Aslı Iğsız’s book Humanism in Ruins: The Entangled Legacies of the Greek-Turkish Population Exchange was published by Stanford University Press in 2018. Iğsız is associate professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University. In this study, Iğsız examines the long-lasting impacts of the 1923 Greek-Turkish Population Exchange Agreement by deconstructing its hidden transcript of racialized logic. She invites readers to more critically engage the multiculturalist and humanist discourses that became prevalent in Turkey, especially in the post-1990 period. Challenging the common portrayal of the population exchange agreement as a success story, she unveils how the discourses of liberal humanism and coexistence went hand in hand with a biopolitics of segregation. Historically grounded, Iğsız’s research also offers fresh insights into today’s discriminatory policies both on the national and international level. It is a timely intervention into contemporary debates about global issues such as refugee crises and the rise of authoritarianism. Burak Başaranlar, who recently received his PhD from the history department at Binghamton University, conducted this interview with Iğsız.

Burak Başaranlar: Humanism in Ruins examines the national and global forces that made the 1923 Population Exchange Agreement between Turkey and Greece possible and the mark it has left on contemporary Turkish society and politics. What led you to approach studying contemporary Turkish society, culture and politics by going back to this agreement?

Aslı Iğsız: My work on the post-1945 legacies of the 1923 exchange is part of a long process. I have been working on the aftermath of Greek-Turkish population exchange since 1999. At the time, the exchange had received little scholarly attention in Turkey and in the United States, where it was widely treated as parochial. I was intrigued by this absent presence of the exchange in Turkey and beyond—with the exception of Greece. I use the term absent presence to indicate that there is surprisingly little acknowledgment of the salience of the event despite its dramatic impact on Turkey and beyond. This is how I started to work on the subject, but my work evolved over time.

The lack of interest in the exchange could not have been because of lack of relevance. In Turkey, the exchange agreement signed between Greece and Turkey in 1923 as part of the Lausanne treaty provided the legal infrastructure for the Turkish nation state, established after the Greco-Turkish war (1919–1922). The Greco-Turkish war was sparked by the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and was fueled by the support of Britain and Greece’s ambition to resuscitate a Hellenic Empire. The exchange of Muslims in Greece with the Greek Orthodox in Turkey was justified in the name of “peace.” Internationally, the exchange agreement influenced various mass deportations, displacements and partitions, such as the 1945 Potsdam Agreement (deporting German nationals from Central Europe), the partitions of Palestine and India in 1947 and 1948, the “transfer” en masse of Arab Jews to Israel and the consideration of the idea of sending Palestinians in their stead. Clearly the exchange had immense implications for Turkey and beyond—it contributed to the post-1945 systematization of deportations of minorities. How, then, to explain the absent presence of the exchange?

The exchange of Muslims in Greece with the Greek Orthodox in Turkey was justified in the name of “peace.” Internationally, the exchange agreement influenced various mass deportations, displacements and partitions.

This question informed my work broadly. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the exchange was in the process of being “rediscovered” in Turkey’s public domain with novels, music, family histories and film, as well as the establishment of a foundation for the exchangees—which set up email lists, conducted oral history, organized touristic “return trips” to Greece, built an archive and in 2010 opened the first official population exchange museum in Turkey. Witnessing the early stages of this resurfacing of the exchange in society, I was intrigued by its growing visibility. At the time, in my earlier work, I, like others, sought to address this dynamic through the lens of nationalism. In order to make sense of the post-1980 military coup’s climate of hostility against difference and dissidence, I followed the same route as many other scholars and revisited the 1920s, 1930s and, to a certain extent, early 1940s—the first decades of the young Turkish republic where Turkish national identity was forged. At the time, there was a consensus that because of nationalism silences were imposed on Turkey’s past and this was offered as an explanation to the absent presence of the exchange.

I soon realized that this was a methodological question and I decided to revise my own approach. Of course, nationalism is an important component and definitely needs to be considered. However, addressing the absent presence of the exchange by examining the silences imposed by nationalism generates a false sense of unbroken continuity of nationalism between the early decades of the Turkish Republic and the post-1980 military reconfiguration of Turkish nationalism, which was articulated as a Turkish-Islamic synthesis. The military junta clearly proposed Islam and national identity as a remedy to fight against the perceived Marxist threat. It had similarities to the Turkish national identification of the early decades, but also differences. Further, after the current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power, they reinterpreted the Turkish-Islamic synthesis and adopted a liberal discourse of difference: The AKP turned the recognition of minorities into capitalist window dressing that relegated the recognition of rights to the field of culture and in this way recognized diversity among non-Muslims and repeated the early Republic’s interpretation of the Lausanne Convention’s recognition of minorities. The remarkable diversity of the Muslims sent to Turkey as part of the 1923 exchange was eclipsed. Of course, all this was before the government took a more explicitly securitarian turn in 2015, by which I mean politics that prioritized discourses of national security by configuring different groups and countries as threats against national security, which had never truly disappeared but was dismissed internationally. In the 2000s, the government’s liberal discourse, limited to certain aspects of culture, was celebrated internationally as a model for democracy in the Middle East.

