Political Demands of Turkey’s Religious and Ethnic Minorities–A History

By Geoffrey Cook, MMNS

Berkeley–Sener Arturk spoke at Berkeley on the ethnicities that compose Turkey. 


He pointed out that from the time of Turkey’s Independence, the two largest ethnic and/or sectarian minority categories amongst the Turks, the Alevis and the Kurds, have expressed their support for political parties (especially in the post World War II period, from 1946 until 2007) based upon their collective ethnic ideologies and their demands for recognition as unique demographics within the Republic.  This not only involves their ethnic dissimilarity but, also, their diversity in linguistic, cultural and religious manifestation.

In 1946, the Republic of Turkey was a multi-party State with varied individual religious and sectarian affinities.  Still, multi-language ballots were not permitted until 2004.  

Although Turkey is secular, religion has definitely influenced some movements in the country.  Ethnicities, also, recognized the multi-national State.  Turkey has a positive attitude towards assimilation of its minorities now.  At the same time, a multi-ethnic Turkey is a challenge to their Commonwealth.  Ankara has only accepted a multilingual society for a mere four years!  Of course, the ultimate solution is a multi-cultural land.  Cultural hegemony by the majority Turks would be the opposite of the above, and would be an ill-advised policy!

The Turkish Republic was founded in 1921, and the majority of the Kurds supported its founder and the crippler of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk.  The new president of the new Post-World War I nation abolished the Caliphate, and exiled its contemporary head, the Ottoman Emperor from his seat of government – which is notwithstanding now in modern Turkey.  Thereafter, Kemal Ataturk established an extremely aggressively secular democracy, under a one party system that lasted without reform from 1921-1946; Eastern Anatolia (mainland Turkey where most of the minorities reside) was considered a “forbidden” territory.

The outcome of the nationwide election of 1946, which allowed multi-Party participation, was questionable, but that of 1950 was the first ever judged free and fair.  The Alevis opposed the dominant founding Party, but all the traditional religious communities entered into Parliament through the reformed democracy.  The Alevis were at political odds with the majority.

The Kurds achieved much while in the Parliament.  They were the voice for Kurdish-speaking Turkey, but after 1954 the political influence of the Kurdish and Alevis Parties began to wane.  The elected parties of the Alevis, Kurds and even Christians operated in the 60s, but they did not advance democracy.

There was a military coup in 1960.  By 1961 the junta allowed political parties where minorities could participate, but only under strict supervision.  Commonly, sons would succeed their fathers into parliament, thus political dynasties were created.  The putsch made it understood unambiguously that the Secular Republic would not tolerate a Kurdish nation next to it, which is the basic guiding principle to this day.  (The recent incursions into Iraq demonstrate this long running policy.)  At the same time, Ankara would not tolerate any anti-Kurdish sentiment within the majority Turkish population.

A new generation within Turkish Kurdistan preached assimilation.  In the 1960s, a Kurdish language grammar book was even composed, but throughout the 1970s and 1980s anti-Kurd reaction spread throughout the country.  From 1965-1970 the first Labor-inspired Socialist Party arose.  It was the first political organization to attract both the Alevi and the Kurds, although it only had a disproportional influence upon the body politick initially, though.  They were suppressed for supposedly advocating an ethnic solution to the structural problems they saw in the Turkish State. 

In the late 1960s, a violent interplay arose between Alevis and the Sunnis.  The Alevis found representation within the Liberty Party, but the Party drifted from its original principles by the end of the 1970s; consequently, the Alevi became associated with terror, and, accordingly, the voter shifted his allegiance to the Republican Party.  In 1972 the Republican Party was forced to form a coalition with the National Salvation Party (NSP).  Although it was Islamic in orientation, it attracted Christians, too.  By 1980, a Left of Center Administration was amassed.  While the Alevis attempted to reconstruct the Left, in the East of the country, a segment of the Kurdish PKK became a terrorist political entity. 

During the 1960s, the Alevis urbanized, and for the most part were not outwardly religious.  After the coup d’etat of the ‘80s, the Turkish Sunnis adopted a religious direction that only intensified their opposing approaches to the Alevis, their traditional political rival in the modern Turkish State.

During the last decade (90s), the Social Democrats joined with the above-ground PKK, and other smaller parties, too, but they and the Alevis hope of entering Parliament on a large scale were dashed.  Religious discord ran ramped during this period.  “Islam is “not…[the] language, but what is said!”

Again came a coup – (the military has constantly been the curse of Istanbul’s full democratization.) 

Eventually, the Republican Grouping formed a government again.  The Kurds gained many cultural rights in 2004, but the East of the country became split between Islamism and Kurdish Nationalism.   The Kurdish language was allowed to the point of a Kurdish language TV station being suffered to exist.

Yet, “The counter-elites keep relying on ethnicity” to ensure their power position within a “divided” public sphere.  Curiously, the hegemonic Turkish Parties usually can usually obtain a respectable extent of political support from the Kurdish and other minority parties.



0 replies