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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 8    Issue 1   16-31 May 2013

Turkey: Reinventing National Identity

Professor A. R. Momin


The issue of national identity has acquired a great deal of prominence in the last three decades as a result of certain events and circumstances around the world, including the collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent nation-states in Central Asia in the early 1990s, the breakup of Yugoslavia along ethnic lines in the 1990s, the civil war, ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1991-92, large-scale international migrations and the growing visibility of transnational diasporas, growing ethnic conflicts and violence in several countries, and the project of European integration launched under the auspices of the European Union.

The issue of national identity, especially in the context of the growing recognition of cultural diversity around the world, has come to be surrounded by a great deal of contestation and controversy. At the same time, one can notice a growing concern among politicians and governments in many countries with the need to have a consensus about national identity. Gordon Brown, former British prime minister, argued for the need to revive and revalue British national identity in 2006. The former French president Nicolas Sarkozy launched a highly controversial debate about French national identity in 2008. Interestingly, the French cabinet includes a minister for immigration and national identity.

The discourse of national identity straddles across the boundaries of several disciplines and is closely intertwined with issues of cultural diversity, ethnicity and identity, models of societal cohesion, globalization, citizenship, secularism and minority rights. The early theorists of nationalism, such as Herder and Fichte, believed that human identity could be understood in a framework of interpretation and that the fundamental interpretive framework which enables humans to become aware of themselves and of others was provided by language and cultural symbols. They argued that language is a fundamental constituent of national identity. Herder argued that a nation is constituted through its language and culture.

According to the classical theory of the state, which was based on the assumption of a culturally homogeneous population, national identity was defined in terms of the ethos, cultural traditions and ethnic identity of the dominant national group. National identity is often expressed in terms of a set of symbolic representations and social and cultural items, including a common language, shared historical experiences, national emblems, cultural traditions and ethos, historical and cultural legacies, and monuments and cultural sites (including intangible cultural legacies). Anthony Smith says that individuals as well as groups have multiple collective identities, which are generally defined through gender, kinship, space or territory (local or regional identity), class, education, occupation, institution, religion, ethnicity, race, culture and nationality. He bases his conceptualization of national identity on the premise of an ethnic community, or ethnie, which is held to be the precursor of the nation. He says that national identity is a complex construct composed of a number of interrelated components, including territorial, economic, legal-political, ethnic and cultural. Smith argues that national identity entails some sense of political community with common institutions and a single code of rights and duties for all members of that political community. He enumerates five fundamental features of national identity: (i) an historic territory, or homeland (ii) common myths and historical memories (iii) a common, mass public culture (iv) common legal rights and duties for all members (v) a common economy with territorial mobility for members. Benedict Anderson argues that myths, memories, values and symbols play an important role in the formation of nations, in societal cohesion and in the construction of national identity. Montserrat Guibernau says that “consciousness of forming a group with a shared history, culture and territory plays a fundamental part in the construction of national identity.’

The classical view of a monolithic, homogeneous national identity, which was premised on the assumption of cultural homogeneity, has become highly problematic in the context of multiethnic societies, globalization, large-scale migrations and the growing visibility of transnational diasporas, the growing recognition of human rights, and the resurgence of minority identities across large parts of the world. Ethnic and cultural diversity within national populations has made it extremely difficult for states to ensure societal cohesion and national unity and to forge an agreed conception of national identity. David Held argues that the state in the contemporary world is faced with a crisis of legitimacy in that it is no longer able to achieve massive loyalty. Liah Greenfeld emphasizes that there is a close linkage between the conception of national identity and citizenship, and draws a distinction between ethnic and civic national identity. In the former, citizenship is believed to be inherited from birth, while in the latter it is voluntaristic and can be acquired. Civic national identity is basically a political construct, which derives its legitimacy from the constitution, national symbols such as the flag and national anthem and an oath of allegiance.

Most if not all theories of national identity are almost entirely based on the experiences of Western societies and therefore tend to be ethnocentric. Most of the theorists of national identity assume national identity to be static and constant, regardless of changing political, social and economic contexts. Furthermore, they hardly take into account the bearing of ethnic and cultural diversity on conceptualizations of national identity. Therefore, in the context of multiethnic societies, the idea of national identity needs to be conceptualized differently. There is a growing realization among scholars and researchers that national identity is not a static phenomenon but the outcome of a changing, unfolding process and that it is constructed, redefined and reinvented in different social, political, economic and ideological contexts and in response to new challenges. History, culture and language are often invoked in the construction of national identity and the political and intellectual elites often draw on disciplines such as historiography, archaeology, anthropology and philology to invent and reinvent national identity, especially in respect of the determination of national boundaries.

German national identity during the Nazi era, for example, was forged in the context of the euphoria of military triumphs. But the country’s humiliating defeat during World War II and the persecution and extermination of Jews and other minority groups filled the German people with a pervasive sense of guilt and embarrassment, and patriotism and national pride came to be disparaged in public discourse. In South Africa, national identity was perceived and defined during the apartheid era in terms of white supremacy, but the constitution of post-apartheid South Africa espouses the idea of a multiethnic nation based on the ideals of equality, justice, non-racialism, tolerance and openness. In Japan, the Meiji elite played a central role in the construction of Japanese national identity in the second half of the 19th century by inventing the tradition of the emperor system, based on familism and the Shinto ethos. Furthermore, though the political and intellectual elite play a highly important role in the definition and construction of national identity, it would remain utopian and socially meaningless unless large numbers of people in a given society share its connotations and assumptions. Similarly, wider social processes and issues, such as models of societal cohesion, globalization, citizenship, secularism and minority rights have a close bearing on conceptions of national identity.

The perspective of sociology of knowledge emphasizes that social, existential, political and economic factors play a crucial role in shaping the structure of knowledge, ideas and ideational systems. Seen from this perspective, conceptions of national identity are embedded in specific social, political, economic and ideological contexts, which do not remain static and constant but are often subject to change and transformation. In other words, the processes that have a close bearing on the construction of national identity differ from society to society and from time to time. The social, political and economic context of national identity in Western Europe or in Canada, for example, is radically different from that of sub-Saharan Africa or India. It is therefore necessary and profitable to relate the issue of national identity to specific spatial and temporal contexts, so as to avoid the pitfalls of ethnocentric or Eurocentric conceptualizations of national identity.

