[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
Last week, TESEV, a liberal think-tank in Istanbul, launched a report that presented “constitutional and legal suggestions” to help solving Turkey’s Kurdish question. But it got so much heat from the nationalist media that it rather showed how difficult it is even to attempt to do anything about this thorny issue.
What TESEV suggested, in a nutshell, was to delete all references to “Turkishness” and the “Turkish nation” from the constitution. The word “Turk,” they said, is an ethnic identity not shared by all citizens (most notably by the Kurds, which make some 13-15 percent of the population, according to surveys). The constitution and other basic texts, TESEV further argued, should only speak of “the Republic of Turkey,” without attempting to define its people.
Now, if you are a foreigner, you might find this reasonable. But for most people here, it is heresy because they grew up with the notion that every citizen of Turkey is simply a Turk. That is written not just in the constitution, but also in every textbook and almost on every official building. Even the daily Hürriyet, the mainstream paper which gave its name to the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review, has an unmistakable motto: “Turkey belongs to the Turks.”
Those who see no problem here always emphasize that the “Turkishness” they uphold just refers to citizenship and not to ethnicity or race. Within that regard, they are partly right. Because although racism was an idea with which the regime toyed in the 30’s (as I explained in a recent piece of mine) it did not become the permanent official policy. What rather became the official policy was the exact opposite: assimilationism.
The difference between the two is easy to see: Racists would want to separate “real Turks” from other citizens, as the Nazis did in Germany with their infamous Nuremberg Laws. Assimilationists, on the other hand, wanted to make everybody Turkish. Hence they defined the Kurds as “mountain Turks,” or a “Turkish tribe” who mistakenly lost its heritage, or, more recently, “our citizens of Kurdish origin.”
The latter definition takes its inspiration from the more successful part of the assimilation project: the melting of many non-Turkish Muslim ethnic groups such Bosnians, Albanians, Circassians, Arabs or the Laz into the broader Turkish majority. This happened gradually and organically throughout the 20th century, often without the need for any imposition from the state. But the Kurds, who, unlike most of the aforementioned groups, are not immigrants, and who are much more numerous, was a different case. Most of them did not assimilate, and the state’s heavy impositions on them to do so only made them more resilient.
So, in the early 21st century, we ended up with a society of two distinct identities. Some 85 percent of the people are proud members of the “Turkish nation.” Most of the rest is made up of Kurds (and the Zaza, a subgroup), and only few among them would define themselves as “Turkish.” The more nationalist among them rather speak of “the Kurdish people” who should have equal rights with “the Turkish people.”
This means that when we, the Turkish majority, speak of a homogenous “Turkish nation” which includes all citizens of Turkey, we are wishful rather than factual. And our wishes don’t come true by simply reiterating them.
From Ottomans to Turks
In the 19th century, the Ottomans had devised a better solution. “All subjects of the empire are called Ottomans,” read the constitution of 1876, “[and] all Ottomans are equal before law.” A political allegiance to the crown was enough to make you a citizen, whereas identity remained as your own business. So you could be an Ottoman Turk, an Ottoman Kurd, or an Ottoman Jew.
What the Kemalist Republic did was to simply redefine the diverse remnants of the empire as a homogenous nation of Turks. Atatürk had actually used a transitional term in the early 20’s, a “nation of Turkey,” but he quickly moved on to “Turkish nation,” and, alas, even the “Turkish race.” His belief was that with enough “education,” and propaganda, the state would be able to transform the society into whatever it wills.
Well, that dream obviously failed. The Kemalists often put the blame on the “treason” of internal forces and the “conspiracy” of outside ones, but it is really just human nature: most people want to retain their identities. When you force them into amnesia, you only make them more ethno-nationalist.
So, TESEV’s idea is not too bad. A diverse “nation of Turkey” can be a notion that can incorporate the Kurds. The only problem is that the majority of the society will not be willing to accept such a pluralist definition of the nation. For Kemalism could not transform the Kurds, but it transformed many others, making them very staunch Turkish nationalists.