Interview

On Nationalism, Ethnicity and Ethnicity Regimes

What is ethnicity? And what is a nation? How do states' ethnicity policies are constructed? Why and how do they change?
33 min read

The Middle East is going through difficult times once more in the region’s history. Although the destabilization of the region is not a new phenomenon, the American invasion of Iraq at the turn of the century certainly came to be a catastrophic turning point. The power vacuum created by this invasion and the dysfunctional state institutions in Iraq still remain a challenging problem for this country as for its neighbors including Turkey. The subsequent developments further escalated the crisis in the region. Since 2010 the ramifications of the Arab Spring, despite the great hopes on the outset, added to the region’s misfortune. The ambivalent attitudes shown by the international community during the course of the popular uprisings in various Arab countries not only failed to contribute to the making of a peaceful transition to more democratic regimes but also encouraged anti-democratic and at times tyrannical methods. Currently, the Syrian crisis is in its fifth year and there is little hope, if any, for a viable solution in the near future. The ISIS terror and the Russian offensive in Syria are among the most complicating factors for country’s future. Dr. Serhan Afacan discussed these and similar issues with Assoc. Prof. Şener Aktürk, a Russia expert from Koç University, for The New Turkey.


Dr. Aktürk, thank you very much for kindly accepting to have this interview with thenewturkey.org. I want to focus in this interview not only the current political developments but also about your book Regimes of Ethnicity and Nationhood in Germany, Russia, and Turkey which I recently read with great interest. Let me begin with this book first. I think nationalism has always been a major issue and there is every reason to believe that it will retain its significance. So, let’s first clarify the two concepts that you used in the very title of your book. Quite shortly, how do you define ethnicity and nation?

You are welcome. These concepts have, as you know, been defined in a number of ways. As far as my own understanding is concerned, for ethnicity I think the most analytically clear and useful definition is the one put forward by Max Weber, and he said that ethnic identity is based on “a subjective belief in their common descent”. This is the necessary and sufficient criterion of ethnicity. So if you have subjective belief in common descent this sufficiently makes an ethnic group and you don’t need anything else. So for this you don’t need a common language, a common religion, a state or a territory.

These are all related to a nation, is that right?

Not necessarily. I think they are all different social categories. Scots do not have a language anymore, and the Irish also speak English, Maronites and Druzes, they all speak Arabic but they clearly have a strong sense of ethnic identity. Or take as an example the Georgians or the Armenians in Turkey who don’t speak Georgian or Armenian but they have a strong sense of ethnic identity.  On the other hand nation, which, I think, is a more modern identity and unlike ethnicity, nationalism is a group’s collective belief in a right to political control over a particular territory. So a claim to statehood, or at least territorial autonomy, is central here. We can say nation is a collectivity in support of an existing state or one aspiring to establish a new one. So here the idea of a collective right to territorial control either in an independent state or in an autonomy is central. And the two maybe linked. You need to look at the changes in the official and social relationship between ethnicity and nationalism.

Every state by definition and by United Nations’ definition and international law definition implies a nation of its own

Well, let me move to the second question. Which one of these do you think should be more closely watched in analyzing states’ policies about their societies?

Every state by definition and by United Nations’ definition and international law definition implies a nation of its own. Since there is Algeria as an independent state, then there is an Algerian nation, there is Tanzania and thus there is Tanzanian nation. And as you know for the international legal definition, all the citizens of Tanzania are the Tanzanian nation. Nothing more and nothing less. But that’s the legal and official definition. So once you take the right to rule from God or gods down to the people, then the question of what is ‘the people’ comes to the fore.

For example I think there are only very few countries around the world, which they are not nation states. But those are very few like the Saudi Kingdom or the United Arab Emirates. There are only a few states left, where the right to rule does not depend on people and these are truly monarchic kingdoms of which there are very few remaining. That is why it is very hard to talk about the Saudi nation or Saudi nationalism. For every other political entity be that the Communist Republic of China, United States of America, the Jewish state of Israel, the Muslim state of Pakistan, the German nation state Bundesrepublik Deutschland, they are all, by definition, nation-states, since they claim to have the right to rule on the basis of their nation, they have to have their nations and they do!

