Rubina Peroomian, Ph.D., California, Los Angeles
After a period of confusion at the end of World-War I, the Turkification of the ethnic and religious minorities in Turkey resumed in the Republican era. Kemalist secularization downplayed religion, but as soon as the days of Ismet Inönü, Islam began to slowly make its way into the center of the Turkish national discourse.
The policy of Turkification was pursued across all ethnic groups, in many instances resulting in persecutions and discriminatory treatment of the non-Muslim minorities. The 1934 decree to abolish non-Turkish surnames was a powerful strategy of Turkifying and homogenizing the diverse society. So was the 1942 wealth tax (varlık vergisi) which forced non-Muslims out of business by disproportionate and discriminatory taxes. Those who could not pay were exiled to labor camps. Then, it was the 1955 pogrom, organized in response to the Cypress issue. Greeks were the intended target, but Armenians and Jews too suffered the angry mob’s looting, raping, killing, burning of houses, and destruction of properties. As Rober Haddejian puts it, more painful than all that wreckage, was the shattering of Armenian hopes for a better future in Turkey. Adnan Menderes, the main organizer of these pogroms, was convicted and put to death for accusations unrelated to these pogroms and the tremendous destruction and death they caused. The next peak event in the process of Turkification and the government’s trampling on the rights of ethnic minorities was the 1960s campaign to prohibit the use of any language but Turkish. Significantly, beginning in 1965 the State Institute of Statistics omitted the question from the census concerning a person’s mother tongue.
The suppression of minorities in Turkey amplified by the rise of ultranationalist, Islamist elements and their involvement in the republic’s political process as well as their clandestine terrorist activities. Their covert manipulations and coercions in the name of nation’s interests are referred to as the workings of the deep state (derin devlet). The Islamist movement was briefly halted by the 1980 coup, but was resumed and, as Perry Anderson puts it, was reinforced by the Turkish Islamic synthesis as textbook doctrine. In the aftermath of the 1980 coup, repression against the Kurds took a new dimension: martial law in the south-east, a ban on using the Kurdish language and any cultural or political expressions of Kurdish identity spread over the entire country. This augmented repression pushed the Kurdish Workers party, towards paramilitary activities and an insurgence in 1984.
Acceptance in the European Union has brought about the government’s change of attitude toward minorities, especially Kurds who are in the spotlight more than others. Alevis remain in a worse condition. They are accused of “heterodoxy worse than Shiism,” even atheism. All the ethnic and religious minorities together figure one third of the entire population, and thus, as Perry Anderson puts it, one third of the population in Turkey is under systematic discrimination. Forced assimilation into the mainstream Turkish society—identity, culture, language, ethnicity—is in process engulfing all citizens of Turkey, be they non-Turk Muslims—Kurds, Lazs, Arabs, Circassians, Chechens—or non-Muslims such as Armenians, Greeks, and Jews.
In the case of the Armenian minority, the change to the worse occurred in the last two or three decades, and that is because of the political activities and armed struggle (the so called terrorist actions) of Diaspora Armenians for the world recognition of the Armenian Genocide. To counter these activities, the Turkish government fed its citizens with lies denying the Armenian claims, teaching them to hate Armenians. Taner Akçam, Osman Köker and many other Turkish intellectuals are trying to persuade the government to recognize the diversity of the Turkish society. Orhan Pamuk tries to show the importance of the multiethnic, multicultural society that existed in Turkey and the successive governments have tried to kill that. These intellectuals are digging for the truth in the past and are consequently harassed and persecuted. Hrant Dink’s assassination is a sad proof of that.
Moderate approaches to the history of Modern Turkey constitute the inclusion of the Armenian experience in the Turkish republican history, albeit showing the Armenian Genocide as forced migration. Significant among these publications is From Subject to Citizen in 75 Years (1999).
Contrary to the present day show of leniency toward minorities, however, the Erdogan-Gül government follows the criteria of Turkification. “One Flag, One Nation, One Language, One State” continues to be the slogan and the ideology enforced on Turkish society. Digression from that ideology is considered a criminal offense and is prosecuted under article 301.
Despite the fact that discriminatory treatment of ethnic and religious minorities is still a continuing reality in Turkey, the ever deepening of the sense of ethnic and religious identity is also a reality which has no doubt created a crisis in the Turkish supra-identity. The policy of Turkification has failed, and the government is no longer able to distort and falsify the diversity and enforce its own prescribed “national identity”.