Özgür Sevgi Göral: "In Praise of Turkishness"

In Praise of Turkishness

The word 'Turk' appears 54 times in Turkey's 17-times-revised current Constitution. In the Constitution's Preamble, the same word is used 10 times. Even in the Preamble, it is evident that the word 'Turk' does not solely refer to citizenship, despite claims otherwise.  Phrases in the Preamble use the word 'Turk' or 'Turkish' in several manners: "Turkish motherland and nation," "the supreme Turkish state,", "Turkish national interests," "Turkish entity," "Turkish historical and spiritual values," "Turkish citizen" and "Turks dedicated to democracy."  

Lest we think that a preamble holds only a symbolic value in a constitution, we should look at key articles. In Article 5, the main goal and function of the state is defined as "the protection of Turkish independence and unity." The Article on sovereignty states that "the Turkish nation will practice the sovereignty..." The well-known article on "Turkish citizenship" defines all citizens as "Turks" and declares the state as "Turkish." The list goes on. The purpose here is not to go on about the use of Turk and Turkishness in the rest of this talk. My aim is rather to illustrate that the fact that the constitution is a legal praise to Turkishness runs throughout the whole text and significantly hinders the constitution to be based on equality, plurality and state neutrality. Essential elements of any democratic constitution.

Needless to say, the word Turkish refers to a specific ethnicity, with a Muslim/Sunnite identity. There are several groups who are not Turkish but the citizens of the Republic of Turkey like Kurds, Armenians, Greeks and many others. All of these different groups are labeled as "Turkish citizens" under the Citizenship clause of the current constitution. However, the issue clearly runs deeper than a matter of constitutional citizenship although a neutral definition of the citizenship is crucial. While the diverse uses of the word 'Turk' in the Constitution suggest certain political ambiguities, the main intention is to assimilate all citizens of the Republic of Turkey under the overarching umbrella of 'Turkishness'.[1] The discussion gets much more complicated when it comes to non-Muslim citizens. As Mesut Yeğen argues, these are the citizens that cannot be assimilated due to the fact that they are not Muslim therefore the only way to deal with them is silencing them while extracting all the property, resources and networks that they acquire. In addition, these citizens are also non-existent in the Constitutional context given the fact that all the citizens are described as Turks. As such, we can read the 1982 Constitution as legal praise to 'Turkishness' that uses the supreme code in the legislative hierarchy of texts.

In light of above I have to say that as a new and truly democratic constitution is written, we must eradicate this regime of double legal standards privileging the Turk, Muslim/Sunnite and male citizen. Here there are many issues, such as the recognition of cultural identity rights, constitutional guarantee for the right to education in one's mother tongue, affirmative action to protect religious minorities, and special measures to ensure equal female participation in all elected or appointed bodies. The new constitution should not only guarantee equal citizenship rights for all - including LGBT individuals, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Alevis and other oppressed groups- but also eradicate the privileges associated with being Turkish, Sunnite and male. As long as the privileges of Turkishness remain intact, it will be impossible to establish veritable political equality among all citizens. This is an issue systematically ignored by academic or intellectual circles up till now[2], instead some of the prominent intellectuals organized campaigns defending the word ‘Turkish' for the definition of the citizenship thus strengthening the Turkish nationalism and discrimination.

It is frustrating to see political parties firmly resist change and democratization in the Constitution Reconciliation Commission. For example, the People's Republican Party does not accept a neutral and non-ethnic definition of the citizenship. In another example, the Justice and Development Party does not accept the concepts of state neutrality and pluralism vis-à-vis different religious believes. As such, mainstream parties reject even the most basic demands for formal democratization, preferring to keep business as usual with just a few small tweaks. Nationalist Movement Party's proposals, on the other hand, were in such contrast to the universal values of human rights and democracy and so much in line with the existing approaches of the Turkish nationalism; one wonders whether they are in favor of a new and democratic constitution or not. Finally, BDP's suggestions are branded "extreme" or "radical" generally and shelved as unrealistic fantasies that cannot be put into practice.

If we discuss more specifically on the religious minorities in Turkey in the context of the new constitution writing process, a negligence of the Christian communities' basic rights should be emphasized. As you all know better than me, seized property of the non-Muslim communities is one of the crucial issues. Although shameful and discriminatory ban of the 1936 Declaration has been altered by the government in line with EU membership process; serious actions should still be taken in order to return the property to the foundations. As BDP we suggested a specific article for the return process of the property of the minorities under the new constitution. According to our suggested article the state should recognize its duty to restitute the property of the minorities' foundations and should establish a solid legal ground for this process. Again, according to our suggested article, the state has also the duty to compensate and redeem the foundations of the minorities. None of the political parties accepted this suggestion.

