Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey: Lessons for America

Some of the strife in the Balkans provides a telling context in which to understand America. Here are a few of my observations.

There are some aspects of American thinking that are so ingrained in our thinking that we do not realise how revolutionary they are.

The freedom to practice one’s faith and to maintain one’s language is taken for granted in America. For countless millions of people around the world, such rights are a dream.

In Bulgaria in 1984-5 , the communist dictator in Bulgaria, Todor Zhivkov initiated a campaign in which Turks living in Bulgaria were forced to slavicise their names. In some instances, brothers living in different villages found themselves with different last names. So pervasive was the repression that secret police sat in cafes to catch people speaking Turkish.

The campaign was brutal and sparked world wide condemnation. The Turkish government offered the right of return and Turkish citizenship to any Bulgarian Turk who might want to return to Turkey.

The Bulgarians defended their harsh actions with the assertion that the Bulgarian Turks were racially Bulgarian, the descendants of those forcibly converted to Islam centuries earlier. Although such arguments would be thunderously irrelevant in America, in Bulgaria, there was a resonance to the claims , which had some echoes in Bulgarian folklore

The Turkish empire included many nationalities. While some evidence points to Bulgarians being forcibly converted to Islam, far more frequent were opportunistic conversions for purpose of tax advantages and professional advancement. To many Bulgarians, such individuals were collaborators, something like American colonists who were loyal to King George the Third. Bulgarian feelings ran high concerning this matter. They were among the most loyal of all the Soviet client states, an echo of the early days when they welcomed rule by a nephew of Czar Alexander the Second as a counterweight to Turkish power.

The American attitude towards religious and ethnic identity is like a beautiful concerto often butchered by tone deaf imitators. We have a concept of church state separation that precludes a state religion. In Turkey, the fez and the hijab were banned for years from being worn in public, in an attempt to break the sway of Islam over Turkish society. The American approach, in which far more latitude is given to public expression of faith, seems to be a masterpiece of equilibrium by comparison. Unfortunately, some of the militant atheism in America which even seeks to banish “In G-d We Trust” from American money seems uncomfortably close to a Turkish type of secularism.

The bitter divorce of Turkey and Greece with the 1923 population exchange was a trauma and a tragedy next to which the Bulgarian crisis pales by comparison.

During that troubled time, 500,000 Turks were forced out of Greece and 1,500,000 Greeks were forced out of Turkey. Atrocities were widespread. Many refugees never made it to their newly-designated homes, having been murdered en route.

Examples abound in the Balkans of history’s ghosts coming back to torment the living. Serbs, Croats and Bosnians all drove each other from their respective homes in an effort to create enclaves for themselves. Some found a bittersweet prologue in America, where in cities like Cleveland and New York they learned to coexist with those who had been enemies back home.

With illegal immigration and bilingualism, there is a threat that America’s hard won peace could become undone. There is the danger of mutually exclusive historical narratives in Spanish and English marking a new fault line in American society.

A common language has the potential within it of overcoming other deep seated societal divisions. African Americans and whites, Hispanics and Native Americans inch towards a common understanding of the past with the aid of a common language.

Mexico has almost a caste system, in which those with the highest percentage of Indian blood occupy the lowest position on the social scale. Like many immigrants before them, Mexican Indians find relief in America from stifling prejudices at home. Too little credit is given to America for challenging and overcoming its own bigotries as well as the opportunities it has provided to immigrants to prove themselves in new contexts.

America needs to recognise the progress it has made in race relations, ethnic harmony and a sense of common nationhood. We need to take steps to preserve these hard won gains.

All of the nations that have sent their citizens to our shores have lessons to teach us if we look at their experiences before coming here.

There is a grotesqueness to the Bulgarian’s claims that their Turkish population is racially Bulgarian. The right to define oneself is a fundamental freedom. The right to be judged by one’s own deeds and not by those of one’s ancestors is equally basic. There is a middle ground between learning from one’s past and being imprisoned by it. Upon this middle ground, America stands. If we remain on course we can be an inspiration to the world as we set out on our unique path. We can and must be a mirror to the nations of the world of the harmony that is possible within their borders. The need is pressing. Our times demand it.


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