Erdoğan, not minorities, the real threat to Turkey’s social cohesion

The reasons Turkey has struggled to assimilate its minority populations go back to the country’s founding in 1923, according to Dr Baskın Oran, emeritus professor at Ankara University.

The Anatolian peninsula where Turkey is situated has long been a bridge between different peoples from east and west. Historically, many groups have called different parts of it home, even if ethnic Turks remained the dominant group. Over the last century, however, Turkey has struggled to treat every citizen within its borders as equal.

Oran, an expert on nationalism and minorities in Turkey, described the difficulties to fully assimilate non-Turks as distinct in some ways but common in others.

“All nation-states abhor minorities. The only identity for them is the identity of the dominant ethno-religious group, here: Hanafi-Sunni-Muslim-Turks,” Oran told Ahval in a recent podcast. The Hanafi school of thought within Sunni Islam is the predominant belief system in Turkey today.

Oran, who has written a new book titled ‘Minorities and Minority Rights in Turkey: From the Ottoman Empire to the Present State’, explained that non-Turkish ethnic groups, particularly non-Muslims, often struggle to become a full part of Turkish society. This, he insists, is a flaw innate to the modern nation-state, which bases its identity on religion or denomination.

In some senses, this is a new problem for the Turkish Republic. In the Ottoman era, the Millet system delineated privileges and rights separately for Muslims and non-Muslims within the empire, but minorities were provided a degree of autonomy in their affairs even though they occupied second class status.

According to Oran, after Turkey become a modern nation-state in 1923, the cohesion required to rule the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire ended and was replaced by a centring of the dominant Sunni Turkish ethnic majority. 

“During the empire, non-Muslim minorities were better off because it was an empire. Now they are considered not only second class but a ‘fifth column,’” Oran said.

The disorder that came with disempowering minorities has been seen at numerous points in modern Turkey’s history. The anti-Greek pogroms in 1955 were an early example, while ongoing discrimination against Turkish Armenians continues over a century after the Armenian Genocide.

Non-Muslim minorities have not been free from discrimination either. Turkey’s Kurdish minority, who make up almost a fifth of today’s population, are still denied full cultural rights, and face suspicion amid the ongoing internal conflict with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The most contemporary example is the nearly four million Syrian refugees living in Turkey after fleeing the conflict in their country. But Oran expects Syrians to have an easier time assimilating because of their common religious beliefs.

“Right now, of course, Turkey is in a very bad shape economically and in every sense, but in the middle to long run, (Syrians) will be assimilated because they are Sunni Muslims,” he said.

Another reason the Turkish state has proved resistant to demands for more minority rights may lie in the legacy of Ottoman decline and eventual collapse. European rivals often used Ottoman minorities as justification to intervene in the empire’s internal affairs.

And fears of foreign meddling took on a new life in the aftermath of the Treaty of Sevres, when Turkey was occupied by Greek, Armenian and other majority Christian forces, before being expelled in the Turkish War of Independence.

Today, such fears are often referred to as Sevres Syndrome. But Oran borrows a term from Turkish-American social psychologist Vamik Volkan to explain this phenomenon as “chosen trauma”, the notion that societies are bonded through shared pain as much as shared victory.

Outwardly, this presents as a sense of victimhood at the hands of Western powers seeking to dominate Turkey. At home, it has the effect of breeding hostility against the notion of greater minority rights.

However, this fear of internal division risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially during the divisive administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The president has consistently demonised a range of domestic groups during his two decades in power, from journalists and the free press to his ongoing campaign against the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also aligned itself with the ultranationalist National Movement Party (MHP), which supports his assaults against what they see as shared enemies. All the while, Turkish society grows increasingly polarised during pervasive economic troubles and a global pandemic.

Asked whether this demagoguery does more to hurt Turkey than empower it, Oran agreed that Erdoğan risks tearing society apart more than any foreign enemy.

“Erdoğan is not in a position to use logic. He is in a total panic,” Oran said.

“Which leader talks about going to the moon while there is an awful economic depression and even hunger in his country, and a pandemic? This is nothing but panic.”

For all the recent talk of domestic and foreign policy reform, the AKP government has continued crush opposition through vilification, legal threats, and lengthy jail terms.

To this end, Oran sees Erdoğan as the only force capable of successfully undermining his rule.

“The exaggerations of Erdoğan himself are going to destroy this one-man system. Nothing else.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.