The Question of Cultural Genocide and Racism: Personal Reflections on the Case of Northern Cyprus

Hilmi Ulas

December, 2012

This Case Study was written by Hilmi Ulas, School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR), George Mason University, in November 2012.

This piece was prepared as part of the S-CAR / Beyond Intractability Collaborative.

Jessica McRitchie acted as a peer reviewer on this piece.

Author's Note: I will use some materials which are in Turkish. In case of want/need, please feel free to contact me and I will attempt to translate the source material to the best of my abilities.


The island of Cyprus is one which has been conquered many times and which has seen more than its fair share of conflict; it also happens to be my country of origin. According to the literature on the topic, the Cypriot Conflict is the conflict between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot populations of the island, the latter of whom has de facto (in practice) divided the island into two separate states, whereas the former claims de juro (according to law) governance over the whole island. This current situation was a direct result of communal "unrest" — including much inter-communal violence and some atrocities (human rights violations, a multitude of missing persons and internally displaced persons, property crimes, and several massacres of entire villages, among others). This strife lasted from 1963 to 1974 and ended with a Turkish intervention to the island, which some dub an invasion, whereas some others dub it a peace operation. As a consequence of this intervention, the island was divided into two — between the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot populations. The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) was eventually — i.e. after many failed negotiations — established in 1983. The TRNC was not recognized by any country other than Turkey, and therefore has no legitimacy as a separate, autonomous state.

Thankfully, I had the fortune of not witnessing the communal unrest outlined above. Subsequently, as most academics are wont to do, I considered the conflict in Cyprus as simply a passive (i.e. no violence) one between Turkish and Greek Cypriots on the issues of who was to blame for the past, how to compensate for the said past, and whether there will be one or two independent states on the island. However, when I went to the TRNC for a visit over the summer of 2011, I observed an entirely different sort of conflict hitherto unrecognized by the international community: the conflict between the Turkish and Turkish Cypriot populations of the TRNC[1]. Indeed, it appears that the Turkish Cypriot people perceive a threat to their identity and culture from the influx of Turkish immigrants to Cyprus, consequently leading to claims of cultural genocide perpetrated by the Turkish government. Naturally, this has prompted backlash towards Turks and Turkey from people who consider themselves to be (Turkish) Cypriots. I myself am internally divided.

On the one hand, I can sympathize with the cause of protecting one's own culture and the sense of selfhood that comes with this action; in fact, I regard this as an important goal for all people. For example, many Native Americans have found that preserving their culture and immersing themselves in their ancestral rituals are what makes them complete — i.e. it grounds them in a place and gives them a personal and communal identity reaching from far back into history to the present. On the other hand, some intellectuals and more moderate politicians (such as Mehmet Hasguler[2]) recognize that the Turkish Cypriot identity is becoming more exclusive to the point of becoming almost racist. They advise that Turkish Cypriots should not direct their anger at Turkish policies of (what I will call) De Facto Annexation of Northern Cyprus (DFANC; to be discussed below) unto the settler population (i.e. immigrants from Turkey who come to live in Cyprus, most usually for work), but rather towards Turkish leaders who are not respecting the independence of Turkish Cyprus from Turkey. As a person who is half Cypriot and half Turkish, this conflict puzzled me: is there a cultural genocide going on in the TRNC? Are Turkish Cypriots acting in a discriminatory manner? If so, why is this the case and ultimately, what can and should be done about it?

Firstly, let us note that cultural genocide is not widely recognized as an actual form of genocide — there is no fixed conception of the term, and defining it falls outside of the scope of this reflection paper, and would contribute little to it. What is true, however, is that Turkey is enforcing the DFANC strategy in the TRNC, effectively forcing the change of an entire culture, which could result in or be interpreted as cultural genocide. Indeed, this policy demonstrates the main characteristics of genocide: intent by the state to target a given people/culture to forcefully exterminate/overhaul it. In fact, we can even say that the events in Cyprus follow the eight stages of genocide model developed by Gregory Stanton, as such: 1) Categorization: People in the TRNC are indeed categorized as Turks and (Turkish) Cypriots — who are sometimes referred to as "gavur" — a derogatory term also implying they are not Muslim; 2) Symbolization: the red passports given to citizens of the Republic of Cyprus serve to symbolize the gavur nature of Turkish Cypriots; other activities with symbolic meaning include going or not going to the mosques on a regular basis; 3) Dehumanization: In the Cyprus case, this takes the form of deculturization. Turkish Cypriot culture is not seen as a culture at all, but simply as a more plebeian version of Turkish culture; 4) Organization: the DFANC policies aiming to alter the demographics and culture of the TRNC are pursued by the Turkish state; 5) Polarization: Turkish and Turkish Cypriots discriminate against one another (more on this later); 6) Preparation: Turkey currently controls most of the economic activity in the TRNC as well as all of the TRNC's armed forces, and is in the process of taking over the control of necessary commodities such as water and electricity; 7) Extermination: The culture in the TRNC is changing too rapidly to be natural, as will be elaborated on below; 8) Denial: Turkey hides the DFANC policies under umbrella terms of "privatization," and increased immigration due to economic opportunities, etc., and refuses to acknowledge any cultural impact of such policies. Given this, while we cannot definitively conclude whether there is a cultural genocide ongoing in the TRNC, we can definitely argue that the possibility is real enough. Therefore, we must look at the Turkification policy and its social consequences to observe whether there are: a) implemented policies or political leaders' speeches concerning a will to enact a mainly forceful/top-down (i.e. dictated by the state) cultural change, and b) a cultural clash among different peoples populating the TRNC.

