21 Eylül 2010 Salı

Identity Aspect in Turkish Political History

Starting from the last quarter of 20th century, with the decline of class-based approaches and policies, identity politics have gained enormous emphasis in the political arena. Identity politics have also gained ground with the rise of post-modernist and post-structural approaches in the philosophical world. Ethnic, religious and sectarian identities have led to civil wars, political turbulences and have been used by other countries to weaken the target country. In Turkey too, starting from the 1980’s, identity politics have become more influential. Kurdish nationalism and political Islam are most important identity-based political trends and challenges to democratic consolidation in Turkey. In order to understand their existence and rise, in this assignment I am going to analyze and discuss 1923-1946 period in Turkey, a period when the country and its official ideology Kemalism was established. I am going to analyze the conditions and characteristics of Turkish citizenship and Turkey’s founding principles with respect to Turkish constitution of 1924 and try to find a solution way for Turkey’s identity-based political problems.

Most of the nation states acquired their independence in the 20th century after the collapse of empires and the end of physical imperialism. Turkey was one of these newly established countries, which was created by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his friends after the collapse of Ottoman Empire. Following a series of miraculous victories in the Turkish Independence War, Mustafa Kemal founded Turkish Republic on 29 October 1923 and tried to destroy the effects of 600 years old Ottoman Empire by his state building project. Mustafa Kemal introduced a broad range of reforms (political, social, legal, economic and cultural) and young Republic turned its face towards West. “Unconditional, unrestricted sovereignty belongs to the nation” was one of the most important principles of the new democratic, secular Turkish Republic and Sultanate and Caliphate were abolished by Atatürk. Atatürk abridged his principles into 6 headlines: Republicanism, Populism, Nationalism, Secularism, Statism and Revolutionarism. Kemalist state building project created a parliamentary regime (single party regime until 1945 due to earlier failures), a democratic, secular and capitalist country implementing import substitution industrialization policies in order to strengthen its national bourgeoisie that could not compete with foreign bourgeoisie at the moment. Atatürk aimed to re-create Turkish nation by erasing the memories of multi-ethnic, imperialist Ottoman Empire. Like Benedict Anderson mentioned in his masterpiece “Imagined Communities”, nation states were “imagined” but not “imaginary” due to their dense effects and huge success in people’s formation of identities (Anderson, pg 3). For sure, state building projects required inclusions and exclusions to replace the ancient regimes which were mostly based on dynastic rule, sexual politics and emperorship and used religious identities to group and unite people.

Turkish state building project was a real difficult task because starting from the 1920’s Kurdish and Islamic oppositions became headaches for the Republic. As we know, Ottoman Empire was an expansionist, multi-ethnic empire and Turks were only a part of Ottoman population. Roderic Davison gives the statistical proof about the heterogeneity of Ottoman population in the late 19th century. “In the Empire, Turkish population was only around 35 percent of the total population whereas Arabs constituted 13.8 percent, Romanians 11.4 percent, Bulgarians 7.8 percent, Serbo-Croatians 7 percent, Armenians 6.5 percent, Greeks 5.5 percent, Albanians 3.1 percent, Kurds 2.6 percent and Circassians 2.6 percent” (Davison, pg 31). People were separated as Muslim or non-Muslim[1] and were accepted as Ottoman. This structure of Ottoman Empire was shaped by the “millet system” understanding. According to millet system, Ottoman State recognized differences among different communal groups in the society according to their 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 state. But all Muslim communities were accepted as part of the Ottoman millet and ethnic differences were ignored. Kurds were part of the Muslim population and -like all other Muslim communities- were not considered as a minority group. Although they enjoyed relative autonomy due to the heavy feudal nature of this geography, they were still tied to the state’s central authority. Thus, in Ottoman period the dominant identity was being Muslim. Kurdish nationalism was almost non-existent until the last years of the Ottoman Empire. At those years, Kürt Teali Cemiyeti was established with the help of United Kingdom and Kurdish nationalism appeared for the first time. However, it was a very weak ideology and during the years of National Struggle. Kurds fought alongside with Turks and became the founding elements and first-class citizens of the Turkish Republic. Kurdish problem showed itself seriously first time in 1925 with the Sheikh Said Revolt, which emerged as a reaction to new identity-based politics of the Kemalist Republic.

Kemalist state building project aimed to create a secular, democratic nation-state of Turks although Turkishness was in the sense of legal and civic identity. We can see this effort clearly in the 1924 constitution. Article 88 of the 1924 constitution states that; “The name Turk, as a political term, shall be understood to include all citizens of Turkish Republic, without a distinction of, or reference to race or religion. Every child born in Turkey, or in a foreign land of a Turkish father; any person whose father is a foreigner established in Turkey, who resides in Turkey, and who chooses upon attaining the age of twenty to become a Turkish subject; and any individual who acquires Turkish nationality by naturalization in conformity with the law, is a Turk. Turkish citizenship may be forfeited or lost in certain circumstances specified by law” (Earle, pg 98)[2]. According to Bülent Tanör, this article was a clear evidence of Republic’s progressive approach to citizenship issue, defining Turkishness on the level of geographical and judicial terms by refraining ethnic and religious elements (Tanör, pg 257). Thus, looking at 1924 constitution, we can claim that Turkish citizenship was a civic and constitutional identity that does not try to destroy sub-identities (such as Kurdishness etc.). Another interesting point in 1924 constitution is that until 11 April 1928, article 2 of the constitution stated “The religion of the Turkish State is Islam; the official language is Turkish; the seat of government is Angora” (Earle, pg 89)[3]. By the constitutional amendment of 11 April 1928, the first part about the religion of the state was removed from the article and secularism was added to the constitution on 1937. However, until this amendment Turkish constitution in a sense defined its citizens as Muslims, a very important identity imposition that would not allow other identities to flourish or protect itself from the state’s pressure. However, by looking at 1928 amendment we can say that Kemalist Republic constitutionally and gradually adopted a progressive and democratic approach to the issue of religion by not imposing any identity to its citizens.