What about the United States?

Yes, United States as well. There is clearly an American nation and they are a very nationalistic people in my opinion.

Western type multiculturalism was inspired by Soviet and Chinese communist regimes of ethnicity.

So how is the American nation different, from let’s say the German nation. I think these two are clearly different, are they not?

There are three different state models in relating ethnic identity and nation. The first model historically is the French one, of which Turkey is a very faithful follower. In this model the state accepts people of different ethnic backgrounds as citizens with voting rights but does not allow the official and legal expression of their ethnic diversity. This mode of dealing with ethnic diversity can be summarized as assimilationist. Ethnically diverse population constitutes the political community, but the diversity of the political community is melted into monolingual nation. We do not only see this model in France or Turkey but also in Portugal, Italy, almost all of the former French colonies like Algeria or French West Africa, much of Latin America including Brazil and all of these Mestizo-based otherwise assimilationist American states. The idea of a “melting pot” in the United States is clearly congruent with this assimilationist, antiethnic model.

A rival model to his one emerged with the German unification in 1871 and did so in clear conflict with the French model and the French state. The German unification was actually achieved following the German defeat of the French around this date. So Germany was consciously defeating the French and challenging its model in a way. The German model, as I call in the book, is the monethnic model. So their subjective belief in blood kinship is also the basis of the nation. So the famous German citizenship law of 1913, which could not be amended until 2000, gave the right of German citizenship only to those from the German ethnic descent.

So based on this law those ethnic Germans who lived in the former Soviet Union in such countries as Kazakhstan where there were more than one million German, or in Romania or in the Balkan states could acquire German citizenship if they applied to the German embassies. And millions of Aussiedler from Eastern Europe and Eurasia became German citizens, though many of them could not speak German. In fact Germany paid thousands of dollars to the Communist regime in Romania for every ethnic German they allowed to leave Romania for Germany. In a sense Germany was buying ethnic Germans. So we see here a very ethnic understanding of the nation.

At the same time Germany was paying 10.500 Deutsche Mark to Turkish and other so called guest workers to leave Germany permanently and not to come back. About less than ten percent of the targeted population actually took that money and left Germany. This model no longer survives in Germany since the citizenship law was amended in 2000, which allowed immigrant children who are born in Germany to parents who have been uninterrupted legal residents for about eight years to acquire German citizenship.

The German monoethnic model became more or less hegemonic in Eastern Europe in such states as Estonia, Latvia and even in Bulgaria and Greece there is tendency towards the German model. This is not the Turkish model although there were, in Turkey, many advocates of a similar model such as some figures in the Community of Union and Progress although not in these terms.

Do you mean the Pan-Turkists?

Yes to a certain extent. Pan-Turkism is such an ethno-linguistic outward orientation. The important thing here is that, applying the monoethnic nationhood model in Turkey would imply organizing the political community itself in a kind of ethno-racial caste system with ethnic Turkmens at the top and non-Turkmens in lower echelons. But there has never been, at least socially, a powerful political movement in Turkey advocating ethnic Turkmen privilege. One of the titles of one of my op-eds in Turkish was “Is Turkey the state of the Turkmen?“. No, Turkey is not the state of the Turkmen, and it has never been. There may have been some ultranationalists who may have tended towards such a model, but even the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), which indeed has a Turkmen leader, I do not think has ever advocated this type of ethnic caste system. Maybe it was found unfeasible.

