Reprimanding the minority with the language of power without being in power

Istanbul Mayor’s attitude toward minority foundation reveals layers of privilege, expectations of submission

This week, I am going to write a few words about the phone call from Istanbul Metropolitan Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu to Balikli Greek Hospital Foundation Director Konstantin Yuvanidis following the fire at the hospital, which was recorded on video and shared on social media. If you have not seen it yet, watch it here and we will begin:

This article can be read as a criticism of the society I belong to (both Armenian and Turkish) through this attitude or insult, which again can be seen as a proof of why and how a politician in Turkey will never be able to understand a minority citizen by any means. I would like to make it clear up front that there may well be some managers in minority foundations who deserve to be criticized, dismissed from their positions, and even prosecuted for corruption. As with the administrators of many "Turkish" foundations in the Turkish society in which we live, there was and has been corruption in minority foundations for a long time.

And Mr. Yuvanidis may well be one of them. I am not aware of any specific information, but even so, that does not mean that he can be publicly exposed, branded and insulted in a recorded call. Imamoglu tells Yuvanidis, "You said, 'If I were there, I would have kicked all those people out. You don’t have the power to throw anyone out, least of all me, know that'" and he has this conversation recorded. By the way, we only hear Imamoglu's end of it, because it is his side of the call that is being recorded. But if you listen to the recordings and check the details of the report, you will see that Yuvanidis did not really mean to kick out the Mayor of the Metropolitan Municipality of Istanbul. I do not know if an advisor or public relations expert manipulated the news and relayed it to the Mayor as if it was the case, but this mistake is a warning sign that staff should be chosen much more carefully.

Or let us ask, is this a mistake as far as Istanbul Mayor is concerned? If we take a look at CHP deputies and leaders who have made such mistakes before, I do not think we can find much consensus on whether this was a mistake or not. For us minorities, this also makes us question the sincerity of leaders who associate themselves with concepts such as opposition and reconciliation...

Imamoglu may have already forgotten it, but minorities are a substantial part of those districts such as Sisli, Bakirkoy, Yesilkoy and Adalar that won him Istanbul. I also wonder, when he meets with journalists, writers, politicians, sportsmen whose names are implicated in hundreds of corruption cases and who insult minorities in this country, or AKP city council members who are implicated in corruption, does he reprimand them the way he reprimands Yuvanidis?

Surely not. And he did not, did he? Or if he did, he did not record it on the phone and expose it. We never saw such a thing. So is it us he can reprimand?  Yes, it is. We are the only ones he can afford to.

This has always been the case in the history of the Republic. Mr. Imamoglu is part of that history and a product of that generation. Have we been fooling ourselves again just because he adopted a more constructive language? Didn't we minorities even believe in the likes of Mustafa Sarigul when he uttered phrases like "ahpariklerim, kuyriklerim" (my brothers and sisters in Armenian) when he was elected mayor of Sisli? You can read in the Agos of the time about the stunts he pulled off with the conglomerates close to him over the properties of Armenians in and around Sarıyer. But the minorities still voted for him. They believed in him. Even this goodwill was enough for us. He was at least a light in the darkness. And make no mistake, it is Sarigul I am talking about here.

Anyway, let me give you some insider information from the minority communities, at least from the Armenians I belong with; how did we end up like this?

Those who are not Muslim Turks in this country know very well that if you are going to individually or institutionally survive in this country, being in constant opposition will do more harm than good to your community. The communities that survived the genocides committed against them know this very well. If you are going to stay in the village, you will get along with the agha, and if you are going to stay with the agha, you will get along with the mukhtar and the district governor. You may remember, you may have read that most of the Armenians who survived the genocide did so because they got along with the top politicians in the region. Would an Armenian musicologist like Gomidas have survived if someone like Halide Edip had not pressed for it? How many families are left of Sason, Moush, Van who leaned on their people, who believed in independence, who rebelled? In short, there is a lesson that has been learned over the past 100 years. You can dissent individually, but institutional dissent has cost us dearly in these lands.

