The following appeared on
Aug. 18, 2006 in the Opinions/Letters section of Pakistan Link, "the first
Pakistani newspaper" on the Internet.
The author is Professor Nazeer
Ahmed. As we can gather from the worde.org site, this Californian
scholar is "a senior scientist, historian, and a former politician in
India. He has held positions on noteworthy U.S. Department of Defense
government projects, including design of the Hubble telescope."
Across Borders of Hate and History
History is a great teacher and a sign from the heavens to draw humankind towards divine
presence. Unfortunately, nations have turned it into a compendium of self-serving myths,
dividing themselves, and erecting borders of hate. The passions that erupt in the flames
of war arise in the hearts of men and women. It is here, in the deep recesses of the human
breast, that love and hate wage their battle and manifest themselves on the stage of
history. The fuel that propels them is the perception of history, often self-serving,
subjective and tailored to keep those passions alive.
There are many such borders of hate in the modern world:
Bosnia-Serbia, Greece-Turkey, Chechnya-Russia, India-Pakistan, Ethiopia-Eritrea,
Israel-Palestine, Israel-Lebanon. And the list keeps growing by the day. Often, these
borders are trans-national. At other times, they exist within the same geographical
That hatred is now institutionalized with governments feeding their nationals as well as
the visitors to their borders with doses of prejudice about their perceived enemies.
Hatred has now become embedded into tourism. Travel brochures deliver carefully crafted
misinformation. Travel guides transmit it, sometimes in subtle tones and at other times
I had the occasion to travel across one such border recently, that between the Greek and
the Turkish worlds, where neighbors who live within a stone’s throw are separated by
emotional chasms a thousand miles wide.
I have visited Turkey many times, enjoyed the hospitality of its beautiful people, savored
its sumptuous foods and have marveled at the magnificence of its monuments. I have stood
in reverence at the tombs of Mevlana Rumi and Ayup Sultan, Companion of the Prophet. The
Bosphorus is where Asia and Europe meet. It is where the axes of three great world
religions, Islam, Catholic Christianity and Orthodox Christianity intersect. If you
disregard the hassles at the Istanbul airport, Turkey is a land one must visit at least
once in a lifetime.
While in Istanbul I have spent days absorbing the Greek architecture of the Aya
Sophia and the engineering marvels of the ancient underground Byzantine water
reservoirs of Istanbul. What you see in Istanbul whets your appetite for Greece. So,
on this visit I traveled to Athens. I was full of enthusiasm and curiosity. This was
the land of Socrates and Plato, Aristotle and Alexander, Euclid, Herodotus and
Demosthenes. The legacy of its civilization is claimed by the West and imbibed in
the East. It sparked the Renaissance in Europe and was instrumental in the Mu’tazalite
eruption in the Islamic world. The Greeks are also a handsome people, friendly, good
natured with a love of Mediterranean food and wholesome music. But here the analogy
with the Turks stops.
The Greeks and the Turks hate each other.
My first stop was at the Acropolis on which stands the Parthenon, a magnificent
structure of engineering perfection. The Acropolis is a rocky hill with a commanding
view of the area surrounding it. From ancient times it has been a location of a
temple dedicated to whichever deity the local population believed in at the time.
For this reason it is also called the sacred rock of Athens. The imposing Parthenon
which dominates the hill was built by Pericles around 447 BC.
“The Turks were responsible for much of the destruction at the Acropolis”,
started the tourist guide on the hill. “They built a store house here for gun
powder which was hit by a shell during a siege by Venice in 1687. Many buildings
caught fire and were destroyed”. This was a jarring prelude to a long litany of
complaints about the Turks. As I followed the guide around, he pointed to every
stone that was supposedly moved by the Turks from the temple to build a wall around
the Acropolis. The historical fact is that the Venetians laid siege to Athens (1687
CE), bombarded the Acropolis, occupied it, and used material from the ancient
structures to build a wall around the hill. When the Turks recaptured the town
(1689) they reinforced the wall. The Greeks themselves tore down the temples of
earlier civilizations to build their structures. Evidence of this may be found in
the extensive underground water Cistern in Istanbul built by the Byzantine Emperor
Justinian in 532 CE.
The following day we took a taxi from Athens to Mykenia, a distance of about sixty miles.
