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The Turkish identity imposed by the nation-state is being questioned


Standpoint of Turkey

The Turkish identity imposed by the nation-state is being questioned

Pinar Selek


Pinar Selek

Turkish Sociologist and writer, feminist, anti-militarist and ecologist activist.

In this interview, Pinar Selek reminds us that Turkish identity is nothing but a creation of the nation-state, which has been imposed on all the citizens of Turkey. She considers it only natural that oppressed people should fight for their specific identities, provided however that it does not lead to creating another dominant identity. The sociologist also recalls the history of protest movements in Turkey – from the 1980s onwards – as well as the crucial role played by Hrant Dink and the Agos review in changing Armenian identity in Turkey and the Turkish civil society at large.

REPAIR: What does the word “identity” make you think of?

Pinar Selek: I’m not identity-minded, either as a woman or in terms of ethnic origin. And I like the idea of being able to step out of identities in order to invent another way of life. Of course, each of us has particular features, such as a language and a culture, and it’s good to resist and protect them. However, I don’t usually use the word “identity” in debates – although it exists – because to my mind, identities are political and social constructs. I wrote a book1 about the shaping of man, and how the patriarchal system builds men. The first thing I mention is how Turkish identity was created from the top down, through building a nation-state in charge of modelling a Turkish identity and imposing it to everyone.

So, in your view, identity is deliberately shaped…

Just like the male or female identity. It’s something that you learn, frameworks that everyone has to fit into. However, we all have several identities and shouldn’t have to coincide with those frameworks. Personally, I am in favour of breaking out of them. Therefore, I try to inject subjectivity into politics and into life, which is why I see identities as dangerous when you wish to lead politics of freedom. But at the same time, you have to accept the fact that, since ethnic, nationalist and patriarchal domination exist, the oppressed do protest and struggle for their identities – those they wish to have. And in doing so, they create another identity for themselves.

Is it thus an unending cycle?

Kurds, for instance, are creating their nation-state, and therefore their own Kurdish identity. It’s a good thing that they should emancipate themselves from the domination of other states, but it’s important to see how it will develop. To me, being Kurdish or Turkish is not very important because, in the end, it’s about creating nationalism. Of course, it’s an enrichment to have Turkish, Kurdish and Armenian spoken in the same regions, that there should be differences between people, but the state-controlled building of a nation alarms me.

In your latest book2, you explain that you have Greek and Ubykh origins. How would you define your identity?

In my family, ethnicity wasn’t a subject, and we didn’t discuss our history or ethnic origins. We just had a left-wing, Istanbulite identity. We haven’t explored the issue any more than that, and have de facto adopted the dominant identity – which is why I think that even if you refuse identities, you’re still steeped in them!

If you refuse to define yourself in relation to a specific identity, what is left that is Turkish in you?

There is an imposed Turkish identity which I don’t accept. To me, identity is a language, a culture. Even if I don’t want to be within that nation-state generated identity, I also have a language, and a legacy. I retain the positive sides of this culture, which I like, such as the songs, the poetry and the Anatolian cooking which mixes Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, and Greek foods. But in the end, what connects me the most to the Turkish culture are the songs and the writing – language, in general. I don’t feel trapped in a single identity and would rather define myself as an Anatolian or a Turkish-speaking Istanbulite.

Alevis, Kurds, islamized Armenians… many people assert claims to their differences and their own identities in today’s Turkey. Would you agree to say that there is an identity crisis in contemporary Turkey?

Yes, there is an identity crisis because the identity imposed by the nation-state is being questioned, and it has been the case for around thirty years. It started with the Kurds, although feminist movements also played an important role in it because women never accepted the symbols that the Turkish Republic imposed on them. Several segments of society joined forces to challenge that ruling identity which really touched on every aspect of life – how to dress, how to put your hat on, etc. – and it was a total construct. When the civil society started rallying, everyone questioned that identity in their own way. And there were interactions between those struggles because when you have repression, you also have a convergence of various fights. After the Kurds, the Armenians got moving, and then the Alevis in the 1990s. We also saw protests of Syriacs and Romani. The Greeks created their own newspaper.

How do you explain that phenomenon? Why do you say that it started thirty years ago?

Before the 1980 military coup, the Turkish Left commanded the activist sphere and they pushed all the issues of ethnic or gender domination down the agenda until after the revolution. All the inner social conflicts had thus become invisible. But with the coup d’état and the brutal defeat of the Left, former activists started discussing among themselves and it triggered another process, creating a space for debate. Feminists and Kurds appeared at that time. Suddenly, all sorts of new causes emerged in that space and turned into major protest movements.