The Apartheid system in South Africa, the official categorization of Jewish citizens versus non-Jewish citizens in Israel where Jews have legal privileges that non-Jews cannot have (such as serving in the military and all the privileges attached to military service), are among such examples of officially constructed ethnic hierarchies in society. So this type of mono-ethnic model did not come to power in Turkey. A third model is the multi-ethnic model. Here I hope it is to a certain extent my contribution to the field, although Soviet historians have already made this contribution in their work. So the Soviet regime is the most far reaching, extreme version of multiethnic nationhood, in my opinion.

In the modern period?

Yes. Well, dynastic states do not count because for them the rule was already based on the dynastic family and God, so they did not have to deal with popular legitimacy, defining the people as the locus of political power and legitimacy. But the Soviets and other communist states, although they also did not have real elections, always had the claim that they represent people’s power and democratic government. So they also had the modern dilemma of being forced to define who the people are, as their own nation so to say.

The Soviet People, or one can very much call this the Soviet nation, Sovetskii narod in Russian, was explicitly based on the union of, in the beginning, almost one hundred ninety ethnic groups, although later this number was revised downwards to around sixty ethnic groups. So the Leninist but really Stalinist model of giving a territory and an official language to dozens of ethnic groups and organizing a political community explicitly as a federation of fifteen union republics such as the Armenian, Azeri, Ukrainian Soviet socialist republics, below them there were autonomous republics such as the Daghestani, Karabagh and Crimean Tatar, etc. And below them there were autonomous communes for even smaller groups such as the Bulgarians, the Greeks, the Polish and so on. You had Jewish Autonomous Oblast in Birobidzhan, next to the Chinese and Korean border in the Far East. So this is another model, the multiethnic model of the Soviet Union, and it, of course, challenged the other two, namely, the monoethnic German and antiethnic French models.

You can see the traces of this model everywhere where the communist ideology prevailed. People’s Republic of China, in its organization of ethnic diversity, still today is a faithful imitator of the Leninist-Stalinist model. If you go to a Chinese New Year, the Party is going to say that China is a country of fifty-four nationalities, the Uyghurs and the Tibetans, for example, have the dances and flags and you would see them singing. So this is the communist model and the communists took it everywhere such as the socialist regimes or movements in Africa and Latin America. Interestingly, if the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan succeeded, there are indications that the Soviets would re-organize Afghanistan as a multi-ethnic federation by, possibly, annexing the Turkmen and Uzbek parts to Uzbek and Turkmen Soviet Socialist republics and re-organize the rest as Pashtun, Khazara and other ethnically defined socialist republics. You know the pro-Soviet communists in Turkey implicitly and sometimes explicitly had the idea of re-organizing Turkey as a Communist Federation of ethnic groups.

There is one more thing I would like to highlight. This was an important propaganda tool for communism and it was advertised to the rest of the world as the moral where there is no ethnic oppression. If you check the Soviet publications about the United States, you see it depicted as a country where blacks are exploited as slaves. All the ethnic groups are being crushed by the capitalist assimilation, segregation and slavery mechanisms. Likewise all NATO countries had, according to the Soviet propaganda, this ethnically oppressive structure whereas in the Soviet Union they were all equal. So this was a big propaganda tool and by 1970s came the Western response in the form of multiculturalism.

Some liberals have said in Canada, Australia and New Zealand that this was their basic reality, and it was never this explicit but, they said this is what they should do. They should, said the liberals, at least allow a modicum of ethno-linguistic diversity and institutionalization of this recognition. But this is a weaker and a more watered down version of what the Soviets and the Chinese said a much earlier.

As a lesson they got from the Great War, Lenin and Stalin said “we need to satisfy ethnic groups to a certain extent to keep a huge empire together.

Well that’s very interesting! So you are telling me that multiculturalism was somehow inspired by Soviet and Chinese communist regimes?

Yes, and I emphasize that! Well this is of course a bucket of cold water for the Western liberal audience but it’s certainly not my thesis, and although I agree and promote this argument, I would not want to take credit for it, since I’m just bringing together findings of the Soviet historians in conversation with comparative  political science. Let me mention only two names here. The first one is Terry Martin, the Soviet historian at Harvard, and the title of his book about the Soviet Union under Lenin and Stalin is ‘The First Affirmative Action Empire.’

