But what does it mean?
I’m not a big fan of The Economist, so you may be surprised by my endorsing an article from its pages. Well, credit where credit’s due. This piece appeared earlier this month, and I have to tell you, I think the writer got it pretty right:
I AM A Turk, honest and hard-working.” So began the oath of allegiance to their country chanted by generations of schoolchildren before the practice was scrapped three years ago. This proud, flag-waving nation takes it as read that Turkishness goes beyond nationality. But what does it mean to be a Turk? Labels of ethnicity, language, religion and social class overlap in complex patterns. As a result, some citizens consider themselves more Turkish than others.
The modern Turkish republic emerged from a crucible of war, as the waning Ottoman empire between 1908 and 1922 fought in succession against Bulgarian nationalists and Italian colonisers in Libya, then against the British Empire, Russia and Arab nationalists during the first world war, and lastly against Greece. Genocide or not, awful things happened to Anatolia’s Armenians in 1915-17. There were many, and now there are few; nearly all of Turkey’s remaining 50,000 ethnic Armenians live in Istanbul. After the Greco-Turkish war of 1921-22 Turkey lost some 1.5 million Greeks too, in a population exchange that brought half a million ethnic Turks “home” from Greece. More ethnically Turkish or Muslim refugees poured into the new nation, fleeing from Russian revolution or from persecution in the Balkans, the Crimea and the Caucasus.
The young republic was mostly Turkish-speaking and overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim. Assimilation and urbanisation have made it even more so. Yet Turkey retains more of the ethnic and religious diversity of the Ottoman empire than is generally realised. Some 10m-15m of its citizens are Alevis, adherents to a syncretic offshoot of Shia Islam that is unique to Turkey. Other religious minorities include Jaafari Shia Muslims, Jews, Christians and Yazidis. Among the ethnic minorities, apart from Kurds and Armenians, are large numbers of Arabs, Albanians, Azeris, Bosniaks, Circassians, Georgians, Laz and Roma. Turkey is now also home to well over 2m refugees, mostly from Syria but also from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Egypt and elsewhere.
In their determined push for modernisation, Ataturk’s followers imposed customs and ways of thought that came easily to sophisticates in Istanbul or Izmir but were resented further east. The superior airs of secular, cosmopolitan Kemalists have rankled ever since, particularly with country folk and with immigrants to the big cities. Some speak half-jokingly of a lingering divide between “white” Turks and “black”, marking the gap between those who cherish Ataturk’s legacy and those who resent it as an imposition.
Mr Erdogan has capitalised brilliantly on the deep grudge felt by “black” Turks. His credentials include his origins as the son of rural immigrants to a tough, working-class part of Istanbul, having worked as a pushcart vendor of simit, Turkey’s sesame-sprinkled progenitor of the bagel, and a pithy, populist style of delivery. On Republic Day last year, which handily fell just before November’s election, he made a speech evoking times when some people celebrated the holiday “with frocks, waltzes and champagne” while others gazed at this scene “half-starved, with no shoes and no jackets to wear”. Now, he concluded, Turkey is united. Even after two decades of such rhetoric, it goes down well with many voters.
Not quite united.
Yet a look at Turkey’s political map suggests a less than complete picture of unity. The half of the electorate that votes for Mr Erdogan does include some minority groups, but mostly represents the narrower, ethnically Turkish and Sunni Muslim mainstream. Of the three rival parties that make up the parliamentary opposition, the Nationalist Movement, or MHP, is also “properly” Turkish but represents the extreme right. Its most distinctive trait is reflexive hostility to all non-Turks, especially Kurds.
The largest opposition party, the CHP, sees itself as the direct heir to Ataturk. Pro-Western and centre-left, it embraces secularists of all stripes and has sought to focus on issues rather than identity politics. Yet to the dismay of its own leadership the CHP’s core constituency, as well as most of its MPs, are Alevis.
The third component of the opposition, the People’s Democratic party, or HDP, is outwardly an alliance of small parties and leftist groups that recently joined forces to cross the 10% threshold for entering parliament. But for all its inclusiveness, most of the HDP’s supporters and candidates are Kurds. Yet to many the problem with the HDP lies not with its ethnic profile but with what they see as its too-cosy relationship with the PKK, a Kurdish guerrilla group that has fought a sporadic insurgency against the state since the 1980s and is officially deemed a terrorist organisation.