Is Ekrem Imamoglu a Turkish-Greek?

Pro-government media’s groundless charge against deposed Istanbul mayor reveals the lasting dark legacy of Turkey’s unfinished nation-building and haunting specter of ethnonationalism.

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Ekrem Imamoglu. (Photo: Turkish media)

The 18-day tenure as Istanbul mayor made Ekrem Imamoglu an implacable foe in the eyes of the ruling party and its supporters in Turkey, while turning him to a rare figure of national hopes for political salvation among the divided and disgruntled opposition. Across pro-government media outlets, not a single day passes without an assault on Imamoglu, digging every minute of his mayoralty, ascribing all the blame for the follies and blunders of the past decade on a man who only governed Turkey’s largest city for 18 days.

Spin doctors and die-hard columnists made Imamoglu-bashing a favorite sport ahead of June 23 re-run of Istanbul election. But a recent charge against him recalled some sort of Trumpian birtherism claims against former U.S. President Barack Obama, taking electoral controversy into a completely different terrain fraught with steep moral and ethical issues.

AKP Esenler Mayor Tevfik Goksu, attending a Ramadan event, questioned Imamoglu’s ethnic origins, implying that he would be of Greek origin from Turkey’s Black Sea region. He grounded his claim on a story appeared on Greek media. The Greek Ethnos daily, according to Goksu, ran the headline “A Greek Who Conquered Istanbul.”

“Why do Greek media say “a Greek won Istanbul” and there is no word here?” he asked in a veiled address to main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the former Istanbul mayor. The story by Ethnos stirred up an impassioned debate on social media. The pro-government figures saw it as a boon.

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Former Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek joined the fray. Sharing links of the Greek media on Twitter, he demanded an explanation from Imamoglu.

When asked, the politician swiftly denied such claims as absurd and groundless in a televised interview on CNN Turk this week. For whatever his efforts, the saga seems to unfold.

But the sensation would be more of a product of misunderstanding and mistranslation than an actual story by Ethnos as Goksu and others claimed.

Ioanna Kleftogianni, the author of the story, rebuffed the version presented by the Turkish media. “My original headline was “One day with the Man From Pontus [Black Sea] Who Took [Istanbul] From Erdogan’s Hands,” she said in remarks to Independent Turkce in an effort to clarify the controversy surrounding Imamoglu’s ethnic background.

Kleftogianni insisted that the entire issue emanates from a semantic misrepresentation.

Whether her correction would dispel the controversy remains to be seen. But by all indication, the supporters of the government in media do not let the issue fade away. And Themanews.com’s story and headline (Ekrem Imamoglu: The “Greek” who “conquered” Istanbul) makes the case not easy for the CHP candidate and provides additional ammunition to the government side to dwell upon.

Haunting Specter of Ethnonationalism

Despite Kleftogianni’s semantic and linguistic exposition of the matter to ward off potential misunderstanding, it is the very word of Pontus in the historical imagination of Republican Turks is, by default, loaded with ethnic implications. The term Pontus, as Kelftogianni expounded and elaborated, might refer to a geographic region in a mere technical use in the Greek language. But in Turkish, because the very word itself is Greek, a default meaning of ethnic and political identity looms large over any use of Pontus in political discourse in Turkey. I say this regardless of any normative judgment, whether it is right or wrong. This is what it is in Turkey’s political lexicon still beset by the toxic legacy of Republican-era nation-building projects.

The haunting specter of ethnonationalism has never vanished even almost a century after the between Turkey and Greece. A significant number of Ottoman Greeks were forced to migrate to modern Greece from the Black Sea Region. The tragedy hit hard both Muslims and Orthodox Greeks.

Against this backdrop, the nationalist imagination fixed the word of Pontus in the mindset of ordinary people as related to anything or anybody Greek. The word is used as a potential sword or a tool of character assassination against anybody from the region when conditions accordingly demanded.

Imamoglu, a rising political star originally from the Black Sea region, is only the latest target of a peculiar breed of self-proclaimed history detectives who probe whether a politician or a celebrity or a figure of national significance from the region has any Greek background. This birtherism is no different than from Trump’s racist attacks against Obama or McCarthyism that ruined hundreds of careers during the early Cold War years.

Similar questioning took place against former President Abdullah Gul whose detractors claimed that he had Armenian origins. Even Erdogan lamented the same kind of treatment.

“They called me a Georgian. Pardon me for saying this, but they said even uglier things: They called me an Armenian!” Erdogan said ahead of 2014 presidential elections. The way how he put his resentment stirred up a backlash, eliciting, not without reason, racism charges against him.

In the latest episode concerning Imamoglu, a journalist from ultranationalist YeniCag daily claimed a plot behind Ethnos headline. For the Turkish journalist, Ethnos owner had close links to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and intentionally published the story to taint the image of Imamoglu in the eyes of the public. The daily, in a press release, strongly denied such allegations.

Going after someone’s ethnic origins reveals an unpleasant but still enduring fact about Turkey. The unceasing demand for proof about someone’s Turkishness is an abiding legacy of ethnic nationalism that never done the country a good. Turkey and its ruling elites must come to grips with the ghosts of the past and reject history detectives’ moral policing and probing about someone’s ethnic roots.

Whatever Turkey has done so far to achieve (the seemingly unattainable) goal of a purified nation-state in the Republican era, the reality re-asserts itself on every occasion: definition of national or ethnic identity based on blood runs counter to complex and diverse realities of the Anatolian socio-political geography shaped over the span of a millennium. A century of the nation-state is too short a time frame to erase the traces of a shared past.

Written by

Virginia-based journalist and writer. Politics, culture, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, the MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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