The consciousness of national identity is a higher, sophisticated form of consciousness, whose development is contingent upon certain prerequisites, such as the fulfillment of basic human needs, including those associated with human development, the ability and maturity to think beyond primordial affiliations and loyalties (which requires a fairly advanced level of education), the articulation of a nationalist narrative and discourse by the intellectual and political elites, and a societal context which is marked by stability and a reasonable measure of cohesiveness. The construction of national identity involves a complex interplay between subjective and objective factors and determinants. Certain factors are likely to hinder the development of the consciousness of national identity. These include poverty and deprivation, illiteracy, huge gaps between the rich and the poor, widespread discrimination and exclusion of certain sections of the population from public life, societal fragmentation and endemic ethnic conflicts.

The state, constitution and the political elite play a crucial role -- both positive and negative--in the construction of national identity. The political elite may foster an inclusionary, accommodative conception of national identity or, conversely, an exclusionary and discriminatory one, as shown by the examples of Spain during the Franco era, or that of Canada during the premiership of Trudeau, or of present-day China.

The idea of national identity bristles with certain ambiguities. For example, what role does ethnicity play in the construction of national identity? One may ask whether all members or segments of a country share a uniform sense of attachment or loyalty to the nation despite differences of class, ethnicity or gender. What kind of national identity exists in multination states such as the UK, Spain, Belgium and Canada, where the relationship among the disparate national units is characterized by mistrust and hostility, and where sub-national or regional identities -- English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Catalan, Basque, Galician, Flanders, Quebec -- seem to be stronger than the overarching national identities. In the UK, for example, many people argue that Britishness and blackness are mutually exclusive categories. In the 1960s and 1970s black immigration was perceived as a threat to British national identity. What kind of national identity British citizens of Afro-Caribbean origin, for example, are expected to possess. What is the connection, one may ask, between national identity and citizenship, especially in countries where citizenship laws and procedures are discriminatory and exclusionary, as in Israel, Switzerland and Italy, or in countries which allow dual citizenship, such as the US, the Netherlands, Spain and Australia.

The process of European integration, set in motion under the auspices of the European Union, has raised important and controversial questions about the linkage between national identity in the context of the union’s member states and an overarching European identity. The issue whether national identity and European identity in the context of the project of European integration are complementary or mutually antagonistic has evoked a great deal of debate and contestation.

It is generally assumed that national identity is inherently a positive and desirable thing for a society because it reflects and facilitates national unity and societal cohesion. However, like identities in general, national identity may have positive as well as negative, dysfunctional consequences for the society as a whole or for some of its segments. National identity may be constructed on the basis of racist and xenophobic sentiments, majoritarian hegemony and the exclusion of minority groups, which may be a source of social divisiveness, fragmentation and disaffection. On the other hand, a conception of national identity which is based on tolerance and on the accommodation of the identities and sensibilities of all segments of society, especially of minority groups, is likely to have a wider appeal and viability. In some countries, such as Spain, Israel and Australia, national identity is defined and articulated in terms of the cultural traditions and ethos of the majority population, to the exclusion of minorities and people of immigrant background. As a result of the persistence of racist and xenophobic sentiments and the rise of anti-immigrant far-right political parties across large parts of Europe, national identity is now being articulated in an exclusionary framework. It may be pointed out that ethnocentric, homogenizing and exclusionary conceptions of national identity are a breeding ground of divisiveness and discord and engender alienation and disaffection among minority groups. During General Franco’s totalitarian rule (1939-75), Spanish national identity was defined in terms of Catholicism, centralism, conservatism, anti-Europeanism and the preeminence of Castilian culture. The 1978 constitution and the transition to democracy in Spain led to the recognition of cultural diversity in Spanish society and the granting of cultural and political autonomy to Catalonia and the Basque Country. Following the victory of the Popular Party in the 2000 national elections, Spain was redefined as a democratic, progressive nation with decentralization, social welfare and secularism as its defining features. However, the mainstream definition of Spanish national identity continues to be suffused with discriminatory and exclusionary overtones. Spanish national identity is now sought to be constructed in terms of the discourse of cultural nationalism or Hispanidad, which refers to a homogeneous, exclusive community of Spanish-speaking Catholics, to the exclusion of Muslims, Jews and all non-Spanish speakers. On August 25, 2006, Silvio Berlusconi, when he was Italy’s opposition leader, told a meeting of conservative Roman Catholics that he and his centre-right colleagues believed in an Italy that was “Catholic and for Italians”.

Broadly, there are two conceptions of national identity. One of them is premised on a conflation of national identity with ethnicity while the other espouses a civic national identity, defined in terms of certain political principles such as equality, democracy, common citizenship, the rule of law and shared rights and obligations. Most countries have become or are in the process of becoming multiethnic. Consequently, many of them have moved away from an ethnic conception of national identity and have reconstructed or reinvented their national identities in the changed social, political and economic contexts. Singapore, Australia, South Africa, Mauritius, USA, Canada, Bolivia and Suriname have reinvented or are in the process of reinventing their national identities.


The Republic of Turkey was created on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. It is a transcontinental country, located at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, from Anatolia to East Thrace in southeastern Europe. Though Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), founder of the Turkish republic and its first president, sought to make a radical break with the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, he could not erase the vestiges and collective memories of its legacy from Turkish society and popular consciousness.

Ethnic and Cultural Diversity in Turkey

The Ottoman Empire, one of the largest empires in the annals of history, was multiethnic and multi-confessional in character. Its population included ethnic Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Persians, Europeans, Jews, Christians of various denominations and scores of other ethnic groups. A large number of Jews who were expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century found a hospitable refuge in Ottoman Turkey. Most of the Sephardic Jews settled in Salonica in the Balkans, which was conquered by the Ottomans in 1430, where they formed a majority of its population. For nearly five centuries Salonica was under Ottoman rule and its multiethnic populace of Jews, Christians and Muslims lived in an atmosphere of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. It is significant to note that Ladino or Judaeo-Spanish, a dialect spoken by Sephardic Jews, survived only in the eastern Mediterranean lands which were part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire provided a safe haven for Jewish communities from Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East. In addition to Sephardic Jews, Ashkenazis from Germany, France and Hungary and Sicilian Jews settled in Ottoman domains. During the last decades of the 19th century, Jews who faced persecution in Russia and Central Europe were invited to settle in Ottoman territories.

Thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and Central Europe in the last decades of the 19th century were encouraged to settle in various Ottoman cities. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were nearly 100,000 Jewish in various Turkish cities. The Ottoman sultans welcomed and encouraged the immigration of Christians from western, eastern and southern Europe. Emperor Mehmet brought back Greek Orthodox Christians from Trebizon to Constantinople and appointed a new patriarch for them. The Calvinists of Hungary, the Protestants of Siberia and the Cossack Old Believers of Russia sought refuge in Ottoman Turkey in their flight from Catholic and Orthodox persecution. The Greek Orthodox, Bosnian Franciscans and Armenian Christians were given substantial freedom and internal autonomy in respect of their beliefs, rites and churches. The predominantly Christian regions of Cyprus and the Peloponnesian Peninsula of Greece retained their religious and ethnic character even after they came under Ottoman control. As a result of the security, freedom and economic opportunities provided by the Ottoman rulers, the empire’s Christian population increased by three-fold. Interestingly, Martin Luther lauded the Ottoman Empire as an exemplar of religious tolerance. A number of ethnic groups which faced persecution in their native lands, such as Cretans, Circassians, Pomaks, Torbesh, Georgians, Russian Tatars, Armenian-speaking Hemshin, Greek-speaking Pontic Muslims, Georgians from the eastern highlands and Bosniaks, sought refuge in Turkey.

Over the past several centuries, a large number of ethnic groups of non-Turkish descent have been assimilated into mainstream Turkish society through conversion, ethnic miscegenation and voluntary and forcible assimilation. Such groups include Armenians, Greeks, Arabs, Vlachs, Slavic communities, Iranians, Laz, Romas and Greek-speaking Muslims, who are descendants of converts from Greek Macedonia, Crete, northeastern Anatolia and the Pontic Alps during the Ottoman era. The process of assimilation involved the adoption of the Turkish language, Turkish names and surnames and Turkish customs and lifestyle. However, the process of assimilation did not result in a complete erosion of indigenous identities.

For several centuries, Turkey has been a mosaic of diverse communities with distinct ethnic heritages and cultural, religious, linguistic and regional traditions. The population of the Turkish republic – over 73 million -- is ethnically diverse. Ethnic Turks comprise between 70 and 75 per cent of the population. Ethnic and religious minorities make up about 25 per cent of the population. The main non-Muslim minorities include Armenians (280,000), Jews (27,000), Greek Orthodox Christians (approximately 3,000) and Syriacs (25,000). The Syriacs are among the indigenous inhabitants of southeastern Turkey and were recognized as a religious community under the empire’s millet system. At the beginning of the 20th century, the population of Syriacs in Ottoman Turkey was estimated to be around 800,000. They were subjected to deportations, persecution and forcible assimilation in the course of the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish republic. Following the 1980 military coup, thousands of Syriacs migrated to Europe. In accordance with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, the Turkish state recognizes only Armenians, Jews and Greeks as minorities. These communities are largely concentrated in Istanbul.

There are more than a dozen ethnic minorities who follow the Islamic faith. Since the Turkish census does not provide statistics on ethnicity, an accurate estimation of the population of ethnic minorities is problematic. The Kurds, who are of Iranian origin, are the largest minority group and make up about 18 per cent of the population. Kurds are present in significant numbers throughout eastern Anatolia and form a majority in many provinces, including Agri, Bingol, Diyarbakir, Mardin, Slirt, Hakkari and Sanliurfa. In addition, there are other ethnic minorities which together constitute between 7 and 12 per cent of Turkey’s population. These include the Circassians, Laz, Pomaks, Arabs, Alevis, Crimean Tatars, Muslim Roma, Macedonian Greek Muslims, Georgians, Bosniaks and Albanians. The Circassians are one of the largest ethnic groups in Turkey, with an estimated population of between 130,000 and two million. Along with other Caucasian groups, the Circassians migrated to Anatolia in the second half of the 19th century after they were ultimately defeated by Russia. Circassian men fought in the Ottoman army and in the Turkish War of Independence. Large numbers of Circassians have been assimilated into the mainstream Turkish society. However, the process of assimilation has not obliterated their ethnic and cultural identity.

The Laz Muslims are an old ethnic group who are largely concentrated in the Black Sea region of Turkey and Georgia. Their population in Turkey is estimated to be between 250,000 and 500,000. The Laz Muslims speak the Laz language, a South Caucasian language which is notified by UNESCO as a ‘critically endangered language.’ As a result of prolonged and forcible assimilation, only some 30,000 Laz people speak Laz as their mother tongue. The Bulgarian-speaking Pomaks, who are largely concentrated in Eastern Thrace, number about 300,000. The population of people of Arab descent in Turkey, who have been subjected to forcible assimilation during the early years of the Turkish republic, is estimated to be around one million. The Muslim Roma, who are known as Xoraxane Roma in Turkey, number about 500,000. They continue to face discrimination in respect of education, employment and housing. The Crimean Tatars number around 150,000. Turkey’s ethnic diversity is reflected in sects and denominations as well. The Alevi community, which includes ethnic Turks as well as Kurds, follows the Shia creed. Their population is estimated to be approximately 10 million.

The diversity of Turkish society is also attested by the linguistic scenario. The Turkish language, which belongs to the Uralic-Altaic family of languages, is spoken by about 85 per cent of the population. Kurdish, which belongs to the Iranian languages (which form part of the Indo-European family of languages) is spoken by about 12 per cent of the population. The other languages include Arabic, Armenian, Circassian, Bulgarian, Greek and Laz.


Kemalist Discourse on National Identity

Since the founding of the Turkish republic, the dominant discourse on Turkish national identity, which is embedded in the Kemalist ideology, has rested on five core principles: a highly centralized, authoritarian state, republicanism, secularism, ethnic nationalism and Western-style modernization. Kemalism remained Turkey’s dominant political ideology for nearly seven decades, and it was only in the early 1990s that it became a contentious issue. Ataturk sought to create a political nation based on the Westphalian model of the nation state and the French republican system. The Westphalian model of the nation state, which provided the cornerstone of Western political philosophy, is based on the idea of a unitary, centralized state, a culturally homogeneous society, a common language, a uniform system of laws and common citizenship. The French republican system, which was essentially derived from the Westphalian model, placed exceptional emphasis on laicite (the French model of secularism), the preeminence of the French language and a homogeneous national culture.

Ataturk was considerably influenced by the ideas of Gokalp. Mehmet Ziya Gokalp (1875-1924) was an influential Turkish poet, writer, sociologist and political activist and a pioneering figure in the nationalist and modernist movement in Turkey. He was greatly influenced by French secularism and the sociological positivism of Emile Durkheim and argued that the process of secularization should encompass all aspects of social and political life and that religion should be confined to the private sphere. He equated secularization with Westernization. Gokalp rejected the imperial, religious and cultural legacy of the Ottoman Empire and was a votary of Turkish nationalism. As a member of the parliamentary committee that drafted Turkey’s constitution, his ideas had a profound impact on the formation of the Turkish republic. Gokalp believed that Islamic institutions, including mosques and Shariah courts, should be under the control of the state. He argued in favour of the adoption of a civil code, modeled after the Swiss code, in place of Islamic family laws.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the establishment of Turkey as a secular, republican state in 1923, Ataturk launched a state-sponsored project of modernization, Westernization and secularization. The ideology of Kemalism was enunciated in terms of six core principles, which were set out in the ruling Republican People’s Party Statutes of 1935. These principles, which constitute the official creed of the Turkish state and are written into the constitution, are Republicanism, Nationalism, Populism, Statism, Secularism and Revolutionism. The caliphate was abolished and Turkey was declared a secular republic. All social, religious, cultural and educational institutions were placed under the control and regulation of the government and all powers were concentrated in the hands of a centralized, Jacobin state.

