Eternal Minorities?

Turkish Politics and the Challenge of Diversity

Recent moves by the Turkish government and its people signal new developments in the country’s internal political dynamics and its external relations, write Michael Werz and Sarah Jacobs.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, speaks with his  party members at the Parliament on April 20, 2010. Solving the minority questions and defining citizenship in a way that  embraces cultural and religious diversity will enhance Turkey's role as a model for its Eastern neighbors. (AP/Burhan Ozbilici)
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, speaks with his party members at the Parliament on April 20, 2010. Solving the minority questions and defining citizenship in a way that embraces cultural and religious diversity will enhance Turkey's role as a model for its Eastern neighbors. (AP/Burhan Ozbilici)

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan today issued a decree in the Official Gazette—a paper in which all laws must be published before going into effect—stating that even though efforts have been made toward democratization and improved relations with the nation’s Greek, Armenian, and Jewish minorities, discriminatory problems remain for lack of true implementation. In a country that has struggled with the minority question for the better part of the 20th century, this statement is a significant step in the right direction.

The day before, Turkish President Abdullah Gül approved a constitutional reform package that includes provisions that allow military commanders to be tried in civilian courts and grants Parliament greater leverage in appointing judges. A referendum on September 12 will decide the fate of these first steps of constitutional reform.

These are two important new steps for Turkey—two of several taken toward democracy and the recognition of its internal diversity in recent years. The so-called “Kurdish Opening,” later rebranded as “Democratic Opening,” was aimed at tempering conflict between Turkey’s Kurdish minority and the military while also granting the Kurdish community more of the rights available to all Turks. Some of the proposed constitutional reforms also concern equal rights to minority ethnic groups and political parties.

Another sign of the emergent debate was a recent demonstration in the center of Istanbul:

On April 24, the anniversary of the ethnic cleansing in 1915 that victimized the Armenian community during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, the legendary Taksim Square in central Istanbul was an unusual sight. The civil society group “Say No to Racism and Nationalism” had called for a public event commemorating this infamous date in recent history. Several hundred people responded, including more than 70 Turkish intellectuals. Parallel protests demanding the recognition of the killings took place at the Haydarpaşa Train Station and at the building of the Turkish-Armenian newspaper Agos.

Only a few years ago, such displays of dissent with the official version of World War I atrocities would have been unthinkable. The same is true for the apology statement that was initiated by public intellectuals in late 2008 and signed by more than 30,000 people.

The more Turkey moves to take on a leadership role in the new Levant, an interesting question will arise. What will define national Turkish self-perception when the Kurdish and Armenian questions are finally settled and the deafening silence about ethnic cleansing in 1915 and 40,000 victims in Eastern Anatolia during the 1990s is overcome? With decades of delay, Turkish society is beginning to address these issues. The outcome is far from certain; this analysis outlines the current debate in historical context.

Turkey has the opportunity to be a positive actor in the region. It is in the interest of the United States, Europe, and the world for Turkey to act as a mediator and leader in some of the most difficult situations the world currently faces. If Turkey wants to be taken seriously in this role and wishes for Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors” to be a reality rather than a political line—then it must at the same time see its own diversity as a strength and not as predicament.

Since 1923, the Republic of Turkey has been a country of contradictions. Succeeding the multiethnic Ottoman Empire and becoming a land bridge between Europe and the Middle East, Turkey played an integral part in Western 20th century history. After the nationalist revolution, the country underwent a process of secularization in fast motion under the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Gregorian calendar was implemented in 1924, the abolition of religious courts and schools followed, a purely secular system of family law was established, and the Arabic script was replaced by the Latin alphabet in 1928. Kemalism was a very peculiar form of secular nation building at the expense of acknowledging diversity and was driven by the need to neutralize differences in creed in the former multireligious empire.

As UC Berkeley Professor Dariush Zahedi and Gokhan Bacik, professor of international relations at Zirve University, note, the military was not meant to be the guarantor of secularism and national integrity. Ataturk:

…had been a general in the Ottoman army and a field marshal in the Turkish army, [but] set aside his military fatigues upon assuming the role of head of state in 1923. He removed other military officers from political posts, promoted civilian control of the armed forces, and cautioned the military against intervening in political affairs. He gave responsibility for developing the public’s understanding of liberal, Western values to politicians, civil servants, school teachers, journalists, and public intellectuals.