The second one is Yuri Slezkine, the Soviet historian at the University of California, Berkeley, and the title of his article is The USSR as a Communal Apartment, in which he deals with how the Soviet Union fostered ethnic particularism. Actually Soviet historians in their own work have uncovered – this is their finding – that the Soviet Union, already in the 1920s, was a unique and distinct model that appealed to many minorities such as the Jews, Armenians and so on precisely because of its approach to ethnic diversity. It is not surprising that many ethnic insurgencies from the Shining Path to the PKK movement in Turkey are Marxist-Leninist. So there is the appeal of Marxism in this sense.

Ok. I do not mean to be speculative but do you think that there was, behind this multi-ethnic approach or the Soviet Model as you put it, the divide-and-rule mentality? Such a model, as far as I understand, explicitly emphasizes ethnic diversities, which could automatically very well serve to atomize the society. So do you think this model made it easier for the Soviet regime to govern such diverse peoples?

I think in effect it did, although I’m not sure if that was really the motivation or the intention. So, in effect even if that was not the intention—I’m  not sure Lenin and Stalin sat on the table and said ‘let’s divide and design them’—but what they were really doing was to change the hegemonic social identity. This social identity was religion. From a social order where the primary identity was religion, they violently created a new social order in which the primary identities became ethnicity and language. This radical change in the hegemonic identity fractured and transformed the scene and in fact made it easier for the Soviet regime to consolidate itself and continue for seventy years. So much so that although it is always said that the First World War brought an end to empires, it only did so for the Habsburgs and the Ottomans, but not for Russia. Russia in a way recuperated and rebuilt an even stronger and more powerful empire in the form of the Soviet Union.

And the war did not end the British Empire either, right? It survived the WWI.

Yes but it was not a contiguous empire. Overseas empires were a completely different story, they are related but they are also different. Even for the contiguous empires, WWI was the end for the Ottomans and Habsburgs but not really for the Russians. They were reorganized and one can say that people took different lessons from the WWI. Some Austrians and Turks took the lesson that only ethnic nation states could survive in the 20th century. But this is not the lesson that Lenin and Stalin got from the Great War. They said, “we need to satisfy ethnic groups to a certain extent to keep a huge empire together.” And that’s what they did.

They gave them each an official language, a flag and all the folkloric and symbolic window-dressing of ethnic nationhood, but no real power. And it was their formula, which was “national or ethnic in form, but socialist in content.” They gave the same socialist message in Armenian and Azeri etc. and they succeeded in raising a narrow Bolshevik communist elite from every ethnic group through which they exercised the brutal, militarized, one-party dictatorship for so many years. So it was very successful in a terrible way.

Yes and history attests to this horror. Well now let’s move to the next question. The question of why and how states’ policies towards ethnic groups change over time constitutes one of the preliminary concerns of your work and I would like to focus on that. But before analyzing the change, could you tell us how these policies towards different ethnicities are made in the first place. You focus on some examples, but let’s take Germany as a case. Why were these policies made in Germany and who made them?

I think the German unification is the key founding moment. Germany is a state that was built and created on the basis of an ethno-linguistic shared identity. So, there were many German speakers around such as the Habsburgs. But that’s an empire that had been around for almost 600 years as well and was ruling over a much more diverse polity with Czechs, Poles, Bosniaks and of course Hungarians, and others. Even though the elites spoke German that was not the source of legitimation and the definition of the community for the Habsburgs, but the defense of Catholicism certainly was. And the defense of the Catholic Church was. So you can even see a parallel with Twelver Shiism as the glue of the post-Safavid Iranian identity.