Some people refuse to define themselves as Turkish and prefer to say that they are “from Turkey”. What do you think of that?

Since that identity is in a crisis, activist, intellectual and progressive people in general don’t want to call themselves “Turkish” because that word is imposed. So they say “from Turkey”. They don’t want to identify, to define themselves in relation to a nation, but to a country or a citizenship. Now I think that it shouldn’t even be in relation to a country but a region.  Regarding Eastern Turkey, it is called “Turkey” by Turks, “Kurdistan” by Kurds, and “Armenia” by Armenians… Soon we’ll simply define ourselves as being from Anatolia – or Mesopotamia, who knows?

In the end, what is it to be Turkish?

There are several definitions, several meanings. However, it’s very important to say that Turkish identity was founded on the extermination of non Muslims – the genocide of Armenians, the exclusion and massacres of Greeks, etc. – and on encouraging the settling of Muslim communities from the Balkans and Caucasus in Anatolia. They were told: “You’re all Turks. Blessed is who calls himself Turkish…”

As other nationals living in Diaspora, Turks seem to be very proud of their country and their Turkish identity. For instance, they often define themselves as Turkish before being French or German, even if they have those nationalities. Why is that?

I wrote Becoming a Man by Crawling because I was wondering why men were so self-important, why they kept repeating that they were men, proud of being men. Then I started seeing how they were shaped like that since childhood, in schools – how they were patted on the back and told “You’re a man”. You are also taught to be Turkish. Since childhood, you’re told that the Turk is strong, that he is this and that. Same thing with the soldier… There is a myth, an imaginary construct in every nation. When people go to Europe, they undergo exclusion, poverty, and are humiliated all the time, so that construct is the only thing they can hold on to. They need to have that confidence and self-respect, so they exacerbate what they were told.

At the beginning of your latest book, you explain that in Turkey, teachers of history, geography, national security and literature were chosen among the most nationalistic. Why? What impact has it had on the schoolchildren? 

There were many changes of course, thanks to the resistance of the civil society and protests from teachers. However, school books are still nationalistic. They have to be changed. The educational mechanism is one of utmost importance to the State. It is an ideological mechanism which creates hegemony in the society, trying to engrave ideas of the State in the brains and bodies of the people. It seems absurd, but when they keep repeating the same thing to you, you get used to it. At some stage, you stop noticing it, you stop feeling that repetition which is imposed on you because you just got used to it.

Have you experienced that feeling yourself?

I was lucky to have a dissenting family. My father did jail time and I questioned everything from the beginning. But even then, you get accustomed. Until you make some encounters in life, you are used to hearing about Armenians in a pejorative way. Even if you are in the dissidence, you get used to that. Or rather, you adapt to it. Even Armenians are used to that in Turkey, it is part of the psychology of oppression. When, later on, I came across a similar, slightly modified rhetoric among dissenters, I realized that activists themselves had been formatted. Even though they criticized that education, their criticism didn’t run deep enough to get rid of all this.

So, precisely, how can one “get rid of all this”?

In my view, it is important to listen to other people’s experiences, and also to think. Thinking is fundamental. Sometimes, violence cancels any possibility of reflection, but you have to try and find links and question everything, even what may seem “normal”. It’s essential.

Has the AKP’s coming to power had an impact on Turkish identity?

AKP people are trying to alter the Turkish Kemalist model – that of the Western, “modern” Turk. They’re trying to create a new, more traditional Turkish identity, both more liberal and more conservative – not only in relation to ethnicity but also to the economy. It’s a new neoconservative and neo-liberal political movement. Even though Islam is put to the forefront, it’s mostly a neoconservative movement. And they’re trying to hinge that identity with a new context, with new capitalist needs. And it works. However, attacks against them are becoming more vehement. Protest movements are increasingly successful in blocking the dominant state-engineered identity.

What about Erdoğan himself in that process?

He is talked about a lot, but I don’t think that he is worse than the other party leaders who have formed governments before him. There is a coarse, provocative way about him but, as a feminist who has been active for many years, I can assure you that we have had the same problems with other governments. They were definitely all very nationalistic. I think that the same line is maintained, but as I said, Erdoğan is trying to build a new identity because Turkey now wants to play the same role than the Ottoman Empire in the old days. And people in power have realized that they can’t achieve that with the nation-state and need another type of state organization.

