By Mustafa Akyol
Last Thursday, the north-western Turkish city of Edirne, just miles from the Greek and Bulgarian borders, was the stage for a historic event: The reopening ceremony of the newly renovated Great Synagogue, which had been dormant and rusting for almost half a century. Some 250 Jews, mostly from Istanbul, attended the morning service conducted by Davud Azuz, who had also led the last service at the synagogue in 1969. Mr. Azuz, one of few remaining members of the Edirne-based Jewish community, thanked the Turkish government for restoring the Jewish temple.
Meanwhile, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, who was at the event, praised the Jews’ loyalty to the Ottoman State during the latter’s toughest times. “I remember the Jewish citizens who died defending their city for their Muslim Turkish neighbors,” he said, “with the same gratitude as our martyrs.”
Now, this is an example of the “Ottomanism” of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government that people like me have supported and promoted over the past 13 years. The idea is that, unlike Republican Turkey, which is exclusively Turkish, the Ottoman Empire was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious mosaic. Thus it embraced non-Turkish groups, such as Kurds, Armenians or Jews, before the advent of the nationalism that would mark the Republican era. Thus, a post-nationalist Turkey would be somewhat “neo-Ottoman,” rediscovering the diversity that it tried to erase for almost a century.
The Great Synagogue of Edirne is a perfect symbol of this vision. It was built in 1905 by the order of none other than Sultan-Caliph Abdülhamid II to replace 13 separate synagogues destroyed by a fire that devastated the city. Designed by French architect France Depre, it was a breathtakingly beautiful building, as it today again is. It reminds us that the widespread anti-Semitism in the current Muslim world was simply non-existent in the Ottoman Empire, or the superpower of Islamdom for some five centuries. In fact, at that time anti-Semitism was a shame of Christian Europe, whereas Ottoman lands offered the Jews the safest havens on Earth.
This heritage is what Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç probably referred to when he said, during the opening the opening ceremony, “Thank God, there is no anti-Semitism in Turkey.” Yet, with all due respect to Arınç, I would replace the word “is” in that sentence with “was.” In other words, there was indeed no anti-Semitism in the Ottoman Empire. But things began to change in Republican Turkey, as both Turkish nationalists and Islamists began to import the anti-Semitic literature from alien sources, such as Europe, Russia and the Middle East.
Admittedly, this influx of anti-Semitism happened mostly in reaction to Israel’s constant occupation of Palestinian lands and its subjugation of the Palestinian people. (Despite the common Israeli propaganda, Israel’s own actions often fuel anti-Semitism, rather than anti-Semitism fuelling reaction to Israel.) Yet still it was wrong, unacceptable and shameful.
What is most tragic is that the very actor which we put our hopes for building a truly “neo-Ottoman” (i.e., pluralist) Turkey, the AKP, has devolved into anti-Semitism in the past few years. AKP propaganda, carried out by its apparatchiks in the media and social media, has taken a clearly anti-Semitic tone, with conspiracy theories about “Zionist spies,” who are none other than President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political opponents. If the AKP wants to go down in history as a truly “neo-Ottoman” movement, it should backtrack from this hate-mongering, and stick with the spirit that re-allowed the restoration of Edirne’s Great Synagogue.