Catholicism and the Counter-reformation in the Western Catholicism and Eastern Europe was the glue that held together the Catholic Hungarians against Protestant Hungarians, the Austrians, the Polish and Slovenian Catholics together. But that’s not what German unification was about. It was instead about a unification based on the ethno-linguistic idiom going across the big religious divide actually, because as you know today Germany is equally split between the Catholic South and the Protestant North.

Especially at time of unification in 1870 the new German state was a very rare and powerful example of ethnicity and language triumphing over other, primarily religious sectarian identities, and this was utterly remarkable for Christian Europe since German Unification succeed despite, and thus in a way overcame, the religious divide between the Protestants and the Catholics. Even in this case, there was the question of how much Protestants and Catholics were equals since the founding of the state seems to be a clearly Protestant elite-led enterprise, around the Protestant Prussian core, although Protestants and non-Protestants are demographically almost equal. But again, the founding impulse was ethno-linguistic. This is not the case, and very clearly so, in the Soviet example and the Bolshevik Revolution as the founding movement. So, the critical moment was the mobilization around the ethno-linguistic idiom in Germany. This explains how they established their national structure. This is not in my book of course, we are talking about the prehistory of my book.

In the Soviet example you have an incredibly diverse, ethnically and religiously, revolutionary cadre with many Jews and Orthodox Christians and Catholics and even some Muslims. Ethnically speaking, too, they were different. There were Russians, Armenians, Tatars, and others, all united in their belief in revolutionary socialism, Bolshevism. The state they founded was legitimated on the basis of this ideology and by this multiethnic and multi-religious cadre that institutionalized this diversity as part of their ideology as a precursor and harbinger of a world revolution because after all the Soviet Union was a truly revolutionary state. And as for Germany and Turkey, we can’t really say any of this. But the Soviet Union, somewhat like the French Revolution, and before the Maoist Revolution and certainly much before the Iranian Revolution, styled itself as the first step to a global, worldwide revolution. So the model established was supposed to be a microcosm, a very big microcosm admittedly, of the entire world. That’s in part why they ended up with that enormously detailed multiethnic structure. Turkey is different.

You look at the original mobilization that established the Turkish national state – I only make a passing reference to that in the book but I discuss it in at least two separate independent articles, including “the monoreligious but anti-ethnic definition of Turkish nationhood” which was published in Middle Eastern Studies in 2009, and a much more recent article, which appeared in Social Science Quarterly in September 2015 and is titled “Religion and Nationalism: Contradictions of Islamic Origins and Secular Nation-Building in Turkey, Algeria and Pakistan”. The mobilization for nationhood in Turkey, which took place in 1919-1922, was a multiethnic mobilization around a religious idiom.

The so-called National Struggle, the imperfect translation into English of “Milli Mücadele,” which could just as well be translated as the “Religious Struggle” both semantically (since milli is originally “religious,” not “national”) and substantively, since all the Muslim elements of Anatolia, including Circassians, Bosniaks, Albanians, Kurds, and Turkmen were mobilized to fight off non-Muslim enemies, mostly Western European occupation forces, including the French, and the British as the key orchestrator, but primarily the Greeks, and some local elements, such as the Christian militia in Anatolia. The fault line was not ethnic or linguistic and it was not ideological, but it was religious.

And the National Struggle was echoed in such far regions as India and even Siam or Thailand where Muslims showed great interest to this struggle and to what happened in Turkey at that time. So can we say that this also was basically based on the religious dimension of this struggle?

Yes we certainly can say that. So here we have a mobilization that, to a certain extent like the Soviet mobilization, has global resonance but it is not an ethnic struggle. That is why it had a global resonance because it was a multiethnic but religious struggle. The critical decision-makers were of course the elite, most of them left over from the Committee of Unity of Progress, who led the struggle, the National Struggle or let’s say the Liberation Struggle in Ankara, and they were mostly French-educated or French inspired, and they thought that the only way for the new nation state to survive, was if it was modeled on the French nation state. So they borrowed the French model lock stock and barrel, brought in its assimilationist nationalism and its assertive secularism, the French laicite.

So we had in Ankara a faithful follower of the French Third Republic and that’s the critical turning point in my recently published article comparing Turkey, Algeria, and Pakistan, but it is only the beginning of my story in the book. So there was a multi-ethnic population, the background against which an assimilationist and a radically secular nation state was established in Turkey. In short, this is how Germany, the Soviet Union and Turkey ended up establishing their distinct models.  But as you say, the primary question of my book is not this founding moment though I refer to it in a couple of pages. The primary question that motivates my research in the book is how and why the state policies towards ethnicity could be changed after seventy or eighty years of continuity.

With the coming into effect of the German Citizenship Law dated 1999 Germany simply moved from a monoethnic understanding of the nation to an assimilatioanist and anti-ethnic perspective, which is the French model.

Yes this is a significant question. Such policies are rather resistant to change, right? So they do not easily change, especially in the absence of extra-governmental pressure. Governments obviously do not decide overnight and out of the air to change their ethnic policies. There needs to be some kind of pressure. So why would they change their ethnic policies?

It is a very good question. Firstly let me re-emphasize that they don’t change very often, there is an extreme level of institutional stickiness, but only when the state is being founded everything is up for grabs. War, collapse, and you are building from scratch, then you have a lot of room for maneuver, but once a model is chosen, whether it is the German, the Soviet or the French or the Turkish model, and once the institutions are shaped according to that model, then it is extremely difficult to change even one dimension of it such as the number of official languages, or the administrative structure, unitary or federal, is very difficult to change.

But what I found in my study of Soviet, Russian, German and Turkish policies from the 1950s to the present is that in order for state policies towards ethnic diversity to change, three conditions had to exist simultaneously …three conditions have to exist simultaneously. The first one is that you needed a government that is supported by constituencies that have clear grievances against official policies towards ethnic diversity. So that would be, for example, the political parties that are supported by Kurds and other constituencies in Turkey, to a certain extent Jews, Germans and others in the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation and also the Russian majority because it also had some grievances against the multi-ethnic affirmative action model understandably.

But having such as a government was not enough. For example Turkey had in power the Democratic Party that was supported by a large majority of Kurds in the 1950s. But it wasn’t enough. You also needed this government to have a new discourse and a new thinking about the relationship between ethnicity and nationality. You can call this a new ideology of nationhood. Again in the Turkish context only two political movements had such a challenge to the Kemalist thinking of assimilationist nationalism.  One of them, the weaker one, was the socialists, who basically borrowed the Soviet model to re-organize Turkey implicitly as a multi-ethnic communist federation of peoples. And the other much more powerful challenge came from the Islamic movement known as National Outlook or Milli Görüş once it became a political party in 1969 and 1970. For the next forty years it pursued a more popular discourse of action.

However, even the two together have not been enough. After all, we have had SHP, Social Democratic Populist Party government in the 1990s and it had some elements of socialist, multicultural thinking, and had explicit promises to Kurds, Alevis, and various ethnic and sectarian groups about recognizing their diversity. Also there was the short-lived Welfare Party government in 1996 for about a year, and which again had an Islamist, multiculturalist worldview. But neither of these governments could do anything, because you also need a third element that they were missing. So there must be a government that has the support of the constituencies with ethnically specific grievances and that has a new thinking about ethnicity and nationality, but this government also needs to have what I call a hegemonic majority in the parliament and in the political scene.

Razor thin majorities, fragile majorities are not enough for ethnic regime change. Why do they need such a large majority? They need such a large majority because when you try to change any part of what I call an ethnic regime, if a government tries to change it, it is going to face opposition not just from parliamentary groups, but from extra-parliamentary, unelected components of government, which is in every society – the bureaucracy, the military, the judiciary, one could even add to them the university and academia because these are unelected components of a government. Not so much academia, but certainly the bureaucracy, the military, and the judiciary are parts of government and they exercise real and in some cases even decisive power. And they are indoctrinated in the official understanding of nationhood. So they will be resistant to change for the German, the French, the Soviet Russian or the Turkish ways of thinking they had about nationality.

