London Metropolitan University: 15 June 2011 Changing constructions of identities among Turkish young people Alistair Ross

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London Metropolitan University: 15 June 2011
Changing constructions of identities among Turkish young people
Alistair Ross

Emeritus Professor, Institute for Policy Studies in Education, London Metropolitan University

Jean Monnet ad personam Professor of Citizenship Education in Europe
Aim at 7000

This is the second in a series of lectures about young Europeans and their identities, about how they conceptualise themselves in the changing political circumstances of Europe, and about how they see themselves as different to earlier generations. The study covers a string of countries from Estonia in the north, through east and central Europe, the Balkans, to Turkey and Cyprus in the south.

These countries have changed over the past twenty or so years, some from being behind the Iron Curtain to being part of the European Union, others emerging from military or semi-military rule, and all of them have either joined the Union in the past seven years, or are in current negotiations to join. In their lifetime the eastern border of the European Union has shifted by nearly 1000 kilometres. These countries have a new set of relationships, both with western Europe and with the countries to the east.

Turkish young people today are in the first generation to be born and socialised in the new politics of Turkey, and to have seen the beginning of the accession negotiations. How different are they from their parents, who grew up in the periods of military government after 1980? Or from their grandparents, many of whom can remember the political conflicts of the 1950s and 1960s?

Civic identity and citizenship have been traditionally associated with a defined, limited and exclusive area or territory. Over the past sixty years, this has become partially eroded, through processes such as globalisation, large scale migration – for example, of Turks to western Europe - and the development of dual citizenship. The development of the European Union has contributed another layer of complexity. Citizens of these countries are now also citizens of the European Union, and this give them rights and privileges superior those given by their country. The expansion of the Union has been a consistent feature of the past half century: becoming a member has been conditional on meeting the wide range of policies that have developed over the Union’s history, codified in 1993 in the Copenhagen Criteria, summarised under three headings:

  • Stable institutional structures that protect democratic practices, the rule of law, human rights and the protection of minorities;

  • A market economy strong enough to meet the pressures of the common market in trade and employment, and the competition this brings; and

  • An acceptance of the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

My study covers 16 countries – the candidate countries to join the Union, and countries that have joined in the past six years. I’m talk with groups of young people in each country, in different locations – so far I’ve talked with upward of 550 young people, in some 80 different groups, in just ten of these countries. Today I focus on Turkey, and the constructions of identity made by a number of Turkish young people.

A brief word to contextualise Turkey and its past relations with Europe, and an attempt not to give a potted history.

The Ottoman empire was established in the MMMM centuries, as the Turks expanded from their Anatolian base over the near east, north Africa and eastern Europe. Ottoman rule consisted of Turkish suzerainty over disparate ethnicities and religions, in which different communities were, to a limited extent, able to exercise their domestic administration and affairs. The development of the nation state in western Europe offered the idea of unitary government, and gave the communities under Ottoman rule the idea of national self-determination.

The European powers responded militarily to the Ottoman presence in central Europe, pushing the Sultan’s forces back from the gates of Vienna, and incorporating the territory thus taken. By the nineteenth century, local national uprisings sought to establish new and independent nations. The Ottoman presence over much of east and central Europe crumbled, and Turkey became characterised as ‘the sick man of Europe’. It entered the First World War on the side of the Central European Powers, and, though it successfully fought off the Allied attempted invasion at Gallipoli, was one of the losers.

The Treaty of Lausanne in 192MMM cut its territory back to Anatolia and a section of continental Europe, precipitating the Kemalist revolution of MMMM. Mustafa Kemal abolished the Sultanate, establishing Turkey as a secular state, reforming every aspect of society into a westernised form – from the alphabet to dress. He was renamed Ataturk, the Father of the Turks, and, though he died in 1937, his portrait today still dominates every public building. The army and the judiciary were specifically empowered to ensure that the country remained a secular republic, and it is only in the past twenty years that the hegemony of the military officers and the judges, underpinned by covert political groups and alliances – such as the Grey Wolves mmmmmm – has now been eradicated by the elected government. The Republicanism of Ataturk has now acquired an Islamic element: not the Islamicisation of popular stereotype, but rather as the Christian Democrats are a party in Germany.

The Turkish state of 1923 was not homogeneous. Most of the population was Sunni Muslim, but there was a substantial Alevi minority – a rather unorthodox Shia grouping, whom I will describe in more detail later, and a large Kurdish population. Kurds, an ethnic group with their own language, form about twenty percent of the population of Turkey. Originally predominant in the south-east, since the 1960s there has been migration, particularly to the Istanbul area. In the 1930s Turkish government policy was to forcibly assimilate Kurds and make them Turkish. Resistance to this has continued ever since: since the 1980s there have been both peaceful political campaigns for civil rights and violent armed rebellion for a separate Kurdish state. The Alevis also suffered discrimination from the 1970s to 1990s. In 1993 an Alevi festival in Sivas was attacked by Sunni fundamentalists: 37 Alevis died in a fire started by the attackers. Turkish governments since the late 1990s have been progressively more sympathetic to minorities in the country, though by no means to the satisfaction of all of them. The current Prime Minister MMM has developed a policy sometimes described as the new Ottomanism – combing a degree of social and cultural autonomy for minorities, and a intermediating role in middle eastern political conflicts, such as in Palestine and Libya.

