North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk’: the story of an oath

In Turkey, a row over the traditional classroom pledge of allegiance reveals the extent to which nationalism has hijacked politics

Yesim Bayar
Yesim Bayar
8 April 2021, 9.52am
In 2013, President Erdoğan came to power and announced an end to the student oath
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Michael Harder / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Having grown up in Turkey in the 1970s, one of my most vivid recollections is of a collective nationalist ritual. At the start of every week, weather permitting, we would gather in the school playground and line up immaculately like little soldiers. We would sing the national anthem and then recite the “student oath”.

I don’t recall paying much attention at the time to the sentences I repeated out loud. I am embarrassed to say that as a child I might have thought the whole thing a nuisance rather than anything else. But the oath went like this:

“I am a Turk, I am honest, I am hardworking.

My tenet is to protect the young, respect my elders, to love my country and my nation more than my own self.

My goal is to improve and to advance.

O great Atatürk! I swear to walk incessantly on the path that you have paved towards the goals you have set.

May my existence be dedicated to the Turkish existence

Happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk.’”

In early March, Turkey’s Council of State, the highest administrative court in the country, declared that the recitation of this oath will no longer be part of the daily routine for young Turkish students. It was met with condemnation from various parts of the Turkish political spectrum.

To be sure, this row will very soon die off and be forgotten, perhaps only to be picked up again during election time. Yet, as transient a story as it may be, the debacle around the oath is critical since it goes to the heart of how Turkish nationhood is understood.

Symbolic steps

Bursting with nationalist fervor, the oath has been every Turkish student’s daily diet for decades. It is a passionate call for the individual to melt into the nation. Introduced in 1933 by Reşit Galip, minister of education and an ardent Turkish nationalist, its spirit is unabashedly dismissive of the ethnic, sectarian and religious diversity that is still part of Turkey’s landscape.

Fast forward to 2013, a decade after the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by the current president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power. That year, Erdoğan announced an end to the student oath – prematurely, as it turned out.

This was in keeping with the AKP’s Islamist ideology, since Islamic movements in Turkey have traditionally had a difficult relationship with nationalism. But it also went alongside an overture to the Kurdish community, who have long attempted to maintain their language and traditions against the efforts of Turkish nationalists. (Some, more cynically, saw this effort merely as a ploy for Kurdish votes.)

On the whole, it was a small yet symbolic step in the right direction. Shortly after, however, the “Kurdish opening” would come to a screeching halt, while the Turkish Education Syndicate [Türk Eğitim-Sen] would file a lawsuit to prevent the abolition of the oath.

True owners of the nation

After some twists and turns along the way, the long saga of the oath finally came to an end in March with the Council of State’s recent ruling against the litigants. The AKP’s 2013 decision would stand.

This announcement prompted a swift reaction from the AKP’s political ally, the right-wing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), who had opposed abolition of the oath from the start. The MHP’s condemnation was followed by criticism from the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which adheres to the nationalist vision of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Despite the Turkish Republic’s official secularism, modern Turkey was defined as a Sunni Muslim-Turkish nation by its founding fathers

All of a sudden, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, a deepening economic crisis and ever-increasing authoritarianism, the agenda shifted to how the nation was going to the dogs because children will no longer recite the oath. Within a couple of days following the decision, small protests were organized in different cities, where the oath was ardently recited by those gathered.

A recent addition to these public declarations is a video by an iconic figure of the Turkish cinema, Cüneyt Arkın: “I came from the Kai tribe, I have a free soul. I am full of love for the nation. Happy is the one who could say I am a Turk!”

The row over the oath reminds us that Turkish nationalism was the foundational and guiding spirit of the modern Republic when it was established in 1923. Although this nationalism has changed over time, as ideologies tend to do, it has remained stubbornly exclusionary and ethno-religious in content.

Despite the Turkish Republic’s official secularism, modern Turkey was defined as a Sunni Muslim-Turkish nation by its founding fathers. There has not been much space for diversity in the way the nation was visualised. The formulation of citizenship, which is inclusive on paper but exclusionary in practice, is a constant reminder of who are considered to be the true owners of the nation.

No nation for minorities

Kurds, Alevis and non-Muslim communities have long been considered suspect, to varying degrees. After the AKP came to power in 2002, it too adopted an increasingly nationalist rhetoric. Needless to say, the aforementioned “democratisation package” was by no means a turn towards a more inclusive understanding of the nation. Similarly, the AKP’s decision to abolish the oath remained an aberration amidst a firmly rising nationalist tone in its everyday politics.

Turkish politics is now at a place where no party or politician can criticise any aspect of the existing hyper-nationalist practices and rhetoric without risking being labelled a traitor. In fact, any criticism of the ruling party and its political allies is responded to within this rigid nationalist framework.

Nationalism in Turkey has long hijacked the avenues for discussion, debate and negotiation – the foundation of democratic politics. It would certainly be naïve to suggest that ‘if we drop the nationalist rhetoric, things will be better’. The hollowing out of public institutions and the consequent rise in authoritarian rule is the overarching dynamic that affects all spheres of life. Yet accompanying all this is the rise of nationalism in both rhetoric and practice.

While we are reflecting on how Turkey could be pulled out of authoritarian rule, we may want to seriously consider the pervasiveness of nationalism and the limits it places on the possibility of genuine social and political change.

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