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

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…

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.


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