Turkey’s “Turkish Problem”

Coby Lubliner

I have recently read the news that Turkey’s Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, has announced, following its party congress, that it is giving up armed struggle as a means and an independent Kurdistan as an end. It has also announced that it is changing its name to Congress for Freedom and Democracy in Kurdistan (KADEK). Whether this announcement signals the end of Turkey’s “Kurdish problem” cannot yet be answered; the Turkish government continues to regard the party, whatever its name, as a “terrorist organization.”

Be that as it may, Turkey’s “Kurdish problem” is in reality Turkey’s Turkish problem. It’s inherent in the very definition of the Turkish nation and of the modern Turkish state, whose founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, intended it to be a nation-state in the Western mold – that is, an entity in which citizenship of the state and membership in the nation are essentially one and the same. Official Turkish sources found on the Web state that “Turkish democracy is based on the concept of nationalism of citizenship” and “the term ‘Turkish people’ includes all Turkish citizens, whatever their ethnic roots are.”

The Turkish nation is thus defined as what political scientists have variously called a “state nation” (F. Meinecke(1)), “political nation” (C. A. Macartney(2)), and “territorial or civic” nation (A. D. Smith(3)). The problem is that this, as Smith has noted, is “a peculiarly Western conception of the nation.” In the West, even where there exist national identities other than the one based on the state (as in Scotland or Catalonia), these are determined by territory, not ethnicity (with two sad exceptions: the “Catholics” of Northern Ireland and the Basques). In fact, as I have mentioned in a previous essay(4), all the other nationalist movements of the West explicitly reject an ethnic basis for their aspirations.

There is, of course, a touch of disingenuousness – if not hypocrisy – in the official Turkish definition. The Turks of Cyprus, as well as those of the Balkans (Bulgaria, Macedonia), are matter-of-factly accepted as part of the “Turkish people,” though they are not “Turkish citizens.” Such inconsistency is not unprecedented: in the second half of the 19th century France, the prototypical nation-state, had to find a way of excluding its indigenous Algerian subjects (at first Muslims and Jews, later Muslims only) from French citizenship while at the same time including the inhabitants of Alsace-Lorraine (who became German citizens after the Franco-Prussian War) in the French nation. This trick required some verbal sophistry by jurists and philosophers, something the French are good at.

Turkey’s real problem is not semantic but geographic: Atatürk may not have noticed, but his country is located in the wrong neighborhood for a presumed nation-state. As the Austrian churchman, political scientist and statesman Ignaz Seipel (quoted by Macartney) asserted in the 1920s, “Europe is divided by a line which separates two entirely different conceptions of the idea of the ‘Nation,’” and east of that line – into Asia – “the sentiment of civilization, of a common tongue and a common origin ” – that is, ethnicity – “preponderates.” And Turkey lies well to the east of Seipel’s line.

* * *

Since the breakup of the USSR, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia – all of which were avowedly multinational states (Nationalitätenstaaten, in the parlance of German-speaking political scientists) from their foundation – the situation in eastern Europe comes fairly close to being one of “one nation, one state.” But these are not nation-states; they are national states. These terms are often confused, even by leaders of the nations involved as well as by scholars and other writers. But they represent very different concepts. In the eastern scheme, the “cultural” or “ethnic” nation exists (or is supposed to exist) a priori, and a state (preferably sovereign, but, lacking that, an autonomous portion of a larger state) is then set up to be its homeland. But not all members of a given nation are citizens of the state that it regards as its homeland. (The Gypsies, famously, are a nation without a homeland.) Nor, conversely, are all citizens of the state members of the nation whose homeland the state is (the primary or home nation); they may belong to “national minorities” (or “minority nationalities”), which often have recognized cultural, sometimes even political, rights.

Since in Eastern Europe the names of the states are almost invariably taken from those of their primary nations, the qualifier “ethnic” typically has to be used in order to avoid confusion. There are a few instances of a single ethnic nation having two states in which it is the primary nation, but in every instance one of the two (the larger one) bears the name of the nation, and those who live in the other may have a kind of dual identity. While the Greeks of Cyprus are unequivocally Greeks, there are no unequivocal answers to the questions of whether the Rumanian-speaking Moldovans are Rumanians, whether Montenegrins are Serbs, and even whether Austrians are Germans; Seipel’s line has his own country to the east, while Germany and Italy straddle it, with different conceptions on their western and eastern borders – a situation that has led to considerable controversy over the very essence of these nations, especially in a Germany trying to put its ethnocentric-racist past behind it (and which has only recently allowed born-in-Germany Turks to become German citizens).