Only under President Ismet Inonu in the 1940s did the Turkish military become an instrument to implement policies. Later, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was not too uncomfortable with this arrangement, and in “exchange for Turkey’s alignment with the Western bloc, an increasingly strong military was accepted, which in 1960 carried out the first of three Cold War–era military coups.”[1]

Authoritarian politics and uncompromising, one-dimensional nationalism maintained a tight grip on Turkish society for several decades, denying the existent traditions of ethnic and religious diversity in the country. But with the political and economic transformation during the 1990s that contributed to the electoral success in 2002 of the now-ruling Justice and Development Party, or its Turkish acronym AKP, these unacknowledged traditions began playing a more important role in public life. Indeed, not only the Armenian conflict re-emerged on the domestic Turkish scene in a very different way; so, too, did the minority conflict in Eastern Anatolia under the label of the “Kurdish opening.” The government took important steps to address both issues by ending martial law in Kurdish regions and engaging in negotiations with the Armenian government that aimed at reopening the borders between both countries.

Even though the opening to the Kurds lost some momentum in recent months, especially with the closure of the main Kurdish political party by the Constitutional Court, it still might have passed an important threshold over the last three years by granting more rights to the Kurdish minority. Political scientist Ümit Cizre argues that with these initiatives the AKP has overcome its “chronic political insecurity” and the restructuring of domestic power balances is irreversible.[2] Indeed, a new era might have begun, albeit slowly and not without setbacks.

After decades of whitewashing early 20th century history, policies attempting to deny the region’s rich diversity appear to be old fashioned and counterproductive today. As Turkey grows in importance to its neighbors to the east and west, the current government feels the pressure to reform their nation’s policies and actions to better its internal relations with the vicinity that has changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War and the invasion in Iraq.

Case in point: The AKP-led government over the past three years has made serious attempts to end the Kurdish conflict that has dragged on for decades and cost more than 40,000 lives. This decision has changed the public discourse and helped to overcome the misplaced specter of land-hungry Kurds descending on the predominantly Turkish parts of the country—a long-time central motif of Turkish nationalism—even though social and cultural diversity of Turkey is far more advanced than ever admitted by the old nationalist guard.

Despite the violent challenge by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, in the name of Kurdish nationalism, the historic tradition of intra-Muslim intermarriage in Turkish society (broadly defined) has thus far remained intact. Kurds intermarry with non-Kurds in large numbers and live in mixed neighborhoods and cities. A 2009 poll by SETA and Pollmark—an Istanbul-based think tank close to the foreign minister and a polling firm, respectively—provides plenty of evidence of the close social proximity between Kurds and non-Kurds in Turkey. Sixty-seven percent of Kurds polled, for example, said they have close non-Kurdish relatives.[3]

The AKP is driving this Kurdish opening and at the same time is being driven by economic and external factors out of its control. Some argue that the willingness to reintegrate PKK guerillas into Turkish society is necessary to realize the ambitious Nabucco pipeline project—a natural gas pipeline from Eastern Turkey to Austria—and make Turkey a future energy hub. But more realistically, the redeployment of U.S. troops from Northern Iraq exerts much more pressure to neutralize or integrate the PKK militants on the Turkish side of the border, so that any attempt to revive the demand for an independent Kurdish state is blocked.

Still, the Kurdish question and the PKK are not identical. More important and more immediate domestic questions evolve around the necessity of establishing a more inclusive and diverse notion of Turkish citizenship. There are political considerations as well: 3 million Kurds live in Istanbul alone and the group is an important reservoir of AKP voters. When the government tries to emphasize “brotherly unity” between Turks and Kurds, the Islamic tradition comes in handy. It provides a way to establish common ground and accept a history of previously unacknowledged diversity without instantly running afoul of the chauvinist Turkish heritage that is codified in the constitution as well as in the entire education system.

The AKP can claim to represent the minority at least partly—approximately 2 million out of 10 million to 12 million Kurds voted for the current government. In addition, it is important to acknowledge that close to half of the Kurdish population is under 18 years of age, which means the AKP gets effectively half of the whole Kurdish vote.

In addition, almost three-quarters of the entire population of Turkey agree that a quarter century of militarized responses to the PKK have not worked, and more than half expect parties and institutions to play an active role in solving the problem. Yet when it comes to the constitutional changes necessary to provide equal rights, a vast majority is against such reforms. Such contrary views in society are hard to reconcile.

Yet these attitudes overshadow daily individual experiences within a diverse society, which is why the commencement of a public discourse signals the crossing of an important political threshold. Progress might be quicker than expected because there is a lot of arrested development with regard to public participation in matters that affect society at large. The shift toward the so-called “Kurdish opening” (or, as some refer to it, the “democratic opening” because it opts for contributing to greater pluralism within Turkey) has produced ambivalent results for the main actors, including the PKK.

