuit of happiness

In seeking to understand what it means to be `happy,’ one may find
that the definition always seems to be elusively flexible and can
represent different meanings for different people. As a result,
`happiness’ can be measured and explained in many different ways — in
terms of religion, economics, in biological terms or by philosophical
views, to name but a few. Several scales have even been devised to
measure happiness, such as the Satisfaction with Life Scale (SWLS),
which is a cognitive assessment of life satisfaction. By measuring a
country’s contentment level, it also measures the average level of
happiness within any given country.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
(OECD) Better Life Index, a survey from 2013 revealed that Turkey has
a relatively low level of life satisfaction, with one of the lowest
scores in the OECD. The scale goes from 0 to 10, and the average OECD
score is 6.6. The Turkish people’s life satisfaction stood at 4.9.

The low score of 4.9 may be a result of the political turmoil and
instability Turkey has had and still faces. Many of the unhappy people
in Turkey might be found among the minorities, who face many
challenges in their everyday lives. Speaking with Sunday’s Zaman,
representatives of different minority groups in Turkey all confirmed
that minorities in Turkey find it difficult to achieve happiness. One
of the greatest challenges Turkish minorities face is the lack of
legal protection and rights.

Spokesman Dositheos Anagnostopoulos from the Ecumenical Patriarchate
of Constantinople told Sunday’s Zaman that there is a lack of interest
toward minorities at the state level.

`Be it Armenians, Jews, Christians or Assyrians, even though we all
have Turkish citizenship, the state looks at us as foreigners. It is
not right that when we need to speak to state officials about a
concern or interest, it is the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that deals
with us. This ministry is supposed to deal with foreigners, but
because they do not consider us Turks, we have to go through the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs.’

`Happy Turkish minorities’?

The `Happy British Muslims’ video, which received many responses, both
positive and negative, has been a hot topic of debate ever since it
went viral. At the negative end of the spectrum — which has been the
most controversial — for some, the video represent a forced picture
of `happy’ Muslims because in the never-ending debate of Muslim
minorities in non-Muslim countries, Muslims are generally associated
with controversial and negative feelings. By trying to understand the
criticism of the video, we can see that some people felt upset about
the portrayal of Muslims as it may not reflect a realistic idea of
what it’s like to be in a Muslim minority in the West. As Muslims in
non-Muslim countries face challenges due to their Muslim identity, the
same can be said of religious minorities in Turkey. If Turkey were to
jump on the bandwagon and make a `Happy Turkish minority’ video, one
could question whether or not it would fairly represent the current
picture in Turkey.

Pakrat Estukyan, the editor of Agos, an Armenian newspaper in Turkey,
argued that the situation of minorities in Turkey is not a happy one.
`There is no such thing as a happy minority in Turkey. Minorities face
far too many challenges in Turkey to be happy.’

Anagnostopoulos was also critical of the Turkish authorities, saying:
`Turkey consists of 98 percent Muslims. In 1923, 25 percent of the
people were Christians and Jews. Today they make up 2 percent. Where
are the rest? They are not here because they were not happy here. If
such a video [of `Happy Turkish minorities’] was made, people would
laugh at it, as it does not portray the real picture.’

The identity crises of modern-day Turkey

For both Anagnostopoulos and Estukyan, one of the main challenges
Turkey faces with minorities is their marginalization in society,
which results in a feeling of exclusion from the Turkish identity, as
they possess different religious convictions, and often belong to a
different ethnicity, to the majority. Especially difficult is their
lack of legal personality, which means, for example, that they cannot
own property and therefore don’t have rights accorded to the majority
by law. This is crucial for religious institutions such as the
Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Anagnostopoulos says it’s
almost equivalent to saying that these religious institutions simply
do not exist: `The problem is that the state does not acknowledge our
existence. We are not formally accepted by law. Under the Ottoman
Empire, we were considered an official religious body. It is ironic
really, as they accept our existence, but we are not legally
recognized as a minority.’

With the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, a modernization
policy was implemented that aimed at creating a new regime and was
inspired by European-style nation-states, based on principles such as
cultural unity, rationalism, secularism and a liberal economy, but the
outcome affected minority rights. The `cultural togetherness’ policy
was based upon an elimination of differences to create a homogenous
Turkish identity. The retention of local cultural traditions by ethnic
groups was seen as a threat to territorial integrity and national
strength as the state sought to create one common identity —

`There is a strong nationalistic feeling in Turkey, that Turkey
belongs to the Turks. However, under the Ottoman Empire all
ethnicities and religions lived under one state. This is a problem
today because, first of all, the state sees us as non-Turks, even
though we have Turkish citizenship. They see us as foreigners, and as
a foreigner, you don’t have the same rights as a Turk,’
Anagnostopoulos told Sunday’s Zaman.

Gabriel Akkurt, a priest from the Mardin Assyrian community, says that
Assyrians do not receive the rights accorded to either the majority
Sunni Muslims or minorities.

`The government says that we are not a minority, but in practice it is
different. As we have Turkish citizenship and we are Turks, as the
state says we are, if our rights are a part of the majorities’ rights,
then we should not feel excluded. But, unfortunately this is not the
case. There is differentiation based on religious affiliation, because
as Assyrians we are not seen as fellow compatriots. The Armenians,
Rums [Greeks] and Jews are considers as minorities by the government
but we are not; however, we are still perceived as non-Muslims and we
are not granted the same benefits as Turkish citizens, even though we
are a minority because we have a religion that is not the same as the

Another problematic issue caused by the exclusion of minorities,
according to Estukyan, is the creation of ever wider gaps between
people in Turkey.

`The problem in Turkey with being a minority is that minorities are
perceived as a problem and not as part of society. The hardest part of
being a minority in Turkey is not being identical to the majority in
Turkey. For example, if one does not speak Turkish, then that creates
suspicion. It is perceived as odd and the immediate question is, `Why
don’t you speak Turkish?’.’

However, there may be hope for the generations to come. According to
Anagnostopoulos, the younger generation in Turkey does not seem to
have any problem with the religious or ethnic affiliation of
individuals. Liberal thoughts and ideas are more widespread among the
younger generation. He also remarked that there have been some changes
since the EU pressured Turkey to give certain rights and religious
properties back to minorities. At the same time, however, he also
believes that if Prime Minister Recep Tayyip ErdoÄ?an continues his
abrasive rhetoric and chooses not to follow EU norms amid the current
political turmoil, Turkey may not recover from the subsequent damage.

`If you ask the older generation, they will be more cynical about hope
for the future; however, the younger generation in today’s Turkey
doesn’t care what religious or ethnic background you have. They want
the country to change,’ Anagnostopoulos says. `We saw with the Gezi
Park protests that people from all ethnicities and religions stood
together and demonstrated side by side.’

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress

Emil Lazarian

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” - WS