Who is a Turk?



Creating a nation requires creating a national myth that bonds the population together. National myths require rejecting parts of history that don’t fit, refashioning history in ways that do fit, or creating entirely new stories. This process has gone on in many nations around the world, and is in a sense nothing new.
I, like many Turks, grew up with a love/hate relationship with the West. Can I be both Muslim and Western? Why are we copying the West anyway? Does that mean we are not good enough? Why are we giving up our civilization, values, script, calendar and dress? Is everything related to Western civilization somehow better and ours inferior?
What makes the creation of Turkish identity so interesting is that its accompanying myths embody dilemmas that are not just relevant to Turkey but remain central to debates around the world, about the West and Islam, about nationhood and ethnic identity, about the balance between state hegemony and individual rights.
Who is a “Turk”? Of course the idea of this identity didn’t come out of nowhere. A “Turk” was looked down upon in the Ottoman Empire; it was a name mainly attributed to the peasants of Anatolia while the citizens of the empire were called Osmanl? (Ottoman). I am not quite sure why, but the Europeans, who called Ottomans “Turks,” thought that Turks were different, enigmatic and to be feared. Italians, for example, threatened misbehaving children with “The Turks are coming!” (I Turchi vengono).
Whether they were called Ottomans or Turks by Europeans didn’t matter to the Ottoman elite, as long as the empire was in its ascendant phase. But by the late 19th and early 20th century, it was becoming apparent that the “Ottoman” identity no longer held the empire together. Attempts were made to prolong the loyalty of Christian minorities to the empire by redefining the Ottoman identity, promising them greater freedoms and equality with the Muslim elite, but the forces of nationalism had already swayed many.
The empire next tried to use the thread of common “Muslimness” to integrate its remaining territories. But there were large Muslim populations, such as Arabs, who did not find a common Muslim identity sufficiently attractive to convince them to continue to live under Ottoman rule. The Young Turk movement came into being under these conditions, desperately searching for a new identity to integrate the remaining populations of the fast-disintegrating empire.

The problem was that these lands were populated by myriad ethnicities who had mixed together for centuries: Turkish speaking Rum (the Greek Orthodox people of Anatolia who had been there for centuries), Circassians, Armenians, Alevis, Turkmen, Kurds, Assyrians, Arabs, Jews and more. Were they now all going to be called Turks? Not for a while longer.

Mustafa Kemal, the leader of the war against Turkey’s occupying powers, first welcomed all of these groups in joining in the fight for independence. He understandably wanted to establish as broad a coalition as possible to maximize his chances of success. He promised autonomy to the Kurds who fought alongside his forces; he announced that religious or ethnic affiliation did not matter in the common quest to save the country. But after the war for independence was won, and the new nation-state of Turkey was established, it was a different matter. Mustafa Kemal and his friends crushed all opposition and were now in a position to fashion a new nation, literally creating it from scratch as they saw fit.

I grew up in this new nation and recited the Pledge of Allegiance loudly and enthusiastically every morning at school. It went like this:

I am Turkish, truthful and hardworking.

My principles are to protect those younger than me, to respect my elders and love my nation more than my own essence.

My ideal is to progress, to rise above all.

Oh great Atatürk, I pledge that I will incessantly walk towards the goal you have shown me on the road that you opened up for me.

Let my being be a gift to the Turkish entity.

How happy are those who say they are Turks!

When I read this today after many years, a number of them spent abroad, it makes me feel a bit differently about my “Turkishness.” I see that the state elites’ need to instill the people with pride in being Turks clashed with their desire for Westernization and modernity, and that they badly wanted to bring the two together. The new republic’s history books defined Turks as an honorable and strong race which came from Central Asia. Central Asia represented the cradle of all civilizations, including Western civilization. I suppose this was the new way to link Turks with Western civilization and show that they were one and the same. But the link remained a little weak, to say the least.

I, like many Turks, grew up with a love/hate relationship with the West. Can I be both Muslim and Western? Why are we copying the West anyway? Does that mean we are not good enough? Why are we giving up our civilization, values, script, calendar and dress? Is everything related to Western civilization somehow better and ours inferior? Why, at the same time, are we being asked to feel pride in being a Turk? This desire to become Western, or to “become the other,” lies at the core of the identity crisis that has existed in Turkey throughout its history. We were told: You are not good enough as you are, you must change, you must emulate the West. On the one hand, we want the West to accept us, admire us, take us in as “one of them.” This currently manifests as membership in the EU. But then we are afraid that we would “lose” our identity completely, disappear and “become the other.” There is a feeling of emptiness, of desolation, and a fear of the state of being a stranger to yourself that comes with this idea. The West is not exempt from this dilemma either: It has also constructed its identity, framing the vast territories it colonized, including Muslim territories, as “the other,” “its shadowy, dark self” as Edward Said put it.

