One dent at a time, Turkey’s nation-state edifice erodes

July 31, 2009

“Happy is he who calls himself a Turk.”

One of the first things that catches your attention when you drive out of the airport of Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s famous phrase engraved on mountain slopes in big white letters.

Bent on building a secular and modern Turkey after World War One, Ataturk carved a united Turkish nation out of the disparate ethnic and religious groups that inhabited the old Ottoman empire — sometimes by forced “Turkification” as was the case with ethnic Kurds.

That once-monolithic nation state is slowly being dented as pluralism becomes an acceptable fact of life in Turkish society.

Turkey’s announcement this week that it is preparing a “democratic opening” for Kurds has raised hopes the EU candidate country might launch bold reforms to end a conflict that has killed 40,000 people and brought pain to many more.

Cynics have been quick to point out the plan, which might include political, cultural and economic measures, is timed to pre-empt a “road map” that jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan has said he will announce on Aug. 15.

But regardless of its timing, there is no doubt that Turkey is changing.

Unthinkable only a few years ago, there is talk in Ankara’s corridors of power of a “Kurdish initiative”, an “Alevi initiative”, an “Armenian initiative” and even a “Greek Orthodox initiative”.

Ultra-nationalists and diehard statists are crying treason, fearing the dismemberment of the republic, and have accused the government of selling out Turkey to the European Union and the United States.

Some secular conservatives, always suspicious of a government with roots in political Islam, see change as part of a hidden plot to subvert Turkey’s secular constitution and promote religion in public life.

Many of these changes have been motivated by Ankara’s desire to join the EU and meet membership criteria, such as expanding rights to minorities and more free speech. Critics say the government is using the EU to advance its own agenda, and free the strictures on religious freedoms of Muslims.

But they also respond to demands from an increasingly dynamic, urban and diverse society open to global trends.

Bronze statues of Ataturk still gaze over Turkey decades after they were built but some of his ideals, such as a single Turkish nation using a single language, might be obsolete.

“Turkey belongs to the Turks,” goes another of Ataturk’s commonly cited phrases, but Turks are also more worldly.

The thriving middle class goes on holidays to Europe and other world destinations. News from all corners of the world is broadcast 24 hours a day. This has brought a different understanding toward diversity within its own borders.

The Kurdish, Alevi, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox initiatives reflect the growing pressure Turkey is facing to redefine a straightjacket notion of identity which no longer fits its society, analysts say.

Some newspapers have speculated the government is considering removing open displays of the “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk” slogan in the mainly Kurdish southeast to ease tensions. For years, Turkey’s official ideology had rejected the notion that Kurds were a separate ethnic group and the display of the slogans was seen as an attempt at forced assimilation.

“Turkey still has a long way to go to solve these issues, but the fact that we have moved from the stage of chronic problems to that of initiatives is noted by everyone,” Ibrahim Kalin wrote recently in the pro-government Zaman daily.


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This is a cliché often used by the Western media unfamiliar with the history and culture of Turkey. “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk.” is not a blood-relation-based saying, as often portrayed or misinterpreted, but a state of mind that denotes citizenship. You can trace family tree to a Turk, a Kurd, an Arab, a Laz, and/or one from hundreds of other ethnic groups; as long as “you called yourself a Turk, you are a Turk.” (Just like you can be an Italian, a Latino, an Asian, or belong to one of hundreds of ethnic backgrounds; at the end of the day, you are an American. Is America a nation state? Loaded words like “nation state”, “edifice” “eroded”, therefore, can only help misrepresent a phase in Turkish politics

Posted by Ergun Kirlikovali | Report as abusive

I agree with the other comment. It is OK for an American to be proud to be an American yet be just immigrated to the US 20 years ago. So, It is OK for one to be “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk.”

Turks are Kurds, Circissians, Laz, Georgians and all the others who make up the country within its borders in last 1000 years.

Turkey bashing must end !

Posted by Bogus Article | Report as abusive

Kurds never call themselves Turks. Ataturk used to deny existence of Kurdish nation and used to call Kurds “Mountain turks” which is why Ataturk has never been popular among Kurds. The fact that you see these writing more in Kurdish areas and seen less often in the Turkish cities, is because Turkish state tried to forcefully implement Ataturk legacy of assimilation of Kurds.
But after 90 years, Kurdish people in North Kurdistan remained proud of their Kurdishness and rejected assimilation; now Turks understand that they can never ever force Kurds to become Turks and to be part of globalised world they have to change accept pluralism.

Posted by soran | Report as abusive

My mum’s side is Kurdish and they are from Elazig. They also consider themselves Turks as per the explanation of the first poster. Clowns like Soran, are bitter wannabe heros from the mess that is Iraq. He should go and preach Iraqi politics and history, not Turkey’s!

Posted by Doug | Report as abusive

Soran is right, the Kurds I’ve met speak of themselves as Kurdish and not Turkish, they are proud of their culture and there’s nothing wrong about that. Mutual respect is the magic word!

Posted by Nikkei 225 | Report as abusive

This is preposterous; ” One dent at a time, Turkey’s nation-state Edifice Erodes”. What have you been smoking fellow? You must be employing only Armenian or Greek editors… Wake up Europe “Turks are coming, again!..”

Posted by mok10501 | Report as abusive

Kurdish language and heritage should be respected and given its proper place. A small nation like Belgium, Swiss and a large one like India honor multiple languages as their recognized national languages. Turkey, Iraq, Iran and others must make kurdish as their recognized national languages without any delay.

Posted by Azad | Report as abusive

While the taboos of discussing “the Kurdish issue” and “the Armenian issue” have been lifted in the last few years, Turkey is hardly ready to deal with them with openness and honesty. Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code makes it a crime to insult Turkey and its institutions. This makes free debate all but impossible. Until, freedom of speech and human rights become fundamental rights in Turkey, the country will be unable to deal with the Armenian Genocide and the Kurdish issue.

Posted by Hovsep | Report as abusive

The Turks, by trying to denounce the Kurds, are hoping to hold onto their own self-identity. Therefore, they are trying in every way not to deal with the issue. Turkey spends money every year in an attempt to prove that the Armenian Genocide did not occur. So, not much hope can be put upon the initiatives of the Kurdish, Alevi, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox. It seems like Turkey will not attempt to do much to have the Kurds accepted in their state, and if it is impossible to get the Kurds accepted, not much else can be done for the Alevi’s, Armenian’s or Greek Orthodox’s.

Posted by Christina | Report as abusive

Given the separation that exists in ethnic identity, the effectiveness of these initiatives should be considered. Turkey spends millions of dollars every year to lobby in the US against the idea of the Armenian genocide, it is a crime to insult Turkishness-which limits freedom of speech. Are these initiatives really going to get at the root at the ethnic tensions that exist in Turkey?

Posted by kira | Report as abusive