15 Eylül 2010 Çarşamba

Constitutional Citizenship in Turkey

Constitutional citizenship has always been a controversial issue in Turkey since the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 both on national and international levels mostly because of the Kurdish question. As Professor Baskın Oran stated the question of Kurds in Turkey is not an easy-to-solve problem mostly because of the legal status of Kurds in Turkey. According to the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, Kurds which now constitute 10 to 15[1] percent of the total population are not accepted as a minority group but rather as principal elements, first-class citizens of the republic. Secondly, the concept of minority has been showing a great deal of difference in different time periods and in different contexts. Thirdly, although Kurds are not accepted as a minority group and some of them are strongly against to the idea of defining themselves as a minority group, their demands to take advantage of minority group rights in accordance with European Union criterion, makes the situation even more complex. Most importantly, official Kemalist nationalism which is mostly defended as a type of modern civic nationalism has always been very popular among the Turkish citizens although it includes some ethnic (Turkic) and religious (Sunni Islam) elements.

This assignment aims to make a detailed analysis of Kemalist nationalism or constitutional Turkish citizenship by focusing on its problematic aspects such as Kurdish problem. It will be argued that Kemalist nationalism having the character of civic nationalism, has in fact some ethnic and religious appeals and features. In order to understand the issue completely, first the history of Kurdish problem in Turkey starting from the late Ottoman period will be explained in the light of Baskın Oran’s “Türkiye'de Azınlıklar: Kavramlar, Lozan, İç Mevzuat, İçtihat, Uygulama” book. By taking help from Andrew Mango, I also intend to show how Mustafa Kemal’s attitude towards Kurds was before and during the National Struggle. Secondly, the changing attitude of the Republic towards the Kurds after the emergence of constitutional Kemalist nationalism will be shown by examples from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and Afet İnan’s “Yurttaşlık Bilgileri” book. Thirdly, some historical and structural characteristics of Kemalist nationalism as well as its ethnicization and secularist Sunni Islamization policy will be explained in respect to problems arising in constitutional citizenship conception.

In order to understand Kurdish problem in Turkish Republic, we must first analyze the situation of Kurds in Ottoman Empire. Ottoman State was formed by Turkic Muslim tribes in the late 13th century and soon began to expand its territories. Ottoman Empire was an expansionist, multi-ethnic empire and Turks were only a part of Ottoman population. People were separated as Muslim or non-Muslim and they called themselves as Ottoman rather than Turk or Kurd. This structure of Ottoman Empire was shaped by the “millet system” understanding (Oran, pg 36). According to millet system, Ottoman State recognized differences among different social groups in the society according to the religious beliefs. Ethnic or linguistic differences were ignored and the society was basically divided into two groups: Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslims including Greeks, Armenians and Jewish subjects of the state, were considered as minority groups. The protection of non-Muslim minority groups’ rights in Ottoman Empire was undertaken by European imperial powers and used as an issue to weaken the Ottoman state. Starting from 1839’s the Edict of Administrative Reforms (Tanzimat Fermanı), Ottoman State tried to make necessary reforms to satisfy European countries and prevent them in engaging in Ottoman State’s internal affaires. Except non-Muslim groups, all Muslim population was considered as first-class citizens and did not acquire the status of minority. Kurds were also part of the Muslim population and like all other Muslim groups, they were not considered as a minority group. They had relative autonomy but were still strongly tied to the central authority.

