The Incorporation of Minorities in Turkey
Todd Theringer

Very few nations in the world consist of one ethnicity and if they claim to be one ethnicity, it is history that has erased the origin of how the present ethnicity came about. Some new groups emerge as a result of mixing of cultures and invasions. Centuries later these cultures present themselves as unique and dominant. The nation state attempts to define itself as one dominant ethnicity and culture and those that aren’t of that same culture become the other or are defined as being a minority. The dominant culture then tries to incorporate, erase or eliminate the minority and reinforce the myth of one dominant group. The dominant group’s religion, language, culture and flag become the unifying force. The modern Turkish state declare by Ataturk in 1923 strived to create a state modeled after European nations; a secular, Turkish, national identity for everyone. The process by which Turkey attempts to homogenize its society has led to gross human rights abuses, increased authoritarianism, weakened civil institutions, and the lack of integration of minorities into the dominant social and political structures.

The definition of Turk has changed over time. Europeans referred to the Ottoman Empire and Turks ­­as being the same. In the 19th Century, the Ottomans considered Turks to be Anatolian villagers. The term Turk began to be accepted by the Ottomans to describe themselves as European ideas of nationalism spread to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire consisted of many ethnicities but it was the Turk­­­ish speakers of Anatolia that dominated the Ottoman Empire and hence the easy morphing of names between Turk and Ottoman. It wasn’t until the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923 that Turkey became the official name. Modern genetic studies suggest that the majority of people in modern Turkey are descended from indigenous Anatolian populations and are closely related to people from the Caucasus region. The idea that Turks are descended exclusively from Turkic populations from central Asia is a myth. [i]

The Amasya Agreement of 1919, in response to the occupation of the Ottoman Empire by the European powers, called for Turkish national independence based on provinces not race or ethnicity. Anyone living in one of the Turkish provinces, faced with potential foreign occupation, suddenly became a Turk. Presently, the Turkish rural population tends to define a Turk as someone who is a member of the Sunni faith. Turkish speaking Jews, Christians or Alevis (Shia Muslims) are not considered real Turkish. Some consider Kurdish speaking or Arabic speaking Sunnis of eastern Anatolia to be Turks. The Turkish Constitution, article 66, states that a Turk is anyone who is “bound to the Turkish state through the bond of citizenship.” Ataturk’s secular state declared that all Muslims were Turkish regardless of ethnicity and anyone could participate in the success of the state as long as they identified themselves as Turkish.

During Ottoman times, the millet system defined communities on a religious basis, and each millet had a separate legal court (Muslim Sharia, Christian Canon Law, Jewish Halakhah). The millet system was an early form of recognizing and protecting religious minorities. People were identified by their membership in a millet or religion rather than their ethnic origins. The religious leader of a millet, the Greek Orthodox Patriarch for example, had autonomy as long as he recognized the authority of the Sultan. Orthodox Greeks, Bulgarians, Albanians, Georgians, Arabs, Romanian and Serbs were all considered part of the same mille­­­­­­­­t despite their differences in ethnicity and language and the fact that the religious hierarchy was Greek dominated, they were all considered to be part of the Rum (Eastern Roman Empire)­­­­­­­­­ millet.

An Armenian millet which served all ethnic Armenians included the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Armenian Catholic Church and the Armenian Protestant Church. The Syriac Orthodox Church obtained separate status from the Armenian millet and included the Chaldean Catholic Church. Jews had their own millet. In a conflict involving a Jew or Christian and a Muslim, Sharia law took precedence prior to 1876.

In an attempt to prevent nationalist movements from breaking apart the Ottoman Empire, the Tanzimat, or reorganization in 1876 encouraged Ottomanism. Ottomanism made sure that all millets were equal before the law, Muslims and non-Muslims were to be treated equally. The reforms were designed to integrated non-Turks into Ottoman society by granting them equal rights and civil liberties. The Ottoman Nationality law of 1869 created a common citizenship for all Ottoman citizens.

