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Chapter 2. The Society and Its Environment

THE OFFICIAL IMAGE OF TURKISH society promoted by the ruling elite since the 1920s is one of relative homogeneity. This image has been enshrined in successive constitutions of the republic, including the 1982 document, in which it is stated that "the Turkish state, with its territory and nation, is an indivisible entity. Its language is Turkish." In reality, however, Turkish society is a mosaic of diverse and at times contending ethnic and linguistic groups. The question, "Who is a Turk?," continued to provoke controversy in the mid-1990s.

Sociologists and other scholars, both Turkish and foreign, have noted that a majority of the population--estimated at the end of 1994 at 61.2 million--accepts as true Turks only those individuals whose native tongue is Turkish and who adhere to Sunni (see Glossary) Islam. This definition excludes a sizable minority of Turkish citizens from consideration as true Turks. The largest group within this minority is the Kurds, the overwhelming majority of whom speak Kurdish, an Indo-European language related to Persian, as their native tongue. In 1994 estimates of the size of the Kurdish minority in Turkey ranged from 10 to 20 percent of the country's total population. Since 1990 demands by Kurdish political leaders that the Kurdish minority be permitted to read, write, and speak Kurdish have created a major political issue in Turkey (see Political Interest Groups, ch. 4).

Although most adult Kurds are Sunni Muslims, perhaps as much as one-third of the total Kurdish population in Turkey belongs to a Shia Muslim sect known as Alevi (see Glossary). In addition to the Kurdish Alevi, many of the nation's estimated 700,000 to 1 million Arabs are Alevi. The Alevi Arabs--most of whom live in or near Hatay Province--also are known as Nusayri and maintain discreet ties with the Alawi (also seen as Alawites) of neighboring Syria. A significant number of Alevi are ethnic Turks.

The continued presence of linguistic and religious minorities conflicts with the elite's conception of a modern society that is Turkish-speaking and secular. This notion was an integral part of the social revolution begun after World War I by Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk). Linguistic reform was essential to Atatürk's vision of the new Turkey, and the reconstituted Turkish language has been both a central symbol and a powerful mechanism for the establishment of a new national identity. Atatürk institutionalized the secularization of the country through measures that included abolishing the caliphate, disestablishing Islam as the state religion, suppressing the unorthodox but highly influential dervish--or mystical--orders, closing the religious courts, and ending locally based religious education (see Atatürk's Reforms, ch. 1; Secularist Reforms, this ch.). Under Atatürk's leadership, the ideologically secularist and modernist urban elite ended state support and patronage of Islamic institutions and attempted to make religion a matter solely of private conscience.

The result of Atatürk's reforms was the creation of two cultures: a secularized and Westernized elite culture and a mass culture based on traditional religious values. Prior to 1950, the elite's attitude toward traditional culture tended to be contemptuous in general and specifically hostile toward religious expression. Since 1950, however, the elite generally has become more tolerant of religion, or at least of orthodox Sunni Islam, and various political parties have attempted to conciliate religious interests, albeit within the framework of Atatürk's institutional secularism. Nevertheless, in the mid-1990s the single most significant distinction in Turkish society remained the gap separating the secular elite from traditional culture.

Since the early nineteenth century, Western-oriented secular education has been a major factor distinguishing the elite and traditional cultures. By 1908 a substantial portion of the governing stratum, particularly the military officers and higher-ranking members of the bureaucracy, had received a secular education in their youth. Their values, knowledge, and viewpoints separated them sharply from the illiterate, religiously observant, and socially traditional masses. The cultural difference between the educated and the uneducated, the urban and the rural, the modernist and the traditionalist, has continued to affect Turkish society in multiple, intertwined ways. The views of Atatürk, who articulated the values of the secular elite in the 1920s and 1930s, remain central in Turkey more than fifty years after his death. Atatürk identified "civilization" with the culture of Europe, contrasting it with what he said was the backwardness, ignorance, and obscurantism of the common people of Turkey. He actively promoted a "modern" Turkey that embraced the civilization of Europe as its inspiration and model. Since Atatürk's time, mediation between Turkey's two cultures has been and remains politically problematic. The emergence in the late 1980s and early 1990s of a relatively popular political party appealing to what it defined as Islamic values has tended to increase the polarization of the elite and nonelite cultures. In the mid-1990s, the Turkish government was attempting to reconcile this heretofore divisive trend.

In the early republican period of the 1920s and 1930s, civil and military officials occupied the unchallenged pinnacle of the social structure. Since that time, however, competing elements, especially businesspeople, industrialists, professionals, and employees of private organizations, have challenged the supremacy of the officials. As a result, the social complexion of the political elite has been in transition since the early 1980s, not just in Ankara and Istanbul but in other cities as well. In rural areas, however, and for the vast majority of the population, traditional forms and values, such as the centrality of family life and adherence to an ethical blueprint of behavior perceived in religious terms, have survived, although in altered form. Consequently, the balance between traditional and "modern" values remains uneasy.


Turkey is a large, roughly rectangular peninsula situated bridge-like between southeastern Europe and Asia. Indeed, the country has functioned as a bridge for human movement throughout history. Turkey extends more than 1,600 kilometers from west to east but generally less than 800 kilometers from north to south. Total land area is about 779,452 square kilometers, of which 755,688 square kilometers are in Asia and 23,764 square kilometers in Europe.

The European portion of Turkey, known as Thrace (Trakya), encompasses 3 percent of the total area but is home to more than 10 percent of the total population. Thrace is separated from the Asian portion of Turkey by the Bosporus Strait (Istanbul Bogazi or Karadeniz Bogazi), the Sea of Marmara (Marmara Denizi), and the Dardanelles Strait (Çanakkale Bogazi). The Asian part of the country is known by a variety of names--Asia Minor, Asiatic Turkey, the Anatolian Plateau, and Anatolia (Anadolu). The term Anatolia is most frequently used in specific reference to the large, semiarid central plateau, which is rimmed by hills and mountains that in many places limit access to the fertile, densely settled coastal regions. Astride the straits separating the two continents, Istanbul is the country's primary industrial, commercial, and intellectual center. However, the Anatolian city of Ankara, which Atatürk and his associates picked as the capital of the new republic, is the political center of the country and has emerged as an important industrial and cultural center in its own right (see fig. 1).

Data as of January 1995

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