First and foremost, however, let us look at whether there is a mentality of us vs. them; either you are "with us" or "against us"; or, basically, a mentality of "obey/join me, or you are an enemy to be destroyed," as such a mentality is a necessary but insufficient factor in genocides. Unfortunately, there are some indications towards the existence of such a mindset in Turkey, viewing the existence of a Turkish Cypriot identity as an unacceptable threat. One of the most striking episodes on this front occurred around six to seven years ago, when a Turkish army commander (as such a strong leader in Turkey) refused to shake hands with the elected TRNC Prime Minister Ferdi Sabit Soyer on the grounds that the latter must first prove his "Turkishness".

While some Turks had previously and frequently asked what language was spoken in the TRNC (where Turkish is spoken, the Turkish anthem is sung as the national anthem, and the Turkish currency is used) or some other ill-informed question, I had never connected this with a doubt about our "Turkishness". Plain as day was the cultural disconnect. However, since our Turkishness was made such common knowledge to me throughout my life, somehow I could not perceive it — I thought of it all as just a joke. Likewise, there was a long-standing doubt about the Muslimhood of the Turkish Cypriots who had become more modern, less conservative, and less religiously observant under the British colonial rule. Indeed, some sources report tensions between the Turks who arrived in the North of Cyprus after the "invasion/peace operation" and the natives of the land concerning attires and daily routines[3]. Given that Turkey regards the Turkish status of the Northern part of Cyprus as a national security issue, which also has historical importance, a population which could identify more as Cypriots than Turks was not permissible.

The DFANC policy was born as a consequence of the above-mentioned, doubtful mentality. Subsequently, DFANC has produced three types of policy: a) a Turkification process on the island, which is evident in the studies of Cypriot history where the subject matter is treated as a small but important part of Turkish history. Now studies start with the Ottomans and children and youth learn more about Turkish history than Cypriot history; b) a Muslimification process on the island, which is evident in the opening of hitherto absent specialized religious schools (medreses), increased religious studies classes, and the exploding number of new mosques being built; and c) the increased importation of Turkish population and capital investment to the TRNC in order to assure the allegiance, Muslimhood, and Turkishness of the TRNC. These have caused significant demographic changes in the TRNC, so much so that some community leaders have argued that the number of immigrants has exceeded the number of the natives of the island[4]. While some believe that Turkish Cypriots are practically Turks (e.g., former President of the TRNC Rauf Raif Denktash said that "Those who come are Turks, those who go are Turks" on the topic of population importation and the flight of Turkish Cypriots due to lack of opportunities), I have observed that this exchange of populations has had a noticeable cultural impact on the island's North.

Indeed, in my lifetime, there has certainly been an ever-growing societal division and tension on the island which has come to be palpable. Some Turkish Cypriots of my generation might remember their childhood "horror stories" (probably untrue) about "the people with the all-black garb" (which I later learned to be hijab) who would kidnap you if you wandered outside of your house without your parents. What was even more common was the use of the word "gaco" or "garasakal" (literally black beard), which referred to people from Turkey who generally had beards, skins of a darker tone (due to extended exposure to sun), were less educated, and worked at buildings as "ameles" (grunt workers).

Additionally, even my own street transformed into an unknown place, now covered by peels of seeds eaten on the door sill and thrown on the street — apparently a common practice in Southern Turkey, but never in Northern Cyprus — where I am half afraid of just going out and walking at night due to an increase in the crime, which is directly proportional to the increase in the settler population. Maybe due to a lack of the conception of private property on their part, my Turkish neighbors also tend to just sit or throw trash on the porch of my house. Also probably due to a lack of a conception of women's or children's rights, Turkish men beat their wives and children ferociously. Personally, these changes made me feel un-anchored; my home — based on which I had developed an identity, a sense of purpose and a sense of connection — was unrecognizable to me and no longer felt homey, and therefore I had lost an important part of and factor to my identity.

