Turkey, not the bird, has applied to the UN to be called Türkiye from now on. The name Türkiye reflects the culture, civilisation and values of the Turkish people most accurately, Erdoğan said. It fits the independent power Turkey has become, and Türkiye reflects that better than the Western word Turkey, which has bad and silly connotations. But, a Dutch paper wrote this week that the word ‘Turkey’ and therefore also ‘Türkiye’, is a loanword from French (Turquie) or Italian (Turchia), so not traditionally Turkish at all. Indeed it isn’t – again a non-change that Erdoğan is implementing.
It’s not the first time I have argued that Erdoğan didn’t fundamentally change Turkey but has built on the foundations of a state that founding father Atatürk constructed. Every nation is constructed, that’s been a truth among social scientists for quite a few decades now, and so the Turkish nation was constructed. When the republic was founded 99 years ago, the Turkish identity wasn’t very strong yet. In the Ottoman Empire, those who had a position referred to themselves as Ottomans, not as Turks because Turks, just as Kurds, was more of a synonym of ‘uneducated peasant’. So Atatürk set out to create a nation to populate his country.
To populate his nation-state, to be precise. What would he call it? He could have chosen from a wide range of names that would have done justice to the immense religious, ethnic, cultural and linguistic diversity that coloured Anatolia and West-Thrace, but that would be contrary to the idea of the nation-state, which requires one nation. He was going to create a strong Turkish identity, so the name Turkey was logical. Then – I’m keeping it short here and therefore it’s simplified but in its core correct – he set out to create the Turkish nation. A citizen of Turkey was, he decided, was a Sunni Turk.
The Lausanne Treaty (1923) secured some exceptions for non-Muslims, like Armenians (although not many were left after the genocide), Greeks and Jews, but from the moment the Turkish Republic was founded, ethnic and linguistic minorities didn’t exist anymore. All Muslims were Turks, and all Turks were Sunni Muslims. Sorry Kurds, sorry Alevis, sorry Arabs, sorry Laz, sorry Circassians, you are all Sunni Turks now.
Not only did the name Türkiye come from Europe, the whole concept of the nation-state was an idea that came from the West. It was still rather new at the time, as in Europe. Many European countries do not have a long history as nation-states but were all kinds of kingdoms, empires, city-states, with a wide range of languages and cultures. It’s not, for example, that Italy came into existence because there were Italians, but the other way around. Atatürk thought, just as many leaders at the time, that the nation-state was the future, so he created it.
It’s interesting when you apply this to Kurdistan, by the way. Many people say that it is not surprising that the Kurds don’t have a nation-state because after all, the Kurds are ‘not united’: they have at least four different dialects, they have different sheres of influence and can’t agree on a common future, etcetera. But it is the other way around: the Kurds are not ‘one’ because they don’t have a nation-state. You could even see that as a richness: because they lack a nation-state, they were able to keep their diversity, and didn’t choose one language, one flag, one national anthem, one history, one mythology, you name it.
(Apply this to European countries too: how much diversity did Europe lose when nation-states came into being? How many languages, dialects, cultures, local and regional histories and mythologies, disappeared to never surface again?)
Turkey may become Türkiye, but the nation-state concept, introduced from the West, remains. It’s a concept that suffocates freedom, eradicates diversity, forces people into a fixed identity that is not compatible with the many identities that every human being has and needs to live to their full extend to be free. It’s telling that both Turks who love either Erdoğan or Atatürk are wholeheartedly starting to embrace “Türkiye”, using the name when they write in English, for example on social media. By turning Turkey into Türkiye, Erdoğan once again just solidifies the fascist foundations that Atatürk constructed.
Real change is needed. Away from early 20th century ideals, forward to the future, in which freedoms are guaranteed for all citizens in all their richness and colourfulness. Citizens of Turkey, or Türkiye so you wish, but not forced to be Turks.