Another Way of Seeing Things
I have long felt that Turkey, as a country pivotally linking East and West, North and South, has a unique role to play in fostering the harmony of humankind.
In 1992, on my first visit to Turkey in 30 years, I found myself in Istanbul gazing at the Bosporus Strait. The land on the west side of the narrow strait was Europe; that on the east, Asia. Travelers from the West encounter the cultural richness of the East, and those from the East can encounter the West, champion of modernization. To both, the world begins to show a new and different face.
Turkey is the land of the poet Homer’s birth. It was crossed by the conquering Alexander the Great. Classical Greek civilization once flourished here. During the Byzantine Empire, it was a leading center of the Christian world. And later, under the Ottoman Turks, it was the heart of Islamic civilization.
Mirroring its kaleidoscopic history, Turkey today is a place of immense human diversity. In the towns and cities one can see people with Arab and Mongolian features, people with faces reminiscent of Greek statues, Russian faces, Eastern European faces…
It is as if the land of Turkey is trying to encompass all humanity and make it one, calling out: “West, you may be East in my embrace! East, you may be West in my home!”
For the historian Dr. Arnold Toynbee (1889–1975), Turkey had a particular significance, as it was events in Turkey that prompted him to become a pioneer in looking beyond the Eurocentric view of history. During our conversations in his London apartment, he told me that he had once been forced to quit his post at London University because he had “angered people prejudiced against Turks” with his straightforward reporting of events in Turkey.
Toynbee visited Turkey in 1921, when he was about 32 years old. He had gone to observe the Greco-Turkish War that had been raging for two years. He first observed conditions from the Greek side, then from the Turkish. For Toynbee, guided as he was by Saint Augustine’s injunction “Audi alteram partem” (Hear the other side), this was absolutely crucial. And he placed particular importance on listening to the side that was “the more in danger of not being given a fair hearing.” As he said:
“In the present conflict and controversy between Greeks and Turks, the Greeks were the vocal party once again. The Greeks had the ear of the West, and the West was in the ascendant in the world. I was familiar with the Greeks’ case; I felt that it could take care of itself; the Turks’ case was the one that I must take pains to understand.”
Toynbee traveled to a town where Turkish civilians had been massacred. He witnessed the suffering of Turkish refugees, and was outraged that these atrocities went completely unreported in the West. Writing down the facts exactly as he had seen them, he wired these to the Manchester Guardian, a leading British newspaper. The editor of the paper courageously published the full texts of Toynbee’s reports.
For centuries the Turks had been portrayed in the West as uncivilized savages. To make matters worse, the horrors of the 1915 Armenian Massacre carried out by the Ottoman Turks were still fresh in people’s memories. And indeed, when the articles appeared, the newspaper was besieged by a storm of criticism. People attacked it for shamelessly publishing articles sympathetic to the “unspeakable Turk.” But the paper’s admirable stance of refusing to bend to what Toynbee saw as prejudice against Muslims shines to this day.
At the other end of the spectrum, the article made a deep impression on the Turks. They were astonished that a young Englishman had visited a Turkish refugee camp, that he had impartially recorded what he had seen, and that a British newspaper had actually published it. It was the first time their side of the story had been conveyed to the world. Years later Toynbee animatedly recounted how Turkish people gathered around the newspaper, their faces flushed with excitement as they read his article.
Relying only on information from the West—viewing things always from the Western perspective—does not provide a true picture of the world. There is an African view of the world, a world seen from the Middle East, from Latin America, through the eyes of various ethnic minorities. There is more to international society than just the West.
On his homeward journey by train from Istanbul, Toynbee began to outline what would become his lifework, A Study of History. Based on those notes, he later developed the groundbreaking historical theory—written from a global perspective—that was his great gift to humankind.
Shortly after his return to Britain, Toynbee was forced to resign from his post at London University over what was seen as his support for the Turks. He told me that for the next 33 years, he made his living writing reports on international issues for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, an independent research organization.
The young Toynbee knew it was wrong to stereotype and thus dehumanize people as the Turks had been. It was necessary to get to know individual Turks. He put this conviction into practice, learning Turkish and making friends with Turkish people. “When one becomes personally acquainted with a fellow human being, of whatever religion, nationality, or race, one cannot fail to recognize that he is human like oneself …”
Has the danger of stereotyping people lessened since the days of Dr. Toynbee’s youth? I don’t believe so. In fact, what I call the “tyranny of images”—that is, the propagation of stereotypes and ready-made images—may have even increased.
Much of the information that floods our world has been selected and tailored to fit preconceived notions and stereotypes.
It is vital that we each ask ourselves some important questions. For example: Do I accept without question the images provided to me? Do I believe unconfirmed reports without first examining them? Have I unwittingly allowed myself to become prejudiced? Do I really have a grasp of the facts of the matter? Have I confirmed things for myself? Have I gone to the scene? Have I met the people involved? Have I listened to what they have to say? Am I being swayed by malicious rumors?
I believe that this kind of “inner dialogue” is crucial. This is because people who are aware that they may harbor unconscious prejudices can converse with people of other cultures more easily than those who are convinced that they have no prejudices.
If we think about it, people are not born Turks or Americans. They are not born Palestinians or Jews. These are merely labels.
Each of us is born as a precious entity of life, as a human being. Our mothers didn’t give birth to us thinking, “I’m giving birth to a Japanese” or “I’m giving birth to an Arab.” Their only thought was “May this new life be healthy and grow!”
In any country, a rose is a rose, a violet is a violet, people are people—though they may be called by different names.
Perhaps the clouds and winds high above the blue waters of the Bosporus are whispering among themselves as they gaze down upon humanity: “Wake up! There is no such thing as Americans, no such thing as Iraqis. There is only this boy, this life, called Bob, who happens to live in America; there is only this boy, this life, Mohammed, who happens to live in Iraq. Both are children of Earth. Wake up from this foolishness, this cruel habit of passing hatred and resentment on to the next generation.”
We need to awaken to a common consciousness of being all inhabitants of Earth. This consciousness is not to be found in some distant place. It will not be found on a computer screen. It lies in our hearts, in our ability to share the pain of our fellow human beings. It is the spirit that calls on us: “As long as you are suffering, whoever you are and whatever your suffering may be, I suffer also.”
 It is estimated that as many as 1.5 million Armenians were killed in what is considered the first genocide of the 20th century. Arnold Toynbee exhaustively researched these atrocities, assisting with the preparation of a 700-page account of the subject for the British Government.
©2011 Soka Gakkai. All rights reserved.