However, what I’m interested in are not governments but what happens in the streets. When the Taksim events came to an end, everyone said that the movement was over, but not me. The dynamics created by those rallies go on, maybe in a more covert way, but they have generated other forms of organisation. A new dissidence, with multiple and mixed forms of identity and ideology, has started to create common values. And this change in turn reinforces rallies, which can affect several levels of society. Above all, I notice that people believe in that change, which gives them hope to keep on going.

Do you perceive a change among Armenians in Turkey? 

From the 1990s, Armenians in Turkey have been active initiating a rather extensive dialogue with the other protest movements in the country. It has altered the identity of the protest itself. After Hrant Dink’s assassination, Armenians became much more politicized and are now creating a new way of living and protesting. Hrant Dink was killed because he had pushed the limits. He was killed to set an example and scare people. But the great surprise what that instead of generating fear, it caused popular rallying, a rather momentous social movement, and now people keep on pushing the assumed limits, the red lines. Many people now talk about the genocide, but they are trying to go even further, to dig deeper. It is often mentioned that there is a transformation in Turkey, but what I see is not a structural change in politics, but rather a transformation of the activist sphere and the civil society, which was made possible by much earlier struggles.

What about the Armenian Diaspora? 

In the Diaspora, opportunities are very different. You don’t have the same oppressions. People don’t put themselves at risk for their ideas or their statements. They don’t go to jail for that. There are various difficulties and opportunities arising from another way of doing politics. Other political or theoretical sources of inspiration are deployed. The Diaspora was able to go further in its claims. In Turkey, it was reconciliation which was foremost in those days, while in the Diaspora, it was reparations. Now reparations are being discussed in Turkey too, and I think it’s very important. A dialogue is being established with other protest movements in Turkey and there is a common fight to create these reparations. It’s through fighting that the movement builds itself.

What was the role played by Hrant Dink in changing Turkish identity?

He and his group have done significant work in Turkey. They have analyzed the context, then found strategies to overcome the deadlocks. First of all, they have created convergences with various fights, with constructive criticism. Hrant Dink was critical of everything and everybody, but he was primarily critical as an Armenian. His first strategy was to fight with other movements because together you’re stronger. He understood that you shouldn’t stay on your own. Secondly, he reasoned obliquely: he wouldn’t say “genocide”, but “where do we stand?”, and thus indirectly unveiled the existence of islamized Armenians. Gradually, everyone started talking about it. Hrant Dink showed that you can be an activist as an Armenian. As an Armenian in Turkey – it’s very important to add that. To go public under your own name and say: “I’m an Armenian in Turkey”, in that particular context, changes everything and shakes the social order. Hrant Dink succeeded in doing that.

Has the Agos review played a role too?

Agos already was a crossroads, but after Hrant Dink’s death, there was a change of scale. Everything that he had built, the connections he had made, were revealed right after his death. Several Armenian or Armenian-centred groups were created and gathered around Agos. The emotional dimension is important in such large-scale changes. The rallying after Hrant’s death is to me the preparatory stage to the Taksim Square demonstrations. These did not happen out of the blue because you can observe that the operational modes used in the Taksim Square movement were already used in rallies for Hrant Dink. These changes are massive. People now dare talk of genocide, they dare talk about their ancestors. There is no going back. But there still is a way to go. The breakthroughs shouldn’t be exaggerated. The transformation of the activist sphere in Turkey is important, but is it sufficient by itself to bring on changes? No. You need solidarity and international pressure. Let’s not forget that most Armenians are extra-territorial. There are around 60,000-70,000 Armenians in Turkey and millions in the Diaspora. The problem of reparations is not just a problem of Armenian of Turkey, of the Diaspora or of Armenia. It’s also the problem of Turks and the rest of humankind, because genocide is a crime against humanity. So we have to think about it together.

Now that you are in regular contact with Diaspora Armenians in France, what do you think of them? What did they teach you?

The Armenian community is not really homogenous. But coming from Turkey, I had prejudices about the Diaspora. I thought it was locked in a closed Armenian identity, that they didn’t speak about anything else. Now, thanks to the research that I’m doing on Armenian activism in the Diaspora and in Turkey, as well as on the claims themselves, I have listened to many stories, life stories, and learned a lot. I am reviewing the various experiences and difficulties of people whom I didn’t know. I’m aware that you always have to challenge your prejudices, and meeting the Armenian Diaspora taught me to question my preconceptions.

[1] Becoming a Man by Crawling: Military service in Turkey and the building of the dominant sex class (published in French and German), 2014.

[2] Parce qu’ils sont Arméniens (Because they are Armenians), Editions Liana Levi, 2015 



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