Amid heated debates concerning the government's democratic initiative, which aims to settle Turkey's ongoing Kurdish issue, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, accompanied by a delegation of five ministers and other high-ranking officials, went to Büyükada, one of several small islands off the coast of mainland İstanbul, last weekend, bringing the multicultural life on the islands back onto the country's agenda.
The inhabitants of the islands have been living together in peace for centuries despite their diverse ethnic backgrounds and the small size of the land available to them. They argue that their experience should serve as a model for the Kurdish initiative. “Although we have different cultural and religious backgrounds, we have lived peacefully for centuries. Why shouldn't Turks and Kurds live in peace given that their festivals, cultures and sensitivities are similar?" the islanders ask. On Büyükada, conquered one and half months before the conquest of İstanbul by Mehmet the Conqueror, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Syriacs, Alevis and Sunnis have been living in harmony since then. On the island, which has a surface area of 5.4 square kilometers, Ramadan and Passover are celebrated with equal enthusiasm. The people of the island enjoy the richness of experience their coexistence has brought despite their diverse ethnic structure. One may come across Greeks who frequently use such Islamic phrases as “inşallah” or “maşallah” and Armenians who cook and distribute çörek on Muslim festivals. They talk about the merits of living together, sending messages of unity and integrity.
Raffi Hermon Araks, the chief adviser to the mayor of the islands in charge of culture and arts affairs, says life on the islands should be taken as a model for the democratic initiative. Araks stresses that all the values of Turkey are theirs as well. He describes an incident that occurred during the prime minister's visit to the island. “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embraced former national soccer team player Lefter Küçükandonyadis with such warmth that everyone's eyes were full of tears. We were glad to see that a prime minister can embrace his citizens with such sincerity whatever their racial or ethnic origin,” he said. Davut Süryani, a 72-year-old inhabitant of Heybeliada, points out that his family has been living peacefully with Turks for several centuries. Stressing that this sense of fraternity cannot be disrupted by any power, Süryani indicates that he greatly enjoys living together. Mustafa Farsakoğlu, the mayor of the islands, from the Republican People's Party (CHP), depicted the prime minister's visit as a historic day.
No serious criminal offense has been committed on the islands although different people from diverse cultures live there. Farsakoğlu says: “For instance, there are only 11 municipal police officers on nine islands. Our population is doubled in the summer, but we still do not face any major problems.” The mayor describes the islands as Turkey's showcase and maintains that no major misfortunes have happened throughout their history.
‘I was shocked to learn that I was appointed as an imam for the island’
Kamil Gürcü has been working as the imam of Hacı Havva Özen Mosque on Büyükada for six years. Gürcü explains that he panicked when he first heard about his appointment to Büyükada, where the majority of the population is non-Muslim. “I was afraid, not knowing what I would do there. I did not even intend to stay much, but the müftü of the island consoled me. But six years later, I now see that I was wrong to see things in that way,” he says. He points out that during the time he lived on the island, all of his negative perceptions changed. “My wife wears a headscarf, so she thought that her life would be hard. But today, she has very close and congenial relations with her Greek and Armenian neighbors. They exchange recipes with each other. In time, we have developed very good relations. We celebrate our religious festivals and respect each other,” he says. The imam describes the non-Muslims as respectful and sympathetic people and says they greet each other and chat every day.
All the good values of the past
Veteran actor Ediz Hun, who has been living on Büyükada since his childhood, finds it quite meaningful that the prime minister visited the island at a time when the democratic initiative is high on the agenda. Hun maintains that life on the islands may serve as a model for the initiative. “Erdoğan knows well that life here is the best example of coexistence. I have been living here for many years, but I have not seen a single skirmish or problem,” he says. Hun stresses that he supports the AK Party's initiative. “I congratulate those who regard diversity as wealth and a means of being civilized, not for adversity or quarrels. All parties, and everyone with common sense, should lend support to this move by the government. We should refrain from fomenting separatism by building on differences. The peace of the islanders should be taken as a model by everyone,” he says. Noting that he is Circassian, Hun points out that he has many Jewish and Greek friends on the islands. Actress Lale Mansur, who is a resident of Burgazada, indicates that the islands are proof that when differences are not focused on, people can live harmoniously and peacefully. Mansur notes that all the good values that we long for today exist on the islands. “On Burgazada, a marketplace is set up every Friday. One day, I noticed that nine different languages were being spoken in this marketplace. People would greet each other even if they do not know each other. All the good values of the past are here,” she says.