Linguistic and Ethnic Groups

Turkey Table of Contents

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, 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.

Peoples from the Caucasus

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress