How Turkish taboos perpetuate immaturity

Professor Ayşe Kadıoğlu of Sabancı University speaks of her experience growing up in Turkey where taboos, many imposed by law, have trapped citizens “in a state of immaturity”.

Growing up under the spell of taboos is a debilitating experience. It can imprison one’s mind in a state of infancy despite the inevitable physical growth of a person. In his book Life of Reason or the Phases of Human Progress, the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana says: “Progress far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement – and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” When I understood the magnitude of these words, I was already an adult enrolled in graduate school in the US.

I grew up in Turkey where the prevailing education system still conceals certain historical facts in primary and secondary school curricula lest they would harm the “indivisibility of the state with its country and nation”, an expression that is used several times in the current Turkish constitution. Perhaps, the fear about deeds that can harm the unity of the state and nation is best symbolised in the Turkish national anthem that begins with the lyrics “Do not Fear!” When fears nurture and sustain taboos, the ability to retain experiences declines. Enduring an education that is laden with either false historical facts or an eerie silence makes it impossible for people to exit the state of self-imposed immaturity.

When I encountered Armenian-American students in Boston who examined me as “the Turk” in flesh and blood, at first, I could not understand the reason for their unfettered curiosity. As soon as we began to talk, I also began to read about the tragedy of the Armenians during the demise of the Ottoman Empire. It almost felt as if I was from another planet! I had grown up under the spell of nationalist taboos and was educated to be ignorant on certain issues. Yes, progress is diminished to cosmetic change in the absence of retaining knowledge. Taboos perpetuate immaturity.

There are many taboos in Turkey that mainly concern the protection of the “indivisibility of the state and nation”. There are also many laws that make it a crime to break these taboos. When taboos are sustained by law, the minds (and, many times, bodies) of citizens end up being imprisoned. One such taboo involves the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In Turkey, there is a law against crimes about Atatürk. It is a crime to insult his memory and harm his statutes.  Another taboo involves the sacredness of the Turkish Armed Forces. This is sustained by a law against discouraging people from performing their compulsory military service. Many conscientious objectors as well as writers have faced criminal charges on the basis of this law. “Turkishness” is another taboo and there is a law in Turkey against insulting “Turkishness”. Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink was charged and found guilty for insulting “Turkishness” on the basis of an opinion piece that he had authored despite a report of experts presented to the local criminal court who opposed the charges against him. This indictment ignited the fire of events that led to his assassination in 2007.

The notion of the “indivisibility of the Turkish state with its country and nation” is the most pervasive taboo of the Turkish Republic. The Turkish state’s unremitting drive to protect the fantasy of a unified nation has led to the denial of the identity of its Kurdish citizens. They were banned from speaking Kurdish in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup. Thousands of Kurds were killed or “lost” in Turkey in clandestine acts in the 1990s. It does not seem possible to heal the wounds of this dark past without widening the channels of public debate and deliberation.

Taboos, enforced by law, are fetters in front of the ability to reason. It is possible to be released from the spell of taboos and strengthen the ethos of democracy by upholding the realm of public debate and deliberation. Therefore, yes, “We allow no taboos in the discussion and dissemination of knowledge,” because we try not to be trapped in a state of immaturity and want to do our utmost to fulfil our capacities as reasonable human beings.

This article was republished on the Guardian Comment Network.

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Comments (1)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. We’re students from an IB language/literature class studying hate speech, taboo and censorship. You raise valid points about the implications of ‘taboo’ language, however we believe there’s a hazy line drawn between the concepts of ‘taboo’ and ‘censorship’.

    As proposed by Allan Burridge in his book Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language, “Taboos arise out of social constraints on the individual’s behaviour where it can cause discomfort, harm or injury,” a taboo encompasses more than just censorship of a certain concept. It implies socio-cultural discrimination. For example, although gay marriage is illegal in 29 states in the US according to, the driving force behind why same-sex marriage discrimination exists is because of the social enforcement in the region, generally due to religion or culture as opposed to governmental hierarchy. This is especially apparent in the southeastern states, where legal gay marriage in all of the 13 states is either banned or has no clear law.

    On the other hand, we define government censorship as the explicit expunging of information, generally with the intent of framing the government in a positive way to keep citizens loyal to their country. During the opening ceremony of the winter Olympics one of the Olympic rings failed to operate correctly. However, the live airing of this event was concealed in Russia (and only within Russia) with a clip from a rehearsal. Producers claim “it was critical to preserve the Olympic ring imagery, even if it meant showing fake footage. President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly emphasized the importance of showcasing Russia flawlessly to the world during the Olympics.” ( The intent of censorship, such as this example, is different to that of taboo.

    Assuming the reason the Turkish-Armenian conflict was expunged from the history books of many Turkish pupils is to ‘save face’ for the government is one thing; the word ‘taboo’ which is used in this piece is interesting as it implies a social aversion beyond the realm of government censorship. To an extent censoring or essentially withholding information from students can cause them to embrace false and potentially discriminating information, which is what we see happening here with the Armenian-Turkish conflict. Your piece tells us there’s no distinction between taboo and censorship, and this is what intrigues us – in this case the Turkish government, by classifying the Armenian-Turkish conflict as a taboo as well as censoring the subject, is going beyond ‘saving face’ for the government – it degrades Armenians and doesn’t adequately inform Turkish children about their country’s past.

    We agree that things have been expunged from Turkish history, but to be fair, to varying degrees it happens all over the world. It’s a perfectly valid example, but it’s an overworked example; Antoon De Baets’ paper Censorship of History Textbooks, copious examples are given concerning countries from Pakistan to Belgium, from Tibet to Russia, Uruguay, Libya, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and so forth. Singling out the Turkish-Armenian conflict doesn’t indicate how extensive censorship is, and has been, for centuries.

    The integration of taboo and censorship can prove dangerous. Hrant Dink was found guilty for insulting “Turkishness”; Dink’s criminal charges were imposed by the government, but his death was caused by a Turkish civilian driven by the taboo that being critical of Turkish culture is socially unacceptable.

    As illustrated in the example above, what is troubling about the assimilation of taboo and censorship is that, as stated in the article, it causes perpetual immaturity and ignorance; these consequences are difficult and time-consuming to expunge. Acknowledgement of differences between taboo and censorship can be key in understanding critical issues.

    Are we correct in stating that censorship and taboo have melted into one in Turkey? How are the definitions we’ve proposed different from those you accept?

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