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Majority Rule/Minority Rights: Country Studies - Turkey

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2010: 3 Political Rights, 3 Civil Liberties (Partly Free)


Following more than two millennia of control by different empires, Turkey was declared a republic in 1923 by a citizens' parliament and formally recognized by European powers that same year. Turkey's territory spans two continents, with most of its territory lying in the historical region of Anatolia in Asia. But its main city, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople), bestrides the strategic Straits of Bosporus, bridging Europe to the Near East. Although the population is mostly Muslim, Turkey is formally a secular republic and its constitution establishes a strict separation of religion and politics. Considering itself European and having a modern economy, Turkey is a member of NATO and seeks membership in the European Union (EU); however, several EU members, especially France, have objected to Turkey's application.


Primarily Seljuk Turk in ethnicity, the country has a sizable Kurdish minority (about 20 percent out of a population of 72 million), which has a distinct language. Turkish armed forces and security services fought a separatist Kurdish armed movement for 15 years. The war was suspended following the arrest of the movement's leader in 1999, but recently fighting has resumed in the traditionally Kurdish southeast of the country. Other minorities practice Orthodox Christianity, most notably the Armenian and Greek communities.

Turkey has a population and a territory larger than the EU's largest member, France. Although Turkey's economy has grown in the last decade, it still ranks lower than most European countries. In 2006, Turkey was ranked 83rd ($5,400) by GNI, or gross national income, and by PPP (purchasing power parity, which takes into account inflation and other factors) Turkey was ranked 88th ($9,060).


Anatolia's rich history reflects the broad range of civilizations that have settled, crossed, and affected it. After the fall of the Trojans on its Mediterranean coast, the Hittites, Persians, Ionians, Lydians, Greeks, and Romans (among others) inhabited or conquered this region. Anatolia was under the control of the Byzantine Empire following the establishment of Constantinople as the "Second Rome" and was the center of Orthodox Christianity.

The Rise of the Ottoman Empire

The Oguz Turks, early converts to Islam and followers of the Abbasid (Sunni) caliphate in Baghdad, migrated from Central Asia to Anatolia in the 10th and 11th centuries. The main Oguz tribes formed the Seljuk Empire, whose gazis (warrior horsemen "of the faith") and Mamluks (slave soldiers) sought perpetual conquest and treasure. After incremental gains, the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 opened up Anatolia to control by Turkish emirates, most of whom pledged allegiance to the Seljuk sultanate. The Crusades were largely organized to counter Turkish Muslim control over the Byzantine Empire and sought to reinforce European and Christian control over Constantinople. But a new Oguz dynasty arose under the leadership of Osman I, who became known in the West as Ottoman, reconquered Anatolia, and then advanced into the Balkans. The seventh Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II, seized additional Byzantium territories in Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, and Greece, and surrounded Constantinople, which fell in 1471.

Illustration of a Mamluk cavalryman in 1810

A new Ottoman Empire joined Byzantine, Seljuk, and Arab influences under a common rule. Mehmet II declared himself both the inheritor of the Byzantium kingdom and the protector of the Greek Orthodox Church, while at the same time declaring Constantinople (later Istanbul) the center of the revived sunna caliphate. The Ottoman sultan was accepted as the caliph by the Sunni world, especially when he upheld Sunni Islam against the Safavid dynasty's spread of Shia doctrine, considered heterodox by Sunni in Iran and Central Asia.

The Rise of the Turkish Republic

The Ottoman dynasty lasted six centuries (through 36 generations), exerting its influence throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and Eastern and Southeastern Europe. At its height, the Ottomans extended control over southern Hungary and threatened the Holy Roman Empire, but its westward advance was rebuffed in 1529 at the Siege of Vienna and finally defeated in the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Thereafter its control over European territory was reduced and it entered a process of slow decline. Throughout most of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Ottoman Empire was at war with various European countries. The Russian tsar Nicholas I called the Ottoman Empire the "sick man of Europe," believing it to be doomed to collapse due to periodic internal crises, stirring nationalism and conflict over its territories.

The Ottoman Empire's alliance with Germany in World War I sealed its fate. The Ottoman defeat by British and French forces gave impetus to a movement of "Young Turks," led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha, who rejected the heritage of the decrepit Ottoman Empire, including its religiosity. Instead, they sought to create a modern independent and secular Turkish nation-state oriented toward Europe and the West. Mustafa Kemal led a War of Independence between 1919 and 1923, defeating occupying Allied Greek, British, French, and Italian forces. A parliament, formed in April 1920, declared the establishment of the Turkish Republic on January 21, 1921. Independence was recognized in the Treaty of Lausanne on October 29, 1923.

