Are Kurds a part of the ‘Turkish nation?’
Since the beginning of this year Turkey has been chasing a new hope: A peaceful settlement with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), whose guerilla warfare and terrorist campaign against the state has destroyed more than 40,000 lives since 1984. The totalitarian charisma of the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, is turning out to be a blessing, as his recent calls for a farewell to arms proves to be key for the much-hoped for solution.
However, the PKK will not leave arms for nothing. Besides amnesty and other privileges for its own members, the organization also expects serious constitutional changes that will secure the aspirations of Turkey’s Kurds.
One of these is a reform that all liberals and even the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) support: the lifting of the constitutional clause that says all citizens of Turkey “are Turks.” Kurds, most understandably, do not want to be defined as such and want to be able to claim their identity without any imposition from the state.
Although Turkish nationalists (some of which are in the main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party) want to keep this all-citizens-are-Turkish clause passionately, it seems certain that it will disappear in a new constitution. Yet that is only the beginning. An even bigger issue is the term “Turkish nation,” which appears in the Constitution dozens of times. The majority of the Kurds do not consider themselves a part of this nation. Hence they demand a serious rewording of the national charter.
One of the popular Kurdish goals is to include “the Kurdish people” in the Constitution, as one of the pillars, if not a co-founder, of the Republic of Turkey. But although this might sound fair, it is a recipe for new problems and tensions. If Turks and Kurds are mentioned in the Constitution then what about Arabs, the Circassians, the Laz, the Bosniaks, the Zaza or the Armenians? Are they less important? Who decides which group deserves to be honored by law and which group does not?
An alternative idea, which I support, is to make not an ethnicity-definitive constitution, but an ethnicity-blind one. Accordingly, the solution is not to create a list of ethnic groups in Turkey, but to abolish the dominance of the largest of them, the Turks.
This idea has even led to a new conceptualization of the nation: “The Nation of Turkey” instead of “the Turkish Nation.” (In Turkish, “Türkiye Milleti” instead of “Türk Milleti.”) While the latter is based on an identity (Turkishness), the former is clearly based on belonging to a country (Turkey).
“The Nation of Turkey” is certainly a promising vision for including Kurds and other non-Turkish groups.
But there is also the risk that it will be found artificial, if not “fake,” by the Turkish majority, which is often watching these discussions with shock and contempt.
Which brings me to my ideal solution; one that is based on the classical liberal approach: the best definition is the least definition. In other words, let’s just avoid putting a nametag on the nation and leave it loose.
Notably, this was the attitude during Turkey’s War of Liberation (1919-22), when political leaders, including Atatürk, spoke of “the nation” only, allowing every group to imagine themselves as a part of it.
More recently, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, too, has won many non-Turkish votes by praising “our nation,” in a tone that carefully avoids the word “Turk.” Perhaps other political leaders should take a hint.