In search of a Turkish identity: A persistent crisis

This paper aims to trace a hundred year of history of political crisis over the Turkish identity. Three main moments have been identified as shaping and reshaping the debate over identity.
Firstly, the late Ottoman rulers were confronted with the identity crisis during the late 19th century reform period when they attempted to modernise military and bureaucracy in order to prevent the disintegration of the empire. Ottoman elites’ articulation of the modernisation process made a clear distinction between importing Western technology and preserving distinct Ottoman identity. This constituted the first split among the reforming elite between the modernists/Westerners and the traditionalists/conservative Islamists.

This split was accompanied by the Ottoman intellectuals’ and rulers’ interpretation of the collapse of the Empire; according to which the disintegration of the empire was the result of Christian subjects’ centrifugal movements, namely the Greeks and the Armenians, who were allegedly encouraged by the Great Powers to rebel against the Empire, contributing to the collapse of the State.

The second moment in the process of formation of Turkish identity came after the collapse of the Empire. Kemalism, the political ideology of the new Republic named after the founding father of the new republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, set itself a task of building a modern/western, secular nation state out of the land and society inherited from the collapsed Ottoman Empire. Both the Kemalists and the Muslim masses inherited the traumatic perception of the collapse of the empire.

This perception shaped the Kemalists’ reforms and maintained and reproduced by the national education system. The new Turkish identity was based on Turkishness and Muslimness as the two building blocks of the national identity, excluding the non-Muslims.
Kemalists national identity project envisaged assimilation of different Muslim ethnicities to Turkish culture. The Sheikh Said Rebellion, which claimed the recognition of a distinct Kurdish identity, was violently suppressed, and the state’s nationalist discourse gained an increasingly ethno-cultural character.
Kemalist modern nation state was also characterised by radical secularism. Kemalists rulers liquidated the Ottoman intellectuals, prohibited religious instruction. Secular reforms went further than the secularisation of the state, including changes in social life.

Kurdish aspirations and Islamist ideology however survived under republican regime’s ethno-nationalist and secular surface, which constitutes the third moment in the formation of a distinct Turkish identity. They began to challenge again the ideological/political structures of the republic from 1980s onwards. Since then, Turkey’s dominant ideology has been shifting towards Islam and de-secularization along with a steady increase in the political success of the Islamists. The Islamist government of Justice and Development Party (AKP), while transforming the identity perceptions in society towards Muslimness, also initially opened up a popular debate on the multi-ethnic structure of society. Today, Kurdish question and secularisation vs Islamisation has been dominating the political agenda of Turkey. In these circumstances, the current crisis in Turkey cannot be read solely as a political crisis but a severe identity crisis with significant ideological, cultural and political implications.