Aside from these special cases, the “eastern” norm is that the primary identification is with the ethnic nation. Thus the “ethnic Turks” who are citizens of Turkey’s neighbors are, first and foremost, Turks, just as the “ethnic Hungarians” in Serbia, Slovakia, and Rumania think of themselves primarily as Hungarians, and only secondarily as citizens of the countries in which they live, in whose armed forces they may serve, and in whose “national” sports teams they may participate (“international” sports competition is a western invention and is consequently based on the western or territorial model). In fact, in many countries there is a constant – though usually benign – state of tension between such minorities and the majority nation.

In some cases English allows a verbal distinction between the adjectives referring to the ethnic nation and to the state – for example, Serb/Serbian and Croat/Croatian (which is why, during the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s, it was possible to speak of “Croatian Serbs”), though the Serbocroat language itself does not allow the distinction. The Russian language distinguishes between russkiy (referring to Russian ethnicity) and rossiyskiy (referring to the land of Russia). These, however, are exceptions, and the norm is confusion. It is usually quite difficult for me to explain to people that, though a native of Poland, I am not – and never was – a Pole, but a Polish Jew; in pre-World-War-II Poland (as in most of eastern Europe), Jews constituted a minority nationality, alongside Germans, Ukrainians and Lithuanians. It was, interestingly enough, the uncertainty about the national identity of the Jews in Prussian Poland (where the ethnic Poles were unwavering in their Polish national identity, Bismarck’s Germanization efforts notwithstanding) in the 1880s that prompted the first study, by the German economist F. J. Neumann(5), elucidating the east-west dichotomy.

There is, by and large, no such ambivalence in the West (with the two aforementioned exceptions). As Neumann noted at the outset of his study, the Jews of Germany proper (Urdeutschland) saw themselves unquestioningly as Germans. By the same token, the Francophone Belgians (Walloons) and Swiss (Romands) are not French; Alsatians and Germanophone Swiss are not Germans; and so on. There are, of course, identities other than the national one, but these are linguistic and/or regional, and do not involve looking to another country as a national homeland.

* * *

It seems fair to assert that the ethnic concept of nationhood is an outgrowth of primordial tribalism and is the natural state of things, while the “peculiarly Western conception” of the nation-state is a recent innovation. Many scholars have called it an invention of the French Revolution. I believe that it goes back further: to the Western Roman Empire and feudalism.

Empires ruling over many peoples, from Antiquity to the Modern Age, did not, as a rule, deliberately try to mold them into a single nation, though the use of a single language as a lingua franca (with regionally modified versions thereof eventually replacing the local vernaculars) and the favoring of a single religion might, in time, move them in that direction. The Chinese – or, more properly, the Han – and the Arab nations are the results of such processes. Something similar began to happen in the late Western Roman empire: most of its people regarded themselves as Romans; they were Roman citizens, spoke Vulgar Latin (which later became known as Romanice or Romance), and, from the reign of Constantine onward, professed the Roman Catholic faith.

The irruption of the Germanic tribes changed this situation at first; some of these tribes professed Arian rather than Catholic Christianity, and they continued to speak their native languages and to be ruled by their own legal systems. Once Catholicism became universal, however, the language that mattered – in law, religion, literature – was Latin, not the vernaculars (which could vary greatly even between neighboring villages); and so the sense of ethnic identity was once more weakened.

But, after the short-lived Carolingian experiment, there was no longer a unified empire, and so the primary badge of “national” identity came to be allegiance to the feudal ruler, who, depending on circumstances, might be the king, the local lord, or some intermediate potentate (the term natio was, as Neumann and others have shown, used rather loosely in medieval Europe, and could have either a territorial or an ethnic connotation). Thus a Frenchman (francus) was anyone, regardless of ethnicity, who acknowledged the French king (who at first bore the tribal title of Rex francorum [king of the Franks] before becoming Rex Franciae [king of France]) as ultimate sovereign. In the Bayeux Tapestry the Normans conquering England are called franci, while in the Poem of El Cid francos refers to Catalans; but, of course, Normans were also Normans, and Catalans were Catalans, just as today’s Scots belong to both the Scottish and the British nations. And France (Francia) simply meant the territory ruled by the French kings, whether the original small territory of which they were the direct overlords (Ile de France) or the much larger territory over which they reigned, in part only nominally.

All that the French Revolution did was to replace the person of the king by the state – identified with the nation – as an abstract entity. This change did mean, however, that subsidiary national identities could no longer be tolerated;the Revolutionaries found it “repugnant that there be a nation within a nation.” In other countries of western Europe, which remained monarchies, a similar (but not quite so rigid) identification developed without a revolution. It was prevented from entering central Europe (Germany, Italy) by the lack of a unified state; and eastern Europe was, during the formative period of national consciousness, under sway of big empires, so that the ethnic conception flourished.

