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Linguistic and Ethnic Groups

Since the founding of the Republic of Turkey, the government has sought to diminish the significance of ethnic, linguistic, and religious distinctions. For instance, the 1965 census was the last one to list linguistic minorities. The country's largest minority, the Kurds, has posed the most serious and most persistent challenge to the official image of a homogeneous society. During the 1930s and 1940s, the government had disguised the presence of the Kurds statistically by categorizing them as "Mountain Turks." With official encouragement, some scholars even suggested that Kurdish, an Indo-European language closely related to Persian, was a dialect of Turkish. By the 1980s, the Mountain Turks' label had been dropped in favor of a new euphemism for Kurds: "Eastern Turks" (dogulu ). Officials of the SIS were prosecuted after preparing guidelines for the 1985 census that instructed enumerators to list Kurdish, when appropriate, as a language spoken in addition to Turkish. The same official and popular confusion exists in the application of the term Laz , which sometimes is used erroneously to refer to the inhabitants of the eastern end of Turkey's Black Sea coastal region. In actuality, the Laz constitute a small ethnic group (26,007 according to the 1965 census), speaking Lazi, a Caucasian language that is neither Indo-European nor Altaic.

The 1982 constitution includes a seemingly contradictory policy on the use of non-Turkish languages. Whereas one article prohibits discrimination on the basis of language, other articles ban the public use of languages "prohibited by law." Although legislation forbidding the use of specific languages has never been enacted, many Kurdish citizens were arrested prior to 1991 on charges relating to the public use of Kurdish. Although speaking or reading Kurdish no longer is cause for arrest, at an official level there remains an entrenched bias against the use of Kurdish. At the end of 1994, for example, imprisoned Kurds still were required to communicate with their lawyers and visiting family members in Turkish, even if they did not speak or understand that language.

In a holdover from the Ottoman system of millets (see Glossary), Turks traditionally have tended to consider all Sunni Muslims as Turks and to regard non-Sunni speakers of Turkish as non-Turks. The revival of popular interest in religion since the early 1980s has reinvigorated popular prejudices against religious minorities, especially the adherents of the Shia Muslim sect, the Alevi, most of whom are ethnic Kurds or Arabs. Also, since 1984 the extensive migration of Kurds from the predominantly Kurdish and rural provinces of the southeast to the cities of western Turkey has resulted at the popular level in the emergence of a relatively strong, urban-based Kurdish ethnic consciousness and popular resentment of the Kurds' presence among ethnic Turks.


People identified as ethnic Turks comprise 80 to 88 percent of Turkey's population. The Turks include a number of regional groups who differ from one another in dialect, dress, customs, and outlook. In most cases, these differences reflect variations in historical and environmental circumstances. In general, regional differences are beginning to decrease while differences arising from urbanization and social class stratification are assuming greater importance. The three most important Turkish groups are the Anatolian Turks, the Rumelian Turks (primarily immigrants from former Ottoman territories in the Balkans and their descendants), and the Central Asian Turks (Turkic-speaking immigrants from the Caucasus region, southern Russia, and Central Asia and their descendants).

The Anatolian Turks historically lived on the central Anatolian Plateau in isolated villages and small towns. Following the implementation of the Ottoman Land Code in the late 1860s, rural Anatolian Turks were likely to own their own land, cultivating wheat and other cereal grains in addition to herding sheep and goats. During the early republican period, the Anatolian Turks' reputation for physical toughness and obstinate patience was applied to all Turks, and the Anatolians' culture, albeit as interpreted by the urban elite, became part of the foundation of Turkish nationalism. The Turks who lived in the coastal stretches along the Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean seas also were considered Anatolian Turks, although the more diverse and agreeable climate of the coastal areas encouraged the evolution of cultural patterns different from those predominating on the interior plateau. However, extensive industrialization, urbanization, and village-to-city migration since 1960 have tended to minimize regional differences, creating instead new class and occupational distinctions. Despite the social and economic changes, transhumance has remained an efficient means of raising livestock on the Anatolian Plateau, and as many as 1 million Turks were seminomadic herders of sheep and goats in the early 1990s. Included in this population were an estimated 600,000 Yürüks, Turks of Asiatic origin, whom the government has not officially recognized as a separate group.

The Rumelian Turks are descended from Turks who settled in the Balkans when, from the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, that region of southern Europe was part of the Ottoman Empire. They were stranded when imperial territories began acquiring national independence in the nineteenth century (see Migration, this ch.). Most of the Rumelian Turks resettled in Turkey between 1878 and 1924. In rural areas, Rumelian Turks tended to become farmers or artisans in the coastal villages evacuated by Greeks during the 1920s population exchanges. Rumelian Turks also settled in urban centers, especially Edirne, Tekirdag, Kirklareli, Nigde, Bilecik, and Bursa.

The Central Asian Turks include Crimean Tartars and Turkomans. They live in scattered communities in various parts of the country; for example, there are several Crimean Tartar villages in the vicinity of Eskisehir. In 1945 an estimated 10,000 people spoke Tartar as their first language; since then several thousand additional Crimean Tartars have resettled in Turkey. The Turkomans, who speak a Turkic dialect distinct from Anatolian Turkish, have lived in eastern Turkey for several centuries. Historically, Turkomans were organized by tribe; tribal affiliations still retained importance for some Turkomans in 1995. Since the establishment of the republic, no reliable estimate of the number of Turkomans has been published. Traditionally, Turkomans have been Shia Muslims; scholars believe that most still adhere to Shia Islam.

Data as of January 1995

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