Identity and the new constitution

Statue of Ataturk in Istanbul with the caption, "How happy is he who can call himself a Turk"

Statue of Ataturk in Istanbul with the caption, “How happy is he who can call himself a Turk”

Andrew Finkel offers a subtle analysis of state definitions of national identity in Turkey on the blog, Latitude this week.

The idea behind Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s famous dictum, “How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk,'” seemed simple enough, Finkel writes: “If you think you’re Turkish, then you are.”  The reality, of course, was not simple at all.

On the one hand, Article 66 of the 1982 Constitution defines a Turk as someone who feels the bonds and benefits of citizenship rather than in terms of ethnicity or race. On the other hand, Article 3 states that Turkish is the country’s sole official language, and Article 24 makes religious education compulsory. Throughout the document, as well as in political discourse and popular parlance, the notion of “Turkishness” is both ill-defined and staunchly defended.

This is a problem especially because the 1982 Constitution, written while Turkey was under martial law, is infamously a charter for authoritarianism: It is designed to defend the ideological core of the state, not individual rights.

This definition has been a direct challenge to the rights of Turkey’s minorities, Finkel writes:

Turkish officialdom has found it almost impossible to accept that non-Muslims like Armenians and Jews could be loyal to the state. But with non-Muslims accounting for just 0.5 percent Turkey’s population, discrimination against them has been, in effect, a minor issue. The real problem is the Kurds. They are Muslim, yes, but many insist on an identity of their own, and there are too many of them — 18 percent of the population, according to one estimate — to ignore.

During the last election the government pledged to change this, and it is now hammering out a new Constitution. The stakes are high: This is happening as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan tries to end a long campaign by Kurdish nationalists, sometimes peaceful and sometimes not, calling for a devolution of power and the right to think of themselves not as Turks but as Kurds.

The Kurds, reasonably, are asking that the expression of their cultural difference no longer be interpreted as an attack on the integrity of the state. So the Constitution’s protections for “Turkishness” have to go.

What is the solution?  For Finkel, the solution is relatively simple: The state needs to get out of the business of defining individual identity.  “Taking pride in your country is a good thing,” Finkel writes, “but it is something you do out of choice.”

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