The ruling elite introduced wide-ranging and sweeping changes in Turkish society, with a view to make it a mirror-image of Western societies. The education system was overhauled and modern subjects replaced the traditional Islamic subjects. The Islamic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar and Islamic family laws were substituted by the Swiss Code. Turkish replaced Arabic as the liturgical language and it was decreed that calling the faithful to prayer (azan) should be in Turkish, not in Arabic. People were prohibited from going on pilgrimage to Makkah. The Quran was to be read not in Arabic but in its Turkish translation. The post of Shaykh al-Islam was abolished and the ulama were made state employees under the authority of the ministry of religious affairs. Sufi orders were banned and Islamic madrasas and Sufi lodges (tekkes) and shrines were closed down. Sunday replaced Friday as the weekly public holiday. The Arabic script of the Turkish language was changed to Latin and an attempt was made to purge it of words of Arabic origin. The wearing of the traditional Turkish cap – fez -- was prohibited and the wearing of veils and headscarves was banned in all public institutions, including schools, universities, government offices and public hospitals. In 1928 the Assembly voted in favour of deleting the words ‘The religion of the Turkish state is Islam’ from Article 2 of the constitution. The ruling regime sought to nationalize and manipulate religion in order to make it subservient to the state ideology. Interestingly, the first state-run industry during the reign of Ataurk was a brewery.

Secularism or laicism (laiklik in Turkish), which has been inspired by the French laicite, has been a cornerstone of the Turkish republic and is considered a key instrument for the creation of a rational and modern society. The Kemalist elite adapted and contextualized the idea of laicite to Turkish society. In the Turkish context, secularism does not mean a radical and watertight separation of state and religion. Rather, it connotes the control and appropriation of religion by the state. The Kemalist elite viewed traditional Islam as representing backwardness and as an obstacle to modernization and progress. They sought to reappropriate Islam with a view to promote its modern Turkish version.

Inspired by the French republican system, Ataturk and his colleagues believed that religion should be confined to the individual’s private life and that the visibility of religious symbols in the public sphere, especially in government offices, universities, hospitals and courts, should be restricted. The wearing of the headscarf has been particularly targeted by the Kemalist ruling elite. In 1981, the Turkish cabinet, which was formed after the 1980 military coup, issued a regulation to the effect that female students and faculty members would not be permitted to wear headscarves in university premises. Following the regulation, female students who refused to remove their headscarves were expelled from the university. The ban was enforced more stringently after the military generals forced out the government of Necemettin Erbakan.

In 1999, Merve Kavakci, a Harvard-educated computer scientist, was elected a member of the Turkish parliament. She was prevented from taking oath because she wore a headscarf. The then prime minster, Bulent Ecevit, accused her of violating the tenet of secularism and the Turkish president Suleyman Demirel called her an agent provocateur. She was stripped of her Turkish citizenship and her seat in Parliament. In 2007 Kavakci won the legal case when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that her expulsion from Parliament constituted a violation of human rights. In 2008 Prime Minister Erdogan’s wife was not allowed to visit a friend in a military hospital because she was wearing the headscarf.

The Kemalist elite believed that the prerequisite for the establishment of a modern, forward-looking Turkey was the creation of a homogeneous society and a national culture. They disregarded the country’s ethnic and cultural diversity and launched a project aimed at the construction of Turkishness as the cornerstone of Turkish nationalism and Turkish national identity. Ataturk’s close associate and Turkey’s second president, Ismet Inonu declared, “We are frankly nationalists….and nationalism is our only factor of cohesion….We must Turkify the inhabitants of our land at any price, and we will annihilate those who oppose Turks.” The project of construction of a homogeneous Turkish society was carried out through the denial of the ethnic identities of non-Turkish groups, forced assimilation of non-Turkish communities into mainstream Turkish society, discrimination and persecution of non-Turkish groups and their forced migration and deportation. Between 1925 and 1938 more than one million Kurds were forcibly relocated.

The forcible assimilation of non-Turkish groups (Turkification) was carried out through planned population transfers, prohibition of non-Turkish names and surnames, replacement of non-Turkish names of villages and towns with Turkish names and the new education system. The Turkish state forcibly transferred non-Turkish ethnic groups, such as Kurds, Armenians, Syriacs and Circassians, to Turkish-speaking areas with a view to weaken their ethnic cohesion and solidarity and to expose them to Turkish cultural and linguistic influences. In 1934 the Turkish National Assembly passed the Ordinance on Surnames that prohibited the use of foreign (non-Turkish) surnames and required all Turkish citizens to adopt Turkish surnames. In 1934 the traditional Syriac family names were forcibly changed to Turkish names. A 1972 law decreed that “nobody can bear a name that is not in accordance with our national culture and Turkish tradition.” Kurdish parents who gave Kurdish names to their children were put on trial and imprisoned for “damaging the national culture and tradition.” Circassian students who spoke their native language in school were punished. In the early years of the Turkish republic, the Armenian, Greek, Assyrian, Laz, Arabic, Circassian and Bulgarian names of thousands of villages in Turkey were replaced by Turkish names.Faced with discrimination and persecution, a large number of Armenians, Syriacs and Jews migrated to Europe in the 1930s.

In 1923, under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, there was an exchange of population based on religious affiliation between Greece and Turkey. Under the treaty, Muslims living in Greece were required to immigrate to Turkey and Christians living in Turkey to Greece. The exchange of population involved approximately two million people, including 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks and 500,000 Greek Muslims. The two communities were driven out from their homes and forcibly made refugees during the Greco-Turkish war (1919-1922). However, the Muslims of western Thrace and the Christians of Istanbul and the islands of Gokceada and Bozcaada were exempted from immigration.

Under the Ottoman Empire’s millet system, communities were recognized and organized according to religious affiliation and their beliefs, cultural traditions and collective identities were protected by the Ottoman rulers. Ataturk abolished the millet system in 1923, as a result of which communities such as the Syriacs and Kurds, which enjoyed considerable autonomy in the Ottoman Empire, were deprived of their rights and privileges. Ironically, the secular Kemalist regime was largely responsible for purging Turkey of its sizeable Armenian, Syriac, Greek and Jewish communities which had thrived in the Ottoman Empire.

