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Identifying Identity Problems

19.03.2015
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Our columnist Sera Keleş writes on the problems Turkish people encounter with ascribed identities

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan boldly declared over the weekend at a rally in the northern western province of Balıkesir that there is “no Kurdish problem” in Turkey. That may very well be true: as President Erdoğan argued, many ethnic Kurds who have now risen to positions of power and the Turkish Dream is open to all regardless of Kurdish or Turkish ethnicity. Just don’t ask for mother tongue education, a lowering of the parliamentary electoral threshold or, as the HDP’s co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş put it: “if there is no Kurdish problem, then what is the purpose of the peace process?”

Perhaps it would be useful to turn the situation on its head. The Kurdish problem, solved or unsolved, has given way to a “Turkish problem”. Over the past decade the Kurdish awakening has benefitted many minorities of Turkey, creating awareness and varying degrees of acknowledgement, yet an unintended consequence is that it has made some Turks feel left out in the cold. Being Kurdish is no longer treated as some sort of terrible family secret. However, as one 26-year-old elementary school teacher from Malatya quietly confided: “They are proud of being Kurdish, but why am I made to feel ashamed of being Turkish?”

There have been many flash points in the past six months alone that signal the underlying tension. The public anger seen in October 2014 over Ankara’s Kobane policy turned into violent protests that left more than 30 dead. Recently revealed footage taken at the protests in İzmir shows Ekrem Kaçaroğlu lying motionless on the ground while being kicked and beaten by a mob. It is still unclear who shot him and why, but there is speculation that he was killed for making a pro-Kurdish “V for Victory” gesture.

Another example of unchecked tensions happened again in İzmir, on Ege University campus in February. In an eerie echo of the violence seen on university campuses of the late 70s, fighting broke out between opposing student groups that led to the death of Fırat Yılmaz Çakıroğlu, the university’s representative of the Grey Wolves, an ultra-nationalist organisation with close links to the MHP.

These tensions reveal themselves in other insidious ways. Saying “I am a Turk” rather than the newly fashioned “I am Türkiyeli” (“of Turkey”) is now much more complicated than ever before. The former, rather than simply being a statement about ethnicity or identity, can imply that you are a nationalist or fascist. This unintended association with ultra-nationalism or fascism is deeply disturbing for many Turks and breeds resentment. As the murdered Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink astutely observed, the persistent denial of the 1915 atrocities stems from an honourable place: no decent person wants to fathom even for a moment that their ancestors were capable of committing or perpetrating genocide.

But then there’s the staunchly MHP factory foreman I met in Malatya. In conversation on matters such as history, he came across as a xenophobic ultra-nationalist. Yet he also told me of his love of Armenian folk songs, urging me to listen to them on his mobile, and spoke highly of his Kurdish friends. He was a perfect example of how politics and real life collide.

The Turkish sense of identity was forged through a complicated entanglement of history and nation-building. This dogma was then imprinted upon generations of people through the state-run education system, but the emergence of a “Turkish problem” has begun to gnaw at what they were taught at school. A failure to define “Turkishness” in relation to other ethnicities risks fostering resentment and could create a small, disenfranchised segment of society unable to accept Turkey’s plurality.

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