Growing up in Turkey, just like dozens of my friends in school, I hated the daily morning ritual of reciting the pledge of allegiance to the founder of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and dedicating our existence and assets to the Turkish nation. Oftentimes we would not recite the pledge, but instead mutter words to ourselves to hide that we were not really saying it. Our teachers and principle showed no tolerance and children who did not recite the pledge would receive a rap on the hand with a ruler.
When I was in primary school in the 1980s, despite all of the nationalist pressures and assimilation policies of the Turkish government, we knew that we were Kurds and did not want to recite, “how happy to call oneself a Turk”. The trauma of this affected some children in much deeper ways. They wanted to be “Turkish, upstanding, hardworking, and happy,” as the pledge said. If they were not Turkish, they believed that they were not upstanding or hardworking. As for happiness, it was rather elusive for us.
At least, where I grew up in the Şehitlik neighbourhood of the southeastern city of Diyarbakır, we were not very happy. Şehitlik was the centre of the State of Emergency Administration that was established after the 1980 military coup. It was a neighbourhood in which poverty and violence were rampant. Every week there would be forced disappearances, openly committed political murders and a steady stream of students fleeing to the mountains to join guerrilla fighters. We lost a lot of lives in Şehitlik, a lot of beautiful people.
Not only did reciting, “I am Turkish, I am upstanding, I am hardworking” every day not assimilate us, it also made us increasingly angry at a system that forced this upon us daily, and caused us to like this country less and less.
The recent decision by the Turkish judiciary to reverse a previous government decision to remove the student pledge of allegiance from schools took me back to my childhood. When I first heard the news, I reacted with this tweet:
“What is this, the Student Pledge is coming back! I am a Kurd, as are my children. Why should my kids say ‘How Happy to Call Oneself a Turk” at school every day? You have no right to impose this trauma on the millions of children who live in this country who are not Turks.”
I want to share some of the comments I received in response to this tweet, ignoring the ones that said they would … (I am using … because my manners prevent me from writing it out) me into accepting Turkishness and those who denounced me to the police for being a terrorist.
“If you live here as a Turkish citizen you have to conform. We do not distinguish among people, whether Kurd or Armenian, according to their roots. If you do not accept Turkishness you have no right to live here!”
“I am Georgian and I am proud to say how happy to call oneself a Turk.”
“It is a privilege to say how happy to call oneself a Turk, and being worthy of the phrase is a separate honour.”
“You live in Turkey, you eat the fruit of Turkish soil, and you write in Turkish (which allows you to have a job) if these are making you uncomfortable please get the hell out and move to Northern Iraq.”
“I could have been Greek or Armenian or Kurdish and maybe I am without knowing it, but I was born in this country and this is my land HOW HAPPY TO CALL ONESELF A TURK!!!!! I would say you should go to Kurdistan if you are so uncomfortable, but unfortunately you have nowhere to go.”
“Love it or leave it.”
“Get a hold of yourself woman this is the TURKISH REPUBLIC. First of all you should learn how and why you live on this land. Whose blood, whose lives made it possible for you to live so comfortably in this country. Then you will know your place.”
“Since it must be such a big trauma to live in TURKey you should leave, wake up every morning to TURKey, step on the land it’s TURKISH LAND, the sky, flag, homeland.”
“HOW HAPPY TO CALL ONESELF A TURK !!!!! Our pledge should come back !!! Don’t use trauma as an excuse if your pride can’t take it LONG LIVE MUSTAFA KEMAL.”
“There is no one keeping you and your kind in this country. We don’t want to breathe the same air as people like you. One Language, One Nation, One Flag. Those who don’t accept this can get the hell out.”
“Take your family and kin and move to Northern Iraq. It won’t be much of a loss.”
“If you go to Barzani’s region (in northern Iraq) or the YPG region (in northern Syria) your children won’t have to read our Pledge. This nation has no room for people who don’t like Turks!”
“We are going to bury you in trenches … It won’t be long now.”
“Fuck off terrorist.”
“Turkey belongs to Turks.”
I should also note the tweets were full of spelling and grammatical errors. Reading these tweets, it is difficult not to feel ashamed for the people who wrote them. I looked at their profiles, to see who these people are. There were trolls among them, but there are also doctors, teachers, musicians and artisans. In other words, educated people from a variety of professions.
The education system and the polarising, racist rhetoric that politicians impose on us is cultivating racist doctors and teachers, and we have no choice but to entrust our health and our children into the hands of these people.
I do not know whether or not the pledge will come back. What I do know it that nothing will change if it returns. Reciting the pledge will neither assimilate, nor foster a love of this country in the hearts of the Kurdish, Armenian, Circassian, Greaek, and Arab children whose existence you insist on denying. To the contrary, they will feel anger, and this anger will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
How do I know this? Because the anger I felt towards those who imposed these racist, divisive policies on me as a child has still not passed. I have not dedicated my existence to anyone, and neither will my children. Pledges and oaths will be a sham. Rest assured, sham oaths and sham pledges do not protect a country’s future. A country’s future can only be secured by treating its people as equal citizens, by creating a just society for people to live in freely, to mourn together, to laugh and celebrate together, and by respecting each other’s rights and lifestyles.