I decided to unravel the underlying logics of the exchange that were informed by the principle of segregation or unmixing and to contextualize these logics.
This is when I decided to write a critique of liberalism through the angle of the management of difference. Culture is an important part of it. And once I started a completely new research project, I discovered that in the post-1945 world the exchange was not an absent presence at all. It was very salient internationally, it was shown as an example of integration after mass population displacement, and studies on the subject were launched in Turkey in the 1950s and early 1960s. Given this history, it is hard to assume a silence. Finally, I decided to unravel the underlying logics of the exchange that were informed by the principle of segregation or unmixing and to contextualize these logics from the perspective of the history of the present.

Burak: By emphasizing the interconnectedness of biopolitical and cultural paradigms you make it possible to trace their origins and genealogies across different fields such as scientific racism, physical anthropology and eugenics. You also demonstrate that Ottoman and Turkish intellectuals, with official state support, were engaged in debates to explore the “authentic,” “pure essence” of Turkishness during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Do you see any differences in those intellectuals’ understanding of race when compared with their European counterparts?

Aslı: Just like any other charged term, the notion of race is subject to debate and interpretations among scholars. Especially in the nineteenth century, we do see biological notions of race being fortified with cultural histories. Some scholars are familiar with the cultural aspect of this strand, which they study as part of “national origins.” But to scholars of literature, such approaches to cultural history are part of the well-known paradigm of humanism, which traces genealogical “origins” while making assumptions about culture and civilization. Nationalism is just one way in which humanism, what I call “historicist humanism” to differentiate it from liberal humanism, was mobilized. It would therefore be reductive to assume that engagements with race would have the same shape and form across time, space, fields, let alone the differences between the individuals who engage them.

This doesn’t mean there are no patterns. My focus in the book is on those patterns—to examine racialized thinking as a structural problem that reproduces inequalities, discrimination, violence, demographic and eugenicist management and spatial redistribution. As I show in the book, while the definitions of the term are debated and attempts are made to revise categories informed by racialized thinking, its logics continue to be salient.

I identify racialized thinking as an embodied form of categorization that assumes an essence that can be activated, retrieved and transmitted from one generation to the next through the bloodline—an essence with moral implications. Biologized and cultural paradigms have reinforced racialized thinking that informed not only the atrocities of World War II but also notions of unmixing and segregation. The Nazis not only idealized ancient Greeks and Rome, but also sought to biologically attain that “ideal” through eugenics.

Racialized thinking is pervasive and goes beyond nationalism to include configurations of civilization, religion, colonialism or humanism. Further, challenging the notion of race does not mean racialized thinking is not present. For instance, adopting “culture” (following anthropologist Franz Boas), “ethnicity” (following Sir Julian Huxley, the first Director-General of UNESCO) or “social race” (following Turkish philosopher Hilmi Ziya Ülken) instead of “race,” in order to refute scientific racialism, does not necessarily mean these new terms are divorced from racialized thinking. Clearly, cultural and biopolitical paradigms have both reproduced such categorizations and informed related policies, such as the deportation and settlement of particular groups en masse (to increase or decrease the numbers of groups deemed to be desirable or undesirable respectively), walls, segregation, apartheid and genocide. Hence, my focus on the racialized logics underpinning these paradigms, discourses and policies. The 1923 exchange is only one of the forms such approaches can take.

Burak: You identify an overlapping of two developments in Turkey following the end of the Cold War and the rise of a neoliberal agenda: On the one hand, you talk about the devastating impact of the 1980 military coup, the brutal suppression of Marxist groups and the rise of a Turkish-Islamic synthesis. On the other hand, you observe an increasing public effort to trace family origins with the revival of interest in family history and in the story of immigrants. In a political climate where Turkish and Islamic identities were identified as the prerequisite of political loyalty, how could the efforts to trace family origins gain momentum? One would expect these efforts to challenge the fundamental tenets of Turkish nationalism. Why do you think this has not been the case?

Aslı: Perhaps what we need to question is why there is an assumption that exposing the hardships confronted by one group (for example, the exchangees) in the past would be sufficient for people who learn about these hardships to make connections between the policies that targeted that specific group and others (such as Armenians, Greek Orthodox, Kurds and Alevis) both in the past and in the present. To a certain extent, such assumptions appear to generate an optical illusion informed by liberal cultural politics—the limits and limitations of which necessitate more effective questioning. Borrowing from anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli’s work, I approach limits as tools that expose anxieties, contradictions and inconsistencies embedded within a given context.