On the one hand, jailed Kurdish leader and PKK founder Abdullah Öcalan has gained considerable influence in the current process. On the other hand, the reforms, if successful, will directly impact the authoritarian structure of the PKK because the cult surrounding Öcalan relies on an iconography that mirrors the political system at large—a system that the current government set out to reform. A solution of the Kurdish confrontation would increase the AKP’s appeal to a broad part of the population as well as weaken the raison d’être of increasingly nationalistic parties.

What’s more, all this is in line with the country’s constitution, which grants equal rights to all individuals “without discrimination before the law, irrespective of language, race or color”—even though policies such as mandatory declaration of religion on identification cards still exist. In contrast, constitutional antidiscrimination laws are still disregarded in the school system where religion is part of the basic curriculum. While a variety of religions are mentioned, curriculum focuses heavily on Hanafi Sunni Islam inherently discriminating against Turkey’s many non-Muslim students as well as Alevis who are not Sunni.

Even before Ataturk’s modernization, international laws were established to protect the minorities of the region—most notably the Lausanne Treaty of 1923 that set up the protection of religious minorities inside Turkey—but such international agreements have not been enforced and remained largely ineffective. The quest to establish cultural pluralism that acknowledges the society’s past, present, and future has also been challenging. The constitution leaves no room for the languages spoken by minority communities: “The Turkish state is an indivisible entity. Its language (rather than official language) is Turkish.”

For a long time, the Kurdish language was banned in public, a prohibition lifted only during the presidency of Kurdish descendent Turgut Özal in 1991. In addition, the strictly enforced “Political Parties Law” still forbids the use of all languages but Turkish in political literature, campaigning, and meetings. And in the age of Internet and global accessibility, Turkey has even attempted to limit citizens’ ability to access minority opinions and “insults to Atatürk” on YouTube.

Turkey’s rigid treatment of minorities has long been criticized by the international community. But now that Turkey has emerged as a leader in the region, the minority questions are complicating this emerging power’s ability to become a stakeholder in the international community. Turkey touts the normalization of its damaged ties with neighbor Armenia, while Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to the deportation of illegal Armenian immigrants. Turkey claims to seek better diplomatic ties with Greece, yet continues to limit the rights of Greek Christians living in Turkey.

The current debate about constitutional reform—whether to make it harder to ban political parties, allow military personnel to be put on civilian trial, enable the president and parliament to pick the members of the Supreme Court, and reform the influential Board of Judges and Prosecutors that has often clashed with the AKP government—is the next big battlefield because many problems have to do with the current constitution dating back to the era of the military junta in the early 1980s. That constitution limits individual cultural and political liberties and assures the military considerable political influence through the controversial National Security Council.

To date, almost all opposition parties from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party to the “old guard” Republican People’s Party seem to be unified in an untimely rhetoric of unanimity that blocks attempts to begin the all important conversation about how Turkey can be understood as what it is: a nation of diverse citizens. Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish political commentator, argues that what the country ultimately needs is to “fix the fundamental design flaw of the Republic” by building “a democratic state that respects the plurality of the society, rather than an authoritarian one that imposes an official identity and ideology."[4] This might be easier said than done, and yet it might be the only way that will give Turkey the internal reconciliation it needs to foster its newly defined, and quite prospective, regional role.

Turkey has been a bedrock of the Western alliance and a long-time partner for the United States. Now, after an absence of many decades, Turkey has returned as a major player in the Middle East. Clearly motivated by national interests, its re-engagement in the region’s affairs will have significant repercussions on regional balances of powers. It will also impact on the way Arab elites regard Turkey and their judgments on that country’s historical experience since the establishment of the republic in 1923.

Turkey increasingly serves as model for its Eastern neighbors. Solving the minority questions and defining citizenship in a way that embraces cultural and religious diversity will only enhance that position. The old Western alliance, which relied for so long on Turkey’s role during the Cold War, should be supporting the current transformation by all means necessary because it will be a first step toward building a durable partnership with that important society in the 21st century.


[1] Foreign Affairs Snapshot, “Kemalism Is Dead. Long Live Kemalism,” April 23, 2010.

[2] Ümit Cizre, “The Emergence of the Government’s Perspective on the Kurdish Issue,” Insight Turkey 11 (4) (2009).

[3] SETA Report, “Public Perception of the Kurdish Question in Turkey” (2009).

[4] Mustafa Akyol, “The fundamental design flaw of the Turkish Republic,” Hürriyet Daily News, December 18, 2009.

Michael Werz is a Senior Fellow and Sarah Jacobs is an intern at the Center for American Progress.

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