* * *

Turkey’s European neighbors – formed out of its old empire – are thus based on the ethnic nation model and are consequently national states. So are, by and large, its Asian neighbors. Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, like all the other states that emerged from the Soviet Union, were formed on this basis and carry the names of their home nations. And, except for the extremely multiethnic states of India, Pakistan and Indonesia, in which no single ethnicity predominates (though the first is unified by the Hinduism of its majority and the last two by Islam) and which were essentially invented by Western colonial powers, elsewhere in Asia the same principle prevails. A number of Asia’s national states, however, bear names that are distinct from those of their home nations: Iran is the home of the Persian nation (with non-Persian minorities present), China of the Han, Cambodia of the Khmer; and the avowed reason for the recent name change of Burma to Myanmar was to permit the distinction between its Burmese and non-Burmese citizens. The Arab states form collectively the homeland of the Arab nation, though they harbor large numbers of non-Arabs (Berbers, Copts, Kurds and so on). And Israel is the homeland of the Jewish nation (“national home for the Jewish people,” in the words of the Balfour Declaration of 1917); it is a Jewish state in this sense, not a religious one, whatever others may claim.

An interesting borderline case is presented by Afghanistan. Until fairly recently, as the British writer John C. Griffiths(6) points out, the designation “Afghans” was equivalent to “Pushtuns” (or Pathans, as he prefers to call them, since they do not all – especially in Kabul – speak Pushtu), and “in earlier times no members of the other ethnic groups would have dreamed of calling themselves Afghans,” while King Zahir Shah referred (in 1949) to the Pathans of Pakistan as “the trans-Durand Afghans” (the Durand line being the boundary – traced by a British colonial administrator in 1893 – between Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan). The Pushtuns, however, at best constitute half of the country’s population, and the claims of the other groups gradually led – superficially at least – to a change of thinking, so that by 1966 (by which time it was clear that the “trans-Durand” Pathans thought of themselves primarily as Pakistanis) a prime minister (a Pushtun, of course) could say (to Griffiths): “We do not think in terms of ethnic groups. We consider everybody in Afghanistan as Afghans.” “This was an admirable goal,” comments Griffiths, “but most of the minority groups would claim that it has never been seriously pursued.”

Afghanistan is, of course, in the throes of reconstruction following a series of catastrophic conflicts, both internal and external, and it is impossible to predict the form that the reconstructed state will take. It may well become a multiethnic nation-state like Pakistan or Indonesia, with Islam as the unifying factor whose potency “lies partly in the essence of Islam itself, partly in the meaning of Islam to Afghans, and partly in the fact that religion is one of the few shared symbolic systems in the society.”(7) As of this writing, however, ethnic hostility, especially between Pushtuns and Tajiks, appears to be growing.

The unifying force of Islam goes back to the notion, as old as the religion itself, that all Muslims form a nation (‘umma). This effect of this force can be played out in different ways. It may generate the self-identification of minority Muslim communities as distinct nationalities even when they share the language, the (presumed) ancestry and other cultural traits of their non-Muslim neighbors, as in the case of China’s Hui, the Philippines’ Moros, or Bosnia-Herzegovina’s “Muslims.” It may promote the participation of Muslims from all over the Dar-ul-Islam in what are perceived as liberation struggles of such communities, or in the struggles of other Muslims against secularist or infidel forces in such places as Afghanistan, Algeria, Chechnya, Palestine or Xinjiang. And it may, in Muslim-dominated lands, lead to a sense of quasi-national cohesion transcending ethnic differences, which is more or less what is happening in Pakistan, Indonesia and Afghanistan, though this effect was not enough to prevent the secession of Bangladesh from Pakistan, and it may not prevent the breaking away of Aceh from Indonesia. In Afghanistan, for now at least, Islamic devoutness may keep the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmens and Kirghiz at a distance from their more secularized ethnic brethren in the respective Central Asian republics, but this distance may shrink in the future.

* * *

Let me get back to Turkey. As the historian Kemal Karpat has written,(8) “[t]he imperial policy of Mehmed II and the pressure to follow a more Orthodox Islamic line after the conquest of Syria and Egypt in 1516-1517 combined to relegate ethnic and linguistic differences among Muslims to a very subordinate position as identifying characteristics.” Consequently, “the emphasis on religion as the foundation of the community... reduced the bases of the appeal of ethnic and linguistic consciousness.” Furthermore, “throughout the existence of the Ottoman state, in all its censuses, the Muslims were listed as one group and never categorized according to ethnic or linguistic differences.” As a result, “[t]he individual Muslim citizens gradually came to identify themselves with this new entity [a relatively cohesive political-social unit that outwardly appeared as the new Ottoman Muslim nation], formed of different tribes and ethnic groups but having Islam as its binding ideology and Turkish as its official language. This was the territorial state, the motherland, the vatan, to which, ideally, all the Muslims would pledge allegiance and loyalty.”

