The Turkification of Turkey

Turkey’s Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül made the headlines recently with his remarks on the history of the country’s nation-building process. "One of the great achievements of Atatürk... is the population exchange between Greece and Turkey," he said, speaking at the commemoration of the death of the country’s founder. "Could Turkey be the same national country had the Greek community still lived in the Aegean or Armenians lived in many parts of Turkey?"

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These words of the minister -- whose ministry is a most weird one, because it is subordinate to the military that it is supposed to supervise in a real democracy -- implied that he was content with the loss of Turkey’s Armenians and Greeks. The former had been "lost" during the tragic expulsion of 1915, and the latter were "exchanged" with the Turks in Greece in 1923. And according to Mr. Gönül, Turkey became the nation it is today thanks to these designs on its populace. Before criticizing the minister, I think we should simply acknowledge that he was telling the truth.


Yes, in the past century Turkey has been "Turkified" by state power. This was done by the removal of the non-Muslim elements, first, and then by the assimilation of the non-Turkish Muslims into "Turkishness." Turkey’s ethnically conscious Kurds, who are the only "survivors" of this Turkification policy, are today also the focus of the country’s deepest problem.

This historical truth definitely sounds irritating to the liberal and even multi-cultural ears that most of us have. But we can get such things right only by putting them in their historical context. And we can understand this context only by going back to the Ottoman Empire.

In the middle of the 15th century, with the conquest of Constantinople and other Balkan territories, the Ottoman state had turned into a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire. And until the beginning of the 19th century, it had little reason to worry about the continued existence of this structure.

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Yet as the tides of European nationalism poured in, the Christian people in the Western parts of the empire started to crave independence. First the Serbs and than the Greeks rebelled, and the latter achieved their independent state as early as 1829. It was a sign of the coming troubled times.

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In return, the Ottomans started to think of ways to win the hearths and minds of their non-Muslim subjects. Soon they would try this by turning them into full citizens with equal rights, through the reforms edicts of 1839 and 1856. "I notice the Muslims of my people in the mosque, the Christians in the church, and the Jews in the synagogue," said Sultan Mahmud II, who initiated this reform process. "There is no other difference between them in terms of my love and justice." But this policy called "Ottomanism" did not work. Uprisings among Christian people of the empire continued.


At the end of the disastrous Ottoman-Russian war of 1877-78, the empire lost most of its Balkan territories by having to accept the independence of Romania, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria. This would soon lead the Ottoman elite to lose their hopes of the loyalty of their Christians citizens. (The Jews, meanwhile, remained always loyal and thus trusted.)

The fall of Ottomanism brought forth "Islamism," the policy of Sultan Abdulhamid II, which was based on the idea of keeping the Muslim elements of the empire intact. (This is not to be confused by the radical ideology of Islamism devised by 20th century thinkers such as Sayyid Qutb.) But when even the Muslim Albanians revolted in 1912, and Muslim Arabs showed signs of nationalism, "Islamism" turned out to be ineffective as well. That’s why "Turkism," an ideology that had been flourishing among the Young Turks since the early 20th century, dominated the scene. Turks were now the only element that was trusted.

Neighbor against neighbor
Islamism’s appeal actually continued for a while, and the War of Liberation, 1919-22, was based on it rather than Turkism, but the triumph of the latter was predestined by history. At a time when almost all emerging states were trying to create homogeneous societies, Turkey could hardly have been different. Moreover, the bloody reconquista of the Balkans created not just distrust but also was disgusting to the Christian elements of the empire.

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The newly emerging Balkan states were as nationalist as they could be, and their militants decided to take revenge of the "Turkish yoke" from their Muslim neighbors. Thus, as the Ottoman armies were pushed back to Anatolia, especially in the bloody Balkan Wars of 1912-13, drones of fleeing Balkan Muslims reached Istanbul, bloody and bruised, and brought news of the Muslim-slaughtering infidels. The horrific things you saw in the Balkans in the 1990’s, that ruthless "ethnic cleansing" that the Serbian Chetniks carried out against Bosnian Muslims, was just a sequel to what had happened a century ago.

That’s why the founders of modern Turkey were convinced that cultural homogeneity was the only way to keep the nation intact. I am not saying this to justify the tragedies caused by their mindset, most notably the dreadful expulsion of Armenians in 1915. But I am saying this to explain the historical context. The Turkification of Turkey was not a malicious plot by fascist minds, but the outcome of a troubled historical process that turned nation against nation, neighbor against neighbor.

Today, of course, we live in a different age. It is time to heal the wounds of the past and make peace with the enemies of yesteryear. The only valid criticism against minister Gönül might be that he did not stress this enough in his controversial speech. But he was telling the truth, and the truth is bitter. And that is because the history of not just Turkish nationalism in particular, but nationalism as such, is bitter.

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