The Mykenian civilization (circa 1200 BC) was a forerunner of the Hellenistic civilization
(circa 750 BC to 100 BC). The Mykenians were master builders, skilled craftsmen in the
bronze age, advanced in the art of administration and used a numerical system based on
alphabets. An understanding of the Mykenians is a must for anyone studying the classical
“We were slaves of the Turks for four hundred years”, began the taxi driver’s
version of history. “When they occupied Greece”, he continued, “many churches were
destroyed and our culture was ruined”. The historical fact is that under the Milli
system, the Ottomans gave complete autonomy to the Greeks (and other Christian Orthodox
people in Eastern Europe). The Greek Churches were protected by Christian waqfs and
administered by the Patriarch of Istanbul. This patronage enabled the Greeks living in the
hills and those in the plains develop a kindred sense of belonging to a common heritage.
Indeed, a sociologist may develop a plausible thesis that it was the Ottoman patronage
under the milli system that ignited the consciousness of a unitary Greek nation among
peoples of Greek heritage living in isolated islands and different parts of the mainland.
We proceeded on to Nafplion, the first capital of modern Greece. It was here in 1829 that
the Greek rebels, incited and abetted by the British, declared their independence from the
Ottoman Empire. The old city plaza is still there and the Turkish flavor endures. The jami
masjid of Nafplion is now a museum, a fate better than those of other masjids in Greece
that were converted outright to churches. But the Greeks have their eyes closed to the
excesses that they committed. They have no recollection of their invasion of Turkey
(1921-24) in which they killed, burned and destroyed much of Western Anatolia. It is an
asymmetrical memory, which stores only what the Turks did to them.
We took the flight from Athens to Larnaca in Cyprus. This was a week before the
Israeli onslaught on Lebanon flooded Larnaca with thousands of refugees. We visited
the Sultaniye Tekke which dates back to the first Arab attempt to conquer Cyprus
during the reign of Amir Muawiya, circa 670 CE. Larnaca had a sizable Turkish
population until 1964. On Christmas night of that year, the Greeks invaded the
Turkish quarters and slaughtered thousands forcing the Turkish population to flee
north to what is today the Turkish Republic of Cyprus.
I wanted to make a telephone call from Larnaca (in Greek Cyprus) to Lefka (in
Turkish Cyprus). I was firmly reminded by the receptionist at the hotel that there
was no such place as Turkish Cyprus, and that it was “occupied Cyprus”. “You
cannot make a call to occupied Cyprus from here”, she continued, “you must first
call Turkey and from there the call is directed to Lefka”. A sadness consumed my
heart as I realized that a bird could fly across a border in a minute but it would
take a human voice a thousand miles to reach a neighbor. Cyprus is a small island
but it is separated into two parts by borders of hate.
Greece and Turkey are not the only neighbors wherein the borders are sealed with
suspicion, distrust and outright hatred. On a recent trip from Delhi to Sirhind on
the India-Pakistan border, I noticed how complete was the obliteration of Islamic
monuments (except Sufi tombs) in Eastern Punjab. Prior to partition (1947) East
Punjab was more than one-third Muslim (as opposed to Western Punjab which was more
than seventy percent Muslim). Today it is less than one-twentieth Muslim. One cranes
ones neck in vain to see if there is a minaret here and there. The destruction was
mutual across the border. Partition erected barriers of hate right across the heart
Sometimes the barriers of hate exist within a geographical or national boundary.
Several years ago I visited the ruins of Hampi, the ancient capital of the
Vijayanagar kingdom in the Deccan on the Tungabhadra river. It was here that the
combined armies of the Bahmani sultans defeated the raja of Vijayanagar in 1565 CE
at the battle of Tylekote. It was one of the decisive battles of history that
destroyed a great medieval empire and replaced it with the (Shia Muslim) Bahmani
sultanates. The (Shia) Safavids of Persia, who were at that time engaged in a fierce
struggle with the Great Mughals for control of Afghanistan, saw a golden opportunity
to circumvent the Mogul empire and made overtures to the Bahmani sultans for a
common stand against the (nominally sunni) Moguls. It was this Persian interference
into the affairs of Hindustan which provoked the Great Mughals and brought the Mogul
armies hurling south into the Deccan, first under Akbar, and then under Shah Jehan
and Aurangzeb. In any case, Hampi was destroyed in the battle of Tylekote.
