Turkish government has an ‘Ottoman understanding’ of its relationship to minority communities

The Turkish government’s relationship towards minority communities and heritage sites retains an ‘Ottoman understanding’ of the state’s obligations, according to academic Tuğba Tanyeri-Erdemir.

Tanyeri-Erdemir spoke to Ahval’s John Lubbock for the Made in Turkey podcast, where they discussed the current situation for minority groups and historical heritage sites in Turkey. Tanyeri-Erdemir works at the University of Pittsburgh's Department of Anthropology and is the coordinator of the Anti-Defamation League's Task Force on Middle East Minorities.

Talking about the re-conversion of the Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul, Tanyeri-Erdemir said this had been “a very depressing time in terms of my research, but I think a very crucial one to keep a keen eye on the developments as they happen”. 

She said that “the process of re-converting former religious sites to mosques had been ongoing for many years, the General Directorate of Pious Foundations sought legal permission to take over sites, including non-religious ones such as the Bomonti beer factory and Heybeliada sanatorium. On the one hand, Hagia Sophia’s conversion is a very big political statement, but from a heritage perspective, it is part of a much larger change in the heritage framework of the Turkish republic.”

Although Turkey has many world-class heritage experts, there is a lack of joined up thinking and planning from the national government, Tanyeri-Erdemir said: “The know-how is already there, it’s just the overall planning that lacks a clear vision for long-term sustainability. And this is not just for the symbolic, important heritage sites, but it’s a problem that has been ongoing in Turkey for a while.”

Talking about the situation for minority communities in Turkey, while they were in a better position than in some countries, such as for the Uighur minority in China, “what we have been seeing in terms of the Turkish government’s attitude and in particular President Erdogan’s attitude, is very parallel to an Ottoman understanding of the Sultanate versus its minorities, the millet system.” 

“The government and the head of the government sees itself as the person to grant rights to minorities. So if you are a minority community, a non-Muslim community, as long as you behave within the boundaries that are drawn for you by the government you are pretty much ok. But whenever you want to do something outside, then you his quite significant obstacles.”

The Turkish government has restored some heritage sites, Tanyeri-Erdemir said, but looks on these kinds of projects as a favour it is doing to other countries. “Any archaeological, historical heritage within the boundaries of Turkey, within the legal heritage system of Turkey is the responsibility of the government. We have a blanket protection within our law. So it is not a good grace, or it’s not a favour to restore an ancient monument within your territory. It is your responsibility, it’s something that you have to do.”