Are all Turkish peoples Muslims?

5. Society and social affairs

5.4. Religious and ethnic groups

99.8 percent of the Turkish population are Muslims. These are divided into Sunnis (70 percent) and Alevites (20-25 percent), a religious group closely related to the Shiite faith. There are also religious minorities, such as Christians of various religious backgrounds (0.2 percent) and ethnic minorities. The Kurds hold a special position, although they are of the Muslim faith, they see themselves as an independent ethnic group.

Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Photo: European Commission

5.4.1. Islam and Turkishness

Mustafa Kemal's reforms were aimed at modernizing and changing Turkish society and the political system based on the Western model. The entirety of these reforms is called Kemalism after their founder. This state ideology, which has been enshrined in the constitution to this day, is made up of the so-called “six pillars”: nationalism, republicanism, popular welfare, statism, secularism, reformism or revolutionism. The most important element of Kemalism is secularism, the separation of church and state, and the secularization of society. Religion should only be a private matter, the influence of religious leaders on the public and politics should be pushed back. The caliphate, the form of government in which religious and secular power are united in one head, and religious education were abolished in 1924. However, the secularism propagated in the years after the founding of the republic was quickly relaxed. The establishment of the Presidium for Religious Affairs, which oversees the cultivation of religion, is evidence of this. This office employs several thousand people, including imams and prayer leaders, and is responsible for as many mosques.

State Islam, the synthesis between the state or Turkishness and Islam, was largely shaped by the Presidium. In addition to this variant, there are two other forms of Islam in Turkey. On the one hand there is popular Islam, a kind of popular piety that is shaped by both high Islamic religion and traditions from pre-Islamic times. The saints of Islamic mysticism and the brotherhoods who venerate these saints play a decisive role in this variant of the Islamic faith. On the other hand, political Islam, also known as Islamism or Islamic fundamentalism, has also gained influence in Turkey. Central to this are the strict interpretation of Islam according to Mohammed and the rejection of all adaptations of Islam to the modern world. In this form of Islam, belief and state are not separated, but united in one person or instance.

What is characteristic of Turkey is not a special form of Islam, but a combination of Turkish nationalism and Islamic beliefs: Turkishness. This strong national identification reflects the pride of many Turks in the unity of the Turkish Republic in contrast to the multi-ethnic state of the Ottoman Empire and their founding father Ataturk. The essence of Turkishness is the unity and integrity of the Turkish state or the state territory and its population, which differs from other Arab and Persian peoples. Although Islam plays a rather subordinate role, the Turkish understanding of nationality also implies the unity and homogeneity of all Turkish Muslims. Statements on the ethnic diversity of Turkey are only permitted with simultaneous emphasis on amalgamation and affiliation in Turkishness. Otherwise, such a statement can be prosecuted using Section 301 of the Turkish Penal Code. This legal provision goes back to section 159 of the old penal code and was modified on June 1, 2005. In the modified form, the legal provision makes “insulting Turkishness, the republic and the institutions and organs of the state” a punishable offense.

Especially under Prime Minister Erdogan, the discussion about Islam in Turkey is gaining momentum again. Among other things, Erdogan and his religious-conservative party, the AKP, are striving to relax the headscarf ban at universities. The freedom to wear a headscarf should also be enshrined in the Turkish constitution. In the 1980s, the Turkish Constitutional Court issued a ban on headscarves in universities, schools and authorities. Erdogan argues that the religiousness of a woman who expresses herself by wearing a headscarf should not prevent her from accessing higher education. The opponents of Erdogan fear that a partial lifting of the headscarf ban will break with Ataturk's secular principles and accuse the Prime Minister of wanting to give Islam a dominant role in the Turkish public.

5.4.2. The Kurds

With 30 million people, the Kurds are the largest people in the world without a state of their own. The Kurdish population is spread over the entire globe, with Turkey (approx. 13 million), Iran (approx. 5.5 million), Iraq (approx. 8 million) and Syria (approx. 4 million) having the highest proportion of Kurdish people Population.

After the Second World War, Turkey recognized three minorities in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne: Armenians, Jews and Christians. Kurds were not considered as an independent, Muslim-Sunni population group, but officially counted among the Turks. To this day, however, the Kurds combine their self-image of religious and ethnic independence with the demand for their own state.

The relationship between Turks and Kurds in Turkey today is therefore characterized by immense tensions and violent conflicts. This gap was deepened on the one hand by a series of legal measures by the Turkish government, which excluded the Kurdish population from society and ignored their identity, and on the other hand by the bloody actions of the Kurdish Workers' Party PKK.

The only link between Kurds and Turks, Islam, was banned from public life with Ataturk's western reforms, on the one hand by the abolition of the Turkish caliphate (1924), the religious and western leader of the Muslims, and on the other by the law of the “Unification of the teaching system” (1924), which led to the ban on religious instruction in schools. As a result of this law, Turkish became the only language of instruction. It was not until 1991 that this law was repealed.

Another law was passed in 1934 allowing the Turkish Interior Ministry to relocate people who did not profess Islam or who spoke any language other than Turkish. The latter criterion hit the Kurds in particular. In the course of this bill, several thousand Kurdish families were resettled in western Turkey and were only allowed to return years later.

Furthermore, the degradation and social exclusion of the Kurds was supported by “scientific” studies and analyzes in which they were referred to as “mountain Turks” and it was assumed that Kurdish was not a language but a dialect. The 1983 ban on the Kurdish language in the Turkish media and at public events was also not relaxed until 1991.

