I Am Not a Turk, But In Public I Play One

In this account of a bizarre mob attack against a Kurdish resident of western Turkey (most Kurds live hundreds of miles away, in the mountainous east), the writer Baris Unlu finds a troubling barometer of ethnic and nationalist attitudes in Turkey, a country whose political map displays sharp fault lines of ethnicity, social class and religious attitudes.

Turkey is ruled by an Islamist political party, but the nationalist military establishment retains a powerful influence. And the country may be slipping back into armed conflict with Kurdish nationalists [Kurds are perhaps a fifth of the population] even as violent Islamist groups-blowback perhaps from the country’s recent support of Islamist militants in Syria-have carried out several bloody attacks on groups of leftists in Turkey. In this complex context, what is the place of Turkish nationalism and “Turkishness”?

First, he was beaten by an angry crowd and then forced to kiss a bust of [father of Turkish nationalism Kemal]Atatürk in the Western Anatolian city of Muğla. İbrahim Çay, a Kurdish citizen of Turkey, recently discussed the assault on him in an interview with Evrensel newspaper. The incident, Çay said, began after he posted a photo of himself on Facebook wearing “traditional clothing.” Locals interpreted this as an act of terrorism or thought it meant Çay was complicit with terrorist activities, and they gathered to lynch “the terrorist.”

Cay suspects that the local commander of the regional police [gendarmes]was involved, since he telephoned Çay before the attack, telling him to stay at home. Shortly after the phone call Çay saw cars and motorcycles approaching his front door; fearing for his life, he ran to the greenhouse in his back yard, leaving his children in the house to protect them from what was about to happen. In the greenhouse Çay was severely beaten by a group of people he said were his “next door neighbors”. At this point, he lost consciouness. The beatings then continued in downtown Kumluova with an increased number of participants, now around sixty to seventy people. Çay, in his bloody and ripped clothes was carried to the bust of Atatürk. Later he would be hospitalized; at the hospital he constantly received insults from doctors and nurses whilst a group waited outside to lynch him. Çay did not trust the military officer there who expressed concerns for his safety and suggested taking him out of the hospital. Instead, he waited in the hospital until the morning and with the help of a friend and his brother who arrived from the southern Anatolian town of Tarsus that night, he fled from Muğla to his parents’ house in Tarsus.

During the newspaper interview journalist Burak Şefkat asked Çay: “Why did you run away to the greenhouse? Why didn’t you consider the possibility that they had motives other than lynching you?” Çay merely replied: “This is what is required from a Kurdish person in Western Turkey.”

This, to my mind, refers to a special kind of knowledge: the knowledge of Turkishness. By the “knowledge of Turkishness” I am referring to the ability to know when, where, and how a Turkish person should think, feel and behave. This knowledge is acquired by non-Turkish as an everyday survival method. In other words, it is a matter of life or death. As a consequence, the knowledge of Turkishness amongst non-Turks is of fundamental importance. I believe that, perhaps paradoxically, actual Turkish people have less of this specialized knowledge. Being member of a powerful and privileged group generates (by internalization through socialization) powerful beliefs of normality (i.e “the way things should be”) and self-righteousness; these feelings of normality and self-righteousness obstruct people from having realistic opinions about themselves.

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Cay’s Facebook post of himself in Kurdish dress sparked a mob attack; beaten and stripped, he was forced to kiss a statue of the founder of Turkish nationalism.

Çay’s story is not only relevant to the present day, but also hints at what Armenians encountered in these lands during 1915. Similarly, in the Kurdish town of Cizre (recently besieged by the Turkish Armed Forces) where the state cut off all internal and external connections, the act of the police calling local Kurds “Armenians” could be another hint of what could have been done to the Armenians in 1915. The minority ratio of the Armenian population during 1915 is very close to the ratio of the Kurdish population today. Much like the Kurds of the present day, the Armenians were mostly settled in the Eastern parts of Anatolia yet they could be found in significant numbers all across Turkey including Istanbul. As news of Armenian “betrayal” began to arrive from the Eastern Front during the First World War, the state started to deport them. Most of these deportees were killed, and the rest left dispossessed. Today critical historians and politicians discuss the brutal campaign against the Armenians and question how, and by whom, it was performed in the first place. The dominant view suggests that local and national leaders of the Committee of Union and Progress [nationalist junta]were mainly responsible for this. However, as Çay’s story suggests, Armenians were probably ill-treated by various segments of Anatolian society: the top of the state hierarchy (who delivered open or secret instructions and crucially gave the green light for mistreatment), local administrators and notables (who sought to distinguish themselves to the “center” and to enrich themselves), and finally the “neighbors next door” at the bottom of society.

The events of 1915 were centered on the idea of Muslimness, not Turkishness. Kurds in those days were members of the Muslim majority, as well as being the “next door neighbors” to the Armenians. [Turkey’s exterminated Armenians mostly lived in what is now the Kurdish region.] In 1915, the majority was being constructed via the persecution of the minority. But this was not a top-down construct. It was a construction in which all segments of society took part, and where the common interests of different parts of society were brought together. The most significant motive for this construction was to designate how a Muslim should behave, feel and think as well as what a Muslim should find a threat and to what he or she should trust. After 1923, when the idea of “Muslimness” was winnowed away – this time in a top-down fashion – to the idea of “Turkishness”, Kurds found now themselves outside, as a minority. Turkishness was an invitation to all Muslims. In other words, the path to being a Turkish was open to all Muslims because Turkishness was, most importantly, a matter of performance. Speaking Turkish, communicating that you are Turkish (or at least not claiming that you are any other “thing”), feeling like a Turk, thinking like a Turk, “doing” things like a Turk and more than anything – beyond occupation, family, friends, humanity and nature- displaying loyalty to Turkishness. Those who delivered this performance were rewarded, whereas those who rejected it were to be punished. Naturally, millions of people “accepted” the invitation.

