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"Being Turkish" or "being from Turkey"? Identity debate in Turkey


Standpoint of Turkey

"Being Turkish" or "being from Turkey"? Identity debate in Turkey

Arus Yumul


Arus Yumul


If the Ottoman Empire considered itself as-although it had been an unfair- multi-ethnic and multi-religious state, the Republic of Turkey on the other hand immediately sought to impose a unique identity in the face of language, religion and culture. A number of groups, starting with the Kurds, were assimilated to Turkish national identity. The non-Muslim Christian and Jewish minorities, on the other hand, were symbolically rejected outside the framework of national affiliation. We discussed with Arus Yumul, a sociologist at Bilgi University in Istanbul, the debate between "being Turkish" (Türk) and "being from Turkey" (Türkiyeli). Talking about Turkish citizens often means defending the assimilation of minorities in the name of an exclusive identity, as indicates the nationalistic motto "How happy is the one who says I am Turk!". By contrats, speaking of citizens of Turkey means seeking to decouple citizenship and majority culture in favor of a plural and multicultural conception of identity.

When the Turk and Türkiyeli discussion started?

This is not a new argument. During the foundation of the Republic, there was a debate whether to use or not the notion of Türkiyeli but then later on the decision was made for using the word Turk. But in the 1990’s, when identity and in more general terms being ethnic became “fashionable”, especially those who were outside/left outside of the dominant identity entered the “identity policy”. On one hand they claimed the preservation of their cultures within the framework of multiculturalism and on the other hand they claimed the injustices, the oppressions they faced. With multiculturalism being fashionable in the world, the ethnic groups that were downsized to “lower identity” started to ask “why our identity is to be considered as “lower identity” under the dominant identity, why can’t we express openly our own identity”. It was then that the Türkiyeli notion was offered instead of Turk as a comprehensive umbrella identity (they have even offered to say Anadolulu (from Anatolia)). But this has been taken as an “insult”. Questioning the appellation of the dominant identity was considered as audacity and a strong counter-discourse started almost simultaneously.

Where does this claim come from, minorities would not dare claiming such a thing, was it rather the Kurds?

Minorities are minorities as the name implies. Of course it came from the Kurds. Let’s say Muslims that weren’t Turks, but Kurds being the most populous one amongst them, they and the liberals expressed it. Minorities' place is different, their status was fixed with the Lausanne Treaty; in the prevailing perception and because of their religion they are outside of the nation definition.

When we go back in time from the Republic era, we notice the Ottoman notion. Saying Ottoman Armenian, Ottoman Greek was considered very normal and it was actually accepted by the Ottoman Empire.

Ottoman Empire comprised different identities; it was based on the empire logic. But there were no equality among the different identities; there was a distinction between millet-i hakime (dominant nation) and millet-i mahkume (dominated nation). There was a hierarchy between the Muslim and non-Muslim populations. Although Ottomanism idea aimed to bring an end to this inequality it wasn’t admitted for a long time, it mainly stayed as a non-applicable abstract principle. Turkism was the winning ideology and Turkification policies were enforced.

If we take into consideration all political processes since the foundation of the Republic could we say Turkish identity notion underwent a lot of change?

Theoretically, the Republic of Turkey, in accordance with civil/republican/assimilationist nation model based on land and equal citizenship, defines “Turk” everybody living within the country frontiers and linked to the citizenship of the Republic of Turkey without considering religious, linguistic, ethnic origins. This definition sets forth “Turk” as a state citizenship in political sense and not in ethnic sense. But juristically, the definition of “Turk” determined as state citizenship includes in fact ethnic and religious as well as civil elements. As Sevan Nişanyan showed, three distinct meanings were attributed to “Turk” and “Turkish nation” terms since the foundation of the republic: 1) the political /republican definition saying that “all Turkish citizen, adopting Turkish language, culture and national ideal are Turk; 2) the religious/Islamic definition saying that “Turkey’s Muslim people are Turk”; 3) the ethnic/racist definition saying that “Central Asia’s autochthonous inhabitants are Turk”. These three definitions find place in the official understanding through different rate and emphasis making the Republic’s Turk definition an ambiguous notion in which political, religious and ethnic elements are interlocked.

You have mentioned the political identity notion, could we then say that Turk and Türkiyeli is a citizenship issue, or an identity or political issue. Where does the problem lay?

19th century is the century that has seen the foundation and proliferation of nation-states and there are various ways of founding nation-state. Nation-states considering dominant identity, principal identity as the essential identity, are predominant. Symbols, myths, languages, historic narratives of these countries including Turkey take form around a dominant identity, what others are expected to do is to interiorize this identity, lock up their own identities described as lower-identity in a special space and go out to public space with these identities.

How Turk and Türkiyeli are described in this debate?

When you say that everybody is Turk, you expect from other identities to accept this identity, as it is mentioned in the motto “How happy is the one who says I am Turk”. The word Türkiyeli on the other hand mentions a geographical area and accepts the existence of different identities living on that geography, like saying Americans.

What is the role of AKP in all this, if there is such a role of course?

Of course they have a role to play in! With Turkey’s candidacy to EU, there was a change; the notion of Türkiyeli was part of the debates then. It was Süleyman Demirel who said “I recognize the Kurdish reality” but with AKP, identities were expressed, debated more easily, there were claims. We need to add to that the multiculturalist debate in the world. But we don’t know what the direction is.

The Türkiyeli and Turk debate seemed to be postponed, how did this debate died away?