Kemalist state’s attitude towards Kurds is a highly controversial but important issue for us to understand the Kurdish opposition and the features of constitutional citizenship in Turkey. Atatürk’s restrictive attitude towards Kurds has been generally criticized with today’s norms and rules. In fact, Atatürk unlike Turkish nationalists had always recognized the distinctiveness of Kurds. He called Turks and Kurds as “ırk kardeş (brother-in-race)”[2] because in his idea Turks and Kurds had many things in common and their cultures were very much alike. Mustafa Kemal did not have a contact with Kurdish people until 1916, the time when he was promoted as Brigadier-General in Diyarbakır. Mustafa Kemal’s diary written at those years proves us his lack of knowledge and the sense of difference he had about Kurds[3]. Mustafa Kemal also once said that “I am in favor of granting all manner of rights and privileges in order to ensure the attachment and the prosperity and progress of our Kurdish brothers, on condition that the Ottoman State is not split up” (Mango, pg 7). Moreover, in his speeches in the first Turkish Grand National Assembly before the establishment of the Republic, he carefully used the term “people of Turkey (Türkiye halkı)” instead of Turks. In 1924 constitution too, Turkishness was used as a citizenship concept not as an ethnic identity. Article 88 of 1924 constitution was a proof of this attitude[4]. In fact, Atatürk in the early 1920’s even toyed with the idea of giving local autonomy to Kurds[5]. During the years of Independence War, Mustafa Kemal did not act harshly towards Kurds because Kurds were supporting the National Struggle and Atatürk was not willing to lose Kurdish support. Professor Özbudun also points out this tolerant attitude of Kemalism towards Kurds during the National Struggle. “Atatürk’ün 1 Mayıs 1920 günü TBMM’de yaptığı konuşma da, kendisinin bu konudaki duyarlılığını çok iyi ifade etmektedir. ‘Burada maksut olan ve Meclis-i alinizi teşkil eden zevat yalnız Türk değildir, yalnız Çerkeş değildir, yalnız Kürt değildir, yalnız Laz değildir’.” (75 Yılda Tebaa’dan Yurttaş’a Doğru, pg 153). Islam was also heavily used by Atatürk during the years of National Struggle in order to mobilize Anatolian people (Zürcher, pg 162-163).

Kurdish nationalism appeared very lately during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Kürt Teali Cemiyeti was established with the help of Britain but it was banned later by Mustafa Kemal. During the years of National Struggle, Kurds fought against imperial powers alongside with Turks. Kurdish problem showed itself seriously first time in 1925 with the Sheikh Said Revolt. Sheikh Said was a religious, Kurdish landowner who had good connections and reputation in the eastern and south eastern parts of the Anatolia. By taking help of Britain and making agreements with Kurdish landowners of the region who want to establish an independent Kurdistan state, Said started a huge revolt and became a headache for the young republic for a few months. Sheikh Said Revolt is often introduced as an Islamic revolt but in reality there are many other reasons behind Said’s rebellion such as the desires of Kurdish people to create an independent state, the reaction of Kurdish landowners to the probable land reform project of the Republic, the plan of Britain to create problems in Turkey to decrease Turkish influence in Musul and Kerkük and reactionary groups’ anger towards the Western, secular new Turkish state. Sheikh Said Revolt was suppressed by the state in few months and by the Maintenance of Order Law (Takrir-i Sükun Kanunu) harsh punishments were given to people who engaged in the revolt. Atatürk’s relatively tolerant attitude towards Kurds began to change after the Sheikh Said rebellion. “Two years later, on 8 December 1925, the Ministry of Education announced in a proclamation on ‘Currents trying to undermine Turkish unity’ that use of the terms Kürt, Laz, Çerkez, Kürdistan, and Lazistan would be banned” (Zürcher, pg 176). Another revolt called Dersim Rebellion took place in Tunceli in 1937. Dersim Revolt is known as a Kurdish-Alevi rebellion but there were still many other factors such as the feudal landlord of Dersim Seyid Rıza’s opposition to the Kemalist state and French support to Rıza to prevent Turkey to exercise power on the Republic of Hatay. Dersim city was bombed several days during the revolt and its name was changed as Tunceli by the state. Thousands of people died during the clash between soldiers and rebels. These two events had become very influential in the rise of Turkish Republic’s harsh attitude towards Kurds. Although Kemalist Turkish state never adopted a racist approach and defined Turkishness as a civic identity, Turkish Republic did not act in conformity with the conditions of the Lausanne Peace Treaty (Oran, pg 54).