In my own experience, I tried to integrate my Turkishness and Westernness into one identity, but I saw that it didn’t quite work abroad. I considered myself modern and Western vis-à-vis other Turks who were, in my view, not as modern in Turkey: those who were less educated, who were not part of the elite. Once I got to North America, however, I found that I was the one considered to be from the “periphery” there; that being from a developing country, from Turkey, I was not considered a “Westerner” at all. Those definitions of modernity turned out to be quite relative: “Where are you from? Turkey — where is Turkey? Is it Arab, isn’t there terrorism there, and is it somewhere close to India? Do you speak turkey over there?” Bombarded with such questions, I preferred to hide my identity, and hoped no one would ask. I began to feel quite inferior. But inevitably, because of my accent, someone would put the question yet again, “Where are you from?” which I hated. Of course, no one could pronounce my name either.

I saw that despite its well-organized efforts to create a national myth, create a new national identity and to foster a clean break with the past, the new republic perhaps could not completely erase memories after all. Like many Turks, I began to excavate remnants of my past. Who am I? Where does my family come from? Was there really that complete a break with the past when Turkey was founded? What happened to my relatives who lived through the demise of the empire?

The problem was that the national myth and its accompanying policies had been so successful that I was a stranger to my own grandfather, because I could not read his articles written in Arabic script (as switching to Latin script in 1927 was one of Atatürk’s policies to make the break with the Ottoman past, and to Westernize the nation). Even if I could read Arabic script, the language was so ornate and so different from modern-day Turkish (another of Atatürk’s modernization policies) that I needed an Ottoman-Turkish dictionary.

Once I dug into my family history, I found forgotten, hidden and suppressed identities. My grandmother’s father is a “Rum,” the descendent of a Byzantine “Tekfur” who fought alongside the Ottomans and later converted to Islam. My grandmother’s mother is the grandchild of the revered Kurdish leader Mir Bedirhan, who ruled a large semi-autonomous Kurdish territory in the Ottoman Empire. My great uncle’s wife is Greek but had to change her name and religion in order to marry the love of her life. My family adopted a girl and included her in our family registry. She was born in 1910, in Erzincan in Eastern Turkey. She could very well be Armenian, as many Armenian children were saved and adopted by Turkish families during that time. I now look at Greeks, Armenians and Kurds with a very different eye, now that I know I belong to each one in some way. I then began to ask myself many questions about who really is a Turk.

The last point of the Pledge of Allegiance, that individual sacrifice is necessary for the good of the nation, is also being debated nowadays. In the Ottoman Empire, everyone was a “kul,” a servant of God, and by implication, a servant of the sultan, who was also the caliph, the representative of God on earth. Thus, everyone had to be ready to sacrifice him or herself if the sultan deemed it necessary. But now the nation comes first, and one must sacrifice oneself to the nation, the individual sacrifice remaining constant.

The tradition of several hundred years of priority of the state over the individual continues. The rise of nationalism in Europe had to a large extent contributed to the decline of the Ottoman Empire, as European powers fomented nationalist movements within the multiethnic Ottoman Empire. By the early 1920s, the empire became defunct, divided and devoured by Western powers, which had been plotting its demise for a long time. The carving up of the Ottoman Empire has left some very strong marks on the memory of the nation, to the point that even today, deep fear lingers that Western powers would still try to destroy Turkey if they had a chance, that they are waiting to finish up what they started with the Treaty of Sèvres. To this day, the EU principles of minority rights, democracy and self-rule are seen by some as European ploys to break Turkey apart, beginning with carving out a new state, the state of Kurdistan, from the land that is now Turkey. Thus, the preservation of the unity of the state and the priority of the state over the individual continue to dominate the Turkish political scene.

In conclusion, I think there is a strong potential for redefining Turkish identity, to reconsider the question of “Who is a Turk?” Turkey is not for Turks (defined in ethnic terms), but Turkey is for the citizens of Turkey. This means that there can be no discrimination against citizens of Turkey on the basis of ethnicity and religion. The only requirements are loyalty to the preservation of Turkey’s territorial unity and openness to dialogue and compromise.

As more and more individuals look into their past and find out the suppressed and redefined identities in their families, open discussion is beginning to take place in the society at large. Films are being made that show love affairs between young people of different sects of Islam, between Turks and Greeks, and novels and oral histories are being written about and by people investigating their past and uncovering secrets. As people find out about their diverse identities, it will be harder and harder to point the finger at any group as “the other.”

Finally, Turkey is no longer blindly following and emulating the West, as it comes into its own economically and politically. Thus, the opportunity to define its own identity without pretending to be something else has arrived. I am convinced that this cultural confidence, this open investigation about who we are individually, will also lead to greater flexibility and openness between the state and citizens, providing fear doesn’t take over.

*Nükhet Kardam is a professor at the Graduate School of International Policy and Management at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a graduate school of Middlebury College. nkardam@miis.edu

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