Ottomanism was rejected by many in the non-Muslim millets because they feared losing their traditional privileges and many Muslims saw it as eroding their superior status over the other millets. The Young Turks led a revolution that demanded the re-opening of the Ottoman Parliament or the General Assembly in 1908 and to the creation of political parties that included representatives from the millets. Before WWI, as a result of reforms, the Ottoman Empire had 17 different millets, mostly due to divisions that happened in the Christian communities.

The Young Turks and Ataturk were very influenced by Ziya Gokalp[ii], a Turkish sociologist (rumored to have Kurdish ancestry), who believed that a modern nation had to become homogeneous in terms of culture, religion, language and national identity. Ziya Gokalp believed that Turkishness was superior to other cultures and any minority or group that threatened the integrity of the Turkish state had to be eliminated. He rejected Ottomanism and Islamism in favor of extreme nationalism. The Young Turk government marginalized, discriminated, forcefully assimilated, brutally removed populations and massacred non-Turkish minorities in the name of Turkification. The Armenians in 1915 became victims of this belief in the superiority of Turkishness when they were almost annihilated by the Ottoman army.

In keeping with this idea of Turkishness, Ataturk changed the Turkish writing system from using the Arabic script to the Latin version. He also endorsed Hilaire de Barenton‘s Sun Language Theory in 1935, which was a Turkish nationalist linguistic hypothesis developed in Turkey in the 1930s that proposed that all human languages are descendants of one proto-Turkic primal language. The theory proposed that because this primal language had close phonemic resemblances to Turkish, all other languages can be traced back to Turkic roots. According to the theory, the Central Asian worshippers, who worshipped the sun had done so by uttering sounds that latter developed into language. Persian and Arabic words were also eliminated from the Ottoman Turkish language in favor of words that have more in common with other Turkic languages of Central Asia. Last names were required in 1934 to be Turkified in order to be registered, animal names had to be changed from foreign words to Turkish words, and geographic names within Turkey that had non-Turkish inspired names were changed to Turkish names. The 1934 Resettlement Law, required non-Turkish speaking people to be resettled in Turkish speaking only areas to force assimilation.

At the declaration of the Turkish Republic by Ataturk, the rights of minorities were set forth in the Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923. Section 3, Article 38, “The Turkish Government undertakes to assure full and complete protection of life and liberty to all inhabitants of Turkey without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race or religion. All inhabitants of Turkey shall be entitled to free exercise, whether in public or private, of any creed, religion or belief, the observance of which shall not be incompatible with public order and good morals. Non-Moslem minorities will enjoy full freedom of movement and of emigration, subject to the measures applied, on the whole or on part of the territory, to all Turkish nationals, and which may be taken by the Turkish Government for national defense, or for the maintenance of public order.”[iii] Turkey has never kept its promise of treating minorities equally.

The Treaty of Lausanne established the Turkish Republic and the protection of the Greek Orthodox Christian minority in Turkey and the Muslim minority in Greece; however, most of the Orthodox population of Turkey and the Muslim population of Greece had already been deported in January 1923. The 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey, was not based on language or ethnicity, but rather on religious identity and included native Turkish speaking Orthodox and Greek speaking Muslim citizens. A vocational prohibition law of 1932, made 30 professionals illegal for those of Greek decent. A capital gains tax imposed in 1942 on wealthy non-Muslims in Turkey further weaken the remaining Greek business community in Turkey. Finally, a pogrom against the Istanbul Greek community in 1955, led to most of the Greek inhabitants in Istanbul to flee.