Certainly, if we think of culture as the way and quality of life a people is accustomed to, there appears to have been a downturn for Turkish Cypriots. My Cypriot identity which aspires for a more modern, egalitarian, and democratic society (where demographics are not rigged to favor the Turkish nationalist parties) makes me sad for the fate of my native country and people. Indeed, if I identified myself as simply a Cypriot, I might have lashed out at the Turkish settler population and Turkey without a single heartbeat's pause — as I used to when I was younger, and as most of my friends still do. However, while I must admit to feeling more Cypriot than Turkish, I am also a Turk. Therefore, while one part of me wants to join my friends and compatriots in pointing fingers and discriminating against "the settlers," another part of me is hurt every single time I hear my Turkish Cypriot friends' venomous words, and the conflict resolver in me wonders: why have the hospitable and friendly Cypriot people become so discriminatory?

Through my research and readings, I have come to learn that racism/culturalism is nothing new in Northern Cyprus. Indeed, according to my father, these clashes between Turks and Turkish Cypriots span as long as three decades: he came to the TRNC in 1983 and when he revealed that he was from Turkey to his barber, he was kicked out with his hair half-cut. These tensions only increased with the explosion of the Turkish population on the island. As I underlined above, many Turkish Cypriot are now wont to do a ritual of name-calling against the settler population. Additionally, many Turkish Cypriots agree that the settlers are less respectful, less intelligent, and more "savage"/uncivilized/un-modern (a wonderful reminder of the colonial mindset).

In such name-calling instances, given that my father is from Turkey, I would ask my friends whether they thought the same of my father and myself, but they would always reply that "we" were exceptions. Back in the day, I was able to believe this to be a fact. Indeed back then, I myself used these discriminatory words to fit in with my Turkish Cypriot friends. Subsequently even now, I catch myself looking down upon the settlers — the usage of these words has almost taken over my opinion of the Turks in Cyprus. But I know better now; I know that while we must attempt to protect our Cypriot culture, we cannot do so at the expense of discriminating against and alienating a whole people whose main fault is not being us.

Some theoretical work can help us understand why the Turkish Cypriots want to react to the cultural impositions of the DFANC policies and preserve their culture, especially since they perceive these policies as cultural atrocities and as an attack on their identity. According to political psychologists, such as Volkan, it is a necessity to identify an "us" and "them" as individuals need to have enemies and allies[5]. Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction of anyone to being "caught under the wheel's roll" of political games, who feel powerless against very potent political figures, is to direct their anger not at these figures who reside beyond reach or the more abstract, but to the more easily identified and reached representations of such policies — in our case, the settlers. We can understand such reactions through an identity theory perspective, as studies of identity also reveal that individuals need to add value to the "us" group by praising this group in more constructive instances, and by being demeaning to the "them" group, i.e. the enemy, in more destructive ones. Druckman, for example, underlines the constructive approach as patriotism, and the destructive one as nationalism[6]. Henceforth, the TRNC is experiencing an instance of destructive nationalism, which subsequently brings on discrimination — in this instance, in the form of racism. And therein lies my dilemma: I believe the cause of cultural preservation is worthy — in fact, I believe culture is a human need and human right[7] — and I cherish my Cypriot identity a lot. However, I also identify as a Turk and want to help put a stop to the anger directed at them. Further, as a conflict resolver, I want to prevent the further escalation of racism on my native island.

How can this be achieved? The answer to this question remains to me, and thus far to academia apparently, a mystery. However, as a person who is vested in the field, I would hope that some conflict resolution and community-building activities can be held in the TRNC.

Nevertheless, I have come closer to solving one mystery, which is: if cultural genocide and racism are such grand atrocities, why have they been allowed to happen in the TRNC? I believe there are two reasons for this: a) violence-dependence, and b) non-recognition. The violence-dependence factor is present in our morality and the media. Definitely, death and physical violence (including starvation) touch our moral worlds more easily because we can see them and we can empathize more easily with their victims. On the other hand, a cultural crime which has mainly psychological effects can neither be easily observed, nor is it such a common occurrence, as to call for empathy. Also, because the media, aid and human rights organizations want to "touch" our moral worlds, they pay more attention to acts of physical violence than they do to cultural violence.

