Nation? What is that?

Nation? What is that?

Ordinary people, intellectuals and thinkers in Turkey use the term “millet” for “nation” and “milliyetçilik” for “nationalism” (or ulus and ulusçuluk) widely. Leaving the distinction between words “millet” and “ulus” for another article, I will try to explain the meaning of the word “millet” and the transformation it has undergone.
We know that the word “millet” is derived from “milla/mella” in Aramaic and Hebrew, meaning “word/concept”. The Arabic word “millet” is related with this and is derived from the root “imlal (amla)” meaning “to make someone write”. In terms of “being based on something heard and read or write down”, it means religion. In the Holy Quran the word “millet” is used as religion in 15 different spots. In the classical madrasa (Islamic theology school) education, reply given to the question “from which nation (millet) are you from?” is “the nation (millet) of Prophet Abraham”. In the book of Tabari, what is meant by “ahl’al-milla” is the Muslim community. The opposite of this is ahl’al-dhimna and is used for non Muslims leaving under auspices of Muslims. Therefore when looked at the history of Islam, the opposite of the word “dhimnee” is “milli” and broadly means Muslim. In this case, “milli music” is Islamic music; “milli history” is Islamic history; “milli education” is Islamic education; “milli assembly” is Islamic assembly and “milliyet” means being Muslim.
When the word “millet” is used “al milla al Islamiyya/Yahoodiyya/Nasraniyya (nation of Islam/Judaism/Christianity), or “milla al haq/tawhid/koofr” (nation of truth/oneness of God/blasphemy) the meaning is extended and means religion. In early literal and political literature, the concept of “millet” is used as such. Therefore Ibn Hazm (994-1064) and Shahristani (1076-1153) use the phrase “ilmü’l-milel” for the “history of religions”.
Later the concept of nation has undergone some minor changes. For instance, although Farabi (870-950) continued to use the term “millet” equivalent to the word religion, he also defined it as “a community showing registered act to the instructions of a leader”. He adds that this community can be small as a tribe or citizens of a city or be members of large masses. He states that although these groups can be believers of the same religion, due to being subject to rules of different administrations, they can be separated as different nations.
As for the Ottomans, during the period from 1453 to the mid-19th century, the meaning attributed to “millet” deviates more and used to define those “affiliated to various churches” (community). For instance in the Ottoman Empire, those who were affiliated to the Orthodox Church, regardless of speaking Arabic, Serbian, Albanian or Bulgarian etc., where considered as the nation of “Rum” and named as such. Similarly believers of the Catholic Church, regardless of speaking Arabic, Greek or Armenian, were considered as the Catholic nation. Similarly, the Protestant nation established during the 19th century in the Ottoman Empire was formed by members of the Protestant Church speaking languages of Greek, Armenian and Arabic. There are similar separate Armenian, Jew and Latin nations. In fact, looking from the point that each church like Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant are separate religions, there is not a big deviation in the meaning of the word “millet”. As seen these “millet” groups are neither nations nor races or ethnic groups. Their union is not determined by their language or generation, but by the Church they are affiliated to. Therefore those who attend to mosques are named as Muslim regardless of whether they speak Arabic/Greek/Serbian/Bulgarian/Kurdish.
Starting from early 20th century, for the rising nationalism movements in all Islamic geography including the Ottoman territories, the word nation was first explained with the word “qawm” meaning union based on language”. Qawm in Arabic means a group of people with known ancestors, traditions, language and customs, and is used as such in the Quran. Ziya Gökalp similarly defines “qawm” as “the state of social truth becoming concrete through association in language and customs”.
The pro Turkism groups, which are separated into two groups then as those who believe Islam should be dominant and those against, have now started to use the term Turkish “qawms” frequently (e.g. the legislation of Türk Derneği (Turkish Asoociation), 25.12.1908, a. 2). Similarly, Ali Canib, in his article titled “What does «millî» or “qawmi” literature mean?”, explains that he does not accept “Turk” as a name of race and goes on; “Turk is name of a “qawm” and “qawm” is nothing but a group with common language. To form a “qawm”, the members need not to be from the same race. In our country there are neither natural nor historical races. Ottoman elements” are formed of “sectarian communities” and communities based on language”. In addition, there is “Ottomanism”, which keeps all these under a legal state penetration; and this is named as “millet”. Turkish “qawm” does not mean the Turkish race. Nowadays the concept of “qawm” is a consciousness together with the language. To be a Turk, it is sufficient to say “I am Turk”, similarly as it is sufficient to say “I am Ottoman” to be an Ottoman. Communities like “qawm”, “millet” and ummah” live on the consciousness of the individuals and is nothing but “power-idea”.
In this period we see that in order to legitimize the increasing nationalism movements and put them in a religious framework, the word “qawm” used for nation is now replaced with the word “millet”. In this context, the word “millet” is naturally separated from its religion character gradually and starts referring to language based unions.
