MESOP DEBATE: Is there such a thing as the Turkish race? – Or a Kurdish race ?

A speech given by Dr. Yasin Aktay at a panel discussion he attended has ignited strong debate.

When Aktay borrowed some lines from nationalist poet İsmet Özel and then commented, “What you call a ‘Turk’ is a synthesis, for there is no real race of Turks,” this caused a furor. Turkey’s recognition of different cultural or ethnic identities, and its new identity policies, have opened the way for a variety of interesting results. 

Some with particularly strong connections to the Turkish identity have become worried about the increasing respect accorded to other identities.  Some intellectuals assert that they are now afraid to declare “I am Turkish,” insisting that the Turkish identity is being increasingly oppressed. But there is no doubt that this is an unreal scenario.

In fact, no one — first and foremost the Kurds — has any problem with the Turkish identity. The only problem lies in the various identities’ enjoyment of equal rights. The state is becoming one which does not grant privileges to one identity over others, but rather stands at an equal distance from all identities. This has produced fears about the future of the dominant identity. 

Otherwise, when someone stood up and said, “What you call a ‘Turk’ is a synthesis, for there is no real race of Turks,” it would not have sparked such heated argument. And, in fact, if you stop to analyze it, other than people like Nihal Atsız, who subscribe to theories of racial superiority, and despite the fact that Turkish nationalism has included racist motifs, the fact is that throughout the history of Turkey, there has never been mainstream nationalism based on the idea of a superior race. 

The Turkish national identity has always been an all-embracing one. Turkish nationalists have counted all people of the Anatolian lands as Turks — on the condition that they were Muslim — including the Kurds and people from Macedonia and the Caucasus. In this sense, the Turkish identity was never an identity whose foundations were in race or heritage. 

But during a period in which Turkification and assimilation policies have come to an end, Turkish nationalists have become afraid about their future. Thus they oppose the identity-based demands of Kurds and other minorities, insisting that there is no space in Anatolia for any other national group.

Furthermore, they are not alone. There is no real difference between the Kemalist and nationalist definitions of “Turkishness.” 

Fine, but was there never an original Turkish race, at a time when it had not mixed with other races? 

We cannot say that this did not exist. I suppose that when someone says there is no race of Turks, what they are indicating are the changes and syntheses over the years in a race with specific physical characteristics. But still, if some wish to believe that, in the course of Turkish migrations, conquests and incursions, the Turks managed to stay “pure,” then there is really nothing to say to such people, at least as long as this belief does not turn into a political stance of racial superiority.

We all know what happens when this occurs. We must not forget some of the practices and policies implemented in the first years of the Turkish Republic. The terrible legacy of these events must be remembered. There was a time in Anatolia when cemeteries were dug up and human skulls were taken to be measured by “experts.”

It was racism that supported the extreme attempts to Turkify our citizens. It is an interesting fact to note that it was in periods when racist nationalists, such as Nihal Atsiz, were thrown into prison that such race-based policies were applied. When it comes to identity, there are Turkish and Kurdish identities. These are national identities. Something that distinguishes Kurds from Turks is that the former have never left the geography on which they lived historically. Their language, unlike Turkish, has not spread and become a language that others speak. Unlike Turks, Kurds have never married frequently outside their race. In this sense, the Kurdish identity is simpler than the Turkish identity. But over the past century, very little is left of this simple identity. In both Europe and in Anatolia, the Kurds have mingled with the populations with which they live. In the modern world, there are no longer many ethnicities that have survived thousands of years in purity, devoid of any other racial traces.