of my obsession with the Donme, the secretive ethnic group descended from followers of a Jewish false messiah who apparently make up much of the secular elite of Turkey, but it strikes me as reasonably important for Americans to understand more about how Turkey works:
– Although every country in the world, with the possible exception of Mali, has been described as “strategically located,” Turkey really is strategically located. And it is a country of about 70 million, with a highly respectable military.
– Turkey has many high-level contacts in Washington, both neocon (e.g., Perle, Feith) and anti-neocon (e.g., Scowcroft)
– The U.S. is pushing for Turkey to be admitted to the European Union, with vast potential consequences for Europe.
– Turkish public opinion is rapidly becoming more anti-American and anti-Israeli.
– We are at war in Iraq, on Turkey’s southern border.
– Although we are increasingly involved in that part of the world, we dumb hick naive Americans basically don’t have a clue how Byzantine the politics of the old Byzantine Empire remain.
– The Donmeh have become a big issue in Turkey over the last 7 years.
– But practically no mainstream media outlet in America has mentioned this topic at all, presumably for two reasons: First, the ridiculous variety of spellings of the terms donmeh and Sabbatean make Google searches hard, and, second, for the same reason that Solzhenitsyn’s last two books haven’t been published in America.
Just to prove (perhaps to myself) that I’m not crazy, but that this phenomenon really exists, here is an excerpt from a 2001 paper by Jewish theologian M. Avrum Ehrlich, the Editor-in-Chief of the upcoming Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora:
Considering its Islamic heritage and the environment of Arab hatred for Israel, it is remarkable that Turkey has fostered such strong ties with Israel and the causes for it may well be traced to the Donme influence.
Donme members today represent the elite of society within Turkey and it is the fear of being discovered that created the intense secrecy around them. Their increased secrecy and influence continues to circularly feed the hatred and suspicion surrounding them.
At present there are some well-known Donme families and other less known families occupying important positions in Modern Turkish life. The current Foreign Minister Mr. Ismail Cem is a Donme though some of his family members have officially come out and declared that although they are of Donme ethnicity they disassociate from the cultural group. These include relatives: Cepil Ipekci, a famous fashion designer in Turkey and Nukhet Izet Ipekci, daughter of the famous journalist Abdi Ipekci, who declared on an Islamic channel that her parents were of Donmeh origins.
Others such as the industrialists; the Dilber and Bezmen families are Donme. Rahsan Ecevit, wife of Prime Minister Bilent Ecevit is a Donme. First ever, female Prime Minister Tansu Ciller is half Donme on her mother’s side. Altan Oymen, past leader of the Republican People’s Party was of Donme descent. Other prominent personalities ranging from well known writers, journalists, film makers, professors, lawyers, judges, bureaucrats (legal and foreign service), bankers, industrialists are of Donme origin.
They can almost be said to be the standard bearers of secularism and modern Turkish nationalism that is based on cultural unity rather than racial characteristics. They are more advanced in this process than secular Turkish Jews and in many ways resemble the prominence and thinking of the European Jewish Enlightenment leading many to suspect that Sabbateanism played a role there too. Donme sympathy towards Jews exists but association is not common because of the fears of being further tainted by Islamic fundamentalism. This fear is becoming increasingly real as the Islamic party grows…
The remnants of the Dönme have few overt messianic signs. Few go any longer to the seashore raising their hands and calling out in Spanish “Sabatey Sabetay we await thee”. They are predominantly secular and liberal and highly assimilated. They are predominantly atheist and at best only culturally Sabbatean. Whether the mystical designs of Sabbatean doctrine intended to form such a community is secondary to the fact that mystical doctrine outside of a protected environment contains highly liberal characteristics. As a group, the Dönme assimilated, leaving only a shadow of their doctrinal selves. Sabbateanism, despite its mystical nature and its roots in sectarianism sowed the seeds of tolerance, assimilation, interpretation, anti-fundamentalism and universalism within Judaism and in wider circles and in so doing was a proto-secular group, instrumental in laying down the ideological infrastructure for other Jewish groups to follow.
It is clear that messianism changes form and has moved from working within religious frameworks to working within highly secular frameworks. With this in mind the messianic tendencies of secular and political groups can be better understood, as can be an appreciation of their ideological architecture.
Largely leftist, the Sabbateans mostly opposed the successful 1980s conservative reformist leadership of Turgut Özal.
The Sabbateans are by no means the only crypto-religion (or crypto-ethnicity today — many of the Donmeh are now atheists) in that part of the world. The Druze, for example, will tell people that they are Druze, but they won’t tell anybody what they believe. And then there are the dissimulating Alevi. Razib wrote on GNXP:
The Alevi, a heterodox Shia sect forms anywhere from 10-30% of Turkey’s population, and are known as the “Alawites” in Syria (where they form 10% of the population and dominate the Baath Party and are the affiliation of Assad dynasty). Because the Alevi practice dissimulation and the Turkish authorities, Ottoman & Republican, would rather not acknowledge their existence, it is hard to gauge their numbers, and they are not well known by the outside world. But now you know….
Exactly what the Alevi or Alawites actually believe is not terribly clear. Are they Muslims at all? Mehrdad R. Izady of Harvard controversially argues that they are part of the very ancient Cult of the Angels — Gabriel, Raphael, Lucifer (who is worshipped by the Yezidis), and so forth. He writes:
Some Dimili Alevis, as well as the Yezidi clans, still maintain the ancient Iranic rite of worshipping the deity represented as a sword stuck into the ground…
Which is pretty cool in a King Arthur sword-in-the-stone way.
Some modern European travellers have reported, as hearsay, that some Qizilbash worship a large (black) dog as the embodiment of the deity (Driver 1921-23). Even though Driver’s account is rather derogatory toward the Alevis and to the practice, of which he clearly does not approve, veneration of the dog as a symbol of good (the serpent standing for evil) is a very ancient rite.
Which is not as cool as a sword in the ground, but, you’ve gotta admit, is pretty cute.
Anyway, the point of this digression into colorful arcana is that we Americans don’t have a clue what that part of that world is really like. A lot of powerful forces in American want us to invade Syria and overthrow the Alevi / Alawite regime that oppresses the Sunni Muslim majority. Would that be a good idea? Or would that create a radical Sunni state? Who knows? What would be the repercussions in Turkey, where their co-religionists number somewhere between 7 million and 21 million? Who knows squared?
The British, with their antiquarianism, could keep an empire going for awhile in that part of the world because their own medieval history plus the Greek and Roman history they studied at Eton gave them some preparation for this. But American history is useless for comprehending the Near East. It is nothing like Philadelphia in 1787.
P.S. A reader writes:
I must point out one inconsistency in the Hillel Halkin article on Mustafa Kemal Ataturk claiming to be a Sabbatean that you cite, though. That Turkish officer in the cafe in Jerusalem is described as having “green eyes”. All throughout Kinross’s book and everywhere else I’ve read, Ataturk’s eyes are described as “blue”. They appear to have been as striking as Paul Newman’s, because everyone mentions them. Perhaps that’s an understandable confusion, but it seems odd. Of course Mustafa is quite a common Arab name and Kemal is a common Turkish one. So there could well have been another officer named Mustafa Kemal in the Turkish Army. And it wouldn’t stretch coincidence too far that he might have had green eyes. On the other side of the argument, Ataturk did have an inordinate fondness for “raki”, which I guess is the same as the “arrack” cited by Halkin. In fact he apparently died of cirrhosis at the age of 57 – hmm, just my age. Better get my liver checked.
A blue-eyed alcoholic doesn’t sound too Jewish too me, although it is possible.