Race and national identity in Turkey, from Ataturk to Erdogan (and back again)

Bulent Gokay


Many citizens of Turkey, including its political leaders, do not accept that there is racism in Turkey and will state that they are proud of their traditional hospitality and generosity towards foreigners. Mainstream accounts generally point to the assumption that Turkish nationalism is not an ethnic, or cultural, nationalism; rather, it is an inclusive civic nationalism. In this article, I intend to directly challenge this conviction by revealing the dark side of Turkish nationalism. I argue that even though the official discourse stresses that Turkish nationalism is inclusive and civic there is clear evidence of the existence of an ethnic and racial discourse which shaped Turkish nationalism in the early years of the republic and which is significant in defining modern Turkish nationalism in 21st century. My intention in this paper is to focus on how ‘race’ has been a central tenet in the definition of Turkish identity. Discussions of racism take on added importance with the recent influx of Syrian refugees in Turkey. Turkish nationalism, like other nationalisms, has many different forms that have evolved over time and been influenced by internal and external conditions. According to even official pro-government reports, levels of harassment and racist attacks against Syrian refugees in Turkey are rising sharply, and many observers are complaining about the compassion deficit. Because the dominant group (the Sunni Turks in Turkey) built and dominate all significant institutions, often at the expense of and on the uncompensated work of other groups, their interests are embedded in the foundation of Turkish state and society. While many individual members of the dominant group may not be racist and even act against racism in their personal life, they still benefit from the unfair distribution of resources controlled by their group. This in-built systemic and institutional control allows many members of the dominant group who are Sunni Turks, Turkey’s ‘whites’, to live in a social and political environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. Because modern Turkey was established on one of the essential principles of the 1920s' nation-states, i.e. white supremacy and division of the world into ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ races, and never attempted to question this foundation critically, there is persevering and widespread racism at all levels of Turkish state and society.