Forced assimilation of non-Turkish groups entailed de-ethnicization, denial and suppression of their collective identities and violation of human rights. In the early years of the Turkish republic, the terms Kurds and Kurdistan were outlawed and replaced by “Mountain Turks” and “the East.” The Kurds were officially described as a tribe of Turanian origin who had forgotten their language due to living in inaccessible mountainous regions for a very long time. In 1924 the Turkish National Assembly passed a decree that prohibited the use of the Kurdish language in public and the wearing of the traditional Kurdish dress in the main administrative cities. In 1980, the names of 2842 villages were changed from Kurdish to Turkish. In 1994, Leyla Zana, a newly elected Kurdish member of Parliament, was put on trial and imprisoned for ten years for saying a few words in the Kurdish language during the oath-taking ceremony.

The Turkish government’s policy of forcible assimilation of Kurds and other minority groups caused a great deal of resentment and anger. From time to time there were strong and sometimes violent reactions against the government’s policies, especially from the Kurds and the Sufis of the Naqshbandiya order. In 1930, Dervish Mehmed, a Sufi leader, mobilized a large number of people and called on them to overthrow the Kemalist regime which was widely perceived as anti-Islamic.


Decline of Kemalist Ideology

The Kemalist project of nation-building was fraught with certain inherent contradictions. It was marked by a glaring disconnect between a Western-oriented and zealously secular elite and a religious-minded population. The top-down model of secularism and Western-style modernity espoused by the Kemalist regime was elite-driven and had little or no appeal for the large masses of people, especially in the Anatolian countryside. The trappings of Western modernity – sporting European attire, adoption of Western manners and etiquette, clubbing and wine-drinking, free mixing of the sexes – remained confined to a small section of the urban elite. Ataurk’s extreme antipathy towards the Ottoman Empire beclouded his vision and prevented him from appreciating and appropriating any of the positive features of the Ottoman legacy. The Kemalist ideology created a cleavage between the Westernised elite, including the educated middle class, the army and the courts, and the masses. Laicism or secularism became an instrument for the control and manipulation of religion and for the suppression of people’s religious and cultural rights. The monolithic, centralized state suppressed the multiple identities of the Turkish people. However, these identities refused to go away. Despite the Kemalist elite’s relentless pursuit of secularism and Western-style modernity, a large majority of Turks continued to cherish Islamic values and traditions and Islam remained a core component of their personal and collective identities. Notwithstanding the Kemalist regime’s tirade against the wearing of the headscarf, more than three-fourths of Turkish women cover their heads, and the number of headscarved women is growing even in the metropolitan cities of Istanbul and Ankara.

In the early 1990s, a set of circumstances and events led to a rethinking of the relevance and viability of the Kemalist legacy. These included the alienation of a large majority of Turks due to the tyrannical enforcement of the secularist creed and the violation of human rights by the military-backed ruling elite, the brazen interference of the military in civilian affairs, the failure of the project of assimilation, the Kurdish uprising, the rise of Islamic-minded political groups and parties, and the process of membership negotiation with the European Union.

The Kurdish Problem

The Kurds are largely concentrated in the region called Kurdistan, which comprises contiguous areas in Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The Kurds make up about 18 per cent of the population in Turkey, 15-20 per cent in Iraq, 10 per cent in Iran and about 9 per cent in Syria. In addition, small Kurdish populations are to be found in Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan and Lebanon. Kurdish nationalism emerged after World War I in the aftermath of the enforcement of national boundaries. Some of the Kurdish groups articulated a demand for the establishment of an independent state of Kurdistan, which brought them in confrontation with governments in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran.

Since the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923, the policy of the state towards the Kurds, as well as other ethnic and religious minorities, was marked by the denial and suppression of their ethnic identity and cultural rights, forcible assimilation, de-ethnicization, demonization and persecution. There were Kurdish uprisings in eastern Anatolia in the 1920s and 1930s, which were ruthlessly suppressed by the Turkish security forces. In 1938 thousands of Kurdish tribesmen were killed in a military offensive. While a majority of Kurds sought a redress of their grievances through political negotiations with the Turkish authorities, some of the Kurdish groups resorted to armed confrontations with the Turkish government and the security forces.

One of the most militant and popular Kurdish groups is the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which was inspired by the Marxist-Leninist ideology and founded by Abdullah Ocalan in 1978. The PKK launched an armed guerilla movement against the Turkish state in 1984. The violent confrontations between the Turkish security forces and Kurdish fighters have taken a toll of some 40,000 lives, mostly Kurds, and cost $300 billion. During the past 18 months more than 900 Kurdish fighters have been killed by the Turkish security forces and more than 8,000 Kurdish activists, politicians and journalists have been jailed. The main objective of the PKK was the establishment of an independent state of Kurdistan. However, in the 1990s the party scaled down its demands to linguistic and cultural autonomy for the Kurds. The PKK has been declared a terrorist organization by Turkey, United States and the European Union. Abdullah Ocalan was captured by the Turkish security forces in 1999 and was sentenced for life. He has been incarcerated in a high-security prison in western Turkey.

Turkey has the second-largest army in the NATO alliance. Though the Turkish security forces have doggedly pursued Kurdish fighters during the past three decades, a realization grew in the early 1990s that a military solution of the Kurdish problem had proved to be futile. The gradual shift in the Turkish government’s perception and policy towards the Kurds came about in the context of the growing alienation among the Kurds, the increasing incidence of violent confrontations between the Turkish security forces and the PKK and the failure of the state-sponsored project of assimilation. Turgut Ozal, who was Turkey’s prime minister for two terms and was the republic’s president in 1991-93, was the first Turkish president to publicly recognize the Kurdish problem and to admit that the Kemalist regime had done injustice to the Kurds. In 1991 he tabled a bill in the Turkish parliament that would allow the Kurds concentrated in the country’s 13 provinces to speak in public – but not to write – their language. The bill was passed amid protests by the opposition parties.


Reconstructing Turkey’s National Identity

Turkey will forever remain indebted to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk for his pivotal role in the Turkish War of Independence and in safeguarding the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity from the predatory machinations of the colonial powers and for his monumental contribution to the establishment of the Turkish republic. There is much to be said for a republican state, but a republican state has no immunity from the risk of becoming an instrument for majoritarian tyranny, the suppression of minority rights and identities and the suspension of civil liberties. Therefore, a nation has to guard itself against the inherent pitfalls of the republican system. Furthermore, a mature and forward-looking nation must eschew the fossilization of its political legacy. A nation needs to continuously evaluate its cherished ideological and political principles and its own conduct in the context of changing circumstances in order to rectify the mistakes of the past, to learn from the experiences of other nations and to expand its horizons.