In contrary to the obligations of the Lausanne Treaty, Kurdish language and Kurdish names were banned and many Turkish origin citizens were forced to settle in problematic cities like Tunceli. Article 39 of the Lausanne Peace Treaty is as following: “No restrictions shall be imposed on the free use by any Turkish national of any language in private intercourse, in commerce, religion, in the press, or in publications of any kind or at public meetings. Notwithstanding the existence of the official language, adequate facilities shall be given to Turkish nationals of non-Turkish speech for the oral use of their own language before the Courts”[6] (Oran, pg 57). We know that especially in the 1930’s when the fascism and ultra-nationalism was the rising trend all over the world, Kurdish speaking citizens were punished and no adequate facilities were shown to non-Turkish speaking people in the courts. Although many of these practices began in the 1930’s, the time of the fascism, which can be an excuse for Turkey’s harsh attitude, Turkish Republic did not want to renounce from this understanding until very recent years. Ergun Özbudun also tries to approach to the issue by understanding the historical conditions of the period and states that Kemalism should be assessed as a total discourse[7].

Before going further about constitutional citizenship and Kemalist nationalism, we may look at the changing attitude of Atatürk towards Kurds after the implementation of his nation-state building project in the light of his book Yurttaşlık Bilgileri (Citizenship Information). Yurttaşlık Bilgileri was written in 1929-1930 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and published in 1930 with the additions of Professor Afet İnan. Atatürk wrote this book with the aim of creating a source for Turkish citizens to learn more about the aims and principles of the new republic from the first hand, the founder of the republic. The book was also used as a main school textbook until the 1950’s. Although the book is not very long, it covers very important topics like the principles of Turkish Republic, rights and duties of Turkish citizens and a short history of Turks. Events that took place in the country in the 1920’s are very important for better understanding both the motives and aims of Atatürk in writing this book. In Yurttaşlık Bilgileri, we can find the sign of Atatürk’s desire to suppress a separate Kurdish state idea. Yurttaşlık Bilgileri is also interesting because of its dense nationalist discourse and efforts of Atatürk to give self-confidence to Turkish citizens by expressing the glorious past of Turks and in a sense creating a national subject. The book also tries to show how a good Turkish citizen should think and act. In Yurttaşlık Bilgileri, he said “Türkiye Cumhuriyetini kuran Türkiye halkına Türk denir” (Atatürk & İnan, pg 13) and described people who call themselves as Kurdish, Circassian, Laz or Bosnian as reactionary stupids who were used by the enemy[8]. Atatürk strived to show these ethnic nationalist people especially those who call themselves Kurdish as obstacles to the well being of the national life. In Kemalist state building project which had to make tired, ignorant Anatolian people stand up, there is no place for other ethnic identities and thus, Mustafa Kemal ignored identities of other ethnic groups living in the republic. He called all people of Turkey as Turk and made no discrimination between people who accept to be Turk by saying “Ne mutlu Türküm diyene”. This was an important task to accomplish because young republic may have not survived if it had to deal with secessionist independence movements.

Kemalist version of Turkishness is often said to be a civic nationalism because it offers equal treatment to all people who call themselves as Turk. For Atatürk, race is not a valid ground for citizenship and thus, he preferred a French Revolution style citizenship concept. David McCrone in his book “The Sociology of Nationalism: Tomorrow’s Ancestors” clearly shows the differences between “ius soli” and “ius sanguinis”, soil and blood based citizenship understandings (McCrone, pg 8). We must put Kemalist nationalism definitely on the “ius soli” side because the new Kemalist Republic considered every individuals saying “Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene” as Turkish citizens and did not make racial or religious discrimination[9]. Thus, Kemalist nationalism should be considered as very modern for its own time when imperialism and racism were very popular among the European nation states. In fact, Kemalist nationalism which was based on ius soli principle never lost its civic character[10]. However, the civic identity similar to other types of civic nationalisms was highly ethnicized.