The number of people in each of Turkey’s ethnic, religious and linguistic minority groups is not easily verifiable because there exists no means to collect such data. It is estimated that 30% of the population of Turkey consists of minorities. No scientific research on minorities in Turkey is conducted either by the government or academic institutions. Officially, Turkey only recognizes Armenians, Jews and Rum (Orthodox) Christians as minorities. Turkey refuses to recognize non-Turkish Muslims (i.e. Kurds) as minorities, instead referring to them as “mountain Turks” until 1991. Kurds are believed to make up as much as 20-30% of the population. There is no mention of the word minority in the Turkish Constitution; therefore, no legislative framework for minorities to gain rights or seek protection. The US State Dept. estimates the non-Muslim minorities make up less than 1% out of Turkey’s current population of 80 million. This includes 90,000 Armenians, 25,000 Roman Catholics, 23,000 Jews and 2,500 Greek Orthodox. Istanbul has operating churches, for example, but they are regulated by a permit system that makes maintenance and operations difficult.[iv] Religious affiliations are listed on national identity cards. Only Sunni Muslim clerics receive their salaries from the government. All other religions are self-supporting. Turkey is secular on paper, but the reality is that the government supports Sunni Muslims over any other religious group.

The government restricts the use of Kurdish and other minority languages in radio and television broadcasts. Regulations require that non-Turkish radio programs be broadcast a second time in Turkish and that non-Turkish television programs have Turkish subtitles. Minority groups are under intense pressure to assimilate.

Kurds may not be considered minorities in Turkey, but the recent political movements make it clear that the Kurds do not necessarily consider themselves Turkish. Since the 1980s, Kurdish movements included both peaceful political activities for basic civil rights for Kurds in Turkey as well as armed rebellion and guerrilla warfare, including military attacks aimed at civilians and Turkish military bases, demanding a separate Kurdish state. Turkey suppressed the Kurdish language until 1991 by imprisoning those who spoke, published or sang in Kurdish. Section 3, Article 39 of the Treaty of Lausanne, states “No restrictions shall be imposed on the free use by any Turkish national of any language in private intercourse, in commerce, religion, in the press, or in publications of any kind or at public meetings.” A young Kurdish man was recently killed in September 2015 for allegedly speaking Kurdish on his cell phone in Istanbul.[v]

The repression of Kurdish culture lead to the creation of the KPP (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), an armed insurrection against the Turkish State primarily in Eastern Turkey in 1978 that demanded Kurdish independence. Ocalan, the leader of the KPP, agreed to a cease fire in 2013, but hostilities have erupted again as a result of the war in Syria between the KPP and the Turkish military.

The HDP, or the Peoples’ Democratic Party, is a pro-Kurdish, left-wing party dedicated to minority rights, ending religious and gender discrimination, protecting the environment and egalitarianism. HDP has a goal of having 10% of their candidates from the LGBT community and a 50% quota for women. The majority of support for HDP comes from the Kurdish minority in southeastern Turkey, although the party claims to represent all of Turkey. HDP being a pro-Kurdish political party with growing support as evidence by the latest election in June 2015, shows that the Turkification policy of repression of minorities within Turkey may change once minorities obtain political power. The Kurds are a reminder that Turkification hasn’t succeeded in eliminating the identity of Turkey’s largest minority. Some Kurds have sought autonomy or even official minority status in Turkey[vi], but this acknowledgement of their not being Turkish would upset the idea that Turkey is an ethnically unified nation.

Turkey is faced with what to do with the millions of Syrian refugees who are living within Turkey and most likely will remain for an indefinite period. They are primarily Alevi (i.e. Shia) Muslims, don’t speak Turkish, and already outnumber long established minorities living in Turkey. They most likely will resist any attempts to erase their language, culture or religion and Turkey has no way to peacefully incorporate them into society. No doubt many of them are working in Turkey and dispersed in many cities along with countless other ethnic groups from surrounding countries that have come to Turkey seeking a better economic future. It will be impossible to ignore millions of Syrian immigrants and they will put pressure on the Turkish government to allow for greater minority participation and diversity within Turkey.

[i] http://www.tandfonline .com/doi/abs/10.2753/AAE1061-1959500101#.VfDmQTZRHIU