“The Muslims destroyed Hampi”, began the guide, repeating this litany as he
showed me each monument or every piece of sculpture lying on the ground. What was a
power struggle between a raja and his neighbor sultans was now presented as a war
based on religion. When I asked some pointed questions, the guide realized that I
was a Muslim and his tone changed. I wondered how many thousands of ordinary folks
who had no knowledge of history and whose only interest was to visit the ruins of an
ancient city had received a poisonous dose of anti-Muslim tirades from this and
other guides at the site.
History is an interpretation of events. It happens only once but is narrated in a
hundred ways. In modern life, as tourism has increased and people travel in
increasing numbers from one country to another, a subjective view of history has
penetrated the tourist industry. Millions of tourists each year are bombarded with
distorted versions of historical events and return home with the prejudices which
are thrust upon them during the tours. Men and women of goodwill who strive to build
bridges of understanding across religious and cultural divides would render a
service if they worked together to reform the tourist industry so that history
becomes a mechanism for healing not of hate.
"Occupied Cyprus"! Never in history has any government
owned Cyprus, and Greek Cyprus is calling the legally-intervened
I am much in appreciation of Dr. Ahmed's humanistic sensibilities.
There was one omission in this wonderful article; Dr. Ahmed wrote, "The Greeks and
the Turks hate each other." He didn't provide a single example of Turkish hatred.
I think he is well aware that generally speaking, Turks are not raised with hatred, and
most Turks actually maintain a brotherly feeling toward those who make an industry of
hating Turks (Greeks and Armenians, principally). Dr. Ahmed was probably attempting
diplomacy with that statement, not wishing to shoulder the entire blame on the Greeks.
(Yet if that is the case, I wonder if such statements should be made for the sake of
Such was not his aim, but Dr. Ahmed was inadvertently continuing a great tradition of
"Turkish defense"; it was because of the Indians and what would soon become the
Pakistanis that WWI Britain's bigoted Lloyd George was persuaded to try the apprehended Ottoman officials (accused of
committing an Armenian "genocide") fairly. (Because the English were fearful of
riling up their Indian subjects.) I believe if the Indian delegation did not speak justly,
the British would have had it in for the Turks, and most every detainee would have been
found guilty. (This was the episode of the "Malta Tribunal," 1919-21; every single Turk could not even be
charged, for lack of evidence, and they were all released.)
As brave Greek-Cypriot Antonis
Angastiniotis has written, "Selective memory is necessary to maintain current policies, sadly
the problem is that this attitude does not lead to reconciliation."
I have recently received a nice letter from a Greek in Greece, just one of the
indications not every Greek operates from a knee-jerk anti-Turkish hostility. Yet, too
many are indoctrinated by hatred... like the Armenians. (Or as Angastiniotis put it, "Since our childhood we were
taught that the Turks were barbaric dogs.")
But another dimension to this hatred is that too many Greeks and Armenians who have moved
to other nations take and cultivate these hatreds with them. We can see this level
of irrational hatred in Internet forums, where Americans of Greek and Armenian ancestry,
far removed from their "ancient homelands," whole-heartedly carry the banner of
vicious hatred... all in the duty of what they think of as "patriotism."
An Armenian, Rafael Ishkhanian, (from "The Law of Excluding the Third
Force," cited in Gerard Libaridian's Armenia at the Crossroads; Democracy and
Nationhood in the Post-Soviet Era, 1991, p. 10) said it best, speaking also for too
"[T]o curse at Muslims and
especially at Turks, to talk much about the Armenian Genocide, and to remind others
constantly of the brutality of the Turks are all regarded as expressions of patriotism.
Among the leaders of the past we consider those who curse Turks and killed Turks to be the
most patriotic. Our most recent heroes are those who assassinated Turkish diplomats in
European cities... [this] is the dominant mentality."
They then carry over this irrational hatred in the western nations they have settled in,
use the positions of wealth and influence some have attained, and poison the minds of
their non-Greek & Armenian countrymen. They stop
anything that may come across as "positive" about Turkey. And their
fanaticism can be so great, some of their countrymen of different heritage can get hit by
the crossfire, winding up shell-shocked.
(Most westerners, however, simply and mindlessly nod their heads in agreement and say,
uh-huh, sure. Everyone knows the Turks are Terrible. This prejudice is what has made Armenian and Greek
propaganda so easy to administer, along with the knowledge that the already
politically-weak Turks are indifferent and let these matters go.)