Alien Citizens: Kurds and Citizenship in the Turkish Constitution

By Ozan Varol

Kurds are the largest minority ethnic group in Turkey. Most Kurds share the common religion of Islam with Turks, but they also have a distinct language, culture, and history. Turkey’s current Constitution, drafted after a military coup in 1980, is thoroughly nationalist and contains repeated references to the Turkish language, people, and culture. Most relevant for the purposes of citizenship, an ambiguous and controversial Article 66 declares that, “everyone bound to the Turkish State through the bond of citizenship is a Turk.” Many Kurds interpret this provision as an imposition of an ethnic identity—of being a Turk—that they vehemently reject.

This Article explores the historical origins of this provision, studies its competing interpretations, and analyzes its consequences. It argues that citizenship in Turkey has attained a political meaning that has shaped, and at times, trumped, its legal definition. In the name of promoting national unity and solidarity, Kurds have been relegated to “alien citizen” status—assigned its duties but denied many of its benefits. Kurds have been shut off from the political discourse and denied the right to education and media in their own language. These state policies have expelled Kurds to the fringes of society, undermining the very national solidarity that they sought to construct.

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