What are the main characteristics of the Turks

Do you have to be afraid of the Turks?

The search for the Turkish identity

From Zafer Senocak

Turkish flag (Stock.XCHNG)

Do you have to be afraid of the Turks? Ever since the Ottoman Empire advanced into European territory in the 14th century, fear of the Turks has burned into European memory. From the 18th century the Ottoman Empire shrank and gradually lost its territories on the European continent.

The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923. Only little Thrace, about the size of Hesse, was reminiscent of Turkish Europe. The rest of the country extended to Asia Minor, with borders with the Caucasus, Iran, Syria and Iraq.

Geographically, Turkey had become an Asian country, but not culturally and politically. Because the Turkish Republic was above all a cultural revolutionary project. Its founder Mustafa Kemal Pascha gave the country an ambitious reform program. All of Turkey's Muslim, Oriental identity features have been banned from public life. So the Arabic characters that have been replaced by Latin. The state and its institutions became European. The people, however, only partially.

Many Turks were refugees who came from the former Ottoman territories in the Balkans. Above all, they shouldered the Turkish cultural revolution. European culture was no stranger to them. It is no coincidence that the founder of the state himself came from Thessaloniki. But Anatolian farmers also lived in Turkey, including many Kurds.

Kemal's ambitious reform program was a major challenge for these groups. Thousands of years old traditions should be questioned and overcome in a hurry. Modern Turkish identity could no longer be defined by membership of the Islamic religion or an ethnic group. For a long time, those who were religious were considered retrograde.

Modern Turkish literature was also committed to the reform program. Many first-generation Republican writers acted like teachers. The people had to be educated. Many emancipatory works were created. The Turkish novel in particular became an engine of modernization.

However, the educated bourgeoisie who consumed these novels was small. The bulk of the population was made up of the impoverished peasants, many of whom could neither read nor write. Turkish modernism also produced socially engaged literature. In it the worries and needs of the common people were captured and described. The first great novelist of Turkish literature, Yaşar Kemal, settled his novels in the southeastern provinces of Turkey, among farm workers, small farmers and urban residents who fled the countryside.

The eighties brought a turning point. Turkey was gripped by globalization and the extensive educational program bore its first fruits. The country's industrialization progressed rapidly. The peasants poured into the cities and formed a sub-proletariat. The Kurds, whose identity had been suppressed for a long time, became more self-confident. The Muslims, too, now produced a bourgeoisie and an intellectual elite who spoke up. The state responded with repression.

The Turkish authors have now completely abandoned educational assignments. That did their literature good. What they write is attracting growing international interest. In the past five years, more Turkish books have been translated into other languages ​​than in the previous fifty years. This new Turkish literature conveys the image of a fragmented country struggling for a new identity. Often this search is ironically broken because there is no longer a uniform draft identity. Rather, there are exciting contrasts and new combinations. A symbol of this is the emancipated woman with a headscarf, but also the popularity that postmodern theories enjoy among young Muslims.

Turkey no longer has a uniform state philosophy. It is on the way to becoming a normal country. But what is normal today? Are there still binding criteria for a civilization project? The fact that Turkey continues to orientate itself towards European democracies and not strive for a Chinese or Russian state model is supported by the vast majority of the Turkish population. Also from those who have remained loyal to the Muslim religion.

But a philosophical renewal of the Muslim religion is still pending. It would be the indispensable basis for the democratization of Turkish society. Its importance would be similar to that of Jewish emancipation in the 19th century. Trace elements of such a philosophical renewal can already be found in the much acclaimed works of Turkish authors such as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafak. Mystical traditions are discovered archaeologically. The heterogeneous Turkish society is described in great detail, without any ideological blinkers. Modern Turkish literature brings Turkey closer to Europe.


Zafer Senocak, Born in Ankara in 1961, in Germany since 1970, grew up in Istanbul and Munich. He studied German, politics and philosophy in Munich. Since 1979 he has published poems, essays and prose in German. He lives as a freelance writer in Berlin, writes regularly for "die tageszeitung" and other newspapers (including "Berliner Zeitung", "Die Welt"). Works by Zafer Senocak have so far been translated into Turkish, Greek, French, English (and American), Hebrew and Dutch. He received several scholarships and in 1998 the Adalbert von Chamisso Award. The multilingual magazine "Sirene" was co-edited by him until 2000. Publications i.a. "Fernwehanstalten" 1994. Nâzım Hikmet: "On the ship to Mars". Together with Berkan Karpat, 1998. "Electrics dancers. Scenic poem." Together with Berkan Karpat, 1999. The tetralogy "The man in the undershirt". Prose. Berlin (Babel) 1995. "The Prairie". Hamburg (Rotbuch) 1997. "Dangerous Relationships". Novel. Munich (Babel) 1998. "The Erottomane". A finding aid. Munich (Babel) 1999. "Atlas of tropical Germany". Essays. Berlin (Babel) 1992, 1993 "Was Hitler Arab? Misdirected to the edge of Europe". Essays. Berlin (Babel) 1994. "Tongue removal. Report from the quarantine station". Munich (Babel) 2001, "The land behind the letters. Germany and Islam in transition" Berlin (Babel) 2006.