Intellectuals and journalists who gathered at a workshop for a debate on how the Turkish media treats non-Muslims said that the media has had a crucial role in imposing an official ideology on society.
The Turkish political system has created factory settings. There is an automatic reflex in the Turkish media in regards to how non-Muslims are going to be treated.
Ayhan Aktar, sociologist
The two-day workshop, titled “Perception of Non-Muslims in the Media,” was organized by JWF’s Medialog Platform in Istanbul on May 12-13, 2012.
During the workshop, sociologist Ayhan Aktar described the historical aspects of the issue. “It is not that all negative perceptions in the media regarding non-Muslims have been determined by media bosses or chief editors,” he said. “Everything started with the creation of a nationalist ideology back in the years when the Turkish Republic was established and when the nation-state was being formed.”
He continued, “The Turkish political system has created factory settings. There is an automatic reflex in the Turkish media in regards to how non-Muslims are going to be treated.”
Aktar cited the example of the Istanbul Riots on September 6-7, 1955, when Greek minorities living in Istanbul were forced to leave and the media had a role in the start of the riots. The Greek population in Turkey has been in constant decline ever since the 1955 riots and the 1964 deportation of roughly 12,000 ethnic Greeks. Thus, even though the Greek population in Turkey was not less than 100,000 in the 1930s, tensions between the two countries has greatly affected Greeks’ survival in Turkey.
Other minority communities, despite being Turkish citizens, were also negatively affected by political conflicts in Turkey, and many of them left the country. Turkey’s population of nearly 75 million, mostly Muslims, currently includes about 65,000 Armenian Orthodox Christians, 20,000 Jews, 15,000 Assyrians, and about 3,500 Greek Orthodox Christians. According to the last Ottoman population census of 1906, the proportion of non-Muslims among the population was about 20 percent. The first population census of the Turkish Republic in 1927 showed that this ratio had been reduced to 2.5 percent.
Aktar also said that the official ideology would not be changed by the state. “When society does not accept the official ideology anymore, the state will have to change it; otherwise, it will not,” he explained.
Orhan Kemal Cengiz, a human rights lawyer who is also a columnist for the Radikal daily, said that a bottom-up approach is best suited for this situation.
“Everybody, every group, should be open to self-criticism, which is not widely practiced in Turkish society,” he said.
Syriac Catholics are estimated to number about 5,000 in Turkey. Zeki Basatemir, chairperson of the Syriac Catholic Church Foundation, said at the gathering that the educational system also has an important role in the creation of perceptions.
“Of course, the media plays a significant part, but look at the history books. There are prejudices,” he said. “And if the government talks about the importance of having a ‘single religion’ [Islam], then what we talk about here remains not really meaningful. As we have been getting together for 18 years with support from Fethullah Gulen [an Islamic scholar], there should be no talk about ‘one religion.’ We would like all religions to coexist in harmony with each other.”
On the second panel on Saturday, Salom (Shalom) Editor-in-Chief Ivo Molinas said that the Jewish community in Turkey is negatively influenced by political tensions between Turkey and Israel.
“Even though we are Turkish citizens, we are treated by some people as if we are defenders of Israel. We are grateful to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his remarks, which were an antidote to anti-Semitism,” he said.
Alper Gormus, columnist for the Taraf daily, emphasized that “factory settings” are valid for the media in general.
“Left-leaning, nationalist or Muslim, each form of the media follows the line that the state draws,” he said.
He added that television series and not just newspaper stories should take into serious consideration what kind of perceptions they create.
The participants, who were hosted for a lunch on Saturday at the Greek Boys’ High School at Heybeliada (or Halki, one of Istanbul’s Princes Islands), worked on a final document of recommendations on Sunday.
One of the recommendations referred to using different terminology in the media, such as using “groups belonging to different religions and belief systems” instead of “non-Muslims.”
Participants also said that exposing bad practices, such as hate speech, in the media would also contribute positively to changing negative perceptions in society.
On the role of what the minority media could do in that regard, Ohannes Kilicdagi, an academic and columnist at the Turkish-Armenian weekly Agos, said that news stories that are not included in the mainstream media can find a place in the minority media and increase awareness of minorities’ problems.
Medialog’s General Secretary Erkam Tufan Aytav stressed the lack of trust between the majority and minorities in dealing with each other and suggested having more dialogue and similar workshops.