Turkey became an Associate member of the European Economic Community in 1963, became a formal candidate country in 1999, and negotiations opened in 2005. Turkey has to adopt the Acquis Communautaire (the consolidated European law), and has about a third of this still requiring a great deal of further work. The negotiations have stalled because of the position of the French government: there is some opposition to Turkish membership, from both the populations of many f EU countries (only about 30% of the EU population as a whole are in favour of Turkish membership (Eurostat, 2011)) and from some European governments (notably Austria and France). Should it join the EU, Turkey will become the second largest member, with a population of about 77 million in 2010, and have the sixth largest economy in the Union. The GDP per capita is $10,206 (IMF, 2010), higher only than Romania and Bulgaria.

Young people’s identities and the European dimension

Identities are increasingly recognised as being both multiple and constructed contingently. They may include a range of intersecting dimensions, including gender, age and region. In the Accession States, Europe offers only a potential alternative identity: in Turkey there were already a few young Turks who volunteered that they ‘felt European’.

In my previous lecture, I drew on the work of Bruter and Jamieson and Grundy to frame an analysis of what European identity might mean, and how it might compare with a sense of national identity. Michael Bruter (2005), contrasted the ‘civic’ (identification with ‘the set of institutions, rights and rules that preside over the political life of the community’) and the ‘cultural’ (identification with a certain culture, social similarities, values’ (p 12)). Jamieson and Grundy describes some young people as ‘passionate utopian Europeans’ and others seeing Europe as ‘emotionally insignificant and devoid of imagined community’(Grundy and Jamieson 2007: 663).

Do young people in Turkey identify with the cultural and civic aspects of Turkey, and how does this relate to their potential identification with Europe? Are they passionate or indifferent about Turkey and/or Europe? Do they acknowledge a multiplicity of identities, or insist that their identity is singular and immovable? Does this sense of identity require the construction of ‘the Other’, a contrasting alien identity to be juxtaposed to their own identity?

Issues of methodology

The focus is on how these young peoples’ ideas are socially constructed. Social constructions are created through social interaction, in a social context, so my methodology has been to conduct focus groups with small groups of five to six pupils, all about the same age. A few open-ended questions encourage discussion and interaction with each other, rather than with the researcher. For example, participants were never asked directly ‘What does being Turkish mean to you?’ until and unless they had already volunteered that they ‘were Turkish’. They use ideas and vocabulary of their own choosing, rather than responding to the interviewer. The researcher is non-directive – elucidating, guiding, but not focusing or constraining.

The discussion points I put were broad, and the result of extensive discussions and trials.

  • How would you describe your identity? Do you ever describe yourselves in other ways?

  • Do you think your parents feel the same way about this as you?

  • Do you think everyone in Turkey feels the same way?

  • Is the way you think about your identity and your future influenced by the possibility of becoming European?

  • What is particular or different about Europeans?

I made two visits to Turkey in February and November 2010. I visited four very different locations, and conducted 16 focus groups with 85 young people from 15 different educational institutions. These included state schools, including primary schools, lisesi, high schools and industrial secondary schools, private schools and some cooperative ‘second chance’ schools. The locations were

  • Istanbul, a cosmopolitan metropolis of about 13 million, the largest city in Europe,

  • a town of under 100,000 people on the Aegean coast, site of major military campaigns in the past,

  • a provincial capital of about 700,000 in western Anatolia, with significant industries, and

  • a provincial capital of about 150,000 in central Anatolia, an agricultural commercial centre.


number of schools

number of groups

number of pupils





Aegean town




West Anatolian city




Central Anatolian city




In each place I worked with at least two schools with different social mixes, with groups of about six 12-13 year olds and of six 15 to 18 year olds. Permission was sought from the young people and, for those under 16, from their parents. All names have been made anonymous. I was not attempting a representative sample, but to identify the diversity of views expressed. In some instances, circumstances meant that I was limited in a particular location to a particular group of educational institutions (specifically, in Istanbul I met students of working class and minority backgrounds in their late teens, attending ‘second chance’ educational cooperative institutions): but overall I talked with students representing a very wide range of social backgrounds.

The focus groups were conducted in Turkish, with the help of Turkish-speaking colleagues, who also helped explain the various contextual elements in what was said. The project would not have been possible without help and assistance from this large number of people, to whom I am indebted.

There was a very wide range of views expressed about ‘being Turkish’. In Istanbul, I talked primarily with working-class young people, from Kurdish, Alevi and mainstream Turkish backgrounds. Their constructions focussed on their ethnic, classed and gendered identities, many stressing alienation from Turkish mainstream institutions. In the small Aegean town, dominated by memorials to past military sacrifices, I found some strongly patriotic narratives of sacrifice and pride. The students of the west Anatolian city generally presented cosmopolitan and modernistic accounts, from both middle and working class backgrounds. In the central Anatolian city, I found a wide mixture of views, ranging from strongly expressed pride in Islam to various senses of Turkishness (some welcoming its diverseness, others criticising its environmental record, some recognising changes in human rights, others critical of cultural conservatism). Across all four locations there was a similar diversity of views on Europeanness and the European Union, from open hostility to embracing the prospects of EU membership. In this sense, the range of young peoples’ views I encountered matched the range of adults’ views on Europe captured in the Eurobarometer surveys cited earlier.

Cultural tensions and orientations: on being Turkish, and on not being Turkish

Many of the young people I spoke with said at some point that they were Turkish. Some volunteered this immediately, while others added it after descriptions of their personal characteristics, activities and preferences. There were many explanations of what being Turkish’ meant. Some technical college students – working class young men - emphasised their sense of duty and pride in their heritage:

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