So for a government of change, to be able to overcome that challenge it needs to be extremely secure in the political arena.  When you try to change such policies, many members of your party are going to resign, there will be protests, and there will be sorts of resistance that you have not foreseen. And so in order not to fall and fail in the face of this resistance, you need an unusually big majority or a hegemony in the political scene. In the German case, these three factors only came together in the Social Democratic-Green coalition government in 1998, which in 1999 passed the new German citizenship law, which redefined what it means to be German by a 2/3 majority in the Bundestag, the German parliament. They had the support of all political parties except for the Christian Democrats.

Turkey experienced during the decade between 2004 and 2013 an avalanche of reforms on ethnic policies such as the opening up of TRT 6, later renamed as TRT Kurdi, broadcasting full day, seven days a week only in Kurmançi Kurdish, supplemented by Zazaki etc. In 2011, Kurdish, Bosniak, Laz, Georgian and maybe a few other languages became elective courses in Turkish public middle and high schools.

What was this new definition of ‘German’?

That Germany was a country of immigration or Deutschland ist ein Einwanderungsland. So people of non-German immigrant backgrounds were being accepted as Germans. In the Russian case it was the Rossiyan nationhood, all inhabitants of Russia being accepted as Russian. This terminology already existed in the Russian language, and government officials referred to the citizens not as Russki, meaning ethnic Russians, but as Rossiyanin, implying all inhabitants of Russia. So it is not an invented word, so to say, it goes back decades and it is an established concept. And Yeltsin changed the internal passport by removing all ethnic identifiers such as Tatar, Armenian, Bashkort, Chechen, Russki and so on.

This came as a major blow to the established practice and mentality. So ethnicity is removed, and in the Russian case this is a step towards assimilationist nation-building because you are erasing ethnicity from where it existed since the time of Stalin and many of these ethnic groups, especially White European Christian-origin ethnic groups in European Russia are extremely assimilated anyway. They only speak Russian and they have high levels of intermarriage. So once you remove ethnic identification from their passports and documents that will probably lead to their disappearance as an ethnic identity and a high level of assimilation in the next generation. So Russia took a big step towards assimilation in 1997.

Germany took a big step in a progressive way towards assimilation, because it opened the gate of being assimilated because with monoethnic regime you cannot be assimilated even if you want to because membership in the political community is the privilege of one ethnic group. So Germany opened the door of assimilation to hundreds of thousands of Turks and Greeks and Serbs and other immigrants.

But they called this integration. Did they not? 

Yes they did so because assimilation is a bad word to use. But as many immigrants know, Otto Schily, then the German Minister of the Interior, said during these reforms that ‘the best form of integration is assimilation’. So in some rare instances, policy makers are very honest about what is really meant by integration. And you know this is the French and for a very long time Turkish model and it is what Germany came to be. So for the reasons that I have mentioned earlier, this is actually a progressive step for Germany. But it is important to objectively name it as it is, what it is and it is not multiculturalism. There is no political actor in Germany today—there used to be among Greens earlier but not any more because they have been domesticated so to say—who thinks that there will or there should be any second, third or fourth official language or teaching of any other immigrant languages in schools, they never think, nor they want to think of Germany as a Vielvölkerstaat or a multinational state.

So Germany simply moved from a monoethnic understanding of the nation to an assimilatioanist and anti-ethnic perspective, which is the French model. In the Turkish case the critical turning point came with the Justice and Development Party, which came into power with significant Kurdish support. It is the only other party, aside form the political wings of the PKK, which can compete for Kurdish voters in any meaningful way. This Party came to power in 2002 and again in 2007 and 2011 with significant Kurdish electoral support, armed with a new discourse of Islamist or Islamic ummah, with Islamic multiculturalism, which is simply borrowed from the National Outlook Movement, which goes back to 1970s.

