Renewed Turkish nationalism silences ethnic minorities

For more than two millennia, a sizeable ethnic Greek population lived in the Pontic mountains, today part of Turkey’s Black Sea coast, until they faced death marches and ethnic cleansing at the hands of Turkish forces during and after World War I.

When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the Turkish Republic in 1923, he sought to forge a single national identity centred around being a Muslim Turk, so the Greek Christians who remained in Pontus and elsewhere were forced to leave the country, part of a massive population exchange with Greece.

“My great grandfather came as a refugee to Greece in 1923,” Nikos Michailidis, a Pontic Greek anthropologist and musician who grew up in Thessaloniki, told Ahval in a podcast. “I was brought up with all these stories and memories of the Black Sea region, and that’s one of the reasons I got really connected with the heritage and the musical tradition of this region.”

Michailidis has been visiting Trabzon, a former centre of Pontic Greek life, for years, studying the music of the Pontic Greek Muslims who remained in Turkey, as well as that of other ethnic minorities. He said these musical traditions had experienced a minor revival in recent years, more than 80 years after Turkey’s founder all but destroyed them as part of his project to forge a national identity. 

“He asked musicologists to go out into Asia Minor to collect songs with the aim of creating, of inventing a national Turkish folk music repertoire,” said Michailidis.

The scientists collected some of the most popular Pontic, Kurdish, Homshetsi Armenian, Laz, Georgian and Arabic songs. The state re-made them with new Turkish lyrics. Today, many Turkish folk songs are stolen from these other ethnic traditions, according to Michailidis, and a Laz or a Georgian might find herself singing vastly different lyrics to the same music as a Turk.

“By changing the language into Turkish you’re also changing the meaning of the song,” he said. “A Kurdish song about love becomes a Turkish song about patriotism.”

Some 40 years ago, as Kurdish people in Turkey became more vocal about gaining some measure of autonomy, they also began to re-embrace their cultural traditions. This included a return to Kurdish-language music, despite it being banned in public and in private following the 1980 military coup.

Kurdish poet and singer Şivan Perwer, who fled Turkey in 1976 to avoid persecution for his songs highlighting the oppression of his people, was among the most popular. Despite the risk of arrest, Kurds secretly shared cassette tapes of his music.

“I remember Kurdish friends telling me that they had been gathering in their houses secretly to listen to the cassettes of Siwan Perwer,” said Michailidis. “It was the first time they were listening to their melodies in their native language.”

This secrecy was less necessary after 2002 during the first years under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), when Turkey moved toward liberal democracy to enable accession to the European Union.

“During the first years of the Erdoğan government, things changed,” said Michailidis, referring to ethnic minorities. “They were allowed to sing songs freely in their native language.”

But the opening was shut when violence between the state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which launched an insurgency in southeast Turkey in the 1980s, resumed in mid-2015. Soon after the failed coup of 2016, the AKP paired up with its current parliamentary partner, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and embraced a harsher nationalism that has curbed most expressions of non-Turkish identity.

“It seems that things are reverting back again, and they are trying to take back those rights that have been gained in previous years,” said Michailidis. “They have been putting up barriers, especially to the expression of Kurdish music and arts.”

Ahval columnist Nurcan Baysal has been detailing this ongoing suffocation of Kurdish expression, for which she was detained in April. Turkey’s continuing military offensives against the PKK and its allies, its incursions into Syria and even last week’s re-conversion of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia into a mosque have all helped keep Turkish nationalism at the forefront.

Michailidis said that many Turkish citizens rejected the Turkish Sunni Muslim identity thrust on them by the state, silencing ethnic expression as well as the traditions of Alevis and others. In the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which has campaigned on a platform of openness and diversity, he saw a potential solution based on cultural and ethnic plurality.

But the Turkish government has linked the HDP to the PKK, which is labelled a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States and the EU, and thrown dozens of the party’s leaders in jail and dismissed more than 120 of its mayors. Michailidis said the AKP government’s Kurdish crackdown in recent years had a chilling effect on all ethnic minorities.

“Because there is this high nationalist fervour in the country, many musicians are reluctant to sing in their native languages because they think they will be accused of being traitors,” he said.

While Kurds have a population of some 14 million in Turkey, most other ethnic minorities have vastly smaller populations, which means the state tends to ignore their calls for traditional music. Another problem, according to Michailidis, is that many younger people within these ethnic minorities never learned to speak their native language and have little interest in their cultural traditions. 

Yet he sees embracing their heritage as crucial for these communities’ survival, and thinks the Turkish state would benefit from granting them greater freedoms.

“People like me and my generation and even younger than me, they reconnect to the homeland through the music, dance, reading,” said Michailidis. “If the regime allows the citizens to engage freely with their historical past, with their memory, with their identities, things will change very very positively in Turkey and this will have a positive impact on the whole region.”

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