In September 2013, the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government of Turkey abolished Andımız (literally translated as ‘Our Oath’). This was a policy that had been put in place by the Kemalist government during the early Republican period (1923-1938) of Turkey, and required all primary school students to gather at schoolyard every morning to recite a speech expressing dedication to the Kemalist principles of the state. The most controversial lines of Andımız are its very first and very last sentences: it starts with ‘I am a Turk. I am honest and I am a hard worker’, and ends with Atatürk’s famous saying “how happy for the one who says ‘I am a Turk’”. These two sentences, in a way, perfectly summarise what is at the heart of the Kemalist ideology that has dominated the state rhetoric until 2002 when AKP came to power. As a nation-state, the Turkish Republic, Kemalists argue, can only have one nation within its borders, and regardless of race, ethnicity, language, every citizen is a Turk in the eyes of Kemalists. “What is wrong with this”, Kemalists ask.
“But I am not a Turk”, some citizens of Turkey reply. During my fieldwork for my PhD thesis, I listened to many jokes (well, every joke has some truth in it) where people would tell me that instead of being an ‘honest and hardworking Turk’, they were “Kurds, honest, and hard workers”. That is why it was not surprising that the abolishment of Andımız was welcomed by all the citizens of Turkey who did not define themselves as Turks. Kemalists, on the other hand, point out to Article 66 of the Turkish Constitution, which states that “everyone bound to the Turkish state through the bond of citizenship is a Turk”. If the Constitution states that everyone who is a citizen of Turkey is a Turk, then who are we (non-Turkish citizens, academics, and/or human rights activists) to question this? My forthcoming book on different manifestations of Kurdishness in Turkey has been, to some extent, inspired by this thought, and argues that ethnicities are personalised and customised. That is, everyday practices individuals experience and state rhetoric are daily (re-)negotiated by individuals to make their own meanings of Kurdishness.
Nonetheless, a recent decision by the Council of State in Turkey to overturn the abolishment of Andımız has re-ignited debates on who is a Turk and what Turkishness means. Even though AKP’s decision to abolish Andımız was rather motivated by its desire to eliminate the Kemalist influence on state rhetoric, it was nevertheless a step in the direction of confirming the multi-national characteristics of the society. The decision of the Council of State has opened the way for schools to bring back Andımız if they want to. However, in practice, it is doubtful that many schools will actually bring it back as Erdoğan himself is very much opposed to it.
So far, the official state rhetoric of the Turkish Republic has been dominated by the Kemalist principles and by AKP’s overthrow of those principles to establish, in their words, a ‘new Turkey’, most recently illustrated by these discussions surrounding Andımız. The role these changes (and continuities) within the official state rhetoric play can be observed by looking at how Kurdishness was manifested in different periods in the history of the Turkish Republic: during the early Republican period, Kurdishness was mostly dominated by ethnic and religious issues due to Kemalist ideology’s obsession with secularism (it should be noted that the Kemalist understanding of secularism means that religion should be kept in private, so any public expression of religion is anti-Kemalist in its core) and with the invisibility of any other ethnicity other than Turkishness. However, the AKP period saw religion being brought back into the official state rhetoric. The emphasis on Islam and on ummah, a supranational concept that sees all Muslims as part of a brotherhood, has allowed the acceptance of non-Turkish groups as a separate ethnic category. Yet, the emphasis given to the use of Turkish language and to centralisation have retained their significance during the AKP rule. This, in turn, has played a noticeable role in transforming Kurdishness into a form that focuses more on linguistic and anti-centralisation demands.
However, if Kurdishness is personalised and customised, as I argued above, then what factors play a role in individual differences? Here, we have to look for causes at the micro level. The places where individuals live in, their neighbourhoods, and their family environments all play a significant role in (re-)shaping the forms of Kurdishness they exhibit. It is possible, therefore, to see a Kurd from Diyarbakır, which is considered ‘the spiritual capital of Kurds’, stating that Kurds from cities such as Istanbul and Izmir have ‘forgotten their Kurdishness’. Or, a Kurdish native speaker making fun of a non-native speaker because non-native speakers, for them, are ‘half-Kurds’. Instead of focusing on who is a ‘proper Kurd’ or who is an ‘ideal Turk’ (the Kemalists and AKP leaders have their own definition of an ‘ideal Turk’, which is a topic for a separate discussion), what I suggest is to explore these different forms of Kurdishness or Turkishness as manifested in different contexts. Only then can we begin to understand the complex nature of ethnicities.
Ceren Şengül is a Young Visiting Research Fellow at Centre Nantais de Sociologie at the University of Nantes. Her new book ‘Customized Forms of Kurdishness in Turkey: State Rhetoric, Locality, and Language Use’ is out by Lexington Books.