Cultural Differences and Minority Rights in Turkey

By • on November 9, 2012

A guest arriving in Turkey will find a seemingly open, tolerant and colorful society, and won’t probably perceive any of its internal tensions. Tourists train their cameras towards the magnificent mosques of Istanbul, while Muslim believers kneel on their prayer-rugs, and groups of women wearing traditional veils walk to their daily chores while pop music roars from luxury cars. ‘Typical’ Turkish faces are just as common as those of other ethnicities.

“Almost everyone here is Muslim, but religion does not overwhelm people’s lives. The conflict between modernization and tradition isn’t apparent unless provoked,” said Sanar Yurdatapan, a public intellectual.

The new statehood founded in 1923 in the wake of the independence war brought about fundamental changes in society; in fact, it created a new society. The Ottoman Empire and the Caliphate as a religious power ceased to exist; a number of ancient Turkish customs were prohibited; and the role of Islamic judiciary was replaced by a secular rule of law. In addition, society had to accept a new alphabet, new dressing codes, a new education system and a European orientation. The Western-style reforms of the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, still provide the framework of everyday life, though they pose heavy conundrums as well. The longstanding pursuit of autonomy of the 15 million Kurdish minority remains unresolved even today, and Armenians have been fighting for the official recognition of the murders committed by the „Young Turks’ movement” in 1915-1917.

“I think that the further democratization of the country would require a change in the state ideology, given that nationalism is present in Turkey even nowadays. Although it doesn’t appear in legal acts, as discrimination officially doesn’t exist, it is widespread at the level of the mentalities,” said Cafer Solgun, a Kurdish-born writer, activist and president of the Organization for Confronting the Past and Research of Social Events. “We must unveil the sins of the past, but it is a grueling task, because political parties are competing to prove their loyalty to Kemal’s legacy. The Turkish state has been unwilling to recognize the Armenian genocide because of potential claims for compensation,” added Cafer. “Nevertheless, there should be more talk about the grievances affecting Kurdish people,” he says. His organization focuses on research about the Kurdish uprising in Dersim (1936-1939) that was brutally put down by Turkish authorities.


The office of Agos, the most influential newspaper of the Armenian minority in Turkey, is still located in the building where a young Turkish nationalist fatally shot the then editor-in-chief, Hrant Dink, in 2007. Dink had often written about the Armenian genocide. “This topic has been a taboo ever since, because the state ignores the deeds of the past. Murders and deportations are not mentioned in schools or on television,” said the current editor-in-chief Rober Koptas. According to the most widespread Turkish point-of-view, there was a war going on, so “a few thousand people” might as well have died.

“This rejection of the genocide has somewhat changed in recent years, but this process is slow, which is understandable given that Turks have to face their own past. In fact, the status of minorities has improved. Fifty thousand Armenians live here in Istanbul, we have our own newspaper, television, digital media, and school, but it is more difficult to preserve our identity in other parts of the country. Culturally, we live in a mixed environment, we live together with Turks, and mixed marriages are common; at the same time, fewer and fewer people speak Armenian. Hidden discrimination is also a problem. Armenians, Catholics and other non-Muslims are often regarded as ‘second-class citizens’, and are not allowed to hold certain positions,” said Robert and added that he is not a nationalist. He lives here, he loves the country and works to transform it into a more democratic society.

Erdinc Cekic, the president of Edrom, a Roma advocacy organization in Edirne, and Balik Ayhan, a singer of Roma origin from Istanbul, share a rather positive opinion about the status of the Roma minority. According to the official statistics, between 500,000 and 900,000 Roma people live in Turkey, but their actual number maybe 3.5 million, with 300,000 living in Istanbul alone, Cekic and Ayhanargue.

‘Most of us are Muslims; we also consider ourselves Roma and at the same time Turk. We generally try to preserve our cultural identity, but the majority of young people do not speak our mother tongue any more. The Roma population living in big cities integrates easier into the Turkish society and tends to discard our traditions,” stated the president. He spoke approvingly of the government integration program started in 2009 whose focus has been the education and employment of Roma.

“We don’t experience strong discrimination, but Roma people have hardly any voice in politics, because they have neither a minority status nor parliamentary representation. Few of us work in leading positions. Roma people work in self-governments only in those places where they represent a higher percentage of the population, like in Edirne,” he said.

Roma issues are seldom covered by the media, although recently, inspired by the popularity of the singer Balik Ayhan, more and more people have embraced their origin. Balik believes that he has good chances of becoming the first Roma member of the Turkish parliament.

There is no antagonism between Western and Turkish values, or between various religions, said Fatih Ceran, the assistant director of the Journalists and Writers Foundation. When we suggested that the most famous Turkish writer, the Nobel-prize winner Orhan Pamuk, often describes serious conflicts, Fatih said, ‘I think it is unjustifiable to depict such a dark and simplified picture of our society.”

‘Radical groups do exist in Turkey, but people usually live together peacefully. This is a multicultural society that accepts ethnic and religious minorities. Some had lived here long before the Turks. Most minorities have their own media; their members can launch their own businesses, and use their language. Besides, the public administration employs more and more representatives of minority groups, so the situation is improving. You won’t find a deep divide between the two Islamic branches either (i.e. the Alawite minority and the Sunni majority),” he emphasized.


How does a visitor with a different cultural background view the modern-day Turkey?

“The basic unit of Turkish society is the extremely strong and excellently functioning family unit that also has a special impact on the economy,” said Gabor Kiss, the Consul General of Hungary.

“People appreciate their family and their homeland. Just to give an example: expatriate entrepreneurs feel it is their personal duty to support their home town through investments. This mentality is the engine of Turkey’s rapid growth. Banks finance various projects; there is an abundance of raw materials and cheap workforce. We have a growing number of qualified people, as the state invests huge sums in education,” Mr Kiss said.

“As for the relation between religion and politics, there is no need to fear the growing control of Islam over state authorities,” the Consul General continued. It is a fact, though, that many people follow the codes of their religion and more and more women wear the traditional Islamic attire. But it is against the interest of important political figures to destroy the basis of the modern, secular republic built in the 1920s by Kemal Ataturk.

‘It is the government’s basic interest to separate the state from religion. I call this special Turkish model, the ‘Social Democratic Islam,’ whereby the practice of religion is promoted but the state does not encroach upon the private life. I think the coexistence of religions is ideal nowadays. For instance, the local chief rabbi invited Jews, Christians and Muslims during the month of Ramadan as guests to his synagogue in Istanbul,” Mr. Kiss added. “On the other hand, the power structure of the state is strongly centralized and this has certain effects on the quality of democracy,” he said.

We also asked two Hungarian women living in Istanbul how they managed to fit into Turkish society.

“The habits and customs vary in every family and differ from district to district. There are places of entertainment in Istanbul where women wearing chador are not welcome, while in another district women wearing shorter skirts are frowned upon. I married into a modern-thinking family and have been living here for 17 years. I am a Catholic and had no difficulty adjusting to Turkish life,” one of the women said. The other woman also told us how lucky she felt as her Turkish husband’s family immediately accepted her without demanding a religious conversion.

“I could mention several contradicting examples, too. Deeply religious families insist on the woman’s conversion to Muslim faith. I think that wearing a chador is partly a political question: the government promotes such signs of religious devotion to show the world how strong the Islamic culture in Turkey has become. More and more people express their identity through external religious symbols, but I personally have never experienced any tension just because I come from another culture.”

Attila Horváth is a reporter for the Hungarian daily Zalai Hírlap, where this article was originally published. The article was produced for the Next in Line project, which is co-funded by the European Union. The contents of this project are the sole responsibility of Transitions and Zalai Hírlap and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.” Translated by Eva Elekes. Photos by Attila Horváth.