Turkey’s population register made public to consolidate Muslim nationalist identity - columnist

The opening of Turkey’s population register to the general public earlier this year aims to promote the concept of Muslim nationalism as central to the Turkish identity, wrote Kaya Genç in the New York Times.

The opening of the register containing documents dating back to the 1880’s, this February, aroused intense public interest. The website linking to the data crashed within a few hours, overwhelmed as millions of Turks rushed to discover their ancestry.  

Many were surprised to find that they had Greek, Jewish, or Armenian roots. Perhaps they should not have been. A 2012 report in the journal Annals of Human Genetics indicated that paternal ancestry of those living in Turkey was 38 percent European, 35 percent Middle Eastern, 18 percent South Asian and only 9 percent Central Asian.

This doesn’t quite fit with the narrative Turkish governments maintained and peddled for decades. The narrative took little account of the complexities of human genealogy, stating that Turks came from the steppes of Central Asia, whilst any other ethnic influences, excluding the substantial Kurdish component of Turkey’s population ― labelled “Mountain Turks”― were deviant and dangerous.

So what is behind the opening of the population registers? An anthropology professor interviewed by the Armenian language daily Agos, described the move as “revolutionary,” and “a serious sign of normalization” in burying the myth of Turkish ethnic purity.

Others were alarmed. Some Turkish leftists, wrote Genç, feared that it could lead to tribalism, or even civil war.

According to Genç though, the opening of the archive is best understood in terms of the Turkish government’s desire to recast Turks’ conceptions of themselves into one that is shaped less by ethnic and genetic considerations and more by religion.

“The timing of the new access to the public’s ancestry is indeed part of a political calculation,” he wrote, “In the wake of Turkey’s military operation in Afrin in northern Syria and with presidential elections coming in 2019, the government is hoping to further consolidate Muslim nationalism as the central Turkish identity.”

It is also, says Genç, a way the government can differentiate itself from previous republican governments, which scrupulously separated religious influence from government:

“The state, in its new embrace of Islam, has the confidence to allow citizens to discover their ethnic roots. Turkish citizens can be proud of their heritage and roots, and even find there a rationale of the Turkish government’s foreign policy moves.”