An appointment against the “Founding values” of the Republic
Turkish journalist and opinion writer Yildiray Ogur wrote in Turkish daily Karar on the appointment of Berk Acar, a member of the Armenian community in Turkey, as a district governor, and asked "why appointing an Armenian district governor was only possible in the 99th year of the Republic."
One of the most important news of last week was the appointment of a district governor.
Almost all media outlets reported the news as follows:
“A first in the history of the Republic: Berk Acar from the Armenian community of Turkey was appointed as the district governor.”
Last year, after passing the district governor exam, 27-year-old Berk Acar had a successful interview and was appointed as the district governor of the Babadag district of Denizli.
There was almost no (negative) reaction to the news. Everyone seemed happy with the appointment.
Well-meaning commentators agreed that this step should have been taken earlier.
This is why nobody wanted to bother with asking the question of why appointing an Armenian district governor was only possible in the 99th year of the Republic.
As mentioned in the news, this was in fact a first in the history of the Republic but not in the history of Turkey.
Article 8 of the Kanuni Esasi (the Constitution of the Ottoman Empire), which came to effect in 1876, brought equal citizenship.
“All subjects of the empire are called Ottomans, without distinction whatever faith they profess; the status of an Ottoman is acquired and lost according to conditions specified by law.”
Article 19 on the other hand decreed that all Ottoman subjects would be admitted to civil service according to their qualifications and abilities:
“All Ottomans are admitted to public offices, according to their fitness, merit, and ability.”
This provision was secured legally with the Decree of Civil Servants Progress and Retirement dated 1883.
The article was not just on paper.
Since the second half of the 19th Century where the modern bureaucracy in the Ottoman Empire was established, Armenian, Greek and Jewish civil servants took office in the state.
They became ministers and palace officials.
In 1879, Ohannes (Camic) Efendi was appointed to the head of the Divan-ı Muhasebat, which was the predecessor of the Court of Accounts. Among the managers of the institution’s departments were Edvars Efendi, Hudaverdi Ohannes Efendi and Kastro Bey.
In an official record from 1912, there were 465 non-Muslim Ottoman citizens among the 10,146 retired civil servants in the country.
There were district governors among these civil servants.
Let us read from the history still present on the page of Kahramanmaras Goksun Municipality:
“Even though there were 17,365 Turks and 3455 non-Muslims in Göksun, Armenian Emanuel Efendi was appointed here as the district governor. The year 1915 was a year where the Ottoman Empire was fighting on many fronts during the First World War. Also, in 1915, Armenians revolted in many places including the Maras region to make the Allies’ job easier. It was very thought provoking that an Armenian was the district governor in Goksun, which was a strategic point in this sensitive time. Despite this, the district governor of Armenian origin was not dismissed. But, the district governor Emanuel was reported to be corrupt. Thereupon, an investigation by the Ministry of Internal Affairs began. With the end of the investigation, he was dismissed since he was proven to be guilty and in his place, on January 19, 1915 Galip Bey who left his office as the district governor of Silivri was appointed.
But this situation changed with the Republic after the war.
The fourth article of the Civil Service Act No. 788, which was adopted in 1926, was as follows:
A - To be a Turk (...)
Although in the 1924 Constitution being Turkish means being bound to Turkey by citizenship, in practice, the emphasis on "being Turkish" in the text of the law was taken seriously, and state positions were closed not only to non-Muslims but also to other non-Turkish elements.
In the military high school advertisements published in Cumhuriyet newspaper in 1930s and 1940s, it was common to see conditions such as “him and his family being of Turkish race,” “the potential students being from pure Turkish race.”
In the Citizenship Law enacted in 1928, the emphasis on blood ties and Turkishness continued.
In the 1930s, Turkish History Thesis and the Sun Language Theory became official ideologies, pressure against non-Turkish speaking immigrants especially and minorities increased, often “Citizen speak Turkish” campaigns were advertised.
A lead article by liberal Ahmet Emin Yalman in the Tan newspaper, who supported the "Speak Turkish" campaign launched by the Interior Minister Sukru Kaya in 1937, showed that the target of this Turkist wave was not just non-Muslims:
“The issue that raises complaints in every party of the country is that the citizens who came to the country with the title of refugees speak languages such as Greek, Bosnian, Albanian and Circassian. In the name of the political, social unity and harmony of the country, it is crucial to fight it in the most violent way. It is possible to come across this ugly mosaic in many parts of the country. It is a necessity to purge this mosaic situation as soon as possible in the Turkey of the Revolution.”
The head of the Jewish community at the time, Marsel Franko, both supported and objected to this official “Speak Turkish” campaign and the (Yalman’s) harsh lead article a few days later with a letter published in Tan:
“These citizens, whose silent, sad souls ache by the feeling of spiritual exile are right to expect to reach spiritual citizenship instead of half citizenship, being a guest, legal Turkishness as a normal manifestation of the regime.”
The Jewish community leader questioned the reason why they were not able to be civil servants. But his strong support for the Turkish speaking campaign did not lift the ban on becoming civil servants, it did not even save himself from being a half-citizen. After a while, he joined the camp of those who migrated abroad.
Even though since 1935, non-Muslim deputies entered the Parliament, the doors of the state were not opened to non-Muslims.
Even during the Democrat party (DP) rule, which received the support of minority communities in Turkey, no steps were taken to change the Civil Servants Law.
The topic was brought up once again in the Constituent Assembly of the 1961 Constitution which was drafted after the 1960 coup d’etat. The putschists also took one representative from each of the minorities to the assembly, where they elected representatives from all professions and social segments.