In my opinion, this tacit contract (which I call Turkishness Contract) characterized the emotional and intellectual context of Turkey’s long 20th century from the 1910’s up until the present day. These performances of Turkishness have been delivered in varied doses and in different ways depending on the position, social class, status and educational background of the people. Or to put it another way, the performance expected from a person differs depending on the neighborhood that a person lives in and it depends on his or her social status, where he or she works, and his or her general physical appearance. Some are expected to participate in the act of burning a store or to take part in a lynching, while some are expected to write or not write a certain book. I do not think that these expectations only come from the state and its institutions. Our friends from the neighborhood, our neighbors, our parents, our friends, and our colleagues could also have the same expectations. In some areas which are comparably more independent of the state and the majority – such as some universities and publishing institutions – these performance expectations are naturally lessened.

In my opinion, it is not only Turks who deliver these performances of Turkishness. Everyday millions of Kurds in places where Turks are the majority and in power, when they in buses, coffeeshops, hospitals, registry offices, stadiums etc. perform Turkishness too. They act like a Turk in order to survive and not to be fired from work or doubted as a Turk. When they go home in the evening or return to their homelands they become Kurds again and remove their masks of Turkishness. As they themselves know very well, a large majority of Kurds live a double life and cross over and return from the border of Kurdishness and Turkishness every day. The photo İbrahim Çay took at home reflects such a moment of returning – however, he placed himself at risk by sharing this on Facebook.
Similarly, the foreigners working in Turkey understand, or “sense”, the power relations immediately and they start performing Turkishness. Lately, the most significant examples to this were, to my mind, the tweets of foreign footballers. Alex de Souza (Fenerbahce), accompanied by images of the Turkish flag, tweeted: “Commiserations to the Turkish nation. May the mighty soldiers fighting for their flags never vanish,” whereas Lukas Podolski (Galatasaray) made a soldier’s salute and said: “My heart is with you, the fearsome soldier perishing for his flag! Commiserations to the Turkish nation.” From their very first days in this country these foreign footballers live in the center of power in terms of capital, media and in their relationship with the majority and they learn about the rules of the game very quickly. But now there are several oppositional figures, both Kurdish and Turkish, who react to these performances. Podolski changed his first message and replaced “Turkish nation” with “Turkey” and made a statement clarifying his position. One can deduce from this that he received intense criticism. Foreign footballers were similarly perplexed during the Gezi Park protests in 2013 because this time the Turkish majority (many of whom were fans of these footballers) had been split in two.

I believe that mostly, the performance of Turkishness is not enacted consciously by Turks and foreigners. Relying on [sociologist]Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, one can assert that these acts are determined by a person’s habitus[appearance]: by his or her recognition of the rules of the game and by his or her ability to use strategies in order to watch out for their own interests. A person does not take action however by thinking “let me perform some Turkishness and gain an advantage.” The performance is already learned and internalized by power relations and it becomes the second nature of the person. Indeed this performance gains its power from the fact that it is delivered automatically without thinking about it. Otherwise the country would simply transform into a poorly arranged theatre play. In real life people act out their role spontaneously and naturally and with a great deal of faith.

Recently I have been receiving negative reactions from even those within my closest circles after writing these types of articles. They claim that I am insulting Turkishness, and I receive reactions like: “Thanks to you, we were able to find out how wicked Turkish people were!”, or: “As if Kurds are any better than Turks!” But, to my mind, this is not a matter of who is good and who is bad. Very good and very honest people that we really like can enact different performances of Turkishness. For example, Alex [de Soza]was cherished by all football fans regardless of which team they supported because he was very respectful of his opponents. The critical point here is to whom the goodness and badness is directed. One of the subcomponents of the Turkishness Contract is the Ethics Contract. According to this, any ill-treatment to those not accepting the Turkishness Contract can be normalized and legitimized and therefore vast indifference and unconcern can be felt towards these people’s experiences. Those who burn down the offices of certain political parties, who try to lynch Kurds, or coerce Çay to deliver a performance by forcing him to kiss Atatürk do not really think they are doing evil. They believe instead that they are doing the best possible thing by taking revenge on behalf of Turkish soldiers killed by the [Kurdish nationalist] PKK in Dağlıca. In doing so they are expressing that they are part of the Turkish world; they continue their lives with even stronger feelings of solidarity and feel even more cherished and protected by their environments. The state determines the upper limit of the evil that occurs at the lower levels of society.

The pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) who attempted to reconcile Turks, Kurds and Armenians through “Turkeyfication” (a gesture that appealed perfectly to the majority) had the exciting potential of escaping the vicious circle that I have been describing here. HDP was, in a way, a project that sought to lessen evil and foster goodness. It was an initiative for a new and more encompassing Ethics Contract which tried to remove the idea of violence from the agenda. Perhaps this was the reason why in the last general elections on the June 7, millions of people experienced a sense of happiness they had never felt before. Yet, what came afterwards proved, with a special sort of violence specific to these lands, that this is a path full of obstacles and hardships.

Barış Ünlü Translated from Turkish by International Boulevard