Looking at the constitution, we can say that there should have never emerged a problem in Turkey since the country did not try to impose an ethnic or religious identity to its citizens. However, this was true only on the constitutional level since we look at political and social practices of the state we see that ethnic Turkishness and Sunni Islam was imposed to Turkish citizens. Especially after Sheikh Said Rebellion, Turkish Republic changed its policies towards Kurds and adopted a harsh policy. So, Kurdish language and Kurdish words (including some names of villages and people) were banned and by Order Law[4] harsh punishments were given to people who engaged in the revolt. Another Kurdish revolt called Dersim Rebellion took place in Tunceli in 1937. Nationalist sentiments of French Revolution reached its peak in the 20th century and even disorganized, fragmented tribes like Kurds of the South Eastern Anatolia wanted to establish an independent Kurdish nation state. State’s response to these demands was to increase the dose of ethnic Turkishness in the new state’s educational policy. So, Turkish History Foundation[5] was established to re-write the history of ethnic Turks who are taught to be living in today’s Turkey. The curriculum of the history education was changed and by pseudo scientific theories like “The Turkish History Thesis (Türk Tarih Tezi)” and “The Sun-Language Theory (Güneş Dil Teorisi)” ethnic Turkish nationalism and pan-Turkism was pumped by the state although Kemalist regime was rejecting the ethnic nationalism of Union and Progress Party (İttihad ve Terakki Partisi) in the early years of the Republic. These efforts aimed to exalt Turks as race not as citizens and showed Central Asia instead of Anatolia as the motherland of Turks. This was used deliberately by the state in order to create a new national consciousness and Turkish identity for erasing the memories of the Ottoman heritage and to give self-confidence to a new country’s young people. So, in a sense Atatürk’s civic nationalism which is based on the principle of “How happy who says I am a Turk (Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene)” and Turkey’s judicial-constitutional Turkishness concept were later changed by Republic People’s Party during the conditions of 1930’s authoritarian world and as a reaction to this change, Kurdish nationalist reactions began.

However, we should still note that Kemalist attitude towards Kurds has never been racist like in the Germany or Italy at this time period. Turkish Republic’s homogenization policy towards Kurds continued to exist and with the strengthening of socialist movements in the country in the 1970’s, Kurdish opposition became visible again. One can question here whether Kurdish opposition would grow that much and become that important if democratic rights were given to Kurdish people in the 1920’s, 1930’s or at least earlier in the 1960’s. However, Turkish Republic’s attitude towards Kurds did not change and problems started to grow. Terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers’ Party known as PKK was established by Abdullah Öcalan in the late 1970’s. Öcalan started a separatist guerilla movement in the south eastern part of the country and his organization soon began to gain power. PKK became a real trouble for Turkish state in the 1980’s and 1990’s and the country faced with the danger of civil war. PKK took support from some European countries and some neighbor countries of Turkey including Syria, Greece and Iran. PKK terrorism led to the death of 30.000 Turkish citizens and an important economic waste. Turkish Republic’s indifferent attitude towards Kurds’ cultural rights which is rooted from the 1930’s fascist world order caused the strengthening of violent secessionist organizations like PKK in the country.

Another problematic identity issue in the country took place when Department of Religious Affairs was designed and started to work only for Sunni Muslims by rejecting all Alevi and non-Muslim population of the state. So, in a sense homogenization policy starting from the 1930’s aimed to establish a nation-state having Turk and Sunni population. Again although Turkish state never adopted a racist approach to Alevis or non-Muslims, it did not act in the democratic sense and tried to impose a chosen official identity to the others. Because of this wrong policy, political Islam became a source of new headache for Turkish democracy.

Finally, looking at this picture, we can clearly say that Turkish state created its enemies by its own mistakes because of not implementing the democratic principles of its founding leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In today’s identity-based political atmosphere, these problems could and should be handled without creating more democratic problems within the context of a democratic and secular nation-state. However, in order to that political Islam and ethnic nationalism (both Turkish and Kurdish) should be weakened in the political scene and during the Turkey’s full accession process to European Union a democratic center left (social democratic) party (obviously this should be Republican People's Party) and a democratic center right party (I am very doubtful whether JDP could act as a democratic party) should be established.


- Anderson, Benedict,Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism”, Revised Edition ed. London and New York: Verso, 1991

- Davison, Roderic, Nationalism as an Ottoman Problem and the Ottoman Response” in William W. Haddad and William Ochsenwald, eds., Nationalism in a Non-National State: The Dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1977

- Gözler, Kemal, “Türk Anayasaları”, Bursa: Ekin Kitabevi Yayınları, 1999

- Earle, Edward Mead, “The New Constitution of Turkey”, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 40 issue:1, March 1925

- Tanör, Bülent, “Osmanlı Türk Anayasal Gelişmeleri”, İstanbul: AFA Yayınları, 1995

Ozan Örmeci

[1] Gayri-Müslim in Ottoman

[2] “Türkiye ahalisine din ve ırk farkı olmaksızın vatandaşlık itibarıyla ‘Türk’ ıtlak olunur (denir)”. (Gözler, Kemal, “Türk Anayasaları”, pg 76)

[3] “Türkiye Devletinin dîni, Dîn-i İslâmdır; resmî dili Türkçe’dir, makam Ankara şehridir”. (Gözler, Kemal, “Türk Anayasaları”, pg 73)

[4] Takrir-i Sükun Kanunu in Turkish

[5] Türk Tarih Kurumu, http://www.ttk.gov.tr/

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