On my last day in Istanbul, I remembered that a colleague had asked whether I could bring him back a copy of the Turkish newspaper, Şalom (Turkish spelling for Shalom). To my knowledge, the weekly Şalom is one of two regularly published Ladino publications in the world, along with the monthly El Amaneser, also published in Istanbul. I was also looking for a copy of Agos, the Armenian-Turkish weekly. Because Jewish and Armenian communities are primarily centered in a few larger cities, I knew that my best chance of finding print copies of these papers would be in Istanbul. After visiting a few newsstands and bookstores, I learnt that it was not easy to find either paper even in the heart of Istanbul, and was told by a bookstore owner that both papers operated primarily through individual subscribership. I finally found the papers in a small bookstore with a newsstand, complete with papers in various other languages, primarily from Europe. When I told the shopkeeper that I had a hard time finding the newspapers, he told me, “You’re lucky. Today is the first day they came in!”
The previous day, the Turkish daily Radikal reported that the Turkish government is categorizing its non-Muslim citizens by a numbers system: 1 for Greeks, 2 for Armenians, 3 for Jews, 4 for Assyrian Christians, and 5 for all other non-Muslims. It remains unclear for how long this system has been in effect. The categorization came to light when an Armenian woman who was raised as Muslim decided to reclaim her Armenian identity. She was baptized, converted to Christianity, and in an effort to assure her child would grow up aware of her Armenian identity, wanted to enroll her child in an Armenian pre-school. Her husband did not change the official records indicating his religion as Islam. As a result, the Armenian school asked the mother to obtain official records proving she is Armenian, since to enroll in a minority school in Turkey, the child’s parent must prove that she is indeed of that minority. The school official’s letter requesting proof of Armenian identity explicitly stated that Armenian citizens were categorized as category 2, and he needed proof that the mother’s “family or descent code” was 2.
The school official's letter written in the most matter-of-fact tone has caused much discussion in the last few days. Government officials have tried to downplay the significance of the categorization saying that it is a mere administrative tool to ensure that religious minorities’ rights are fulfilled while others have argued that the practice violates the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, which ended the war between the Turkish Republic and the occupying powers at the end of World War I. Articles 37 through 45 of Part I Section III of the Treaty sets out the rights of religious minorities in Turkey. When the first 3 categories of the ancestral coding system were revealed, the government’s initial response was that the numbers merely helped fulfill the mandates of Section III, by ensuring that the students going to minority schools indeed belonged to the respective minority community. However, since the information about categories 4 for Assyrians and 5 for all other non-Muslims has come to light, the government’s explanation no longer makes sense because Assyrians (or other non-Muslims who would fall under category 5) do not have schools for which such “administrative convenience” would be necessary. It remains unclear whether the practice has been in place since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 (which the government claim of administrative efficiency might imply) or if it is a more recent surveillance method. It is also unclear whether it is only religious minorities whose ancestry is “coded” or if there are other codes for ethnic and linguistic minorities and perhaps even political outsiders such as communists.
As I expressed in my previous post, vulnerability exists in every society and some communities are particularly vulnerable in the face of State practices, including facially neutral laws. Reading about Turkish government’s ancestral coding system and talking to friends and family about it, I cannot refrain from drawing parallels between this appalling practice and the kind of invasive and still mostly-unknown surveillance of Muslim communities in the U.S.- from the placement of undercover agents in mosques trying to convince innocent Muslims to participate in violent plots to collection of private data by the government. (On surveillance in mosques and profiling in Muslim communities see here and here, and on reactions to the reported end to surveillance in the mosques after 2011, see here). Religious identity as a basis of vulnerability is nothing new. From Native Americans to Jews, Mormons and Quakers, many before Muslims have known religious persecution in the U.S. When compared to its Western European counterparts, the Ottoman Empire may have been a relatively gentler place with its millet system, but it was still not a land of egalitarianism for religious minorities. Thus, the current problematic and appalling ancestral coding system should not be a surprise to any of us familiar with world histories, though the attendant nausea is hard to hold back. From an unwitting school official in Turkey to courageous individuals like Bradley Manning imprisoned and Edward Snowden forced into self-exile, one cannot help but hope that the unearthing of government surveillance of private citizens will continue across the globe. Despite the disappointing and infuriating outcome of the Manning case and the forced exile of Snowden, it is important that we know through which means our governments continue to monitor our private lives, our bodies and our beliefs. With increasing intrusive technologies including drones over our backyards, computerized census records, and the monitoring of our e-mails and cellular phones, Turkey and the U.S. have outdone even the worst examples of Michel Foucault's surveillance society where the State constantly watches, surveys, orders and disciplines its citizens.