While marching last week through Istanbul’s super-historic Sultanahmet district to protest the Chinese government’s restrictions on Ramadan fasting for its Turkic Uighur minority, a gang of roughnecks from Turkey’s National Movement Party ran into a group of Chinese tourists. Fulfilling the calling of angry mobs everywhere, they went on the attack. The riot police promptly intervened and succeeded in saving the tourists, who turned out to be Korean.
Korean soap operas have a huge following in Turkey, so the mistake was inexcusable. But it gets worse. Earlier the same week, another Istanbul mob trashed a Chinese restaurant, whose chef turned out to be a Uighur – a member of the very group whose interests the mob meant to protect.
It’s fascinating, in a depressing kind of way, to compare acts of ethnic and religious violence perpetrated by the state with acts of ethnic and religious violence perpetrated by private citizens, either gathered in a mob or acting as independent contractors. The first are vicious and systematic. The second are vicious and stupid.
The Chinese government’s treatment of the Uighurs, like its treatment of its other minority groups, leaves a lot to be desired. Beginning in the 1990s, the government began encouraging Han Chinese to settle in Xinjiang, the autonomous region native to Uighurs. By the end of the decade, this massive gentrification project had succeeded to the point where Han made up more than half of Xinjiang’s population. Beijing has also made a policy of meddling with the natives’ practice of Islam, banning most translations of the Qu’ran along with many forms of religious dress, and most recently prohibiting government workers and schoolchildren from observing the Ramadan fast.
But Turkey’s Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, is not made up of liberal humanists dedicated to a philosophy of religious freedom without borders. Instead, they’re Turanists, dedicated to forging bonds of purpose between Turkic peoples everywhere. They have steeped themselves in the most irrational and mystical forms of patriotism. If you pinch your thumb, ring, and middle fingers together, raising your index finger and pinkie, you will have just made the sign of the bozkurt, or gray wolf, a mythological figure once revered by the Turks of Central Asia. Your pinkie and index fingers represent the ears; your other fingers, the snout. In the flesh, wolves are noble creatures, but that approximation is so idiotic, so close to the Italian corna and the devil’s horns of the headbanger, that the Hitlergruss looks elegant by comparison.
If good taste is the first casualty of radical ethno-nationalism, critical thinking is the next. In 2006, after a Trabzon teenager gunned down Fr. Andrea Santoro, the local MHP boss approved – on the grounds that Santoro might have been out to “re-establish the Christian Greek-Orthodox state that was here before.” He meant the Republic of Pontus, a nation of Orthodox Greeks that was proposed after the First World War but never came into existence. Fr. Santoro was Italian and Catholic.
Operating a little more gently, a white Texan named Tracey Carver-Allbritton recently started a brawl by telling a black woman, “Go back to your Section Eight home!” The black woman – who, to be fair, had flouted community rules by throwing an unauthorized party at the local private pool – didn’t live in a Section Eight home. She and Carver-Allbritton were neighbors in the same subdivision.
All this shows how quickly private wars of race and religion reduce themselves to the absurd. Once you’ve decided to commit violence, once you’ve decided to choose your targets from any group so vast as a racial or religious community, and once you’ve defined that community, for your own purposes, by the broadest physical and cultural traits, it’s the shortest step down to attacking people who have no truck with the world you’ve created in your head. All assaults based on perceived racial or religious identity are, finally, cases of mistaken identity.
On my second day in Turkey, I visited a park where the various parties were hectoring potential voters in anticipation of the following Monday’s municipal elections. A cadre from MHP had formed a circle and was dancing to a Roma melody blasting from a boom box. The dance, called a khoro, is native to the Balkans. Still, I sometimes think it would have served them right if someone had mistaken them for a bunch of agricultural-socialist Zionists.