Gökhan Bacık
Nov 08 2018

"I am a Turk" oath highlights identity crisis

The Turkish Council of State's recent decision to reintroduce the student oath, "I am a Turk," has resurrected a nationwide debate on identity. 

Two questions summarise the debate: Should we call people who live in Turkey Turks? If not, what do we call them?

The moderate nationalist view argues that Turkishness is Turkey’s civic identity to represent all people including those of other ethnic origins such as Kurds, Albanians or Circassians. According to this view, Turkishness as a civic and supra-identity (üst kimlik in Turkish) and does not refer to an ethnic group.

Thus, people from other ethnic groups such as Kurds and Albanians are supposed to embrace Turkishness as their civic identity. The moderate nationalist view believes that it is fair to imagine Turkishness as the common civic identity for historical and demographic reasons.

When it comes the radical nationalists, the identity issue is more sensitive. They are even against the idea of a supra-identity. Instead, there is only space for a national identity in Turkey and it is Turkishness. For the radical nationalists, the narrative of a supra-identity is tantamount to treason.

The bloc that is critical of all students declaring “I am a Turk” includes different groups such as the pro-minorities, but mostly Kurdish opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the Islamist ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and a small number of liberal intellectuals.

However, each group in this bloc has its different point of departure. For instance, the HDP expects a new formula where the Kurdish identity would be recognised or at least not completely ignored.

Ironically, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP sees the identity debate as more of a pretext to maul the Kemalists rather than an opportunity to foster multiculturalism.

In fact, the AKP’s stance on identity politics is an ultra-nationalist position. Erdoğan frequently repeats the ultra-nationalist motto that runs as “one nation, one homeland, one state, one flag” in his public addresses.

Realistically, Turkish politics does not offer optimism to the solution of the identity problem, particularly the Kurdish question. Two major obstacles render an optimistic view on identity problem impossible:

To begin with, identity issues form a quite big portion of daily politics in Turkey. In other words, Turkish politicians have an established habit of packaging their arguments within the realm of identity issues.

In so doing, they more easily consolidate their constituencies, but at the cost of radicalisation of some political groups. Thus, Turkish politics is a continuous debate on identity issues even if the hot topic is economy or foreign policy. Politicians quickly reframe economic and other issues as identity problems.

The dramatic outcome is the radical disengagement of different political groups from each other. Today, almost each political group hates the others as a result of the grip of identity politics. Given that hate is the main current that rules inter-group relations, whoever controls hates also controls Turkey.

Yet, the abnormal centrality of identity issues in politics transforms Turkey into a kind of irrational political milieu.

Political behaviour has a simple logic where individuals are expected to change their choices if they are not happy about the current situation. But identity politics is so strong in Turkey, that people stay loyal to their parties even if they are not happy with their policies.

Secondly, it is not possible to solve identity problems purely through theoretical debates. Countries that are successful in the economy and democratisation are more able to overcome their identity problems. Failed states usually also fail in overcoming their identity questions.

For example, many citizens of other failed nations are always happy to get passports of developed countries. Many Kurds or Turks who are proudly part of endless debates on identity at home would be happy to get a Norwegian, EU or U.S. passport with no reservation.

Success is therefore a keyword in identity politics. Even if they have comparatively better legal and political frameworks, failed nations are less able to solve their identity problems.

For example, Iraq has a more liberal and modern constitutional framework that recognises the Kurdish identity. The Kurdish language is officially recognised yet there exists an autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. At a legal level, Iraq is far more liberal than, for example, Turkey regarding Kurdish ethnicity.

But an Iraqi passport is never treated like an EU or U.S. passport since Iraq is not successful in material fields such as economic development and democratisation.

Economic development and democratisation are highly efficient catalysts in solving identity problem. There is no doubt that legal and political approaches are important in identity politics, but they are not the sole dynamics in the process.

So, analysing the identity debate in Turkey particularly in regard to the Kurdish problem, Turkey needs concrete success in three major fields going beyond the ongoing theoretical debates:

  1. Politicians should stop packaging their debate in identity politics,

  2. Turkey should immediately decide on an efficient administrative model that would be more helpful to various identity crises in the country,

  3. Turkey should advance in key concrete fields like economy, rule of law and democratisation.

So long as Turkey does not succeed in these three key fields, it will remain trapped in a violent and costly identity crisis.

The student oath that has sparked the recent debates in Turkey has this beginning sentence: “I am a Turk, honest and hardworking.”

The whole identity debate has focused on the first clause “I am a Turk”. But as this article has summarised, the identity theory reminds us that equally important in solving the identity crisis is whether a nation is honest and hardworking or not.