The problem: common history and particular identity

October 07, 2007, Sunday/ 14:51:00/ DOĞU ERGİL
“Identity” has become the center of focus of both politics and social science lately. Until recently, we were talking about national identity in particular and “Western” and “non-Western” identities in general.However, today we are talking about multiple identities both as individuals and as groups. For some, this is a great danger to the unity of the nation; for others, it is an awakening for coming to terms with the plural realities of our own lives as well as our society’s.

Nonetheless, how we learn history and how our collective lives are shaped by it is very important in our personal and collective development. For example, we Turks were educated believing that:

1- We migrated from Central Asia and settled in Anatolia as if it was a vacant piece of land. Such a belief is based on the premise that there was no fusion of cultures and mixture of races.

2- We are a uniform nation with no diversity or hierarchy; state and society are one entity.

3- We are an oppressed nation (totally disregarding our imperial past that dominated continents and a sundry of conquered peoples) that has been delivered from the yoke of Western imperialism through the War of Independence (1919-1922). So being on constant watch for foreign intervention and sinister plans to divide our country has been a national preoccupation that has reached the dimensions of collective paranoia.

Our educational system has been influenced by these assumptions and fears. The Turkish history curriculum revolves around developing a unified national identity and provides few opportunities for students to examine diversity within or outside the country. The creation of a sense of national identity is at the core of the social studies curriculum from the earliest years of schooling all the way through high school. This takes place not only through overt nationalism or patriotic indoctrination, but through repeated and systematic attention to national origins that is built on semi-mythical stories of victories and larger-than-life heroes. Defeats, failures and the failing leaders are deliberately omitted, creating a void in the face of reality that does not correspond with this glorified narrative.

Schools avoid issues of cultural, religious and ethnic diversity and thus do little to help students move beyond the bonds of their own political/religious communities and build transcendental visions of living together in harmony. A more productive way of incorporating diversity into the history curriculum would involve attention to the reality of interlocked communities with ethnic and religious differences in the nation’s past. This could help promote pluralism and democracy.

Teachers and their pupils repeatedly use first person pronouns like we, us and our when discussing the nation’s past. The events they select as historically significant are those that established the country’s political origins, marked it off as unique from other nations and led to its current demographic makeup, which is ethnically and religiously rather homogeneous. However, the story they tell of the nation’s past is one that denies progress. While history is turned into a fabricated fiction, problems that have been lingering from the past cannot be solved because they are not understood at all. Take the Armenian and Kurdish problems: There is no place for them in Turkish historiography -- that is why both issues have become dilemmas for us that are hard to comprehend and hard to deal with.

The end result is the syndrome of “split social consciousness and multiple histories.” It is no wonder that Kurds and Armenians or even those of Turkish origin who identify themselves as Muslims first have a different historical narrative than the one taught in school.

It is not history education that dwells on diversity as a historical reality, but this artificial uniformity that threatens national solidarity that could have been born out of citizens’ consensus, living together and respecting differences. On the contrary, minority students encounter alternative and politicized accounts of the national past in their homes and communities. This bifurcation born out of a common history lived through the prism of particular group experiences divides the lives and minds of many students/citizens creating identities that are mutually exclusive. This is not only painful on the individual level, it is harmful for national unity in that it bolsters sectarian perspectives.

Indeed, students who are confused with this bifurcation, particularly those from minority backgrounds, eventually come to reject national identification because the official story of the past excludes or minimizes their own backgrounds. Nor does this kind of narrow history help students develop an understanding of the perspectives of people from backgrounds other than their own.

If Turkey is going to be a pluralist democracy, it must promote a national identity that encourages inclusiveness and diversity that do not dismiss other identities important to its citizens. It would also mean a greater emphasis on events that have led to broader participation in the nation’s life by groups omitted from history and narratives of national development.

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