Turkey’s national identity was constructed by Ataturk and his colleagues in a specific political, social, ideological and cultural context. This context was provided by the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish War of Independence and the creation of the Turkish republic, and the Kemalist ideology. The Kemalist ideology, which was premised on a unitary, centralized and authoritarian state, secularism, Western-style modernity, a national culture based on a culturally homogeneous society and the preeminence of the Turkish language, and Turkishness as an ethno-political construct. The Kemalist conceptualization of Turkish national identity was fraught with several contradictions and shortcomings, including a characteristic disregard of Turkey’s ethnic and cultural diversity, its elitist, monolithic and homogenizing thrust and its democratic deficit. The democratic deficit was reflected in the structure of the Kemalist state, which was marked by authoritarianism and totalitarianism, in curbs on freedoms and civil liberties, including religious and cultural freedom, in the suppression of minority rights and identities, in the forced assimilation of minority groups into mainstream Turkish society, and in the imposition of an elite-driven, Western-oriented secularist and modernist agenda.

In the dominant political and public discourse and in the Turkish constitution, the word “Turkishness” has been used as an ethno-political construct. The credo of the Turkish republic is “Happy, Who calls himself a Turk!” Millions of school children in Turkey sing every day, “I am a Turk, I am righteous, I am hardworking…..May my presence be sacrificed to the existence of the Turkish nation!” Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code criminalizes “denigrading Turkish national identity,” for which the offender could be imprisoned for up to three years. A prominent Turkish writer, Elif Shafak, was accused of insulting Turkish national identity in 2006. It was said that one of the characters in her novel “The Bastard of Istanbul” comments on the massacre of Armenians in 1915 and speaks of “Turkish butchers” and genocide. However, a court in Istanbul acquitted Ms. Shafak on September 20, 2006 of the charges. The court’s verdict was welcomed by the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as well as the European Union. Mr. Erdogan said that his government would consider amending Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code.

With the dissipation of the Kemalist euphoria and the growing disillusionment with Ataurk’s legacy, the state-sponsored vision of Turkish national identity has become a site of controversy and contestation. Since the mid-1990s there has been a good deal of discussion and debate about Turkish history, the legacy of the Ottoman Empire and Ataturk, citizenship and human rights, and Turkish national identity. Civil society institutions, intellectuals and writers and the media have played an important role in this debate.

The appointment of Necmettin Erbakan as Turkey’s prime minister – the first prime minister from a non-Kemalist circle – in 1996, and his ouster by the army a year after, was a turning point of great consequence in the history of the Turkish republic. Another turning point of far greater consequence is the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) under the astute leadership of Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan, one of the most charismatic and popular leaders in the history of the Turkish republic, founded the AK Party in 2001. Since 2002 Erdogan’s party has won three consecutive parliamentary elections. Under Erdogan’s stewardship, Turkey has recorded impressive economic growth, witnessed unprecedented political stability and improved social services and has emerged as a regional power.

During the past decade, Erdogan has taken a series of initiatives of great national and international consequence, which have a close bearing on the issue of Turkey’s national identity. My basic argument is that Prime Minister Erdogan and the ruling Justice and Development Party have set in motion a process which entails the reconstruction and reinvention of Turkey’s national identity. This process involves three major dimensions: (i) Redemocratization (ii) Recognition of Turkey’s ethnic and religious diversity and recognition and accommodation of minority rights and identities (iii) Reconceptualisation of secularism.


Prime Minister Erdogan and the ruling AK Party have repeatedly declared that they are firmly committed to the principle of democratic governance. The prerequisites of the principle of democratic governance include the rule of law and equality before the law regardless of status or rank, basic freedoms and civil liberties, democratic accountability for all institutions of state, inclusive citizenship, participation of all sections of society in the process of democratic governance, and equal opportunity for all citizens. The AK Party is wedded to the belief that the state must protect the democratic freedoms and rights of all of its citizens, including the religious and ethnic minorities, that this should be enshrined in the constitution and that the state must ensure that all institutions – Parliament, government, military, courts, bureaucracy – comply with the constitutional mandate. The state has no business to foster a homogeneous national culture or to impose it on citizens or to interfere in their religious beliefs and traditions.

The Justice and Development Party is faced with three structural impediments in carrying the principle of democratic governance to its logical conclusion. These impediments are represented by the 1982 constitution, the Turkish military and the courts. The 1982 constitution, which was drafted by the army generals after the 1980 military coup, reinforces the authority of the centralized Turkish state, vests the armed forces with immense power and privileges and suppresses democratic freedoms and human rights. The provisions of the constitution are enforced by the courts, especially the Constitutional Court.

The Turkish constitution prohibits the teaching of any language other than Turkish in schools. Similarly, it prohibits the wearing of headscarves on university campuses, which represents a clear violation of human rights. In 2008 the AK Party successfully pushed through a proposal in Parliament for an amendment to the constitution whereby women with headscarves could attend university. The proposal was buttressed by the argument that that the headscarf was a symbol of individual liberty and religious freedom. However, later in the same year, the amendments were set aside by the Constitutional Court.

The ruling Justice and Development Party has argued that many provisions of the existing constitutions are at variance with democratic principles and need to be scrapped. On September 12, 2010 Prime Minister Erdogan placed a package of constitutional amendments, which were earlier approved by the Turkish Grand Assembly and endorsed by President Abdullah Gul, for a national referendum. The amendments included expanding the sphere of individual rights and civil liberties, gender equality, positive discrimination for children, women and the disabled, the establishment of ombudspersons, collective bargaining for government employees, curtailing the powers of the judiciary and army, and bringing Turkey more in line with the European Union. The amendments gave the Turkish president and Parliament greater say over the appointment of senior judges and prosecutors and over the functioning of the Constitutional Court. According to the proposed amendments, civilian courts will have the power to prosecute military personnel for crimes against the state. The amendments were approved by 58 per cent of the voters in the referendum.

Since coming to power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party has repeatedly affirmed that it was in favour of drafting a new constitution. In 2007 the AK Party appointed a cross-party Constitutional Reconciliation Commission to draft a new constitution. The commission has three members from each of the four main political parties in Parliament. The commission, headed by Burhan Kuzu, has prepared a draft but has failed to reach a consensus among the members. The contentious issues in the drafting of the new constitution include the definition of citizenship, the role of religion in public life, recognition of Turkey’s ethnic and cultural diversity, protection of religious freedom (including the freedom to wear the headscarf) and minority rights, regional autonomy and the replacement of existing parliamentary system of government by the presidential system. The deadline for the submission of the draft constitution has been extended until the end of June this year. In March 2013 Erdogan said that if the commission failed to reach an agreement on the draft constitution, the AK Party would place its own draft before a national referendum.

