Lebanese Turks Seek Political and Social Recognition
By: Mustafa Assi
Published Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Lebanon’s Turkish community has become more active politically. They are seeking better representation locally and support from the Turkish embassy in Beirut.
The office of the Future Youth Association, located in Beirut’s Witwat neighborhood, is not part of the Hariri political group, the Future Movement. Rather, Future Youth is the most active Turkish association in Lebanon. Established in 1997, the organization managed to purchase an office using US$120,000 in contributions collected from the local Turkish community. Because of confusion over its name, its office sustained damage during the 7 May 2008 armed clashes in Beirut between pro-Hariri and pro-Hezbollah forces.
Members of the Future Youth Association organized a reception when Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Lebanon in October 2010. They stood in line in front of the Phoenicia Hotel, prompting Erdogan to leave his car and exchange pleasantries with the crowd. Later on, the Turkish government sent a delegation from their Ministry of Foreign Affairs to Beirut to connect with the newly discovered Turkish community in Lebanon. During holidays, the association’s youth organize congratulatory visits to the Turkish battalion serving with UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force In Lebanon) stationed in southern Lebanon. They also receive Turkish troops as they pass through Beirut, taking them on short tours of the city.
Erdogan’s envoys were surprised to find out that Turks who immigrated 100 years ago today number nearly 80,000. Gulshan Saglam, assigned to follow up on the affairs of the Turkish community with the Lebanese authorities, discovered that the delegates’ visit quickly paid off. A two-story Turkish cultural center will soon open in downtown Beirut and will be managed by a representative from Ankara. It will bring Turkish art and culture to Lebanon, teach Turkish and English to students, and host all sorts of activities.
Two years ago, the Future Youth Association began organizing Turkish language classes in Beirut using teachers sent from Turkey’s Ministry of Education. The turnout for these classes exceeded expectations, with many Lebanese of Turkish origin attending, eager to learn their mother tongue.
But Lebanon’s Turks have begun agitating over their political marginalization. Emboldened by the rise of Turkey in the region’s affairs, they now have higher expectations. They want to leave the cocoon of political Harirism and are demanding a piece of the Lebanese pie. Saglam reveals that a meeting was held in the winter of 2010 between Ahmad Hariri, the Future Movement’s secretary-general, and representatives from the Future Youth Association, as well as the Tripoli and Saida branches of the Lebanese Turkish Friendship Association.
In that meeting, Saglam told Hariri, in no uncertain terms, that Turks in Lebanon are looking for a new kind of relationship with the Hariris, a relationship of equals, and not a client-patron relationship. He added that “it is not acceptable anymore not to take the status of the Turkish community into account.” After a minute of silence, Hariri said, “you are with us.” The answer came in the form of a warning that Turks will boycott the coming elections. “If we are part of the Sunni sect, then give us a share like Armenians and other minorities. In the 2013 elections we will not accept to just vote, we have to be elected.”
At that meeting, Hariri inquired about the number of Turks in Lebanon and who has leverage over them. He promised to report the details of the meeting to Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Movement, and to arrange for a meeting with him. But the meeting never materialized. Ahmad Hariri's question about the number of Turks raised the ire of those present. Saglam points out that under political Harirism, whether Rafic Hariri or his son Saad, Turks in Lebanon have been treated as numbers and as a voting bloc, adding “we will no longer accept to be measured merely by our numbers.”
The Turks’ political ambitions in Lebanon range from the Beirut municipality to the parliament and the cabinet. Saglam says, “If the Lebanese respect what Turkey has offered Lebanon, then a member of the Turkish community would have been appointed minister,” asking, “why do Armenians deserve two ministers? They are 120,000 and we are 80,000. Give us at least half what you give Armenians.” Delegates from the Turkish community voiced this request to envoys sent by Erdogan three months ago and before Turkish officials in the Beirut embassy. One person who met with the delegation says they called for Turkish pressure on the Lebanese government and asked “why Iran, Saudi Arabia, France, and the US support their followers in Lebanon, and the Turkish state does not support us?”
Many Lebanese Turks want the Turkish embassy to be moved from Rabieh to Beirut. At a meeting, one young Turkish man whispers that the community supports the embassy, not the other way around. Saglam argues that 95 percent of the Turks in Lebanon hold Lebanese nationality. The embassy tries not to interfere, so as not to be accused of overstepping into Lebanese affairs. It only engages in issues pertaining to the Turkish state, such as when Lebanese Armenians attacked an exhibition of Turkish companies in the BIEL (Beirut International and Exhibition Leisure Center) and distributed leaflets calling for the boycott of Turkish goods.
Lebanese Turks have kept ties with their mother country on many levels. They watch the Turkish Football League with passion; and some have completed compulsory military service in Turkey, though others have served in the Lebanese army. The Turkish community is demanding that Lebanon and Turkey sign an agreement similar to the one between Syria and Turkey, whereby one military service would suffice and that the US$7,600 fine in lieu of military service be reduced. The Turkish embassy recently reversed a former practice and decided to give passports to Lebanese Turks who have not completed their military service in Turkey.
Turks have assimilated into Lebanese society, but they have maintained some of their customs and traditions. In Beirut,dolma (stuffed vegetable dishes) and kisir (Turkish tabouleh) are not eaten except by Turks like the Omairat, Hag, Zein, Stanbouli, and Fattah families. And on the morning of Eid, Turkish households replace sweets with a bulgar and meat dish. Old Turkish customs have been introduced into wedding parties, and while Turkish men may marry Lebanese women, they still prefer to find a partner within the community.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.