Turkey's ethnic make-up: A complex melting pot

Turkey's ethnic make-up: A complex melting pot
2 min read
08 June, 2015
Ethnic Turks, Kurds, Georgians and Arabs are just some of the ethnic groups that live side by side in Turkey.
Kurds predominate in south-east Turkey, but are also present in large numbers across Turkey (AFP)

The question of ethnicity and demographics in Turkey has always been a sensitive one.

The modern Turkish state was founded on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on the foundation of Turkish nationalism.

The Turkish language is the only language of educational instruction in Turkey, and the 1934 Surname Law ensured that all citizens had 'Turkish' surnames.

Yet, in reality, Turkey is an ethnically mixed and diverse country, a result of its location at the crossroads of the Middle East, Europe and Central Asia, and the legacy of the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Ottoman Empire.

The Turkish state has generally avoided gathering official date on the ethnic cleavages of the country, and the last census to ask a question about the respondents language was in 1965.

In that census, 90 percent of Turkish citizens gave Turkish as their first language, 7 percent said Kurdish and 1 percent Arabic.

Today, out of a population of almost 80 million, there are estimated to be around 55 million ethnic Turks, 12.5 million Kurds, 2.5 million people of Circassian origin, 2 million Bosnians, and Albanian, Georgian and Arab origin populations of around 1 million each.

This diverse array of backgrounds points to what can perhaps be regarded as the inaccuracy of referring to an 'ethnic Turk', whose ethnic origins may have been anything from Greek to Central Asian.

The Turkish Constitution itself does not tie a 'Turk' to an ethnicity, but regards it as a label for anyone who is “bound to the Turkish state through the bond of citizenship”.

The Kurds are the one ethnic group to have resisted, to a degree, assimilation into the wider Turkish milieu.

Largely located in Turkey's mountainous south-east, and with their Kurdish brethren across the borders in Syria, Iraq and Iran, they have attempted to maintain the use of the Kurdish language, despite state restrictions, and their identity, even if some Turkish nationalists insist that they are merely 'Mountain Turks'.

Many Kurds have long complained of marginalisation by the state, and the cause of Kurdish nationalism, championed by the armed Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) has been at the root of unrest in Turkey for several decades – marked by violence from both the PKK and the Turkish state, and the repression of Kurdish activists.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's AK Party was able to garner the backing of many Kurds, especially the more religiously conservative, in its rise to power. Yet, now, with the rise of the HDP, a party with its roots in Kurdish nationalism, they have a major challenge.

With the Kurdish demographic only growing in Turkey, that challenge will only become more important.