Never Turkish enough: Struggles over citizenship and national identity in Turkey

Kerem Öktem
Turkish flag

For the fleeting observer, the Republic of Turkey had long been a place of certainty when it came to issues of citizenship and national identity: its people constituted a proud, secular nation, with an ostensibly distant Islamic heritage but a clearly Europeanised political elite. Turkey’s place in the world had been within the West, in the discursive realm of ‘civilisation’ and in terms of membership within the institutions of the Western alliance  since at least the end of World War II. Its citizens were Turkish, and its public spaces spoke the language of an assertive ethno-nationalist imagination: statues of the state-founder Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), forbidding red flags with the star and crescent, mountaintops inscribed with the creed of the Republic, ‘Happy, who calls himself a Turk!’ and the daily proclamation of millions of schoolchildren pledging their allegiance to the nation with the words: ‘I am a Turk, I am righteous, I am hardworking … May my presence be sacrificed to the existence of the Turkish nation!’ Religion had been pushed to the margins of society, into the private space of the family and the neighbourhood mosque. Millions of Kurds, Arabs, Laz and other minorities had been rebranded as Turks overnight and hence ceased to exist as recognisable communities. If referred to at all in official Turkey, they were either ‘backward people’ awaiting a civilising mission or ‘security threats’ to the country’s territorial integrity.

But as L. P. Hartley said, ‘the past is a foreign country’, even if this past is only a decade or so away. While many of the outward trappings of Kemalism still remain, the identity constructed by the secular Turkish nation-state, which was enshrined in ideology, law and education, is on the wane. With the election victory of the neo-Islamist Justice and Development Party in 2002 and its progressive march towards hegemony ever since, the decidedly secular notion of an ethnically and linguistically defined national identity has lost much of its power. It would be no exaggeration to say that until the beginning of the 21st century, full citizenship rights in Turkey were only conferred on what the eminent intellectual Baskın Oran has described as the Turkish equivalent of the WASP, the “LAHASÜMÜT”. This is the acronym for the Turkish words Laik (Laicist), Hanefi, Sünni, Müslüman, and Türk, in other words, a secular Muslim Turk, who follows the Hanefi school of jurisprudence of mainstream Sunni Orthodoxy. Other groups and their claims to identity were not only not recognised by the ideologues of the republic well into the 1990s, but actively denied by its institutions. This ‘denialist’ self identification has, over the years, become a distinguishing characteristic of the republic, from the denial of the Armenian genocide to the suppression of the language and culture of Kurds and other communities. Most significantly, however, the republican ethos of ‘cultural revolution’ and ‘westernisation’ mandated even the non-recognition of the majority of citizens of the early republic, who defined themselves through reference to Islam and the institutions and traditions of the Ottoman Empire.

Today, the hitherto-excluded religious Muslim majority has been reinstated as the ‘real owners’ of the state. This return of the ‘subaltern’, those sectors of society, who refused to take part in the secularist modernisation project of the Kemalists, or were simply not allowed to so do, has indeed narrowed the abyss which has shaped Turkey’s national identity and the right to citizenship; the abyss, that is, between a meta-discourse of civic citizenship enshrined in the constitution and the reality of an ethno-religiously differentiated set of rights. Yet, the post-Kemalist state of affairs since 2002, which first brought people from villages and conservative small towns in Anatolia to positions of wealth and then power –a process explored by Stanford Sociologist Cihan Tuğal in his 2009 monograph Passive revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism- has created new “others”, who see their citizenship rights and their access to public services and justice curtailed. If the Kemalist state had been partly able to condemn all those outside the publicly dictated identity to invisibility, the slightly less exclusivist policy of the neo-Islamists has brought to the open the smoldering fears over the future of modern Turkey. So, how did we get from the first debates on equality in the late Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic to the present day situation, and how did this gap between the discourse and practice of citizenship emerge and then dissipate? And finally, how has this context shaped the current struggles around citizenship, inclusion and recognition in Turkey today?


Nation-building in violence: Imperial demise, republican rise

In its ‘classic centuries’, from the 15th to the 18th, the Ottoman Empire ruled over a multi-confessional, multi-lingual and multi-ethnic set of communities, through a citizenship regime rooted in Islamic tradition and imperial custom (the millet system). It was only with the early modernisation efforts of the 19th century that this regime was reconsidered. The notion of equality before the law displaced the religiously grounded worldview of Muslim superiority, and replaced it gradually with a secular order of citizenship. In the late 19th century, the idea of Ottomanism gained ground as an attempt to hold the empire’s constituent people together through civic and cosmopolitan patriotism. As the religiously mixed provinces of the Balkans were incorporated into the newly emerging Orthodox nation-states and hundreds of thousands of Muslim refugees began to pour into Istanbul, Ottomanism lost traction, a process further aggravated by Russian expansion into the Muslim lands of the Caucasus and the Crimea and the resulting streams of refugees. Towards the end of the 19th century, the Turkish national idea solidified around what the Pan-Turkist Yusuf Akçura, himself a Tatar from Russia, would describe as the three concentric circles of “Ottomanism, Pan-Islamism and Turkism”.