Kemalist nationalism’s problematic side appears when its civic constitutional structure was tried to be changed in the 1930’s with the Turkification efforts. We can easily find examples to prove this aspect. For instance, starting from the 1930’s history lessons in Turkish education system covered all ancient Turkic states. Turks’ adventure in the Central Asia was presented as today’s Turks as citizens are the successors of this nation. According to Martin Van Bruinessen, the deeds of the republican elite in the 1930’s are clear examples of the culturally “racial, hereditary characteristic” of Kemalist nationalism (Bruinessen, pg 2). Bruinessen gives many examples from RPP members and ideologues. For instance, justice minister Mahmut Esat Bozkurt says; “It is my firm opinion, and let friend and foe hear it, that the lords of this country are the Turks. Those who are not real Turks (öz Türk) have only one right in the Turkish fatherland, and that is the right to be servants and slaves” (Bruinessen, pg 4). The establishment and the deeds of ideological apparatuses of the state such as the Ülkü journal, Halk Evleri (People’s Home) and Village Institutes are other examples of Turkification policy of the state (Zürcher, pg 177). This process was strengthened by the establishment of Türk Tarih Kurumu and Türk Dil Kurumu and the adoption of two theories called Güneş Dil Teorisi and Türk Tarih Tezi. By Güneş Dil Teorisi, Atatürk tried to convince Turkish citizens that Turkish was the oldest language of the world and all other languages were derived from it. Similarly, by Türk Tarih Tezi, Atatürk aimed to create public opinion about the glorifying past of Turkish nation among other nations as well as their situation of being the ancestors of the white race. Atatürk claimed that all Anatolian civilizations including Sumerians and Hittites were in reality Turkic tribes. He ordered researches about Turkish skulls and scientists found out that Turkish people were having “brachycephalia (brakisefal)” type of skulls. These racist researches were conducted in the name catching up the modern world by being affected from Nazi Germany. Thus, we should admit that in 1930’s Turkishness which was accepted as a civil constitutional identity was tried to be changed into ethnic identity although legally no change was made.

Another problematic aspect of constitutional citizenship in Turkey appeared again the 1920’s and 1930’s when the state used Sunni Islam as one of the major identities of Turkish citizens together with ethnic Turkishness. Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı was established in 1924 but did not provide service for other religious beliefs then the Sunni Islam. Today this situation continues and even Alevi Muslims are not provided service by this state institution although secularism was added to Turkish constitution long time ago in 1937. This process of Sunni Islamization continued and strengthened population exchange between Turkey and Greece after the foundation of the Republic. Wealth Tax (Varlık Vergisi) and 6-7 September 1955 events are other evidences that Turkish state tried to create a homogenous population of Sunni Turks. Because of these two aspects (giving an ethnic validity to Turkishness and recognizing Sunni Islam as the only accepted religious belief in the country) constitutional citizenship conception of Kemalist nationalism has become problematic from European standards of democracy.

These two problems still exist but it does not seem impossible to solve these problems. Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı can easily start to provide services for Alevis and non-Muslims and the state could regain its democratic constitutional citizenship quality within a few years. The problem related to ethnic identity is much more difficult to solve since ethnic Turkish and Kurdish nationalism are very strong now in the country. However, the adoption of a new civil democratic constitution reaching the level of European Union standards could help Turkey to solve this problem. Turkishness should be definitely accepted as a civic identity by the state and all cultural rights should be granted to ethnically non-Turkish citizens of the country. Recent developments of democratizing reforms are progressive steps that can be more influential in the near future. Kemalism’s attitude towards Kurds should be analyzed with the conditions of the 1920’s and 30’s and should not be dogmatized. It is also up to European Union to show its good intentions to solve this problem by allowing the full accession of Turkey to the Union after the termination of the necessary reforms and adoption of the “acquis communautaire (AB müktesebatı)”. With better economic conditions and EU membership, Turkey would certainly be able to solve its Kurdish problem and develop the its constitutional citizenship.


- Özbudun, Ergun, “Contemporary Turkish Politics: Challenges to Democratic Consolidation”, 2000, London: Lynne Rienner Publishers

- Oran, Baskın, “Türkiye'de Azınlıklar: Kavramlar, Lozan, İç Mevzuat, İçtihat, Uygulama”, 2004, İstanbul: TESEV Yayınları

- 75 Yılda Tebaa’dan Yurttaş’a Doğru”, 1998, İstanbul: Tarih Vakfı Yayınları

- Zürcher, Erik Jan, “Young Turks, Ottoman Muslims and Turkish Nationalists: Identity Politics (1908-1938), in Kemal Karpat’s Ottoman Past and Today’s Turkey, 2000, Leiden, Boston, Köln: Brill