The Grand National Assembly elected Mustafa Kemal president and anointed him Ataturk ("Father of the Turks"), the name by which he has come to be known. On November 21, 1922, the parliament abolished the office of sultanate, formally ending the Ottoman Empire; the caliphate was abolished in 1924.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk

The Main Law

The 1924 "Main Law," or constitution, drafted by Ataturk combined a parliamentary democracy (in which the president is elected by the parliament) with adoption of a national, social, and cultural policy of "Turkism." The constitution rejected a state religion and was avowedly secular in orientation. The military's National Council has the task of guarding against the influence of Islamism and fundamentalist religion in politics. All education and culture was likewise "Turkified," with adoption of the Latin alphabet, rejection of Arabic and Persian, and incorporation of the Turkic language, born in Central Asia, in their place. What Ataturk considered to be the symbol of Ottomanism, the fez hat, was banned and European attire, including the Panama hat, was encouraged. Politics and constitutional principles were based, ideally, on those of liberal democracy, with free speech, assembly, and association written into the constitution. And although the economy was not as dynamic as European ones, it established a foundation for trading, manufacturing, and some technology. In foreign policy, Turkey remained neutral in World War II until joining the Allied side and declaring war in February 1945. After the war, Turkey rejected neutralism and joined NATO in 1952.

What Ataturk considered to be the symbol of Ottomanism, the fez hat, was banned and European attire, including the Panama hat, was encouraged.

Turkey's Political Evolution

Turkey's political system evolved slowly, however, and its constitution included undemocratic aspects. During Ataturk's rule, there were no political parties; these emerged only after his death and the shadow of his political dominance receded. Political parties emerged with common allegiances to secularism (prohibiting religious practice at state institutions), democracy, and protecting the national Turkish culture. The military, whose powers constituted a separate branch of government trumping all others and who acted as guardians of the secular constitution, carried out coups in 1960, 1970, and 1980 in response to the rise of religious influence in government. Still, it showed some restraint by returning to democratic government each time (the military's longest rule was three years). Otherwise, politics shifted along a basic right-left spectrum, with parties and alignments frequently changing. The 1980s and to a lesser extent the 1990s saw an economic boom, building Turkey's economy to a level closer to that of Europe.

"Islamist" Party Gains Majority

In 1995, the Islamist Welfare Party gained a plurality of seats and ruled in coalition with the Democratic Party. Although it did not explicitly violate secular principles in its actions, the Welfare Party's platform formally supported creation of an Islamic state. The army, threatening a coup, pressured the Welfare Party prime minister to resign, which he did in 1997. In 1998, the Turkish parliament outlawed the Welfare Party outright and banned former prime minister Necmattin Erbakan from political participation for five years.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan

But in 2002, Justice and Development (AK), a party that grew out of the Welfare Party, won an overwhelming majority of seats in parliament (367 out of 550 seats). Turkey's high 10 percent threshold for entering parliament resulted in only one other party, the Republican People's Party, entering parliament. In practice, Justice and Development has abandoned its previous Islamist goals and replaced them with a two-plank platform: ending corruption and leading Turkey into the EU. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once jailed for fomenting religious intolerance, has been consistent in carrying out this platform. He led the parliament to adopt a flurry of reforms (including revamping the penal code, abolishing the death penalty, and instituting tax and other economic changes). As a result, the 2004 EU report recommended beginning initial negotiations for EU accession; however, these have since broken down over the issue of Cyprus.

Majority Rule, Minority Rights

The constitution grants freedom of religion but lists only three religious minorities (outside of Islam) that have legal recognition: the Greek and Armenian Orthodox Churches and Judaism. In practice, Turkey's principal minority rights issues revolve around two ethnic and national issues.

The Armenian-Turkish Issue

The first concerns the mass killings of Armenians in 1915ā€“17 as part of an armed conflict with Armenian nationalists that arose as part of World War I and the breakdown of the Ottoman Empire. The official Turkish government position, which is imposed on all institutions, is that there was no systematic extermination of Armenians and that the conflict was part of a general civil war in which all sides suffered. The number of deaths and the circumstances are debated by national historians, but this episode is considered to be a genocide by Armenians, who seek world recognition for its designation as such and Turkey's formal recognition of the crime of genocide. A number of national parliaments have adopted legislation to this effect, and in France, the parliament has made it a crime to deny the Armenian genocide, similar to laws passed outlawing denial of the Holocaust (see also "Freedom of Expression"). Turkey's rejection of the term "genocide" and of Armenian claims generally, together with Armenia's international campaign against Turkey, has perpetuated a formal rift in relations between the two neighboring countries.