Türkiyeli identity was debated a lot when the EU process started, this supra-identity they said, need to be accepted, but the process stopped, the peace process ended, clashes started and these debates dropped off the map. Multiculturalism is out of fashion in the world. The idea of assimilation of different identities to the principal identity, at the very least its integration was at the forefront. And in a short time, multiculturalist debate has been re-characterized by the dominant identity as the protection of own identity.

Origin is one of the word that’s often used. i.e. they say Turk of Armenian origin… Do you think this origin word is problematic?

This understanding fits the disassociation between Turk and Türkiyeli. Armenian from Turkey or Turk of Armenian origin? Using the word Kurd, or saying that there were Kurds had been a taboo for many years. These were words that would require some criminal actions. On the other hand the situation was different for the non-Muslim minorities. Their identity was described as “minority” by the state via an international treaty. Nevertheless, the use of the word origin even for minorities is actually a manifestation of the nation-state logic. We should not forget that in this country there were some official documents published, characterizing non-Muslims as “local-foreigners”.

During the foundation of Turkey the main objective was to assimilate Muslims who weren’t Turks and Turkify them and when it comes to non-Muslims the objective was to dissimilate them. Although they have been subject of various assimilation policies such as “Citizen speak Turkish”, non-Muslims were not considered Turk due to their religion, the “they are not the actual or future members of the imaginary community called nation” understanding prevailed. You can notice this in the Republic era policies.

You have mentioned “Citizen speak Turkish”, when I look back at the past of the Turk or Türkiyeli debate I think of something very common; Those who speak Turkish are Turk. How should we evaluate this?

Language plays an important role in nationalist ideology. Religion was the main identifier on these territories before nationalism; this has been replaced by language with nationalism. This aimed to Turkify all non Turkish Muslims as well as to have linguistic unity. Language became not only the state’s official language as other symbols of dominant identity but it has also been accepted as the nation’s mother tongue language.

The debate on nationalism is also related with the definition of nation. Turkish nation is the name of a supra-identity or the name of an ethnic group?

Dominant identities do not use the ethnicity notion for themselves; their identity is the national identity. In the modernist understanding, a product of the nation-state, through modernization, the ethnic identity, result of an “undeveloped” understanding would lose of its importance in front of national identity considered as the final stop of progress referring to a “developed” phenomenon. This understanding didn’t change even in the 90’s where the ethnicity issue was very fashionable. It is way after that one questioned whether the main identities that lend their name to state-nations, pointed out a belonging to an ethnic group or not.

Do you think we would have this debate if everybody was really equal in practice, without making any religious, linguistic or race distinction as it is written in the Constitution? Would the word Turk be still problematic?

Maybe not, because the problem is beyond this being dwelled on an appellation. If different groups' identity rights were accepted, the problem might have still surged but it wouldn’t be that violent. One should have predicted that the “you don’t exist” understanding would have been retaliated with the “we exist and we are here” understanding.

When we look at nowadays Turkey what are the elements that build the Turkish identity?

That is a difficult question. I don’t think that there are constant, unchangeable elements that constitute an identity. Identities change, evolve, some elements are taken out of its definition, others are added, identities limits change sometimes, sometimes they are narrowed, these definitions might change according to the conjuncture.

Following the July 15th coup attempt, Turkish society seems to re-structure its identity. For example the flag used to be the nationalists’ symbol and suddenly it also became the symbol of Islamists. There is this impression like Islamists are the ones constructing Turkish identity, is that so?

Baskın Oran describes the ideal identity for the founders of the Republic as “LaHaSüMüT”. Laic, Muslim Hanafi, Sunnite and Turk. With September 12 coup, they tried to create a Turkish-Islam synthesis and we have been told that this was the principal identity. With AKP’s coming to power, Islamist part of the society considering themselves as outsiders of the idealized identity and wishing to carry their identity on public and political scene, started to transform Turkish identity. But I don’t think that Islamists are not nationalist. Their difference from the laics is that they unite nationalist symbols with religious symbols. Founders of the Republic used to put the emphasis on history of Turks before Islam, whereas today, it’s the history once Turks became Muslim that is prominent.

But of course, nationalist feelings and degrees are very different. One is more Turkist while the other one is a more Islamist nationalism and another one is based on laicism. But as far as I can see nationalism is a feeling that has its roots in all parts of society in the country.

According to you how the identity issue should be handled in the Constitution so that it is satisfying for everybody?

Citizenship is a judicial notion, it gives you some rights, confers you some responsibilities but in today’s world I don’t know if it is still valid to associate citizenship with a certain identity. I believe we predict that some of the refugees who came to Turkey will be permanent here. In such a world imposing an identity will be difficult. Citizenship apprehension changes also. Should we give the right to vote or not to those who are not citizens is debated, new dimensions are added to the classical citizenship definition.

Citizenship, identity, culture are the topics that are subject of debates in many places around the world. The consequences of economic globalization, civil wars and political crisis have caused massive immigration that resulted with nationalist, isolationist, excluding the “other” counter-reaction. That is why, this is not only Turkey’s problem but also the world’s problem. Who is the one coming, leaving? How are we going to keep these people in this country, who are we going to accept or refuse, what rights are we going to give them, these are all the subjects that are going to be discussed again.

Difference is the descriptive characteristic of the societies, but we are about to lose our already fragile living together ability. We dream of creating ourselves places composed of pure identities by transforming diversity to alterity. We see the existence of those who don’t look like us, the migrants and the refugees as a pathologic situation. In fact if we had- this is of course a utopia- instead of dividing the world with artificial frontiers in countries, a conception of world that is open to everybody, that belongs to everybody then maybe we would have been able to live in a more peaceful world.

Interview by Lilit Gasparyan



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