- Mango, Andrew, “Atatürk and the Kurds”, October 1999, Middle Eastern Studies

- HR-net (Hellenic Resources Network), http://www.hri.org/docs/lausanne/part1.html

- ABC Hukuk, http://www.abchukuk.com/arsiv/lausanne.html

- McCrone, David, “The Sociology of Nationalism: Tomorrow’s Ancestors”, London and New York, Routledge, 1998

- Van Bruinessen, “Race, Culture, Nation and Identity Politics in Turkey: Some Comments” paper presented at the conference on Identity and Nationalism in Turkey convened by Ertegün Endowment and the Dept. Of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University April 1997

[1] Özbudun, Ergun, “Contemporary Turkish Politics: Challenges to Democratic Consolidation”, pg 143

[2] Mango, Andrew, “Atatürk and the Kurds”, pg 6

[3] “Mustafa Kemal’s tone is remarkably detached: he observes his surroundings with the curiosity of an outsider. He does not express any views on the Kurds” (Mango, pg 2).

[4] “Türkiye ahâlisine din ve ırk farkı olmaksızın vatandaşlık itibâriyle (Türk) ıtlak olunur”.

[5] “As for areas inhabited by Kurds, we consider it a necessity both of our domestic and of our foreign policy to set up a local government gradually” (Mango, pg 13). “As a result, wherever the population of a district is Kurdish, it will govern itself automatically” (Mango, pg 15).

[6] http://www.hri.org/docs/lausanne/part1.html In Turkish: “Herhangi bir Türk uyruğunun, gerek özel gerekse ticaret ilişkilerinde, din, basın ya da her çeşit yayın konularıyla açık toplantılarında, dilediği bir dili kullanmasına karşı hiç bir kısıtlama konulmayacaktır. Devletin resmi dili bulunmasına rağmen, Türkçe’den başka bir dil konuşan Türk uyruklarına, mahkemelerde kendi dillerini sözlü olarak kullanabilmeleri bakımından uygun düsen kolaylıklar sağlanacaktır” (http://www.abchukuk.com/arsiv/lausanne.html).

[7] “Üstelik, 1930’lu yıllar gibi Avrupa’nın çok büyük bölümüne otoriter, ırkçı milliyetçilik anlayışının egemen olduğu bir dönemde, bunun bizce tali bazı yönlerinin Türkiye’de görülmesi değil, bu etkinin bu kadar sınırlı kalmış olması hayret edilecek bir husustur. Bir siyasal söylemin sağlıklı olarak değerlendirilmesi, o söylemin bir bütün olarak ve dönemin şartları içinde incelenmesini, ana doğrultularıyla geçici ve tali sapmaların birbirinden ayrılmasını gerektirir. Kemalizmin milliyetçilik söylemi bir kül halinde ele alındığında, onun hukuki ve kültürel cephesinin çok daha ağır bastığına kuşku yoktur” (75 Yılda Tebaa’dan Yurttaş’a Doğru, pg 158).

[8] “Bugünkü Türk ulusunun siyasal ve toplumsal birliği içinde kendilerine Kürtlük, Çerkezlik, Lazlık ya da Boşnaklık düşüncesi aşılanmak istemiş yurttaş ve ulusdaşlarımız vardır. Ancak geçmişin zorbalık dönemlerinin bir sonucu olan bu yanlış adlandırmalar, -düşmana alet olmuş birkaç gerici, beyinsiz dışında- ulus bireyleri üzerinde üzüntüden başka bir etki yaratmamıştır” (Atatürk & İnan, pg 23).

[9] “Bugün içimizde bulunan Hristiyan, Musevi yurttaşlar, yazgılarını ve geleceklerini Türk ulusallığına kendi vicdanlarından gelen istekleriyle bağladıktan sonra kendilerine yan gözle yabancı diye bakılması, uygar Türk ulusunun soylu ahlakından beklenebilir mi?” (Atatürk & İnan, pg 23).

[10] “Atatürk, Türk milletini ırk esasına dayanarak tanımlamamış, Alman nasyonal sosyalizminde önemli yer tutan saf ırk safsatalarının anlamsızlığını açıkça ortaya koymuştur” (75 Yılda Tebaa’dan Yurttaş’a Doğru, pg 157).

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