[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
This week, Turkey’s Education Personnel Labor Union, or Eğitim Bir-Sen, revealed a survey that mapped out the political attitudes in Turkish society. Bookishly titled, “Otherness in Turkey as a Common Identity,” the research focused on how people identified themselves in this society and how they looked at other identities.
People were asked what they called themselves first. Fully 52 percent said that they were “Turkish first.” Another 33 percent were “Muslim first.” Those who opted for “Kurdish first” were a modest 5 percent, nicely equaling the votes of the successive pro-Kurdish political parties.
Atatürkists and Kurds
The more interesting part of the survey was the political categories that people identified with. The most popular tags were “democrat” and “nationalist,” which were equally shared by 22 percent of the population. After that, 17 percent defined themselves as “Atatürkist” and 10 percent preferred to be called “Islamist.”
Interestingly, the “Atatürkists” turned out to be the least supportive of the reforms to broaden Kurdish rights. They, for example, gave the lowest support to the 24-hour official Kurdish-language television channel TRT 6 that the government opened two years ago.
Similarly, the “Atatürkists” outperformed every other political category, including the self-declared “Turkish nationalists,” in their opposition to “teaching of mother tongues in schools.” Only 38 percent of the “Atatürkists” supported this right, in contrast to 75 percent of the “leftists,” 70 percent of the “democrats” and 63 percent of the “Islamists.”
The “Atatürkists,” in other words, were the least tolerant group in Turkey when it comes to cultural diversity.
But this was a surprising result (at least for the uninitiated foreigner) because the “Atatürkists” were also the more educated part of society. The survey underlined this paradoxical relation between “the level of education” and “the support for the democratic opening” for Kurdish rights: “As the level of education falls, the number of those who see the democratic opening as a positive step increases. Conversely, as the level of education rises, the number of those who see the democratic opening as positive declines.”
As I said, this might be surprising to foreigners, particularly Westerners, who tend to presume that “education” and “liberal values” go hand in hand. That is indeed the case in Western countries, as the liberals often constitute the more educated part of society, while you find xenophobia and cultural monism in the less educated classes.
So, one wonders, why Turkey is so exceptional?
The answer might be in the education system. In the West, education is designed mainly to raise critical and democratic-minded individuals. But Turkish education, from primary school to universities (yes, even the universities), is designed to raise generations “loyal to the principles and revolutions of Atatürk.”
Unfortunately, those “principles and revolutions” don’t include concepts such as individual freedom, cultural diversity, and, alas, even democracy. (In case you haven’t noticed, Atatürk has a zillion sayings about nationalism, secularism or “republicanism,” but hardly anything on democracy.)
That’s why a mind shaped by the Turkish education system, unless tainted by some other factor, will be a staunch nationalist, secularist, and “republicanist” — but hardly a liberal or democrat.
Ignorance via education
Such “educated” Turks also have a staggering level of ignorance about the realities of Turkey. (Theirs is, in the words of the late thinker Celal Yalınız, “an ignorance that is possible only with education.”) Most of them simply don’t accept the existence of Kurds as a people or Kurdish as a language. They also believe that such “lies” are promoted only by those “who want to divide Turkey into pieces.”
The education system is really the key. From age 7 to 18, a Turkish student hears the word “Kurdish” only once: When he learns about the “The Society for Kurdish Advancement,” as one of the “treacherous organizations” that arose in the final years of the Ottoman Empire. (The take-away message is that “Kurd” is something treacherous.)
Similarly, the word “Kurdistan” appears only once in Turkish textbooks: as an article in the infamous Treaty of Sevres (of 1920), which divided Turkey into pieces. Hence, every Turkish graduate knows that Sevres is the ultimate evil, and “Kurdistan” is nothing but a part of it. So, he can’t stand to even hear that word – even if it is used to name the regional government in northern Iraq or to define an ethno-geographic region, as was done for centuries.
Furthermore, the same “educated” Turks also believe that their co-nationals who question such national myths are either paid agents of the “imperialists” who want to destroy Turkey or wild-eyed Islamists who yearn for “the darkness of the middle ages.”
Beware of the feistiness of such “educated” Turks, I would suggest. But, please, also forgive them: for they really know not what they do.