Orhan Pamuk

The issue became even more current for Turkey in December 2005, when its most famous writer, Orhan Pamuk, went on trial on charges of defaming the state under Article 301 of the Anti-Terror Act. Pamuk had stated that one million Armenians had been killed in 1915ā€“16 and also asserted that 30,000 Kurds had been killed by the military during the anti-insurgency campaign of the 1980sā€“90s (see below); both claims are considered defamation. The judiciary, which is nominally independent, often succumbs to government and military pressure, leading to widespread abuses against those expressing views at variance with Turkey's constitution and national values. In this case, the government pressed the court to drop the case, which it did, in consideration of EU protests. Pamuk was later awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in large part for his depictions of multicultural Istanbul as the bridge between civilizations. But the restrictive law against defaming the state remains in force despite the EU's insistence that it be rescinded.

In January 2007, Hrant Dink, an editor of an Armenian newspaper, was assassinated by a young Turkish nationalist. The murder shocked the Turkish public, and all government officials, including the prime minister, denounced the act. Hundreds of thousands of mourners marched through the streets, sparking some hope of reconciliation between the two communities.

The denial of genocide, the government treatment of Kurds, and the use of official law to prosecute free speech about these issues are among the most important considerations regarding Turkey both for international human rights organizations and for relations with the EU.

The Kurdish Question

The second and more pressing issue is that of Turkey's treatment of its Kurdish minority. The Kurds are an ethnic minority whose origins date back more than two millennia. They live in a broad mountainous region that spans several countries, predominantly throughout Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. Kurds, mainly farmers and traders, speak a distinct language and have their own national culture. Most Turkish Kurds follow Sunni Islam, although some have adopted Shia and Sufi sects. Fourteen million ethnic Kurds live in Turkey (20 percent of Turkey's population), mostly in the southeastern part bordering Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Because of the Kurds' strong self-identity, they have been viewed with suspicion by Turkish authorities, who banned the language and large parts of Kurdish cultural expression as part of a campaign to forge one Turkish nation.

While most Kurds do not subscribe to separatism and seek mainly policies that allow autonomy for use of the Kurdish language, cultural practices, and free movement across borders, an armed insurgency aimed at creating a separate state was launched in 1984 by the Marxist-Leninist Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), supported by the Soviet Union. Thirty-five thousand people were killed and one million people were displaced in the 15-year war, during which Turkish military forces were accused of widespread abuses. The war ended with the capture of the PKK's leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999. He was sentenced to death, but the penalty was commuted to life imprisonment when the death penalty was abolished in consideration of EU policies. He encouraged his followers to end the insurgency and to relocate to northern Iraq.

The government of Prime Minister Erdogan passed legislation that ended bans on the Kurdish language and cultural expressions and that granted greater self-determination in Kurdish areas, resulting in the election of Kurdish governors and mayors. In 2006, however, a PKK splinter group, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, impatient at the pace and scope of changes, relaunched a terrorist campaign, sparking an anonymous bombing of a Kurdish bookseller and then an official Turkish military response. A law providing compensation for lost property has been stalled in its application.

Minority Rights and the EU

The denial of genocide, the government treatment of Kurds, and the use of official law to prosecute free speech about these issues are among the most important considerations regarding Turkey both for international human rights organizations and for relations with the EU. Turkey's mistreatment of the Kurds is one of the clearest cases of the denial of minority rights of an ethnic group. Until recently, government policy was to prevent expression of the language and culture of Kurds and to forcibly "Turkify" the Kurdish minority (to the point of banning names "offensive to Turks" that have Kurdish roots). In the 1980s, the former prime minister and later president Turgut Ozal attempted to recognize the Kurdish minority and language but failed to gain parliament's and the army's support. This effort succeeded more recently when the Justice and Development Party acted to grant greater autonomy to Kurdish regions. These changes were made mainly to satisfy the EU, a case in which regional or international pressure beyond the UN was needed to encourage positive change. But the EU's further demands regarding recognition of Cyprus (whose Greek majority part was granted EU membership despite rejecting a UN-brokered solution to the Cyprus standoff between Greek and Turkish parts) has caused a cessation of negotiations on accession.