ISTANBUL — Earlier this year, Turkey opened its closely guarded population register, a monumental archive of lineages going back to Ottoman times. A website that gives access to all public services in Turkey now includes a genealogy tab. Users can download ancestry documents, with records going as far back as 1882.
Since the appearance of the new service, roots, migration, purity and hybridity have dominated the conversation in WhatsApp groups, offices and tea shops. In just two days, over 5 million Turks went looking for their heritage on the register. Interest was so intense that for a few hours the website collapsed. The government was forced to stop the service for several days.
For a century, the Turkish state imposed a rigid national identity on its citizens, one that excluded ethnicity and underscored “pure” Turkishness. The government’s opening of its records has mesmerized people. As Turks absorb the news of their own ethnic diversity, the century-old idea of racial purity, manufactured and imposed by the state, has begun to crumble.
Some Turks, especially those whose families have lived in the same towns for generations, have found reaffirmation in the proof of their own deep roots. Others are frustrated. One Turkish nationalist learned that his great-grandmother was of Kurdish origin. A writer friend was surprised to discover her great-grandfather’s name was Isaac. One of my neighbors found out she had European roots and decided to apply for dual citizenship.
For a long time, ethnic identity was considered a matter of national security in Turkey. Most Ottoman Armenians lost their lives in forced deportations in 1915, while others converted to Islam to survive. Conversions were kept secret within families; many grandchildren of Christian converts learned of their ancestry as adults. Many Turks discovered they had Armenian family ties just recently.
The genealogy data is offered only for private use, and it reveals how meticulously the Turkish state has been keeping track of its citizens over the past two centuries. “It turns out my maternal ancestry is from Yerevan,” a user wrote on the website Eksi Sozluk, where thousands of comments have appeared on the issue. “My paternal ancestry meanwhile is Georgian. I am in shock.”
Turkish leftists were disturbed by the interest in genealogy, fearing it could lead to tribalism, even civil war. But the editor of the Armenian weekly Agos welcomed it. He interviewed an anthropology professor who called the move “revolutionary,” and “a serious sign of normalization” in debunking the imaginary ethnic purity of Turkish nationalism. Indeed, a 2012 study in the journal Annals of Human Genetics found that Turkey’s paternal ancestry was 38 percent European, 35 percent Middle Eastern, 18 percent South Asian and 9 percent Central Asian.
Ottomans dealt with the complexities of ethnicity through what they called the millet system. For centuries, different rules applied to Muslims, Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Jews. Religious communities could do business freely, and run their own schools, newspapers and hospitals so long as they paid taxes to the sultan. But in the 1830s, modernizers of the Ottoman Empire introduced a westernized concept of citizenship and did away with the millet system. A group of Muslim intellectuals, known as the Young Ottomans, fiercely opposed the reforms.
In the 1870s, the group introduced the concept of Ottomanism, promoting a single imperial citizenship that combined Islamic law with principles inspired by European constitutionalism. They propounded the idea of Muslim nationalism: Sunni Islam would be the sovereign identity, while granting freedoms to other religions. If the Sunni character of the state was lost, the Young Ottomans felt, the empire might disintegrate. Ottomanism was their formula to keep it intact.
As the pace of modernization increased in the early twentieth century, the problem of genealogical complexity snowballed: Secular and westernizing Young Turks and founders of the Turkish republic tweaked Muslim nationalism into a citizenship based on the French idea of laïcité, the separation of religious influence from government.
They tried to solve the problem of ethnic complexity, sometimes through force: A population exchange in 1923 resulted in the denaturalization of more than 1.2 million Greeks in Turkey and more than 300,000 Turks in Greece. The tiny number of Greeks and Armenians who continued to live in Turkey were told to forget their roots.
Over the 1940s, following the death of Atatürk, racist clubs in Turkey tweaked this nationalism further and forged a “pure Turkish” national identity. Turks, in their view, came from the plains of Central Asia, Kurds were “mountain Turks” and any other ethnic influences were considered deviant and dangerous. Both leftists and Islamists repudiated this combination of a mono-ethnic nation state and modernity, and the Kemalist state punished both groups. The Marxist poet Nazım Hikmet was sentenced to 28 years in prison; the Islamist thinker and poet Mehmet Akif Ersoy spent a decade in exile in Egypt for questioning Turkish nationalism.
Many nationalists have viewed Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s composite of conservatism and neoliberalism as a threat to Turkish national identity since his Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., came to power in 2002. But Mr. Erdogan’s government was praised by others for allowing historians to openly discuss the history of Ottoman Armenians and for lifting restrictions on Kurdish culture.
Under Mr. Erdogan, national identity based on “pure Turkishness” has been gradually replaced by the Muslim nationalism of the Young Ottomans. Leaders of the A.K.P. believe that erasing religion and ethnicity from Turkey’s national identity would repeat the mistakes of the Ottoman modernizers in the 1830s.
By throwing open the population register, the Turkish government — unwittingly — might have changed our ideas of Turkish nationhood and ended the myth of racial purity for good.
Published in: The New York Times International Edition 02 April 2019