How I became a 'so-called' Turk?

Published in Turkish Daily News, 3 January 2008
Re-Published in French by Yevrobatsi as Comment je suis devenu un «soi-disant» Turc

Re-Published in Greek by Phileleftheros as Πως μετεξελίχθηκα σε "λεγόμενο" Τούρκο

In his challenging book “Identity and Violence” Nobel laureate Amartya Sen argues that our identities are constructed not only through our own efforts but also by the enforcement of our setting. For example, an Irish man may consider himself ‘white' and can have strong feelings against people with darker skin colors. However, it is only recently that the English have considered the Irish ‘white.' The Irish have been seen in lesser terms than the ‘actual whites.'

The exclusion of the Irish from the noble ‘white' community obviously has nothing to do with color, as one doesn't really get whiter than an Irishman. Whiteness is a social construct and the ‘real whites' are considered so because of their privileged place within the community of ‘whites'.

Recently, I have learned the hard way that ‘Turkishness' too has its own share of social enforcement and exclusion. I have always seen myself as a Turk. Turkish is my mother tongue. I was born and have spent most of my life in Turkey. I am a Turkish citizen. I genuinely love my country and I am committed to its future. All the members of my family are ethnic Turks, with the exception of one grandma who is Kurdish and my great grandmother who was a Greek convert to Islam. All these years I assumed that these were what made one ‘Turkish.'

Yet, my ‘Turkishness' has been challenged. This first happened when I turned 18 and, out of my disillusionment with Islam, I decided to follow the Christian faith. Though none of my family members are devout Muslims, I spent the following 11 years trying to explain that I love my country, do not work for the CIA and have no part in plans to reinstate the Byzantine Empire. My apologetics have not been too successful as since then I regularly hear the rhetorical question; “What kind of a Turk are you?”

As my ‘Turkishness' began to be questioned by my community, I too started losing my attachment to it. I studied in East Asia for three years and then continued my studies in the UK for three more years. Having studied five different languages (and messing them all up) and traveled to more than 20 countries for research or school reasons, I must admit that I love Japanese food and Shusaku Endo more than I love lahmacun (Turkish pizza) and Murathan Mungan.

When fate and academic interest in collective memory, ethnic conflict and transitional justice put me right in the middle of Turkish-Armenian relations, my Turkishness entered a new stage.

A clumsy newspaper called Avrupa Gazetesi – Turkish but printed and distributed in Europe – published a puzzling piece about a conference in which Dr Fatma Gocek and yours truly were going to speak to lobby for the Armenian cause. I only smiled, since I not only did not know Dr Gocek, nor have ever been invited to such an event, I was not even in the UK during that time.

The correction, which Avrupa Gazetesi published, was too late to stop the ripples. Soon, a host of nationalistic websites and e-groups elaborated further with titles such as “A new addition to the list of Traitors” and I was declared to be a ‘missionary', ‘Armenian lobbyist', but most significantly a “so-called Turk”. Thanks to these nationalist groups, I learned that there are two kinds of Turks: Turks-in-essence (özde Türkler) and so-called-Turks (sözde Türkler).

Some advice!

There is a moral to my identity career. First one is practical: if you don't want to lose your ‘Turkishness' please don't follow my footsteps, it would only lead you to anomie and significant loss of social capital.

The second one is theoretical. It appears that ‘Turkishness' is defined by religious affiliation plus historical and political opinion. Though most of these nationalist groups will give wild reactions when being a Turk is reduced to being a Muslim and Islam is seen as what makes us Turks, nevertheless adherence to the official and dominant views seem to be the criteria for judging to what degree someone is a Turk.

Apparently, citizenship, place of birth, mother tongue and personal feelings of the individual towards his or her country means nothing. One's ‘Turkishness' is validated and enforced by a quasi-official criterion and its willing executors, who have the market monopoly.

If this is so, then ‘Turkishness' is an ideology which one assumes through alignment of personal opinion. As ideologies inescapably shift and modify themselves, those who are privileged to be Turks-in-essence have to continually keep up with subtle changes so as not to be kicked off the list. Thus, it is quite tiring to remain a Turk and to maintain the boundaries of ‘Turkishness'. You never know when the next de-selection will be and who will be joined to the ranks of the outcasts.