The unfolding Berberoglu drama is about freedom of the press, the arrogance of power, and justice, but it is also emblematic of the intra-Turkish struggle between the AKP faithful, followers of Gulen, secular elites, Kurds, and liberals. As Erdogan has consolidated his personal political power, destroyed any semblance of an independent media, brought the military to heel, and purged the bureaucracy—all in an effort to complete the transformation of Turkey he began 15 years ago—the struggle over what it means to be Turkish has kicked into high gear. Given the Turkish Republic’s history, this should surprise no one, but that does not make it any less worrisome, because fights over identity tend to be destabilizing and protracted.
In Turkey, this conflict can be traced back to the founding moment of the republic. For modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal—known universally as Ataturk—to be successful, it was necessary build a mythology around the idea of “Turkishness.” This mythology established linkages between Turks, the Turkish language, and the land. As a result, the loyalty of citizens would, in theory, shift from the Ottoman political-religious establishment that ruled over a predominantly Muslim domain, to a nation of Turks and a state whose rulers derived their legitimacy from the defense of Turkishness.
Paired with the mythology of Turkishness was Kemalism and its “Six Arrows”—republicanism, statism, reformism, populism, nationalism, and importantly, secularism—that served as the ideological foundation of the new republic. Neither Turkishness nor Kemalism garnered unanimous acceptance as a legitimate system of belief. There are many in Turkey, especially those of a previously dominant political class, who embraced Ataturk’s ideas, but others have resisted them, and still others have remained ambivalent. Consequently, Turks have grappled with questions of identity similar to those facing others in the region.
Throughout Turkey’s history, the demands of Turkishness have alienated Kurds, whose identities the republic officially denied. This is not a problem that is unique to Turkey, however. Kurds in Syria, Iraq, and Iran have also confronted the challenges associated with being a minority ethnic group. Still, while many Kurds in Turkey are well-integrated into the political, social, economic, and cultural life of the country, there is an inherent friction between Turkishness and Kurdishness. That tension broke out into a war between PKK and the Turkish state in 1984 that has continued, on and off, ever since.
Beyond the Kurdish issue, there is also the deeper tension over religion. In his efforts to mark a break from the Ottoman Empire and consolidate the new Turkish Republic, Ataturk moved to disestablish Islam. When in 1924 he abolished the Ottoman caliphate, which had served as the center of both political and religious power for Muslims, it was a historic step, but it was not enough. A massive cultural shift was also required. Toward that end, Ataturk instituted the use of the Latin script, European numerals, surnames (which the Ottomans hadn’t used), and the Gregorian calendar in place of the Islamic one. He also criminalized the fez. The office of the Sheikh al-Islam, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Pious Foundations, and religious schools were abolished, while Sufi brotherhoods were outlawed. And in 1928, the article of the constitution that identified Islam as the religion of the state was deleted.