So when you read the speeches of Erdogan, or any other high-ranking Ak Party politicians in the South East, you see the sort of themes of Islamic brotherhood and religion as the glue that binds the society together, which you can easily find in the speeches of Erbakan in the 1970s, 1980s and the 1990s. So Ak Party simply takes over the heritage, or the line of thinking of the National Outlook Movement on the Kurdish issue. Ak Pary is very different from the Welfare Party on economy, foreign policy and on many different fields, that’s true, but not on the ethno-religious identity nexus, which is what is of interest to me.

And the National Outlook Movement always over-performed among Kurds compared to the rest of society and these are documented in my book. In 1970 even as the National Salvation Party (Milli Selamet Partisi) under Erbakan got 7 or 8 per cent of the vote nationally, in many provinces in the Kurdish South East it got over 20%, which is two to three times higher than its national average. This was because of its Islamist message, which for generations appealed to Kurds who saw in it a way to address their grievances.

So even though Erbakan had this too. But what makes Ak Party distinctive was the hegemonic majority it enjoyed in the Parliament. They held two-thirds majority in the Parliament much like the German Citizenship Law passing with the 2/3 majority. You didn’t have to have 2/3 majority, but they had and that is important because if they had a razor thin majority, the opposition would and could strike them down much easier and the established coalition for change would fall apart.

And when these three conditions came together you had in 2004 TRT 3, which started broadcasting in Arabic, Bosniak, Circassian, Kurdish and Zaza. This was the first step and people though it was just symbolic and unimportant, where as I was just starting to think about writing my dissertation at that time, and I said “no, it is symbolic and that’s why it is important and that more would come out of it for such measures refer to the state’s recognition of these five languages by employing cadres to resuscitate and revive these languages.” Indeed it was the beginning of an avalanche of reforms and by 2009 you had TRT 6, later renamed as TRT Kurdi, broadcasting full day, seven days a week only in Kurmançi Kurdish, supplemented by Zazaki etc.

In 2011, Kurdish, Bosniak, Laz, Georgian and maybe a few other languages became elective courses in Turkish public middle and high schools. Finally, one could even mention the removal of Andımız, the Turkish pledge of allegiance, in October-November 2013, with the latest democratization package. Andımız was one of the staples of Kemalist nation state building, the pledge of allegiance, mandatory in Turkish schools, was removed, without a huge shock though it should be shocking for it was a tremendous change in many respects.

Andımız was one of the staples of Kemalist nation state building, the pledge of allegiance, mandatory in Turkish schools, was removed in 2013 without a huge shock though it should be shocking for it was a tremendous change in many respects

We can speculate about the future but I am thinking of a decade, which started in 2004 to end in 2013 as the decade of Ak Party’s Kurdish opening. For various domestic and international factors such as the end of the reconciliation process, the Syrian civil war, the Russian intervention, the PKK’s change of course, this process ended by 2014. What has been achieved in that decade was the most historic change in ethnic policies in eighty years of the Turkish Republic, and this is going to remain. Nobody is trying or can plausibly reverse what has been achieved during that time. And certainly I would say the same with the German citizenship law and Russian passport law. These too were important and historic changes and they are irreversible.

So, there is no going back from where we are now. 

Very unlikely. Everything is possible in social and political processes, but lacking a major catastrophe like a world war etc. under normal conditions what has been achieved – whether you like it or not since I am not making a normative judgment here – is irreversible in my opinion.

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Şener Aktürk is an Associate Professor of International Relations at Koç University in Istanbul and the author of the book, Regimes of Ethnicity and Nationhood in Germany, Russia, and Turkey (Cambridge University Press, 2012), which won the 2013 Joseph Rothschild book prize.