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HomeHeadlineRethinking Turkey's Identity: Unraveling the Complex Threads of Nationalism and Diversity

Rethinking Turkey’s Identity: Unraveling the Complex Threads of Nationalism and Diversity

As Turkey incorporates expansionist ambitions towards the territories, territorial waters, exclusive economic zones, and other sovereignty rights of other countries into its foreign policy, it is essentially opening up discussions about its own borders. In other words, it is cutting the branch it is sitting on.

The Lausanne Treaty defined the borders of the modern Republic of Turkey about 100 years ago. The presence of serious questions and issues regarding the criteria for determining those borders and the ethnic, political, cultural, social, economic, etc. integrity of the population within them does not change this reality.

The artificial ethnic-Turkish identity, built upon the fabrication of the pseudo-Turkish historical thesis since the era of the Young Turks, became a state policy with the declaration of the republic. On one hand, the assimilationist identity policies that aimed to ensure the Turkification of everyone living within Turkey’s borders within the framework of Ziya Gökalp’s “Turkishness” theory, and on the other hand, the foundations of the Oghuzism-Turanism ideas that went beyond this framework, were conflicting approaches. Therefore, ideological diversification was inevitable.

Turkish nationalism emphasized both a civic superior identity narrative and the continued discourse of “external Turks” based on the migration myth from Central Asia. Thus, the approach of “how fortunate is the one who can say, ‘I am Turkish'” coexisted parallells with the discourse of “we have kin outside.” This conflicting situation did not go unnoticed by minorities within the country who did not consider themselves Turkish. Especially Kurds realized that the imposed Turkish identity was not a civic superordinate allegiance but rather an ethnic-assimilationist imposition, and they naturally resisted. This situation was not well received by Turkey’s political decision-makers. Moreover, instead of recognizing the danger in time and taking precautions, they intensified the ethnic-Turkist rhetoric.

During the first 10 years of the Republic, there was a clear emphasis on ethnic and racial aspects that shaped the Turkish identity. Efforts were made to position, classify, comparatively evaluate, measure skulls, and fabricate the pre-Turk theory, which was entirely baseless and a product of imagination, to counter the inconsistencies of the migration myth from Central Asia and to use it as a historical argument against the Greco-Roman presence of Anatolian natives. It’s not possible to reject these and say “Turkish identity is a civic-cultural identity, therefore not an ethnic-racial identity.”

While Kemalist Turkey could have pursued a cultural nationalism that was non-ethnic and non-racial in building the nation, it is clear that they did not choose this path. The official historical theses constantly centered around the “Turkish migration” that allegedly changed Anatolia’s ethnic structure. They also denied historical facts like mixing with the native Christian populations of Anatolia. The narrative of Turkish influx replacing these populations and reducing them to minorities became the dominant story in school textbooks and state-supported/guided academia. By imposing this curriculum on children, numerous generations were raised within a century. The number of intellectuals who critically analyzed and questioned these policies’ resulting contradictions and inconsistencies was minimal, and they, too, were marginalized.

With the establishment of the Republic, the borders drawn within the framework of the Lausanne Treaty began to be seriously questioned in Turkey starting from the 1990s. Due to the historical thesis and the fabricated identity created, the new generations positioned themselves not as the authentic owners of Anatolia but as the descendants of later conquerors. Furthermore, conflicts that resembled blood feuds emerged with kindred peoples of Anatolian natives due to the irrational identity policies imposed by the republic on young generations. Greeks and Armenians were the “others” of this absurd identity. According to Turkey’s official history, these “others” subjugated by later conquering Turks were consistent with modern events such as the Armenian and Greek genocides, the Wealth Tax, and the September 6/7 Pogrom, adhering to the same narrative.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, leading to the emergence of 15 new states in its former territories. Turkey established special relations with those among them who had Turkish roots. The rationale for these relations was that the people of these countries were seen as “Turks” in Turkey. During the same period, Turkey argued against the Kurdish separatist movement by asserting the thesis that everyone in Turkey is “Turkish,” attempting to portray Turkishness as a superior identity.

While overt policies of “integration and cooperation” were pursued with the so-called Turkish Republics, the concept of a “Turkic World” was mentioned from the Balkans to the Great Wall of China. The propaganda of the 21st century being a “Turkish century” was disseminated. During these years, while Kurds were engaging with their “kin” outside of Turkey, Ankara denied the reality of Kurds being Kurds in Northern Iraq, banned using the term “Kurd” for them, and claimed that they were Peshmerga fighters. Many “academics” on Turkish television claimed that Kurds were a “tribe of Turks,” that they had no language and spoke a broken dialect of Persian. Some “academics” even wrote these claims in “academic” books and articles.

During the same years, Turkey rightly criticized the assimilation policy targeting the Turkish minority in Bulgaria under Todor Zhivkov’s regime. Turkey highlighted the forced change of names of Turkish-origin Bulgarian citizens, their coercion into speaking Bulgarian, and the ban on using Turkish for communication, publications, and folklore, informing both domestic and international public opinion in this regard. However, Turkey did not refrain from applying the same practices to its own citizens of Kurdish origin. Kurds faced the same suppression experienced by Turkish-origin Bulgarians in Bulgaria. They were prevented from giving their children names in their own language, and the names of villages, towns, and neighborhoods were forcibly changed. Speaking Kurdish and publishing in Kurdish were banned.

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Today, the “Turks” living in Turkey emerged as a result of the mixing of a limited number of Central Asian-origin political-military class that came to Anatolia in the 11th century with the Anatolian natives, whose numbers exceed ten million. From the 11th century onwards, millions of Anatolian natives underwent religious and linguistic assimilation and began to Islamize and “Turkify” (in linguistic-cultural terms) themselves. The genetic pool of people who today identify as “Turkish” in Anatolia includes a significant presence of ethnicities like Greco-Roman, Armenian, Assyrian, Kurdish, Arab, Caucasian, Balkan, etc. This reality proves that those of Turkish-speaking background are actually Anatolian natives. Historical, art historical, folkloric, cultural, sociological, and anthropological realities also confirm this. Renowned Ottoman history scholar Halil İnalcık also wrote about these facts.

Today, I believe that the ultra-radical, racist Turkish nationalist trend has gone out of control. One of the main reasons for the chaos in Turkey is the insistence on maintaining this malignant identity, which is disconnected from the Anatolian geography and ethno-nationalist in nature. When academics criticize this racist attitude, they are oddly accused of racism! Writing or stating that Turkophones are not ethnically Turkish, based on DNA data, is ironically and comically portrayed as racism by the racist Turkish nationalists.

This malignant identity concept is currently the most serious separatist discourse in Turkey. The racist historical theses of the 1920s and 1930s must be abandoned immediately. A civic identity based on the Anatolian geography should be established.

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Dr. Mehmet Efe Caman is a Scholar of Politics at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). Dr. Caman’s main research focuses on Democracy, democratization and human rights, Turkish politics, the Middle East, Eurasian politics and post-Soviet regions, the European Union. He has published a monograph on Turkish foreign policy, numerous book chapters and scholarly articles in English, German and Turkish about topics related to his research areas.

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