Turkey’s rulers need to stop using the word ‘infidel’

Gavur, a Persian word derived from Aramaic, means an infidel, but was originally used in the Ottoman Empire by tax registers to refer to Orthodox Christians. Unlike its Arabic equivalent kafir, it now refers to a fanatical and obstinate “other" either a non-believer or a non-Muslim. The term has been used repeatedly since 2016, particularly when the ruling AKP wants to claim righteousness or invoke the threat of a grand conspiracy plotted by foreign powers against Turkey.

İZMİR - I live in a city in which most residents carry the term gavur like a badge of honour. For most of my fellow citizens, the term “Gavur İzmir” - a name given to it during the Ottoman Empire due to its mostly non-Muslim population - is not an insult but a tribute to the city’s multicultural past. “It might be the only place in Turkey where the term gavur is used with a sense of self-irony and is a term of endearment,” an Italian journalist (and great Smyrnaphile) told me. 

But even for the Smyrniots (as Izmirian intellectuals love to call themselves) the term “Gavur Izmir” can be offensive: In 2016, when there was a bomb explosion in Istanbul, a Twitter user said that while there were bomb attacks all around the country, there were none in Gavur Izmir because the gavurs of Turkey’s enemies and the gavurs of the city lived happily together. The local bar association immediately filed a court case against the author of that tweet.
 
Gavur, a Persian word derived from Aramaic, means an infidel, but was originally used in the Ottoman Empire by tax registers to refer to Orthodox Christians. But, unlike its Arabic equivalent kafir, it now refers to a fanatical, cruel and obstinate “other,” either a non-believer or a non-Muslim. Unlike the “kafir,” (a person who has rejected or remained ungrateful to God’s teachings) a gavur is fanatical in his own ways as well as cruel and conniving. The word has been used in a number of idioms such as gavur inadı (the obstinancy of a gavur), gavur ölüsü (the corps of a gavur, meaning dead-weight), or gavur etmek/olmak, meaning making something worthless (like a gavur). None of these expressions are flattering. 
 
Proverbs are no better: “You can neither obtain a fur from a pig nor be friends with gavurs” or “Those who feed on the bread of the gavur swing the gavur’s sword,” - a thinly veiled reference to the “collaborators” or “traitors/enemies within” and, in current times, an insult leveled at non-governmental organizations that have received international financial support. 

Gavur, this rather musical word of discrimination and prejudice, is the meeting point of religious and national arteries,peppered with the resentment of capitalists, imperialists and yes, a bit of misogyny - given that a woman who pays no heed to you is labelled “gavurun kızı” - the infidel’s daughter.
 
Unsurprisingly, the word often finds its way to the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) political rhetoric, particularly when its members want to appear righteous in the face of so-called external enemies or their local satellites. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while narrating his reaction to the failed coup d’Etat in 2016, said that at the height of the coup attempt, he was advised to cross over to Greece for his own protection, he refused to do so. “I would rather die in the motherland rather than become a slave in gavur lands,” he told in a televised get-together with young people. Speaking to a group of farmers, he said that Turkey would never forget the farmers who have hurried over to Ankara from the Taurus Mountains to counter the gavur attack.

During the 2017 referendum, an AKP deputy lobbying for a yes vote to the presidential system, urged his supporters to “hit the place where it says yes” with the strength and determination that “you’d strike a gavur.”

On April 11, the President, angered by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) campaign on just what happened to the 128 billion TL of the Central Bank’s foreign currency reserves, resorted to the gavurcard. “We are saddened when we see those who have a Turkish Republic identity, come charging us by swinging the sword of gavur, under the guise of opposition,” he said in his address to the women and youth branches of the Union of International Democrats (UID) in Istanbul.
 
Calling on the audience - which mostly consisted diasporic Turks - to be proud of Turkey’s achievements, Erdoğan then turned his wrath to the opposition who he claimed was a pawn in the conspiracy being plotted against Turkey. (For those who want to learn more of this “plot,” I highly recommend the new series “Teşkilat” on the state-run TRT-1, an epic, fictitious tale on how Turkey’s Intelligence Agency MİT counters a Saudi-led plot carried out by a French assassin.)
 
Asked about the accusation of his party’s “swinging the sword of the infidel,” CHP spokesman Faik Öztrak said that the sword of CHP was “domestic and national,” employing one of AKP’s pet concepts. Disappointingly, he did not delve into the discriminatory nature of the term, “gavur kılıcı.” Garo Paylan, an MP for the Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) did so by submitting a parliamentary question asking if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would apologize for using the derogatory term. “As a deputy who has been exposed to hate attacks through the blasphemy of 'infidel' several times, it is unacceptable that the President uses this hate speech” Paylan said in the parliamentary question.
 
According to a report published by the Hrant Dink Foundation in 2017 entitled “The Use of Gavur in Hate Speech” maintains that the political rhetoric around gavur has stepped up in the aftermath of the 2016 coup. Beyond non-Muslims, the term is used to target a wide range of political foes (See earlier Erospolis on “Enemies of the State 101 for Foreigners”) as a propaganda tool.
 
Though Turkey’s existing laws claim to take a tough stance against hate speech, particularly against those who belittle Muslim religious sentiment, and public prosecutors are quick to open cases against those who show the slightest tendency to offend Islamic sentiment, there seems to be little of the same vigilance when it comes to other non-Muslim insults. Perhaps the powers that govern Turkey believe that they are less at risk or have simply acquired a thick skin by now, contrary to our thin-skinned President who needs constant protection from harsh words.
 
What better way to end the musings on gavur than with an anecdote from Philip Mansel, in his book “Constantinople: the City of the World’s Desire” to demonstrate the dangers of name-calling? In 1837, just when Mahmut II, a reformist, was crossing the bridge over the golden horn, a dervish denounced him as “gavur padişah.” Mahmud II, who had replaced the Janissaries with his own troops and stripped away the powers of his pashas, was taken aback by the insult - both as a sultan and as the caliphate. He declared the dervish, called the Hairy Sheikh, to be mad. The dervish did not yield, “You and your base counsellors have lost your reason and you shall be responsible to Allah for your impiety,” he retorted. He was executed immediately. 

March 27, 2021 Woman at Point Zero