The non-Muslim communities were treated as nations (millets). At first (the 15th and 16th centuries) these were three:[Orthodox] Christian (also known as Rum or Greek), Armenian, and Jewish. The millets were officially presided over by their highest religious authorities: the Jews by the hakham-bashi or chief rabbi, and the Orthodox and Armenian millets by their respective patriarchs and synods. Other millets were added later.

Karpat’s conclusion is “that the Turkish nation is in some ways an extension of the Muslim nation that emerged out of the Muslim millet in the nineteenth century.” It is this continuity that allows the recognition of and the granting of cultural autonomy to the Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities – the original non-Muslim millets – in modern Turkey, alongside the refusal to recognize Muslims who are not ethnically Turkish (not only Kurds but also Caucasian groups such as Circassians and Laz) as anything but Turks.

As events in the Balkans and the Middle East – Turkey’s neighborhood – have consistently shown, in eastern Europe as well as in western Asia the depth of ethnic feeling is a force that is far from spent, and the national state with due recognition of national minorities (as was recently done with the Albanians in Macedonia), not the pseudo-Western nation-state (witness Bulgaria’s failure at “Bulgarianizing” its Turks), seems to be the most peaceful medium for channeling it.

Just as Turkey does not (cannot) deny the Turkishness of the ethnic Turks who are (presumably loyal) citizens of its neighbor states, and does not (cannot) prevent its Armenian, Greek and Jewish citizens from looking to Armenia, Greece and Israel, respectively, as their cultural or spiritual homeland, so there is no currently valid reason why Turkey’s Kurds should, by the mere fact of their being Muslim, be denied the right to identify as fellow nationals with the other Kurds, and even, at some future time, to find a kind cultural homeland in an independent Kurdistan that may some day be formed out of parts of Iraq and possibly (though less likely) of Iran. They are likely to do so without diminishing their loyalty to the Turkish state if this state follows an enlightened, tolerant policy in this regard, unclouded by the rigid dogmas inherited from Atatürk. Seriously reconsidering this legacy and acting accordingly would be of incalculable benefit to all Turks, however defined.

May 9, 2002

Addendum. In an effort to improve Turkey’s eligibility for the European Union, in August 2002 the Turkish Parliament approved legislation legalizing the teaching of Kurdish and its use in broadcasting (as well as abolishing the death penalty). This would certainly seem to be a step in the right direction. Recent media reports indicate, however, that the law remains a dead letter. Students demanding that teaching be done in Kurdish have been imprisoned on charges of terrorism; registries have refused to record the Kurdish names on newborns; the law allowing only Turkish as the language of political campaigns has not been superseded.

The paradox is that the legacy of Atatürk’s attempt to Europeanize Turkey is precisely what feeds the EU’s reluctance to consider her admission. It is, of course, far from being the only factor; economics certainly weighs in quite heavily. At the same time, Turkey’s faltering economy is what makes her leaders desperate to join the EU. Surely they must see that the national states of Eastern Europe are having a fairly easy time of it, provided they show due respect for minority rights. You can’t fool geography; if Turkey is going to be a European state, it will have to be an East European one.

October 31, 2002


1. Friedrich Meinecke, Cosmopolitanism and the National State (tr. by Robert B. Kimber). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970 (1st German ed. 1908)

2. C. A. Macartney, National States and National Minorities. New York: Russell & Russell, 1968 (1st ed. 1934)

3. Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford (UK) and New York: B. Blackwell, 1986

4. Coby Lubliner, Mailbombs and Car Bombs: the Basque Conundrum

5. Friedrich Julius Neumann, Volk und Nation. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1888

6. John C. Griffiths, Afghanistan: A History of Conflict. London: Carlton Books Ltd, 2001

7. Richard F. Nyrop and Donald M. Seekins, Afganistan: A Country Study. Washington: Department of the Army, 1986

8. Kemal Karpat, The Ottoman Ethnic and Confessional Legacy in the Middle East, in: M. J. Esman and I. Rabinovich (eds.), Ethnicity, Pluralism and the State in the Middle East, pp. 35-53. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988

© 2002 by Jacob Lubliner

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