Only the last concentric circle of ethno-linguistic origin would survive into the first years of the republic. Indeed, the idea of a cosmopolitan citizenship within the empire died a rapid but excruciating death in the first two decades of the 20th century. Massacres, inter-ethnic conflict, the movements of uprooted populations into and outside the remaining territories of the Ottoman state, the Armenian genocide in 1915, and finally, the Lausanne exchange of populations; all these paved the way for the emergence of cleansed ethno-nations. The Kemalist republic, which succeeded the Ottoman state, then embarked on the creation of a homogenous nation of one ethnicity, one language and one religion.

Urfa-Newroz.jpgThe state project of creating a ‘Turkish nation’, however, had to face two contradictions, which remain at the heart of the ontological insecurity that determines Turkish identity still. In order to earn equal treatment as a civilised nation deserving full sovereignty (and not unlike King Zog in inter-war Albania) Mustafa Kemal had to reassure the European powers that the Turkish state would be a secular republic. He had to do so against the staunch opposition of a large majority of Muslims, in whose name the War of Independence had been fought. The first contradiction was thus the disconnect between an observant Muslim core population and the civilising project of a western-looking, secularist and authoritarian elite, which showed only disdain for the cosmopolitan, if religiously framed, Ottoman legacy. The second contradiction was a reminder of how much the republic’s ethno-racial thinking still owed to the Ottoman idea of religious affiliation as a key marker of identity: The genocide and exchange of populations had rendered the Turkish republic largely devoid of non-Muslims, whose dwindling numbers had been pushed to the margins of society. Step by step, they were disenfranchised through by-laws and administrative measures, which limited their educational rights, expropriated their religious foundations and curtailed their access to positions of power and wealth. It may be an irony, if a rather tragic one, that the secular republic succeeded in wiping out almost all of the many Christian and Jewish communities which had thrived through centuries of empire. This enforced religious cleansing of modern Turkey’s territory did not bring about the desired uniformity, with the exception, maybe, of the toponymy. This was thoroughly Turkified by an ‘Expert Commission for the Change of Foreign Place Names’, a process which I describe in the article ‘The Nation’s Imprint’. The Kemalist modernisers were experimenting with racialist histories and biologist explanatory models, yet in the end, they chose to define all Muslims as potential Turks regardless of their ethnicity. The core contradiction here was the fact that the Muslim people of Turkey were anything but ready to be subsumed under a secular, ethnic Turkish identity.

The largest of those people were the Kurds who had a history of local autonomy. Their uprisings in the 1920s and 1930s were met with military campaigns in historical Kurdistan and with a racially inspired mission civilisatrice, which bears conspicuous parallels with French colonialism in Algeria. After the Dersim massacres of 1938, when thousands of tribesmen and their families were killed in a military offensive, the Kurds as well as other ethnic groups within the Muslim population bowed into submission. Yet neither state violence nor the civilising mission, which was enacted in schools and ‘people’s houses’ after the 1930s, changed the reality of Turkey as a patchwork of communities with distinct ethnic, religious and linguistic traditions. True, the Turkish speaking Sunni Hanefi Muslims probably constituted the majority, yet the Kurds too were a large population of several millions residing in historical Kurdistan. Arabs lived in the southeast border areas, Laz, Armenian-speaking Hemshin and Greek-speaking Pontic Muslims in the northeast Black sea region, and Georgians in the eastern highlands. Among the non-Turkish Muslim people of the new nation state, who were most eager to ‘become’ Turks, were the Muslim refugees from the Balkans, the Mediterranean and the Caucasus: Bosniaks, Albanians, Pomaks and Torbesh, Cretans and Muslims from mainland Greece, as well as Circassians, Georgians and Tatars from Russia and Trans-Caucasia. Most were grateful to find shelter from persecution, and hence enthusiastic supporters of the Kemalist reforms, yet many also had the misfortune of speaking the language of the ‘gavur’, the ‘unbeliever’. For many of their fellow Muslims, they were not Muslim enough. Their Turkishness was hence something to be earned and defended, never something to be sure of.


Citizenship and European dreams

Eight decades of Kemalist schooling have created a hegemonic Turkish identity, first in its secularist original version, and after the military coup of 1980, in a religiously grounded one. Turkey’s convergence with the European Union and the start of accession negotiations in 2005 helped overcome the ossified structures of the Kemalist state and brought out into the open the diversity of a society that had been kept under a lid. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) moved away from the ethno-secularist exclusion of Kurds and lifted some of the most restrictive limitations on the language and culture of non-Turkish communities, particularly in the more ‘liberal’ first half of its decade in government, which I have described in Angry Nation: Turkey since 1989. In many cities in Turkey today, the history and memory of Kurds, Alevis and others have become visible once again. Some villages have had their old historical toponyms reinstated, and Kurdish personal names are nothing out of the ordinary anymore. Armenian and Greek Orthodox communities have regained part of the properties belonging to their religious foundations, which had been sequestered by state agencies throughout Republican history. Yet, none of these arguably momentous changes has resolved the two core contradictions embedded in the concept of Turkish national identity and citizenship, those of religion and ethnicity.

