What is a Turk? Which 1924 definition does Gül want?

Commentary, New constitution

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The most heated debate over Turkey’s new constitution is over what to call its citizens. Today, if you hold a Republic of Turkey passport you are officially a Turk. No other identity carries official recognition. That might be okay if you consider yourself an ethnic Turk, but what if you are a Kurd? Or a Circassian? Or an Armenian?

One view, increasingly common these days, is that the “Turk” label should be an umbrella identity under which “ethnic sub-identities” like Kurds, Circassians and indeed ethnic Turks could fall. There are some – the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) support this line – that the umbrella identity should be called Türkiyeli (literally: “of Turkey”), a term hitherto mostly used by Turkish Cypriots to distinguish themselves from mainlanders. But there are others, like Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who reject the umbrella identity entirely: to them, everyone is a Turk, plain and simple.

As the debate goes on within the parliamentary group charged with writing the new constitution, Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gül, weighed in on CNN Türk yesterday with his thoughts. He proposed returning to the definition used by Turkey’s Ataturk-era constitution from 1924.

Here’s what the relevant bit of article 88 of that constitution said:

In the ahali of Turkey, without distinction of race or religion, “Turk” shall be the term of citizenship.[1]

This constitution was in force until the military coup of 1960, but it was altered before – in 1945, when the language of the entire document was updated to modern Turkish and all the Ottoman Turkish terminology flushed out.

This is what the 1945 revision of article 88 said:

In Turkey, without distinction of race or religion, everyone in citizenship terms shall be called a “Turk”.[2]

On first glance, there’s not a lot to separate the two. A few words have moved around, but the gist of this sentence in article 88 is that everyone in Turkey shall be called a Turk, whatever their race or religion might be.

However, there was a subtle change meaning during the translation from Ottoman to modern Turkish. The difference centres on the Ottoman Turkish word ahali, deriving from the Arabic, which the Turkish Language Association today defines as “a community or society composed of people who share no other common characteristics other than their presence in the same place”.

Put simply, the original article implied Turkey is a diverse society united by common citizenship. The 1945 revision said Turkish citizenship is held by everyone irrespective of that diversity.

So understanding Mr Gül’s idea of Turkish identity really depends on which iteration of the 1924 constitution he had in mind. Turkey’s media and the Twittersphere have been quoting the latter version, probably because it is easier to understand.

But it is the earlier version that is remarkably tolerant. Of course, it is light years ahead of the current constitution, accepted in 1982 after the PKK had emerged as a militant force, which liberally sprinkles the phrase “Turkish nation” and references to “Turkish citizens” throughout.


[1] Türkiye ahalisine din ve ırk farkı olmaksızın vatandaşlık itibariyle “Türk” ıtlak olunur.

[2] Türkiye’de din ve ırk ayırd edilmeksizin vatandaşlık bakımından herkese “Türk” denir.

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Last modified: Monday 7 October 2013

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