The nation of modern Turkey was founded built in the 1920s out of the chaos that ensued during the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire, wars and genocidal campaigns against Greeks, Armenians and other “non-Turkish” people who lived in Anatolia and Asia Minor for generations.
Millions of Greeks, Armenians and Jews were forced to flee, while others were taken to other regions and sold into sex gangs or labor camps.
As the dust settled, these people eventually integrated into Turkish society. Names were changed and mass conversions to Islam took place. The human chaos out of which Turkish society was created, was a closely-guarded secret within Turkish government circles.
For decades, the confidentiality of genealogy data was kept strictly confidential by the Turkish government.
Any information that revealed ancestry details of Turkish citizens was always a sensitive matter, considered by the government to be a national security issue.
There were two main reasons for all this secrecy.
Revealing ancestry data– some of which stemmed back to Ottoman times– would open up a can or worms to Turkey’s bloody history of its founding in the early 1900s, specifically about how tens of thousands of of Armenians, Syriacs, Greeks and Jews had been forced to convert to Islam and became “integrated” into society.
Furthermore, revealing such information would also open up public conversations and debates about the idea of “Turkishness” or a single ethnic identity of the people that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk tried grouping together into a modern state when he founded the nation.
For a long time, the official policy was that Turkish people formed a cohesive ethnic identity.
But less than two weeks ago, on Feb. 8, population registers were officially opened to the public via an online genealogy database and the public went wild, crashing the website after millions flocked to learn where their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents came from.
The system allows users with a citizen number to inquire about the names, birthplace, dates of birth and death of their grandparents and great-grandparents, leading all the way back into the 19th century when the Ottomans kept meticulous records.
Some people who had always boasted of their “pure” Turkish ancestry were shocked to learn they actually had other ethnic and religious roots– a Greek grandmother or a grandfather who was Armenian.
Turkish social media soon began trending with the topic as people shared their ancestry results online. Hardcore nationalists began targeting those who had mixed ancestry and called them “crypto-Armenians” or “infidel Greeks.”
Genealogy has always been a popular topic of conversation in Turkish society, but also a tool of social and political division.
“I hope my family isn’t Greek or Kurdish,” one Twitter tweeted.
İnşallah ailemde rum kürt yoktur diye girdim 7 göbek Oflu çıktım. Keşke araya Çaykara falan da sıkıştırsaymışız ama buna da şükür #edevlet
— Tutankupon (@tutannkuponn) February 15, 2018
Another Twitter user found out about his Greek lineage:
Ülkücü arkadaşım rum çıktı şimdide ben rum türküyüm diyo #edevlet
— MUSTAFA TİNDÜ (@mustafatindu) February 10, 2018
Many families often acknowledged privately that their lineage was Armenian or Greek or that a long-dead relative was a convert to Islam, but those conversations were kept secret.
The mindset of society was starkly clear when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once complained, “We are accused of being Jews, Armenians or Greeks.”
Being a descendant of a Greek, Armenian or other non-Turkish lineage in Turkey carried a stigma that could not be erased. The government has always had this information about its citizens and even created a secret “branding” or “race code” of citizens based on genealogy data they possessed.
Those with Greek lineage were branded in public records with a “1” next to their name, while Armenians were marked with a “2” and Jews with a “3.” This classification was secretly used when a young man became of military age or when someone applied for a job with the government.
If their lineage was known to be Greek or Armenian– even unbeknownst to the actual individual, they were denied jobs or favored positions within the military or civil service.
Ethnic Armenian writer Hayko Bagdat in an interview told Al-Monitor, “During the 1915 genocide, along with mass conversions, there were also thousands of children in exile. Those who could reach foreign missionaries were spirited abroad. Some were grabbed by roaming gangs during their escape and made into sex slaves and laborers. The society is not yet ready to deal with this reality.”
Imagine a prominent Turkish politician or sports hero, or popular singer being exposed as having Greek or Armenian roots. It would rock the very bedrock of a society that has built its image on the notion of “Turkishness.”
There were those who feared that data obtained from population registers could be used to stigmatize the famous and used for political lynching campaigns. One of them was Tayfun Atay, a columnist for Turkey’s daily Cumhuriyet.
“I was advised in a friendly manner not to admit that I am a Georgian, said Tayfun Atay in a column in the newspaper Cumhuriyet.
“It was a light form of pressure,” he wrote, adding that “What about those who risk learning they are of Armenian ancestry or a convert? Just think: You think you are a red-blooded Turk but turn out to be a pure-blood Armenian. Imagine the societal repercussions,” he wrote Feb. 12.
The revelation to thousands of Turks that their ancestors were natives of other countries– including many in the European Union– has led to thousands of inquiries and dual citizenship applications, especially in European Union countries.
The Hürriyet Daily News reported that Turkish citizens are taking steps to try to obtain the second citizenship, upon discovering their ancestry traced back to other countries such as Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, FYROM and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
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