Amid reports that Turkey may soon unveil reforms intended to quell tensions with the country’s Kurdish minority, Turkey is moving ahead with its bid for European Union membership.
Conflict in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast has claimed 40,000 lives.
Selma Şevkli is a freelance reporter currently based in Bodrum, Turkey. She describes how the country has struggled to define its “Türküm,” which translates as Turkishness.
In 2005, Turkish lawmakers made it a crime to insult Turkey or Turkishness. Until last year, criticizing Turkishness was even punishable with up to three years in prison. Even as Turkey moves forward in the process of acceding to the European Union, it has moved further into its nationalistic bubble.
Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code — criminalizing insults against “Turkish identity” — was used famously to incriminate writer Orhan Pamuk for accusing the Turkish government of complicity in murdering 30,000 Kurds and one million Armenians. The law has since been used to indict publishers, journalists and novelists. Our freedom of speech is hampred by our undying nationalistic political culture.
What is Turkishness? Is it a sort of nationality? A form of ethnicity? Or the name of one specific citizenship? As almost one-third of Turkey’s population consists of Kurds who are legally referred to as Turkish, the question has become increasingly significant.
As I was researching secular Turkish nationalism for my graduate thesis, my first question to the people I interviewed was “What is Turkishness?” The answers varied widely, but for many people, it was a race or ethnicity. My second question asked whether Turkishness should include other ethnic groups in Turkey — Kurds, Armenians, Greeks and many other smaller groups. After all, who qualifies as a Turk?
Turkish nationalism has been integral to the official discourse in Turkey since the beginning of the Turkish Republic in 1923. But for most of Turkey’s history, we have largely pretended that all our citizens are ethnically Turkish. The various ethnic and religious minorities have generally been ignored, forced to emigrate or assimilate. The issue of Turkish nationalism only became visible when the Turkish state was compelled to assess its ignorance and change its policies toward minorities — in soliciting an invitation to join the EU.
For many years, there was a total ban on Kurdish language and culture, as well as political pressure and economic restrictions in the Kurdish-populated region of the country. But things are changing now. Turkish state TV established a channel that broadcasts in Kurdish, which is a major departure from the language ban. Significant violence is ongoing, though less intense than ten years ago. It seems that policies dealing with cultural rights are making a difference.
Kurds are finally moving one step forward in Turkey, even though it is largely symbolic. Other minorities are not mentioned as much as the Kurds in the media, since their numbers are not as significant and they do not assert their rights as aggressively.
The Turkish state is suffering from its enduring ignorance towards other ethnic groups and an inability to adapt itself to the contemporary world. Although political reforms and new cultural policies seem to indicate a gradual shift, there needs to be a sea change in order to implement reforms more effectively and sincerely. For one thing, minorities should be mentioned in history class as essential parts of Turkey — instead of cited as national enemies. Patient and devoted, Turkey’s minorities have chosen to be a part of this country, and so it is time to recognize their rightful place in our society.
– Selma Şevkli
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