One could argue that the AKP’s neo-Islamist policies of de-secularisation and the return of religion in the public space has helped to furnish with full citizenship rights the religiously conservative mainstream, which the Kemalist modernisers had kept from power. And indeed, the growing number of religious men and women in every-day life, in the economy and in public service suggest a process of reconciliation between the state and the conservative middle-classes. This new coalition has also brought some conservative Kurds, who have renounced secular Kurdish nationalism, into the fold of a more Islamic Turkey. Yet neither secular Kurds and Turks, nor the Alevis, members of a non-Orthodox Muslim community, see themselves represented by this new hegemonic alliance. In terms of every-day citizenship, they feel discriminated against, excluded from public tenders and government services.

Turkey's minorities.jpgNew tensions have also emerged. The Justice and Development Party’s conservative social policy depends on the notion of the ‘Muslim family’ and hence, on the notion of a society living according to the requirements of Islam. Despite a strong civil society movement, members of LGBTT communities are discriminated against almost by default. An open affirmation of homosexuality or transgender identity can easily lead to exclusion from public sector jobs, which is particularly worrisome for the many gay men and women in the educational and health services. Transgender individuals are shunned by both state and society, and hence often forced into prostitution, which is then criminalised by an increasingly moralistic police force. Gender, of course, is a major site of contention, and conservative family policies inadvertently reintroduce the notion of dependent family membership of women, while they erode the notion of women as equal citizens. And finally, the rapidly growing number of conscientious objectors to obligatory military service are not only deprived of their citizenship rights, but condemned to what the European Court of Human Rights has called, in one case, a ‘social death’ between the threat of imprisonment and the deprivation of basic human rights, as  Ozgur Heval Cinar and Coskun Usterci remind us in their collection Conscientious Objection. Resisting Militarized Society.

Almost two centuries have now passed since the idea of equal citizenship regardless of religion and language was first introduced to the Ottoman Empire. These were two centuries of contested modernisation, which saw, very much like the core lands of Europe as well as the Balkans, episodes of unspeakable violence and destruction, but also grand projects for new beginnings, if often with fatal consequences for minorities. Two hundred years later, citizenship in Turkey is still far from being equal and universal. If Yusuf Akçura was talking about the three concentric spheres of national identity at the beginning of the 20th century, the situation is ever-more fragmented today. In the core of the actually existing citizenship regime are three spheres collapsed into one: Muslim, Turkish and instilled with respect for the Ottoman heritage, and, if tacitly, male. In a patchwork of overlapping concentric circles and interjecting triangles are women, Kurds, Alevis, non-Muslim minorities, other ethnic communities and LGBTT individuals who all face discrimination and exclusionary practices in their interactions with majority society, with state agencies, public service providers and the judicial system.

On the surface of things, you can still never be Turkish enough in Turkey, especially if you do not belong to that happy core category. In every day life, this restrictive conception of citizenship is being undermined from left, right and centre; a fact that is also reflected in the current, if halting, constitutional discussion, which may or may not result in a more inclusive basic law. It would be fair to conclude that the country’s survival in its current shape and form is predicated upon the ability of its actors to close the gap between the legal fantasy of equal citizenship in some high-order texts on the one side, and the reality of differentiated citizenship regimes on the other. They need to agree on an inclusive conception of citizenship, which gives everyone a stake in the country who sees his or her future therein. The Turkish Republic, despite its ethnic exclusivity, has been able to accommodate millions of non-Turkish Muslim refugees from the Balkans and the Caucasus throughout its history and furnished them with citizenship rights. Even if Turkey’s conservative political elites today are more passionate about neo-Ottoman fantasies than about inclusive citizenship, they might one day need to extend this welcome also to those whose ancestors were expelled in the violent and ruthless 20th century that made modern Turkey.

Kerem Öktem (D. Phil, MSt MMES, Oxon) is research fellow at the European Studies Centre, St Antony’s College and principal researcher for the study of Muslims and politics in Europe, a project funded by the Open Society Institute and the British Academy.His latest book is Another Empire? A decade of Turkey’s foreign policy under the Justice and Development Party (Bilgi University Press, Istanbul, 2012).


Photo 1: A hill in the province of Tunceli (Dersim). The slogan under the Turkish flag reads: " We are strong, we are courageous, we are ready. Commando forces." (By Kerem Öktem, 2010).

Photo 2:  Members of the Kurdish movement celebrating the annual festival of Newroz in Urfa in one of the first officially sanctioned mass demonstrations in Turkey after the Kurdish War. (By Kerem Öktem, 2002).

Photo 3: A view of the 2008 Istanbul pride march. The placards carry the messages: "Love is to organise" and "Don't touch my association" with reference to a number of so far ineffective court cases to outlaw LGBTT organisations. (By Kerem Öktem, 2008).