Another suggestion that we made, this time with Justice and Development Party, is to recognize the educational rights within the context of the freedom of faith. We clearly stated that the freedom of faith includes the freedom of religious education as well. In addition, we also suggested that public resources should be distributed fairly while the state provides religious services, this time with Republican People's Party. As BDP, we went one step further and we suggested an article stating that the state should take affirmative action for different disadvantaged religious groups. Furthermore, we argued that compulsory religion classes should not be in the Constitution. These classes are taught in a very one sided and narrow way and it makes the propaganda of a specific way of the Sunnite İslam therefore under the new constitution, there should be no compulsory religion classes. We are also off the opinion that the new constitution must stand against all discrimination arising from the public use of the headscarf. We also argued that Diyanet should not be a constitutional entity. In addition, we are the only political party that seeks for guaranteeing the right of conscientious objection under the new constitution.   

Last but not least we believe that dealing with past atrocities generally and vis-à-vis non-Muslim citizens, is specifically crucial for a democratization process. We believe that the Armenian genocide and the recognition of the genocide stand as vital steps. BDP suggested that the new constitution should also include an article entitled right to truth, which emphasizes all citizens' right to access to the truth, including historical past of the country, through state archives. In addition, the state is responsible for establishing temporary and permanent institutions for effective use of the right to truth. And finally, it is stated that the statute of limitations will not be applied for genocide and crimes against humanity. In Turkey, the concept of ‘state secret' hinders the access to information; alternative historical narratives are criminalized in terms of ‘insulting the Turkishness'; militarist and nationalist stances are protected through the blockings of different historical narratives. The discussions on the Armenian genocide, massacres and killings vis-à-vis non-Muslim communities are primary examples of this approach among others. The suggestion of this article aimed to alter the paradigm of the discussion, open a space for truth and reconciliation commissions, refuse the closing effect of ‘state secret' and symbolically propose a new vocabulary and attitude for coming to terms with past atrocities. BDP was severely attacked in the Commission because of this suggestion. None of the political parties supported it. 

The Constitution Commission does not continue to work as of today. The head of the commission, who is the head of the Parliament as well, Cemil Çiçek, said that given the fact that 4 political parties cannot reconcile on important issues the Commission should cease to work. After two years of work, saying that 4 political parties do not compromise on critical issues seems to be ironic; because it was an obvious fact right from the beginning. Still, we should push new and democratic constitution writing process. We could have changed our rules for full compromise and we could have said that the compromises of 3 political parties will also be counted. Or we could include NGOs, academicians, and different actors of the society in order to strengthen the political position of the Commission. The citizens of the Republic of Turkey have been living under the militarist junta constitution for more than 30 years now - the Parliament does not have the luxury to fail on the new constitution writing process.        

It is obvious that the new constitution will not resolve all political issues; in the end, legal texts are shaped by power relations and are bound to be revised over time. Accordingly, the new constitution cannot by itself install democratic autonomy, establish gender equality, or restitute all the loss of non-Muslim communities. However, it can create an atmosphere that will allow the struggle for such demands to be waged under more favorable conditions, and it can certainly establish legal equality among citizens. This would both disrupt the mechanism making Turks 'the dominant nation' and secure democratic progress. All of this can be made possible only by a constitution of rupture.  Only a constitution that ruptures from past precedent can allow for the transition from a text regulating the privileges of the Turkish ethnicity to one regulating the rights of equal citizens. The new constitutional commission is founded on the struggles waged by ten thousands of Kurds killed during an intensified war, by Hrant Dink killed in broad daylight for discussing the Armenian genocide and equal citizenship rights, by transsexuals beaten up on the street or tortured to death, by women killed for filing for divorce or finding employment, by all those arrested in recent years during the KCK lawsuits, by Alevi community marked by endless discriminatory practices and by everyone who struggled for a just and democratic society. We should push it hard so that the members of the Commission would not avoid their crucial duty: Writing of a new constitution of rupture guaranteeing equal citizenship rights for each and everyone living in the Republic of Turkey.

[1] Yeğen, Mesut: Müstakbel Türk'ten Sözde Vatandaşa, Cumhuriyet ve Kürtler, İletişim Yayınları, İstanbul, 2009.


[2] The limited number of studies on this issue are as follows: Barış Ünlü, "'Türklük Sözleşmesi' ve Türk solu",, Kaya Akyıldız "Türklük halleri: 'yalnız ve güzel ülke'nin ruhu – 1" and "Türklük halleri: 'yalnız ve güzel ülke'nin ruhu – 2", Birikim, no. 274 and 289-290. Tanıl Bora's certain articles focus on similar themes, in the context of Turkish nationalism: Tanıl Bora, "Türkiye'nin Linç Rejimi", Birikim Yayınları, İstanbul, 2008.