The issue of non-recognition promoting certain types of crimes is due mainly to the unintended consequences of a well-intentioned international policy which aims to make sure that a people who aspire for an independent state go through non-violent and normal political channels, rather than frequently rebel, cause civil wars and thus deaths. This policy is called non-recognition, and it advocates for the international community to not treat as states those territories which have "broken-away" violently and illegally from their "parent countries". I have previously argued[8] that this international policy frequently prepares the ground for non-physical crimes and even international criminal rings dealing in drugs, trafficking, etc., due somewhat to the evolution of crime to avoid detection (i.e. the less violent a crime, the less it garners international attention, and the less its likelihood of getting detected) but also to the fact that unrecognized governments, such as the one of the TRNC, are so isolated from the international community that they owe no international accountability. Summarily, no international policing or international justice organization has any say on what happens in the TRNC. Consequently, as I think that we cannot change our moral tendencies (at least not easily) to include an equal amount of sympathy for the victims of both physical and non-physical crimes, we must attempt and change a policy which unfortunately promotes crime and non-physical atrocities[9].

Ultimately, while I believe that I am far, far away from reducing racism or preventing a cultural genocide in the TRNC, I do not believe that my reflections on these topics have been fruitless. Firstly, I have recognized the tendency of conflict resolvers to privilege the resolution of violent conflicts over issues of justice and other, more non-physical conflicts, and would like to advocate that we cannot really put them in an absolute hierarchy. Who can say that saving the life of one person, even if we know that the person is bound to be mistreated, psychologically tortured, and enslaved and we do not do anything about this, then we are really doing good. This is a question that I think all of us in the field of conflict resolution, and all people who are outside but looking in on the field, must ponder. Secondly, I have realized that discriminatory tendencies are quite ever-present in the way adults view "others" and that, if we are to avoid a world where all our children adopt similar mindsets — especially now that ultra-nationalist and anti-immigrant wings are gaining power in places like the USA, Greece, Italy, Germany, and Spain, among others — we must first come to terms with our own discriminatory mindsets and avoid talking and acting on them willingly or inadvertently. Thirdly, I have been able to point out at least one malleable factor (the policy of non-recognition) which leads to cultural genocide (or other culturally traumatizing policies) and other, non-physical crimes, and have been working towards conceptualizing a way to avoid them. Fourthly, I have identified an important research question in how to curb xenophobia in communities where there is an explosion in the population of the other, especially when it is coupled with cultural changes and economic downturns. I hope that my colleagues and I will be able to elaborate on this question. As can be seen, there is much to be done in this vein. However, I have hope; we can and shall prevail over our discriminatory mindsets, will pledge to foster our diversity by preserving all cultures before they are endangered — after all, the universe demands diversity — and we will achieve all this by working all together.

[1] The distinction here is important, as many tend to equate Turkish and Turkish Cypriot identities. Those who aspire to a Turkish identity espouse closer relationships with Turkey and view Turkey as their motherland, and do indeed perceive the two peoples of Turkey and Turkish Cyprus as one. On the other hand, there are those who identify with Cyprus as being their motherland, who differentiate from Turkey and Turkish people while also acknowledging that their ancestry hails mostly from Turkey, and their aspired identity is thus that of a Turkish Cypriot. There are also a few who refuse any (historical or current) association with Turkey and Turkishness and aspireto the pre-civil war, inclusive Cypriot identity, who like to be called simply as Cypriots.
[2] Dr. Hasguler got his Ph.D. from Ankara University in 1998. The publication he edited titled "Kibrislilik" (Cypriotness) deals specifically with the issues of identity problems and reactions to them, which constitute an important part of this paper.
[3] According to Mehmetcik, "A very considerable problem manifested when the cultural differences became apparent. The Turkish villagers hailing from Anatolia and the Turkish Cypriots, whose living styles mirrored or approximated that of the British due to the island being under British rule until 1960, could not much warm up to one another. Couple with this the many cultural differences from fact that the Cypriots could not speak proper Turkish to the fact that they wore miniskirts, whence came the Anatolian villagers' labeling of "gavur"*, which actually started the distancing of the Cypriot and Turkish Turks who came from the same lineage and who shared many similarities" (152). *Gavur is a term which refers to those without religion or those who are non-Muslim, usually employed in the description of the Greek Cypriot and Greek peoples.
[7] Studies of identity show that it is central to human cognition of and responses to the environment — hence, identity is a basic human need, emphasized by needs theorists under the name of need for "Belongingness/Love&q uot; (Dugan). Moreover, as Goodale aptly points out (75), it is featured as a universal human right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights's 22nd article. Summarily, culture is a necessity for the human existence (as a need) and dignified life (as a right) of an individual.
[9] Let me note that I am not calling for recognition of the TRNC or any other non-recognized state; I am calling for the amendment of what I believe to be a defunct and counter-productive policy.