Recounting cultural heritage via family history is powerful but unfortunately not sufficient to question the underlying racialized logics that inform biopolitics and violence. I identify biopolitics as the regulation of categorized bodies (as an embodied identification) and numbers within a given space. Anthropologists, scholars of literature and political theorists such as Miriam Ticktin, Banu Bargu and Didier Fassin have worked with this term to expose different facets of such regulation from immigration to prison hunger strikes, others engaged it to study fascism. In my work, I tried to bring this corpus into dialogue with population management techniques that include forced migration as one form that segregation or unmixing—as the exchange is commonly labeled—can take. In sum, making connections via pain and suffering does not necessarily lead one to address underlying structural problems.

Recounting cultural heritage via family history is powerful but unfortunately not sufficient to question the underlying racialized logics that inform biopolitics and violence.

As for the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, it was at the core of the Turkish Republic. Depending on the period, different emphases are put on Turkishness or on Islam, with the underlying premise that either can be used as a source of assimilation and governance. After the 1980 military coup, a particular interpretation of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis was promoted as a social glue against social movements, including Marxist organizations. The political climate was hostile to dissidence and difference and denying state responsibility in atrocities had become systematized. Family histories and personal genealogies can powerfully puncture such a climate of oppression and bring attention to hardship and political violence. However, on their own they are not enough to question power or the structural problems that reproduce different biopolitical measures, such as forced migration, walls, apartheids, segregation or ghettoization of certain neighborhoods. More concerted efforts are needed to maintain justice within the scope of such initiatives—after all, nationalism is a form of mobilization. How, when and through which means it is mobilized is as important as how it is used to legitimize policies such as war or forced displacement.

Burak: Liberal intellectuals were (somewhat naively) much more optimistic for the future a decade ago than they are now. The emerging consensus, particularly in the West, was that developments such as the fall of the Berlin Wall would pave the way for the rapid globalization of the world, multiculturalism and liberal democracy. Today, quite the contrary seems to be happening due to the rise of right-wing “populism,” visa and travel bans, erection of border walls and anti-refugee campaigns. What do you think is the connection between the boundaries erected today and in the past?

Aslı: Efforts to question power or to make a liberal intervention to reconsider biopolitics appear to have been met with new modes of state cooptation of these efforts. There is a notable pattern of domesticating demands. The reasons might differ across time and space: for example, to generate a positive image or a national brand; to mobilize foreign and domestic support to push a government’s own agenda; or to justify said government’s ideological positioning and discriminatory policies. For instance, in the 1950s the US government mobilized visual culture to convince foreign publics that it was a leading liberal country of the so-called free world during the Cold War. These efforts coopted the momentum generated by the American civil rights movement and sought to project an image for the United States as a country that had “resolved” its race issue and ended segregation. And yet, the underlying logics of segregation continued to operate in different forms—the security apparatus, the criminal justice system, as well as social and political policies (such as racialized vote suppression, racialization of poverty and related lack of opportunities for social mobility and gentrification). Liberal discourses appear to conflate visibility with recognition and equality and their shortcomings and limits need to be exposed. Today, the Black Lives Matter movement is doing this work.

Burak: Your book has come out at a moment when Turkey is home to hundreds of thousands of Syrian, Afghan, Iranian and other refugees as well as a staging ground for refugees trying to make their way to Europe, specifically Greece. Do you see any possibility for this current crisis to forge new forms of politics?

Aslı: With the bid to join the European Union, Turkey’s borders were turned into a wall that separates Europe from the refugees that are identified as coming from Muslim-majority countries. A racialized exchange value of human life is again observable, where the refugees who drown receive less public attention. In Greece and in Italy, those who provide humanitarian aid can be (and have been) detained on the grounds of human trafficking. Biopolitical approaches that seek to limit or remove the mobility of groups deemed to be “undesirables”—a eugenicist and demographic term—within a given space are prevalent.

It is uncertain where this dynamic will lead us. But ethical values appear to be abandoned, even at the superficial level of appearance. I consider this to be a very dangerous path. My critique of liberalism is not meant to destroy it completely, but to call attention to its shortcomings when justice is not within its scope.

My critique of liberalism is not meant to destroy it completely, but to call attention to its shortcomings when justice is not within its scope.
Racism and discrimination are unapologetically normalized. Unfortunately, the current climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and the deterioration of economic conditions, as well as our current stage of advanced capitalism, puts an emphasis on the scarcity of resources. Rather than asking the questions of how we got here and which policies have diminished our resources, politicians in the Global North appear to take these resource limits as a point of departure to justify the racialization of their distribution. This approach appears to find a resonance in the white public, as many white Europeans travel to Greece to contribute to the “pushbacks” of the refugee boats that approach Greek, and by extension, EU shores. Turkey promotes itself as a champion of humanitarianism in that respect but also uses its hosting of refugees to impose its political agenda on the European Union. Furthermore, it is a country that has itself produced numerous asylum seekers over the last few years. In sum, we are facing a big mess, and I do anticipate more biopolitical measures such as walls, deportation regimes and forced displacements.


How to cite this article:

Burak Başaranlar "Humanism in Ruins – An Interview with Aslı Iğsız," Middle East Report Online, May 04, 2021.

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