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The identity of Turkish youth

Like their peers in other states, Turkish youth are said to face many challenges while trying to define themselves. Many members of the younger generation still think that one’s character is defined by two elements: nationality and religion. Thus, those who hold such a belief tend to say that a sense of nationality is an inherent characteristic of the Turkish society. This conviction, however, does not imply racism. It rather assumes that Turkish identity has been shaped by historical experiences and cultural nationalism. The Turkish attitude towards religion is also rather unique, especially when compared to others in the Muslim world, which confirms the thesis that despite being a Muslim society by a great majority, Turks are proud of being tolerant towards other beliefs and religions. They remember that two centuries ago Sultan II Mahmut said “I want to see my Muslim citizens in mosques, my Christian citizens in churches and my Jewish citizens in synagogues”, and follow the Prophet Muhammad’s words that neither Persians nor Arabs are superior.

September 13, 2016 - Kinga Gajda - Articles and Commentary

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Photo: Alan Hilditch (CC) www.flickr.com

The difficulties and challenges that arise in regards to today’s process of identity formation among Turkish youth have been explained to me by a group of teachers from the northern Turkish city of Çankırı. This text is a brief summary of that discussion.

Overall, the Turkish youth see themselves as European. This perception has been present in Turkey for at least the last two centuries. At the same time, however, they are fully aware of the special responsibility that falls on their shoulders as a result of their location between Europe and the East. This conviction is best explained by the metaphor of a bridge – a bridge that transfers historical richness, experience and depth (from the East to the West) while at the same time bringing knowledge and technological development (from the West to the East).

It was explained to me that the education process in Turkey is framed in wider (universal) concepts. When I asked my interlocutors what this means, they clarified: “While educating students, we direct them into thinking that humanity comes first”; that is, before nationality and religion. Thus, the efforts of educators are aimed at bringing up global citizens, future adults whose thinking will cross traditional borders. The Turkish teachers with whom I spoke are convinced that the only way to prevent wars in today’s world is to eliminate marginalisation and stigmatisation. They seem aware that they will not solve any problems in their country if they push Muslim and Turkish identity issues to the forefront.

“It would be a mistake to see Turkey only through the perspective of a Muslim identity,” one teacher told me.  “We don’t want radical or terrorist organisations to affect our children with their fascist ideas.” He was convinced that the sectarian war that has been taking place in the Middle East, which is very much felt in Turkey, is a huge step backwards. In contrast, he associated Europe with hope: “It was the European Union projects that brought us closer to Europeans. Thanks to those projects, we have realised that people who live in different European states are not much different from us. However, there is a certain fear that the events taking place in Europe are changing the European perspective on Muslims. Unfortunately, as educators, we feel these handicaps and thus cannot see ourselves as equal to our European colleagues.”

Unquestionably, the intermingling of the European and Muslim-Turkish traditions has influenced the process of identity-building among the Turkish youth. Modernisation and the popularity of the western lifestyle appear to be assigning a new role to young people, and this generation aims to achieve higher social goals in the coming decades. As a matter of fact, from the EU side, young people are seen as a priority for its social strategies, and the future of the community is believed to be dependent on it. Thus, the EU Youth Strategy notes that appropriate conditions need to be created for young people, who should be offered adequate opportunities to develop their skills, fulfil their potential, work and become active participants in society. Consequently, the young should become more involved in building the EU. The same priorities seem to be present in Turkish society, which – with an average age of 29 and half of the population below the age of 25 – is in fact a young society.

The Turkish youth, similar to their peers elsewhere, live in a world dominated by technological progress. They have access to the internet and are accustomed to values such as freedom and individualism. These factors explain why the identity of Turkish youth is often defined as being dual, bicultural and multiple. This concept is indeed difficult to capture analytically, mainly because of the divisions that are present within the country where the West and South are seen as European, the middle as trying to be European and the East as being oriental. Given these factors it is believed that the process of identity-formation is still in the making.

Researchers focusing on the issue of identity among societies in the Muslim world often refer to the issue of multiple identities that go beyond the traditional socio-political divisions present in the West. Selçuk Şirin, an assistant professor in applied psychology at New York University, concluded in his research on the political and social identity of Turkish youth concluded that “young people in Turkey are not buying into this split idea of left vs. right or Islamists vs. secularists. Young people in Turkey have multiple identities. They combine patterns of political identity like religious identification, the degree to which one feels part of the Turkish nation and the feeling of belonging to what we call the ‘secular movement’ or ‘Atatürkism.’”

Turkish researcher Leyla Neyzi has also written about a Turkish-Islamic identity synthesis. This may show that there is a convergent, transcultural identity, both European and Muslim. The latter, analysed by Wolfgang Welsch, is a response to what can be observed among the Turks and which includes both a cosmopolitan lifestyle and a local attachment. This type of identity highlights an individual right to freely construct or create one’s own identity, which is not a simple belonging to a national, ethnic or local culture, but constitutes an atypical mix of them all; self-formed and self-assessed. It is an identity formed during a journey across various cultures and through the overlap of different influences to which an individual is subject. A person is formed by various cultures, religions and traditions. As Welsch explained: “The networks of transcultural identity are like a cocoon milled partly from the same and partly from different threads, which nevertheless are not identical in terms of colour and pattern.” According to Welsch, there is a constant confrontation between self and reality.

One of the teachers from Çankırı described the Turkish society as cosmopolitan, based on a wide range of values and models with which the young people identify. This identity is constantly being negotiated. It consists of, on the one hand, national culture, religion and tradition and a foreign, outside culture and religion on the other.

Moreover, the results of a survey conducted by Sabri Ciftici show that Turkish young people see their identity as being influenced by a combination of religious and ethnic factors (81 per cent) and define themselves as global citizens (35 per cent) or both European and Middle Eastern citizens (33 per cent). Thus, they more often relate to the idea of globalisation and interpenetration of cultures than to features that are associated with the “Middle East” (21 per cent) or “Europe” (12 per cent), or “East” in general. Interpreting this data, the teachers from Çankırı noted the youth in Turkey experiences challenges in knowing who they are and who they want to be.

The new generation, according the teachers I spoke to, see themselves as both Turkish and Muslim. Despite this conviction it also shows a lack of true understanding of both terms. In my interlocutors’ opinion, youths know very little about Turkish customs, rituals and traditions. A duality or multiplicity of identities that can be seen among the youth, coupled with the lack of understanding of the past, has led to many dilemmas that they continue to face. Sociologist Ayşe Saktanber writes that this cultural dilemma “stems from the tension between the imperatives of communal identity and the urge felt for reflexive self-expression”. She continues by noting that “to be both young and Muslim has never been an easy condition in the Turkish context … because of Turkey’s highly secularised background. This situation has started to change. It seems particularly so for the Muslim youth who started to be exposed to a similar kind of social and political pressures as those all over the world, particularly after September 11th 2001, despite the differences they carry in their cultural baggage. The subjective identities that have been pieced together from various sources of communal ties, ideals and worldviews will overlap with the subjectivities of the Muslim youth on the global level, compared with the ones who, despite living in the same society, may have a completely different experience as a young Muslim.” 

Hence, the process of identity formation among the Turkish youth continues to be influenced by cultural dilemmas and paradoxes. The educators emphasise that it is characterised by a new narrative of empowerment, while at the same time, the stereotypes that are still present among European societies and paint Turks as conservative Muslims, or even terrorists, continue to have an effect. To counteract these images, many younger Turks are trying to build an identity by emphasising their European and secular values. 

Kinga Gajda is an assistant professor at the Institute of European Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. She holds a PhD in literature.

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