On May 9, 2013, four main political parties in Parliament reached an agreement to add a clause in the new constitution that will allow women to wear headscarves in positions of public service.

Under the existing constitution, the chief of the general staff is not subordinate to the minister of defence and the defence budget is not subject to civilian oversight. The AK Party has argued that the principle of equality before the law and the rule of law should be enforced without any exception and that in a democratic polity the military should be subordinate to the civilian government and its powers as well as the defence budget should be subject to civilian oversight. The party introduced a set of constitutional amendments in 2010 that allowed the generals to be tried in civilian courts. The amendments were approved by 58 per cent of voters in a national referendum.

Since the establishment of the Turkish republic, the army has wielded enormous powers and influence and has blatantly interfered in matters of state, politics and society. Since 1960 the generals have toppled four democratically elected governments on specious grounds. Following the 1980 military coup, 50 people were executed and 500,000 people were arrested, and many of them died in prison. Necmettin Erbakan was forced by the military to step down on the grounds that he and his Refah Party harboured a secret agenda to promote Islamic fundamentalism in the country. Erbakan was prohibited from all political activities and his party was outlawed. In 2007 the generals unsuccessfully tried to prevent Abdullah Gul from becoming Turkey’s president because his wife wears a headscarf. In 2008 the generals urged the Constitutional Court to ban the AK Party on the grounds that it was pursuing a secret agenda to impose Islamic laws on the country. The plea was eventually dismissed by the Constitutional Court.

In the past couple of years, a series of startling cases – known as Ergenekon – have implicated the top army brass in a carefully orchestrated conspiracy to topple the government. Some 400 serving and retired high-ranking army officers, including 139 generals and admirals, have been arrested on charges of hatching a conspiracy to overthrow the Erdogan government. One of the plots involved the murder of some Armenian and Greek Christians, which would intimidate large numbers of Christians into leaving the country. This would then be used as an indictment of the government and provide an excuse for the army to intervene. On January 5, 2012, Mr. Basbug, former chief of the armed forces was arrested and jailed for associating with a terrorist group that conspired to topple the government.

Following the revelations about the implication of the army officers in the conspiracy and the subsequent arrests, the image and morale of the military has been severely dented. Furthermore, the government has clipped the wings of the National Security Council, through which the generals wielded their incredible powers.

Recognition of Ethnic Diversity and Minority Rights

In recent years, Prime Minister Erdogan and his colleagues and President Abdullah Gul have publicly recognized the diversity of Turkish society, made positive and significant overtures towards the Kurds, Alevis, Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenians and other ethnic minorities and assured them that the government would attend to their legitimate grievances. One of the factors responsible for the shift in the Turkish government’s policy towards ethnic and religious minorities is Turkey’s membership negotiations with the European Union, which were set in motion in 2005. One of the conditionalities in the negotiation process is compliance with the Copenhagen criteria, which include the protection ofhuman rights and the rights of minority groups.

In 2009 Erdogan announced the launch of the National Unity Project (Milli Birlik ve Kardeslik Projesi). The broad objectives of the project include the deepening of democratic freedoms and human rights, strengthening grassroots participation, decentralization of the state, the creation of an anti-discrimination committee to look into the grievances of ethnic minorities, allowing the teaching of the Kurdish language in universities and renaming of villages and residential areas in accordance with the demands of local residents. A specific objective of the project is to address the Kurdish problem in a framework of negotiations. However, the project has run into rough weather due to objections raised by the main opposition parties which have accused Erdogan of compromising with Turkey’s unity and integrity.

Since assuming office in 2002, Erdogan has repeatedly said that he was in favour of addressing the Kurdish problem through democratic negotiations. In 2004 the AK Party announced a package of cultural, linguistic and educational rights for the Kurdish people, which included freedom of broadcasting in the Kurdish language, the right to use Kurdish names for Kurdish villages, and the right to teach Kurdish. In a rally in the Kurdish-dominated city of Diyarbakir in 2005, Erdogan declared that the solution to the long-standing grievances of Kurdish people was not more repression but more democracy. In October 2008 he said that “democratization is considered as the antidote to terrorism, ethnic extremism and all types of discrimination.” He then added, “The main approach here is that no matter where a person lives and from which ethnic origin he or she comes from, they should all feel as equal and free citizens of our country.” On January 1, 2009, the state-owned TV channel TRT6 began, for the first time, round-the-clock broadcasting in the Kurdish language. Erdogan inaugurated the broadcast with the Kurdish words, “TRT e li ser Xereb” (Best wishes to TRT6).

In an interview to CNN Turk television on February 27, 2013, President Abdullah Gul said: “When it comes to the Kurdish issue, there were many mistakes made in this regard in the past. Especially during the one-party system, such wrongdoings were witnessed against our citizens indeed. All of these problems emanated from the fact that Turkey did not have a mature democracy at the time. When states take differences and diversities as richness instead of regarding them as menaces and threats, they succeed in becoming whole nation made up of all those people with different backgrounds.”

The ruling Justice and Development Party initiated negotiations with the Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan in October 2012. Following the negotiations, Ocalan asked the Kurdish fighters to call off the armed struggle and announced a unilateral ceasefire on March 21, 2013. As a sign of goodwill, the PKK released eight Turkish hostages. On April 25, 2013, Murat Karayilan, the commander of the PKK, announced that he would withdraw his fighters from Turkey by May 8, 2013. He added that the PKK expected the Turkish government to give the Kurds further democratic rights under the new constitution. Kurdish fighters – who are estimated to be around 3,000 -- began leaving southeastern Turkey for their safe hideouts in Iraq on May 8, 2013.

The main opposition parties and the military are not pleased with Erdogan’s overtures towards the Kurds. They fear that undue concessions to the Kurdish people would fuel separatist and secessionist tendencies and would thereby threaten the unity and integrity of the Turkish republic.

In 2008, Erdogan broke his fast with some 1,000 Alevis in Ankara and promised to address their concerns and grievances. In 2011 the government announced that the prayer houses of Alevis (cemevis) would have a legal status and that they would receive funds from the state. In 2009 the Erdgan government approved regulations to allow privately-owned radio and TV channels to broadcast programmes in any of the languages spoken in the country.

