Identity politics: Is a Christian or Kurd 'a Turk'?

An advisory council report that calls on the country to broaden its official definition of minorities and to embrace multiculturalism is stirring a bitter public debate here about national identity.

It has become so heated, in fact, that when the head of the council tried to present the document at a press conference Nov. 1, another council member tore the notes out of his hands and publicly denounced the report, forcing the event to be canceled.

Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, meanwhile, have distanced themselves from the report.

The document, which cites a lack of cultural rights and freedoms in Turkey for minorities, comes on the heels of a recent European Union progress report on Turkish political and human rights reforms which detailed problems with the country's treatment of Kurds and non-Muslims.

The overwhelmingly Muslim country, meanwhile, is pinning its pro-West dreams on an EU summit Dec. 17, when a final decision will be made on its pending membership in the organization.

Some of the backlash to the advisory council's work appears to be fueled by a fear that further highlighting human rights shortcomings in Turkey could jeopardize its EU bid.

But analysts here say the debate reflects something much deeper.

The struggle, they say, is between a Turkish national identity forged in the crucible of World War I and its aftermath, and the growing desire to create a more inclusive, multicultural society.

It is something akin, they say, to a second modernizing - and sometimes difficult - transformation for the country.

"The search is for a democratic reconceptualization of what a Turk is," says Etyen Mahcupyan, a researcher on democratization at the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV), an Istanbul think tank. "We need to redefine what a Turk is based on citizenship, not any single ethnic identity."

Officially, the only minorities in Turkey are Jews, Greeks, and Armenians, as spelled out by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty, which led to the establishment of the Turkish Republic after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

But the board's report says Turkey has fallen behind modern norms in its understanding of minority communities.

It calls for Turkey to recognize groups such as non-Sunni Muslims, Assyrian Christians, and cultural and linguistic minorities. It also calls for constitutional changes to protect individual and minority rights.

Elcin Macar, a political scientist at Istanbul's Yildiz Technical University, who specializes in the study of Turkey's minorities, says the report's recommendations have tapped into long-held Turkish fears that trace their roots to the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, when European powers tried to carve up its territory through appeals to the empire's minority groups.

As the report puts it, there is a widespread "paranoia" in Turkey that giving minorities equal rights will lead to the country's breakup.

"The Turkish republic still sees minorities as a tool of other powers. This is a legacy that still lives in the mind of the Turkish bureaucracy," Mr. Macar says.

Indeed, the reaction by Turkey's political elite to the report's suggestions was a dismissiveness verging on hostility. "The definition of the concept of minority is clearly written in the Lausanne Treaty. It won't change," Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer said in Ankara.

General Ilker Basbug, second chief of staff of Turkey's powerful military, was even more explicit. "The Turkish Republic is unitary and it is wrong to create minorities in it. The Turkish Army cannot approve such a thing," he said.

Critics of the report, and even European diplomats in Turkey, point out that many EU countries themselves struggle with the question of pluralism. Sweden, for example, recognized the existence of minorities in the country only three years ago. France still does not recognize Breton as a minority language. Athens, meanwhile, is the only EU capital without an official mosque.

But in many ways, the reforms put in place by Turkey's EU process have already started to create significant changes in terms of minority cultural rights. For example, radio and television broadcasts in Kurdish, once banned, are now allowed, along with those in Bosnian, Arabic, and Circassian.

"I think groups are looking at the EU process as something that will let them express their cultural rights more easily," says Ingmar Karlsson, Sweden's consul general in Istanbul.

Dogan Bermek, one of the founders of the Cem Foundation, an organization that advocates on behalf of Alevi Muslims, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, says Turkey's engagement with the EU has given his group's demands for equal treatment as Sunni Muslims more traction.

Although Alevis are estimated to represent some 20 percent of the Turkish population, the government does not provide them with funds to build prayer houses, as it does for Sunni mosques.

"What we have been asking for for the last 10 years, and now the European Union is asking for it also, is for the country's Religious Affairs Department to be reorganized to reflect all the beliefs in this country," says Bermek.

"Any culture and any belief that exists in this country should be accepted and should be supported to the best ability of the society," he adds.

That kind of multiculturalism may not be difficult to achieve, says TESEV's Mahcupyan. During 600 years of Ottoman rule, Turkey was one of the most culturally diverse places on the planet, he notes.

"It's not a question of going back, but remembering what was there and recognizing ... that it still exists today and also opening the road to these cultures for their own politics," Mahcupyan says.

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