Gallipoli centenary marks another snub for Turkish minorities

Hundreds of non-Muslim soldiers killed in the Gallipoli campaign 100 years ago were ignored in elaborate centenary observances.

al-monitor A Turkish soldier in historical uniform stands at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Canakkale, as part of the Gallipoli campaign in Gallipoli, March 18, 2015. Photo by REUTERS/Osman Orsal.

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turkey, muslims, minority rights in turkey, minority rights, minorities, gallipoli, discrimination, armenian genocide

Mar 27, 2015

Centenary observations of the Gallipoli campaign that ended with the Ottoman Empire's victory against the Allies sadly became another occasion to expose how the non-Muslim minorities in Turkey are snubbed. Non-Muslim soldiers who lost their lives were not saluted and their names were removed from the list of martyrs issued by the Defense Ministry.

The Gallipoli observances were guided by anti-minority narratives and actions that were enflamed by comparisons between the Gallipoli centenary and the approaching 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, when he was the foreign minister in 2011, said: “We will inform the whole world about 2015. Contrary to what some claim and disparage, we will tell the world that this will not be the anniversary of a genocide but of honorable resistance of a nation at Gallipoli.”

Because of such partisan utterances, Gallipoli observances turned into ceremonies where nationalist sentiments peaked and non-Muslim minorities were utterly disregarded. For example, the List of Martyrs issued by the Ministry of National Defense omitted the names of non-Muslim martyrs although it had listed them in an earlier publication. Today, if you search for a non-Muslim soldier on the ministry's official website, you will get the message, “No record could be found.”

In the Canakkale Martyrs Cemetery, where Muslims and non-Muslims are buried together, a memorial ceremony attended by Davutoglu was held March 18. Only the Quran was recited — and there was no mention of non-Muslim martyrs.

The Jewish community held a separate memorial service for those who died at Gallipoli in Istanbul’s cemetery for Jewish officers killed while serving the Ottoman army. Addressing the gathering, Harin Niyego said Jews had contributed significantly to the army in various fronts of World War I and the War of Independence. "Many of our co-religionists lost their lives while doing their national duty on various fronts of the Ottomans," he added.

There was no official representation at the Jewish community’s observance. But the community was more upset with a TV commercial of a private company. A car tire company ran it on the occasion of the Gallipoli centennial. In the commercial, you see the hardships soldiers were experiencing because of lack of tires. The commander asks two of his soldiers to urgently find tires. The soldiers come to Istanbul, go to a merchant who resembles a Jewish man with his attire, speaking broken Turkish. The merchant demands cash payment and doesn’t give the tires. The Jewish merchant is portrayed as a cold-hearted seller who thinks of money while the nation is fighting for its survival. From the background you hear the remark, “scheming fox.”

Facing criticism, the tire company issued a statement saying its commercial was based on a factual story.

Historians say 558 non-Muslim soldiers were killed in the Gallipoli campaign that played a pivotal role in Turkey’s independence. Of every 100 soldiers killed in the war, one was a non-Muslim. Some note that with those who were wounded and got sick during the war and died later, and with those who went missing, this number could be as high as 3,000.

One of the non-Muslims fighting in the Ottoman army was Armenian officer Sarkis Torosyan. He was a capable officer who was awarded with a citation from the Ottoman government for sinking an enemy ship and heavily damaging another. While he was fighting on the front, he learned that his family was massacred in the Armenian genocide and some of his relatives were deported. He went searching for those deported and found his sister years later in a Syrian camp.

Torosyan wrote in his memoirs that he believed his family would not have been massacred if the Allies had successfully crossed the Dardanelles with their navy. According to professor Ayhan Aktar, who told the story of Torosyan, if Ottomans had lost at Gallipoli, there would not have been an Armenian genocide.

It's difficult for Turkey to come to terms with such a claim when we still pursue a policy of dismissing those pains, even aggravating them.

While this was the regretful situation this year for March 18 observances in memory of the Gallipoli naval wars, we are confronted with an even more disturbing situation for the April 25 observances to mark the land war of the campaign. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that the April 25 observances will be held instead on April 24, the date of the Armenian genocide. It's not hard to guess that the land war commemoration will also be ignoring the non-Muslim martyrs.

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