That is why, in the Armenian community, as in others, figures close to the government, who are in business with them, can hold important positions. They have been granted that right both by the state and by minority communities. Historically, there have even been religious leaders among them. You may find it surprising that there were even founders of Armenian national schools among them who were government agents.

Maybe this does not apply to you, but in communities that have been subjected to genocide, this provides the oxygen to prolong the vegetative state of the community that is close to death, at least for a while longer.

It allows us to look to the future with hope and keep schools, churches and hospitals open in case we ever come out of that vegetative state. That is why some rich and famous Armenian personalities sometimes donate (are made to donate) large sums of money to the Turkish Armed Forces. Or they release congratulatory messages addressed to the dignitaries. On April 24, they condemn (are made to condemn) their compatriots in the diaspora who are campaigning for the recognition of the genocide.

Do you know what happens to these rich people otherwise? I remember it very well because it happened not more than ten years ago. First, they are visited in their offices by financial authorities. The accounts of their companies were frozen in such a way that the money in them could never be recovered. Then their vehicles were shot at while they were at a vacation spot. Then a message is delivered to them, "If you are in danger, come and report it to the police station so we can talk about it." They go and talk about it, and another senior official joins the meeting, just as in the case of Hrant Dink, who was summoned to the governorate. And security assurances are delivered on the spot.

"Oh my, please come in; the president of such and such a foundation happens to be here. He's collecting donations, wouldn't you like to contribute?"

If you dare, don't!

And thus they give the right message while guaranteeing security in the face of the threat they themselves have generated. Sedat Peker also recently revealed how this system works. He mentioned how they asked for a bribe (extortion in my opinion) of 500,000 TL from Bedros Sirinoglu, chairman of the Yedikule Armenian Hospital Foundation, through a police chief.

Here is the report for those who have not seen it

In 1965, Armenians gathered abroad for the first time to commemorate the genocide committed against their ancestors, and the first reaction to them came from Armenians in Turkey. They placed a wreath in Taksim Square and sealed the fact that they were "Turks, sons of Turks."

One of the names in the Armenian community who adopted this costume told me one day, "If we don't maintain these relations, these schools and churches will be closed one by one. It is easy to close them, but hard to open them in this country." As the government stifled the survival strategy of the minorities which were forced to be in its proximity, the members of the minorities who are close to it assimilated themselves into an image of that power over the years.

They have adopted the language of the power, adapted its methods for themselves and introduced them into our institutions. If the government will not hold elections, why should the monopolized minority foundations?They have the power behind them, their survival is arranged, why should they hold elections? On top of that, the institution somehow continues to operate, this way or that. I do not think that cowering and submission has gotten us anywhere so far. Because we do not have a trustworthy state to deal with.

We have been struggling for more than a hundred years with a structure that pursues a policy of annihilation against us. At the cost of keeping our minority institutions open, the long vegetative state in which our communities have found themselves has lasted so long that, when we emerge from this vegetative state, it is very likely that we will come face to face with a paralyzed Armenian, Greek, Jewish or Assyrian community. And the state's main objective is to keep us in this sleep unto death as long as possible, and when there is no one left to pull the plug, to mummify us and to place us in a museum.

In light of all this information, go back to the beginning and watch that video again. Do you think the video recording made by Ekrem Imamoglu, the mayor of Istanbul, serves to democratize minority foundations, or is he pulling another plug to put them into a coma? In case you have been swallowing your "yes, buts" so far, even if this was not the exact message Imamoglu wanted to send, a politician whose name is mentioned for the presidency should be able to see that things will unfold in this way. In addition, we have seen other overbearing mayors. Recall that our current president was also mayor of Istanbul for one term.

And I have a note:

Mr. Mayor, months ago I criticized in this column a regulation in force under the authority of your municipality that stated that the graves of Christians in Istanbul should be smaller than those of Muslims. (How many souls fit in 0.64 square meters, 24.09.2021)

Following my article, I received a message from you through an intermediary telling me that this matter would be fixed immediately. You may have missed it while reprimanding minority foundations, but that regulation has not yet been changed. I present this for your information.

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