The Erdogan government has tried to reach out to Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities as well. In 2005-2006 the Turkish Ministry of Culture provided $1.4 million for the restoration of an old Armenian church in eastern Turkey. On April 2, 2009, the state-owned TV began broadcasts in the Armenian language for half an hour twice a day. The Turkish government allowed Greek Orthodox pilgrims to worship at a Byzantine-era monastery in Sumela in northeastern Turkey in August 2010. In 1923 the Turkish authorities had banned religious services at the monastery and turned it into a museum following a population exchange between Turkey and Greece. More than 1,500 pilgrims, including those from Greece and Russia travelled to the monastery to attend the service that was held after a gap of 87 years. The spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, Patriarch Bartholomew I, conducted the Divine Liturgy at the monastery. The Turkish government has allowed pilgrims to worship at the monastery once a year as a gesture of goodwill. The initiative taken by the Erdogan government has enabled the Armenian and Greek Orthodox communities to regain some of the properties which belonged to their religious endowments and which were expropriated by the state in the early years of the Turkish republic.

Turkey’s Culture and Tourism minister, Omer Celik, said in March 2013 that all minorities in Turkey had experienced some sort of trauma because the project of nation-building in the country sought to homogenize people and produced a sort of nationalism and “Turkism” that was alien even to ethnic Turks. He called on the descendants of Armenians who were deported or forced to leave in the country in 1915 to return to their homeland.

Following Erdogan’s overtures towards the Kurdish people, other ethnic minorities in the country, who had faced persecution and de-ethnicization at the hands of the Kemalist regime, have begun to assert their cultural and linguistic rights. The Circassians, who were subjected to forcible assimilation during the early years of the Turkish republic, are now demanding that the Circassian language should be taught as an optional subject in schools and that the state-run radio and TV stations should broadcast programmes in the Circassian language. They are also demanding the restoration of the original Circassian names of villages and towns that were forcibly changed to Turkish names. Similarly, the Laz have demanded the constitutionalprotection of their language and culture and the restoration of the original Laz names of villages which were replaced by Turkish names in the early decades of the 20th century.

Reconceptualising Secularism

The Kemalist model of secularism, which was essentially derived from the French laicite, was used as an instrument for the control and manipulation of religion by the state and the removal of religious symbols from the public domain. This elitist and totalitarian model of secularism caused a great deal of resentment and anger among a large majority of Turks. Erdogan and the ruling AK Party have sought to redefine and adapt the principle of secularism in the context of changing circumstances and the perceptions and aspirations of the Turkish people. According to Erdogan, who is a practicing Muslim, there is no inherent or necessary contradiction between secularism as a matter of state policy and religion, which is matter of democratic freedom and which is protected by the constitution and the state. He has said, “Only states can be secular, not individuals.” During his visit to Egypt in September 2011, Erdogan described himself as a Muslim prime minister of a secular state. He called on Egyptians to adopt a secular constitution, emphasizing that secularism did not mean renouncing religion. Drawing a distinction between secularism as a personal ideology and as state policy, he added, “As Recep Tayyip Erdogan I am a Muslim, not secular. But I am a prime minister of a secular country. People should have the freedom to choose whether or not to be religious in a secular state. Turkey defines secularism as the principle that the state is equidistant from all religions. Secularism is not atheism.”

Erdogan’s reconceptualisation of the principle of secularism in the context of Turkey provides a much-needed corrective to the contested discourse on secularism, which mirrors two extreme views: an omnibus, totalitarian model (represented by the French laicite and the Turkish lailik), and a flexible, accommodative perspective (as reflected in the views of Erdogan and Rachid Ghannouchi). There need not be a universal, omnibus model of secularism. Rather, there can be “multiple secularisms,” which reflect the political, social and cultural contexts and specificities of different nations. In other words, the meta narrative of a universal model of secularism needs to be replaced by context-specific, reconceptualised visions of secularism.

The speeches of Prime Minister Erdogan and his cabinet colleagues and those of President Abdullah Gul and the initiatives taken by the ruling AK Party in recent years point to a new, unfolding vision of Turkey’s national identity. This vision, which marks a departure from the Kemalist model, underscores that Turkey’s national identity should be reconstructed in a genuinely democratic, inclusive and accommodative framework, that it should be premised on an open, ungrudging acknowledgement of the country’s ethnic and religious diversity, that it should recognize and accommodate the rights, identities and sensibilities of minority groups, that it should eschew a narrow, exclusionary and authoritarian view of nationalism and Turkishness, and that it should steer clear of coercive homogenization. In a speech in the southeastern province of Mardin on February 16, 2013, Erdogan said that ethnic and religious nationalism were harmful ideologies. “Our nationalism is about patriotism, about humanism,” he added.


An overwhelming majority of countries are multiethnic in character or are in the process of becoming multiethnic. Turkey, like most Muslim nations, has an ethnically diverse population. It is heartening to note that Turkey is moving away from an artificially constructed monocultural model to a realistic multiethnic model of society.

As stated in the opening part of this article, the process of construction and reconstruction of national identity takes place in a political, social, ideological and cultural context. Political stability, economic security, democratic freedoms and societal harmony provide a conducive environment for the flowering of a robust sense of national identity. Thanks to Erdogan’s astute and far-sighted leadership and the sincerity of his efforts, Turkey has experienced unprecedented political stability and economic growth during the past decade. Since 2002 Turkey’s Gross Domestic Product has tripled to more than $800 billion. Exports have quadrupled and foreign direct investment has touched a record level. Turkey has the world’s 17th largest nominal GDP and 15th largest GDP by PPP.

In their book “Why Nations Fail” (2012), the Harvard political scientist James A. Robinson and the M. I. T. economist Daron Acemoglu argue that nations thrive and prosper when they develop inclusive political and economic institutions, and that they are doomed to failure when these institutions become exclusive and “extractive” and concentrate power and opportunity in the hands of a small minority. They suggest that the key to a nation’s real progress lies in the building of political and economic institutions that seek to empower each and every citizen and to harness his or her potential. An authoritarian state with exclusive political institutions, like China, may make impressive economic gains in the short run, but such gains are unlikely to be sustainable.

The point made by Robinson and Acemogly makes abundant sense. What may be added is that multiethnic societies, which is what most societies are today, need to supplement inclusive political and economic institutions with an inclusive, multicultural and accommodative cultural policy and national identity. Economic progress is likely to be uneven and unsustainable in the long run in the absence of political stability and an atmosphere of peaceful coexistence and societal harmony. A nation’s economic progress will remain uneven and meaningless in the long run if its minority groups experience discrimination, marginalization and alienation.

A crucial test of the political maturity of a nation lies in its willingness to admit its past mistakes, to make amends, to learn from the experiences of other nations and to reorient its goals and policies in accordance with the hopes and aspirations of its people. Happily, under the competent leadership of Erdogan, Turkey is moving in this direction.

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