Middle East

‘Infidel!’ Ottoman slur raises hackles in Turkey

Turkish soldiers in historical Ottoman janissary outfits, march during a ceremony, one of many marking the 743rd anniversary of the death of Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, in Konya, Turkey, December 7, 2016. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

ISTANBUL: The use by a senior Turkish official of a pejorative word meaning “infidel,” widely used in Ottoman times to describe non-Muslims, has sparked accusations of hate speech and fears of discrimination against minorities. In a speech earlier this month, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus used the word “gavur” (“infidel”), prompting an outcry from Turkey’s Armenian minority.

The Ottoman Empire dominated swaths of the Middle East and North Africa for more than six centuries until it collapsed at the end of World War I.

Encompassing settings as diverse as the Arabian Peninsula, the Balkans, the Horn of Africa and part of the Caucasus, the empire was a multiethnic and multifaith entity, with millions of Christians.

However within the borders of modern Turkey, there are just tens of thousands – mainly Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians – as well as a significant Jewish community.

Kurtulmus on Dec. 3 boasted of “new Turkey” being shaped under the wings of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), which he said stood against imperialism or exploitation.

“We need to take the issue of independence seriously. To us, independence is to stand tall and call an infidel ‘an infidel,’” he told a meeting in the northern city of Kastamonu.

Turkey’s Human Rights Association lodged a complaint at an Istanbul prosecutor’s office, accusing Kurtulmus of breaching the universal human rights declaration to which Ankara is a party, as well as the Turkish penal code.

Ahmet Hakan, a columnist in the Hurriyet newspaper, wrote that Kurtulmus’s comments constituted “hate crime.”

“Even the Ottoman [empire] that you like so much banned the use of expressions like ‘infidel’ in order to put an end to discrimination against non-Muslim citizens,” he said, referring to the government.

In the mid-19th century, the Ottoman Empire banned the use by officials or private persons of inflammatory epithets based on religion, language or race, as part of a series of reforms heavily influenced by European ideas.

Garo Paylan, Istanbul MP of Armenian origin from the opposition pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said Kurtulmus’ comments were hate speech that required an apology.

“He should have apologized,” he told AFP. “I am an MP who was chased and stoned in his childhood and was labeled an infidel.”

Kurtulmus later clarified his comments, saying they were “not meant to offend our non-Muslim citizens” but to take a firm stand against imperialism, in a statement to the official news agency Anadolu.

He also made a personal call to Hakan, saying: “There’s an epithet in my wife’s hometown that says “infidel haji.’ Even a man who went to hajj is called infidel. Why? Because he is a tyrant.”

Paylan said the term “infidel” was a “contaminated word” and added: “When you ask people on the street who an infidel is, at least 50 percent would say he’s an Armenian.” An official dictionary of the Turkish Language Institution defines “gavur” as a non-Muslim but also as someone who is merciless and a tyrant.

The Anglicized version of the word – “Giaour” – was the title of the famous 19th-century poem by English Romantic Lord Byron.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AK Party had in the early years of their rule been hailed for improving the rights of Turkey’s minorities, also taking tentative steps toward reconciliation with Armenia.

In his speeches, Erdogan, in contrast to predecessors, repeatedly emphasizes that all citizens be they Arab, Turkish, Armenian, Jewish or Greek are part of the modern Turkish nation.

But critics worry that that Islamic-rooted AK Party has in the last years resorted more and more to nationalism in the pursuit of votes.

Turkey and Armenia have no relations due to a row over the Ottoman-era killings of Armenians from 1915 that Yerevan considers a genocide, a term vehemently rejected by Ankara.

However the 100th anniversary of the tragedy was marked by strident nationalist rhetoric from the Turkish authorities and a reconciliation deal now seems further away than ever.

Erdogan said while commenting on his family origins in 2014 when he was then prime minister: “I was called a Georgian. I apologize for this, but they even said worse. They called me an Armenian.”

Armenians and Jews are the minority groups that are targeted the most by Turkish print media, according to statistics provided by a project overseen by the Hrant Dink Foundation named after the prominent Turkish-Armenian journalist shot dead in 2007.

In 2015, Jews were targeted 531 times and Armenians 459 times, the organization said. Non-Muslims were targeted 65 times over several cases including the use of the word “infidel.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 16, 2016, on page 9.

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