Despite all such discrepancies, starting with “İttihad ve Terakki” (Union and Development) Party until the end of 1920s, we may see that the concept of nationalism is still described mainly with religion, and thus the Turks abroad – except the ethnical Turkism movement and a branch of “İttihad and Terakki, which supported them – were excluded from this definition. Therefore, although millet is sometimes used as qawm, this term is based on religion during this period. This situation is different from the ottoman project of unification of all subjects under the identity of “Ottoman” (millet) starting from the “Tanzimat” reform movement (for details see Teyfur Erdoğdu “An essay regarding the evolution of Ottomans: From the identity of a group (senior administration) to the project of forming a nation” Doğu Batı, 45, 2008: 19-46). In article 8 of the “Kanun-i Esasi” (Constitution) dated 1876, which is a major step of this project, the term Ottoman was defined as a non religious political-leagl basis as “All individuals who are subjects of the Ottoman State, regardless of their religion or sect, are named as Ottoman without any exception”. In 1924, we see that the Republic took a step similar to the Ottoman definition. Since the remaining groups within the borders of Republic of Turkey, which formed after shrinking of the Ottoman Empire, could not be described as Ottoman, they would now be named as Turk and all to be accepted as members of the Turkish nation. In article 88 of “Teşkilat-ı Esasiye Kanunu” (Constitution) dated 1924, the term millet was defined as; “The citizens of Turkey, regardless of their religion and race, are considered as Turks in terms of citizenship” to be identified with non religious based citizenship. Shortly in this period, the concept of millet is free from religion and race, and is likened to the millet” concept of the late Ottoman period, and disconnected with Islam.
At this point we come across an important question like why was the name was selected as Turk in the constitution of 1924.
There has been a consensus that the name to be given to the groups that are Muslim and did not accept the dominancy and sovereign attitude of the West and leadership of Christians (it is a fact that Muslim Arabs, Albanians and Bosnians had done the opposite) should be Turk due to its roles and achievements in the history. Therefore, Mehmet Akif, whose mother tongue is Albanian, in the National Anthem (1921), abstains from using the words Turk, Islam and Muslims; and when saying “smile to my heroic race” refers to Turk rather than Islam.
Is there not a contradiction here? Has the concept of Turk been used to refer to race?
The race concept here is far from the present understanding and in fact refers to a religious-political unity. As a matter of fact, the expression la race française (French race) used by French to describe themselves is very significant and is based on the same reason. In fact the word ırk (race) in Arabic means “root, plant body, kin, origin and superiority of kin and nobility”. In the past this term has been used to mean “having tendency for civilization”. For instance according to Said al-Andalusi (d. 1063); race are hence divided into seven: Iranians, Turks, Hindis, Chinese, etc.
Thus until 1925 the main comprehension was “All Turks are Muslims but not all Muslims are Turks”. This view was adopted by the founders of the republic until 1925. For instance Ali Canib, who has influenced the founders of the Republic, has said “this religion is a national religion for those (Turks) who accept Islam” in 1922. Ziya Gökalp says that in case the Shamanistic Yakut Turks might save their national identity if they accept Islam. In addition Gökalp says since all Turks are Muslim, unlike Arabs, Albanians, Bosnians and other nations, one would support Islamism when he supports Turkism. However since there are Christians among Arabs or Albanians, Arabism and Albanianism does not exactly overlap Islamism. One should keep in mind that the separatist Arabism idea was lead by Christian Arabs and followed by Muslim Arabs.
Starting from 1930s, due to the increase in the political stances, which excluded religious references and was based on anti communism in Turkey, the concept of millet was transformed to mean a racial concept rather than referring to a religious-political unity. In this period, those groups, which aimed to identify millet concept with a religious-political aspect, started to identify themselves under the umbrella of nationalism, since Islamism was no more defendable due to various reasons, and separated from the racist/ethnicist group and established the “conservative nationalism”. They said ‘we love our nation but we also have religious sensitivities”. Such a movements by this groups is important since it is a milestone for this movement and the fact that it would direct the concept of nation into a a different direction.
After fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Central Asian nations, “remembered” once again, similarly as post-Second Constitutional Monarchy (Meşrutiyet) period, entered the equation and changed the balances, and unites the millet (Turkish nation) concept in the minds of some groups in Turkey with the racial meaning.
Today in Turkey we come across many writers, thinkers, intellectuals and ordinary citizens who fill inside the concept of nation in different ways. There are some who accept nation (Turkish nation) as being part of a race, citizenship or culture. The concept is now totally disconnected from its historical context and no one remembers the meaning meant during the establishment of the Republic (for details see Teyfur Erdoğdu “An essay on Second Constitutional Monarchy (Meşrutiyet) (1908-1922) Period Turkism of two extraordinary personalities: Mehmet Akif (Ersoy) and Ali Canib (Yöntem) (İki müstesna şahsiyet Mehmed Akif [Ersoy] ve Ali Canib [Yöntem] Beylerin II. Meşrutiyet dönemindeki Türkçülükleri (1908-1922) üzerine bir deneme”: 1908 Meşrutiyeti Sanat ve Edebiyat, haz. B. Çeri, Paris 2008: 35-41).
I wish you all days full of remembrance.