Kaludi Laskari who represented the Greek community took the floor while discussing Article 12 of the ambitious Constitution, which regulates equal citizenship:
“The topic I would like to talk about is Article 12 which is important for our country and the people living in our country. Article 12 was established by taking spirit and meaning from human rights (...) Article 12 - All individuals are equal before the law irrespective of language, race, gender, political opinion, philosophical view, or religion or religious sect. No privileges shall be granted to any individual, family, group or class. This article complies with international law, but everyone is equal in accordance with their legal obligations. If this article means that all Turkish citizens are equal, this article would belong to us as well, it would bring the same rights to us (...) I graduated from Turkish middle school and high schools and became an officer. At a young age I joined the war and I shed my blood. Then I graduated from the Faculty of Law. My ID says that I am of Greek race. Hypothetically, if I was 35 years old and if I applied to the Istanbul Municipality and asked to be appointed as a garbage collector, they would not appoint me because I am of the Greek race (...) This hurt and continues to hurt the country and the non-Muslims living here. I would like to ask the Assembly what they think of the phrase “regardless of race”. Because my son goes to the military service, becomes an officer, goes to war, dies. His family gets a monthly martyr’s family compensation. The Turkish military gives anybody, any citizen the highest honor, gives medals, and pays attention to them. But after the military, if I say that I graduated from law, appoint me as the prosecutor, as the clerk of the country; they tell me that they cannot appoint me since I am of a different race.”
Following this speech, spokespeople of the Constitutional Commission, Muammer Aksoy and Kasım Gulek explained that there was never racism in Turkey and that Ataturk's understanding of nationalism was not based on race. They said that "some mistakes were made in the past, but these are now left behind," but the result still did not change.
Non-Muslims could not become civil servants in this period either.
Journalist [later Turkish Prime Minister] Bulent Ecevit, who wrote an article in Ulus Newspaper in those days on this article of the new Constitution, said:
“Allowing state service to the groups called minorities is a definite condition for equality. Unless this condition is fulfilled, the sense of responsibility expected from groups called minorities towards the state will lack the main element that will create and develop this feeling.”
Ecevit, who wrote these lines, was the CHP leader and prime minister for 12 years, but during his rule, minorities could not be employed in state service.
The most advanced step that could allow minorities to be employed in the state was taken with the Civil Servants Law No. 657, which was enacted in 1965 during the CHP-AP-YTP-CMKP grand coalition led by Prime Minister Suat Hayri Urguplu and is still in effect. The condition of "being Turkish" to be a civil servant in the Civil Servants Law of 1926 was replaced with "being a Turkish citizen."
But this adjustment did not change the result.
The issue of minorities not being able to be civil servants being against equality was discussed from time to time, even if in low voices.
But no one has succeeded in appointing a minority member to a visible civil service position, even as a token.
Finally, with the acceleration of EU process under the AK Party government, steps were taken to eliminate discrimination against minorities.
The most serious of these was the 2008 Foundations Act, which paved the way for the return of property of minority foundations confiscated by the state.
The biggest party resisting this law in the parliament was CHP.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who spoke on the podium as the group deputy chairman on behalf of the CHP, said:
“We cannot bring these conditions to some (non-Muslim) foundations in Turkey just because the European Union demands it (...) Why did we assemble this parliament; we assembled with the demand of the European Union. They are imposing this on us. Can you say that this parliament has free-will?! They tell you to assemble on a certain date and pass this law.”
Kilicdaroglu and two MPs on behalf of the CHP brought the law to the Constitutional Court.
And finally, the awaited news came in 2009:
“First Armenian to take office in the state”
“His name is Leo Suren Halepli… He passed the European Union General Secretariat specialization exam. If he succeeds in the interview, he will be the first Turkish citizen of Armenian descent to serve in the state after years.”
Halepli, who speaks five languages, passed the interview, and just as he was about to be appointed, a person who could not pass the exam took the 40-person appointment decision to the administrative court and the court decided to stop the appointment.
The EU Secretariat General appealed the decision at the Council of State. The Council of State overturned the execution two years later.
The Secretariat contacted the 40 people, including Leo Halepli, who had been interviewed two years ago and informed him that he had been appointed as an EU Expert.
But Leo Halepli who said “I will think about it and decide,” thought about it and decided to go abroad.
The appointment did not take place. The 1981-born, 40 year old Halepli passed away from to a heart attack last year.
And finally in 2022, one year left until the 100th anniversary of the Republic, the first Armenian district governor was appointed.
Just like how the first rites in Akhtamar Church and the Sumela Monastery could only be held in 2010, in the 87th year of the Republic.
Just like how the foundation of the first church allowed to be built in the history of the Republic of Turkey could only be laid in 2019, in the 96th year of the Republic.
The task of compensating the Republic's century-long delay in the rights of non-Muslim citizens, which are the foundation of secularism could only be done by AKP government which was almost shut down on the grounds that the party was against secularism.
Those who constantly make references to the “founding values of the Republic” as a common ground to Turkey these days would probably know that the Republic has these types of founding values.
According to those values, an Armenian would not have been even appointed as a district governor.
While making a bouquet of the founding values of the Republic out of the most beautiful flowers in the garden, it is necessary to keep in mind the thorns which (previously) hurt and still continue to hurt, to leave history as history, to stop glorifying the past, which would not be a good reference for today as a founding value, while there is still a need to struggle with other, more intense discriminations of today.
Congratulations to District Governor Berk Acar and to the people of Babadag.