Kurdish concerns and their suppression in the student milieu of the 1960s became public and political. There, both the Kurdish and the Turkish left came together and discussed social and political problems for the first time. The "Turkish Workers Party" was the first to formulate the Kurdish problem on the political stage and colored the resistance movement in a socialist way. The military viewed this strengthening and the increasing influence of the political left and especially the Kurdish autonomy movement with suspicion. The 1980 military coup was directed primarily against these forces, as the generals believed that the unity of the state was in serious danger.

After disputes between Kurdish and Turkish members of the "Turkish Workers' Party" about their political goals and the means to implement them, the movement split, from which the "Revolutionary Way of Kurdistan" arose under the leadership of Abdullah Öcalan. Its cadre would later form the "Kurdistan Workers' Party" (PKK). The PKK has been responsible for attacks against Turkish security forces as well as civilians and entire village communities since 1984. In 1992 the PKK even succeeded in setting up a kind of parallel administration in large parts of south-east Turkey.

The Turkish government cracked down on the Kurdish separatists with the utmost severity. In 1995 the PKK leader Öcalan declared a ceasefire. After a long escape via Syria, Russia, Italy and Greece, he was probably kidnapped on February 15, 1999 in Kenya by the Israeli secret service MOSSAD and extradited to Turkey. From his imprisonment, Öcalan called for peace and dialogue between the Kurds and Turkey, whereupon the PKK announced another ceasefire in 2004. This was lifted for two years in 2004. The PKK justified this by stating that the AKP government had not made any serious attempt to solve the Kurdish problem.

In the years that followed, the PKK showed signs of weakness, lacking orientation and charismatic leaders. It broke up into various splinter movements, and parts of the Kurdish population were increasingly turning away from the hardliners of the PKK. After years of struggle, many Kurds want social and economic security without armed conflict.

In 2007, however, the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state flared up again. Northern Iraq, which has always served the PKK as a retreat, is the focus of the current discussion. On October 15, 2007, the Turkish parliament passed a one-year mandate to send Turkish soldiers to the region to take action against the Kurdish separatists. Iraq tried to prevent Turkish forces from entering Iraqi territory and offered the government in Ankara a joint operation. The government in the northern Iraqi province also asked Ankara not to endanger the relatively stable situation in the region through military intervention. The USA also pleaded for a moderate approach, but, like the European Union, expressed its solidarity with Turkey.

5.4.3. Non-Muslim minorities

In addition to the Muslim faith, other faiths are also widespread in Turkey. These include primarily the members of the Greek Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox Churches and the Sephardic Jews.

The Greek Orthodox minority was officially recognized in the Treaty of Lausanne, but was exposed to a lot of discrimination on the part of the Turkish state. These include the expropriation of the Greek Orthodox Church without compensation (from 1936), the exclusion of Greek Orthodox employees from the public service (1926-1965) or the internment of non-Muslim merchants who were unable to benefit from the increased tax rates due to the reformed property tax to be paid in labor camp. One consequence of these ostracisms was the enormous emigration and expulsion of members of the Greek Orthodox Church, especially to Greece. In Istanbul, the number of 125,000 Orthodox Greeks decreased in 1965 to 1,650 in 2006.

Another non-Muslim religious community is the Syrian Orthodox Church. Their followers live mainly near the Syrian border, i.e. in southeastern Turkey. The Syrian Orthodox Church is only allowed to maintain churches and monasteries in Turkey to a limited extent. Just like the Greek Orthodox minority, that of the Syrian Orthodox community also lost a lot of members: 195,000 members in a good fifty years.

The community of Sephardic Jews, with 17,000 members, is also a religious minority that lives mainly in Istanbul. In contrast to the aforementioned Muslim and non-Muslim minorities, however, the Jewish believers were hardly affected by discrimination.

5.4.4. Ethnic minorities

Religiousness plays an important role in many internal Turkish conflicts, but in the case of another minority, the Armenians, ethnic independence is in the foreground.

The Armenian Patriarchate was established in Istanbul in 1461 with the support of the Sultan. The Armenians were supposed to form a Christian antithesis to the Greek community. Before the First World War, the Armenians and Turks had a very good relationship. The Armenians were considered subjects loyal to the Sultan and were highly regarded in Turkish society. They also had great political influence.

But at the turn of the century the Armenian national movement awoke, which declared areas in the Ottoman Empire to be Armenian territory. During the First World War, Armenian independence fighters in the Russo-Turkish Caucasus conflict supported Russia, which fought on the side of the Central Powers against the Entente.

The reason for supporting the Russian armed forces was the hope that the Armenians would receive support from the Russian side for their independence movement. Because of this partisanship, the Turks recognized the Armenians as enemies in their own country and decided in 1915 to carry out a “resettlement campaign” in which a number of Armenians, which is still highly controversial, were killed.

The discussion about the use of the term “genocide” for this action has repeatedly triggered controversy in Turkey. According to estimates, between 300,000 and 1.5 million Armenians fell victim to these “resettlement operations”. The international pressure on Turkey to recognize this injustice as genocide has increased steadily in recent years. The European Parliament made recognition of the genocide a prerequisite for Turkey's accession to the EU. In Turkey itself, the term "genocide" is viewed as a denigration of Turkishness and punished under Section 301 of the Criminal Code.

Even after 1915, the members of the Armenian community were exposed to discrimination. Similar to the Greek Orthodox and Syrian Orthodox Churches, Armenian communities were expropriated without compensation (from 1936), their members excluded from the public service (1926-1965) and interned in labor camps.


Amnesty International

Map of the Kurdish areas

The military>