Turkey is a complex melting pot of cultures and people, found between the Islamic, Arab world and the European, Western world, with trading, commerce, and exploration activities from each making their way through Turkey for centuries. Although a great deal of different people and races have migrated to Turkey, ethnic Turks still dominate the demographic data today. Turkey has a 99.8% Muslim majority, making it one of the most predominantly Muslim countries in the entire world.
The Ottoman Empire lasted for over 600 years and was centered in Turkey. After the empire had declined due to various factors, the Turkish people were left without an identity. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk united the Muslims of Turkey and rejected measures that had significantly weakened Turkey after the First World War. This unification and newly found Turkish nationalism lead to the creation of the modern state of Turkey. Ataturk created a modern secular state with equal political rights for ethnic minorities and women being one of his everlasting legacies.
Today, major ethnic tensions exist between the Turkish government and military and the ethnic Kurds due to factors such as past government bans on the Kurdish language, harsh human rights abuses against Kurdish people, and, the Kurds not having been granted the right to assemble, just to name a few. The Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) has been fighting against the Turkish military for over 30 years, with only brief peace agreements being reached during this time.
The Turkish people have been in the region of Turkey and its surrounding areas since around 1071 AD, and have gradually spread throughout the country we now know as Turkey. Turks were predominantly Muslim for the most part of their early history. Early Turkish settlers in the area slowly overtook the mostly Greek and Christian areas of Turkey and it soon became a Muslim country. Turkish cities are known for their architecture, secularism, and academia such as art and science. The Turkish culture is an interesting one, it reflects values of modern western countries as well as traditional, more conservative values. The Turkish people have a long history in the region and still make up 72.5% of the population today. Turks can also be found in Cyprus, Western Europe and North America. Interestingly, the Turkish State recognizes all people with citizenship as ethnic Turks.
Kurds are almost exclusively found in the eastern and southeastern areas of Turkey, an area which is also known as Kurdistan. In the 1930s, the Turkish government began a program to forcefully "Turkify" all Kurds (meaning to conform their culture and language to those of Turkey), which was resisted, sometimes with force. The Kurdish language is known as an Indo-European language (which means it has descended from the original prehistoric language) in contrast to the Turkish language which is from the Turkic language family. Since 1984 Kurds have been active in their peaceful and/or violent actions in order to achieve a Kurdish state. Ethnic Kurds have some degree of autonomy in Kurdistan, which means they have the power to govern some aspects and organize social organizations within their territory. As mentioned earlier, tensions between Kurdish people and the Turkish military and government have lead to over 30 years of unrest between the two peoples.
Zaza Kurds (4%)
Zaza Kurds speak a separate language from the Turks and ethnic Kurds, that being their own Zazaki language, which is related to other Persian and Kurdish languages. This language is considered an endangered language due to the small number of Zaza Kurds and their historical integration into Turkish culture and society. Although, some Zaza will choose not to identify as Ethnic Kurds or Turkish, just Zaza. These people have historic roots in Persia/Iran, but this is hard to prove as their history is one of oral tradition. Culturally as well as ethnically linked to Kurds. Even though there are still around 3 million Zaza Kurds within Turkey, they have always struggled to retain their culture and language.
This Caucasian immigrant group hails from the Caucasus Mountains regions near Russia and Georgia. Many Circassians have abandoned their native language in favor for Turkish, which most certainly has impacted Circassian culture within Turkey. Numbering around 2 million in recent estimates, the Circassians are one of the larger minority groups in Turkey and are almost always Sunni Muslim. The Circassian people are usually found in one of two separate belt areas of Turkey, either from Samsun to Hatay or from Duzce to Canakkale, respectively. Circassians have historically been anti-communist and anti-Russian within Turkey, leaning towards right nationalist wing parties in Turkish politics.
Bosniaks can be defined as a people who have descended from Bosnia as well as Herzegovina and other former Yugoslavian controlled republics. Bosniaks are mostly Sunni Muslim and migrated to Turkey under repression of their religion in Europe. These people speak Bosnian as their first language, although due to limited numbers of Bosniaks, many have adopted speaking Turkish in order to function within the country.
Georgian Turks originated from, or otherwise have ancestral links to, the Eastern European country of Georgia. Turkish Georgians can usually be found on the Black Sea coast or within northwestern Turkey. Their language, Georgian, is considered endangered in Turkey. Georgian culture in Turkey is preserved through a magazine specifically printed for Georgians in Turkey, Cveneburi Magazine, although it is actually printed in the Turkish language. Approximately 1 million people who identify as Georgian live in Turkey.
Albanians in Turkey mostly came from Kosovo and Macedonia. Albanian language schools are open in Turkey and Albanian Muslims have important positions within the wider Islamic community. These people speak Albanian as well as Turkish and consequently, Albanian is a potentially threatened language within Turkey. Many Albanians migrated to Turkey during the 1950s to 1970s due to Yugoslavian repression of Islam as a religion and Muslim people. There was also a wave of Albanian refugees during the Kosovo conflict in the 1990s.
Arabs have long historic roots in the region, settling in the country as early as the 11th Century, arriving at around the same time as the soon-to-be dominant Turkish tribes. Turkish Arabs are predominantly Sunni Muslim and are found in southeastern Areas of Turkey near the Syrian and Iraqi borders. There is also a large group of modern migrant Arabs from Arab states in Istanbul. Turkish Arabs receive no cultural or social support from Arab states such as Saudi, Iraq, and Syria, which can potentially lead to the problem of Arabs losing their identity. Arabs are well integrated into Turkish population, some speak Turkish as well as Arabic in a daily capacity. Many Turkish Arabs have ancestors or relatives in the neighboring country of Syria.
Pomaks are predominantly Sunni Muslims, and speak a version of the Bulgarian language which is known as Pomak. These Bulgarian Muslims number 750,000 in Turkey and are mostly found in what is known as "European Turkey".
There are also many other, smaller minority groups living within Turkey. These include Syrians, Greeks, Laz, various peoples of the Caucuses, and Azerbaijanis. Some of these ethnic groups struggle to receive recognition and retain their cultures and language.
What are the Largest Ethnic Groups in Turkey?
Turks make up the largest ethnic group in Turkey, with a total share of 72.5% of the population. Kurds make up the second largest group, at 12.7%.
The Ethnic Groups Of Turkey
|Rank||Ethnic Group||Share of Turkish Population|
About the Author
Justin has a Bachelor's degree (Honors) in Political Science and Media and Communications, specializing in modern Middle Eastern politics. He has been writing for World Atlas since September 2016.
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