Sometimes many of my international friends ask me if Turks are Arabs. Their assumption lies in the fact that most Turkish people are Muslims, and Arabs Turkish people share some common history with Arabs.
Although, it is legitimate for foreigners to ask this question. We, the Turkish people, can be offended by foreigners mixing us with Arabs.
According to us, thinking English people are Ukrainians or mixing Canadian people with Mexicans is wrong as thinking Turks are Arabs. Yes, most Turkish people are Muslims, but besides that, Turks belong to a different race, and there are many major differences between Turks and Arabs.
Turkish people are not Arabs. Turks and Arabs are not the same race. Turkish people are descendants of Central Asian Turkic people and indigenous people of Anatolia. Arabs are Semitic people of the Middle East. Arabs and Turks have different languages, cultural, ethnic roots and historical backgrounds.
If you are interested to learn the Turkish language, this is the book that most of my friends use. You can check the book on Amazon.
Turkey is a Turkic Country
Turkey is not an Arab country, and Turkey is a Turkic country. The other Turkic countries are Azerbeijan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhistan, Kırgızistan, Uzbekistan. Turkic countries are located in Central Asia, whereas Arabic countries are located in North Africa and the Middle East.
Turkish people originated in Central Asia. Early Turkish people were nomadic, and the Oghuz faction of Turkic people migrated to Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) around 1000 AD and settled here, mixing with local indigenous people. Thus, the ancestors of Turkish people are the Oghuz faction of Turkic People and indigenous people of Anatolia.
For these reasons, Turkish genetical structure is most similar to South Europeans like Greek, South Italians but Turkish people also have varying degrees of Central Asian DNA added to the mix. It is estimated that Turks carry 15% of Central Asian DNA, but this percentage can be more because Central Asian is also known to have European DNA, but there is limited genetic data on Central Asian countries. Source Source 2
Turkish Language is a Turkic Language
The Turkish language is a Turkic Language and has common ancestry with many Turkic Countries. It is also theorized that Turkish shares common roots with Korean, Mongolian, Japanese, Finnish and Hungarian.
If you want to know more, you can also read my article about Turkish Language origin.
On the other hand, the Arabic Language is spoken widely around North Africa and the Middle East, and it is closer to Hebrew, Maltese and Ethiopean Languages.
Turkish and Arabic have different roots, and they are not mutually intelligible. In fact, Arabic is closer to European languages when compared to Turkish.
If you wish to know more, you can check my article on the differences between Arabic and Turkish languages.
Arabs in Turkey
1-1,5 % of the Turkish population has Arabic ancestry. Most of them live near the Iraq and Syria border, which are Arabic countries.
Recently Arabic residents of Turkey increased due to the Syrian Civil War. More than 4 million Syrian refugees took shelter in Turkey. These refugees are not Turkish citizens, and because of newly arrived refugees, it is estimated that now 5% of residents in Turkey are Arabs.
Furthermore, annually, 3 million Arab tourists visit Turkey each year.
Arab League and Turkey
Arab League is an international organization, which is formed by 22 Arabic countries. Countries with observer status in Arab League are Armenia, Brazil, Eritrea, India and Venezuela.
Turkey is not in the Arab League because it is not an Arabic country. Turkey expressed its desire to be an observer in Arab League, but Arab countries denied it due to problematic diplomatic ties between Turkey and some Arab countries.
Major Cultural Differences with Arabs And Turkish People
Arab and Turkish were geographically so close, yet they have different backgrounds.
Yes, there are some instances that Turks share some cultural elements with Arabic culture, but the true difference lies in the history of these nations. You will understand how they are different if you tell me some major differences and the reasons behind it.
Turkish Culture is unique but embraces Western Values
Turkey is seen as a miracle of founding father Ataturk. I am not here to underestimate what he has accomplished, and Ataturk is one of the world leaders that I respect the most. Yet, as Ataturk always states, Turkish people should be acknowledged for the modern society we form today.
Turkish reforms started long before Ataturk and Ataturk’s reforms may not be successful in any other society.
Turkish society is the only Muslim society able to achieve extensive modernization by embracing western governance style.
Turkish society was always part of Europe, and the Ottoman was a major European power for 600 years until World War 1. As Turkish people transferred Eastern knowledge like gunpowder and compass to Europe, Ottoman Empire also safeguarded knowledge of ancient ages (like philosophy) during the dark ages of Europe.
Turkish society was one of the first one of first societies affected by revolution and reforms in Europe. Turkish human rights and constitutionalism started right after French Revolution.
Tanzimat Reforms (between 1839 and 1876) is a major human rights reform process in Turkey after the French Declaration of Human Rights (1789). Ottoman Sultan issued two edicts to modernize Ottoman Empire. Edicts;
- guaranteed life and property rights (1839)
- instituted tax regulations (1839)
- outlawed execution without trial (1839)
- equality of Muslim and non-Muslim Ottoman subjects (1839)
- Secularization of the government started (even though it was opposed by non-muslim and Muslim religious leaders) (1839)
- First Parliament of Turkey (1876)
- First Constitution (1876)
Then the reform process stalled because Ottoman Empire lost nearly all its territory during the constant Balkan Wars and World War 1. The reforms continued after the Turkish Independence War.
Some of the Major reforms between 1920-1930
- Abolition of Sultanate and Caliphate
- Banning of religious clothing, obligation to wear hats
- The centralization of education and secular curriculum
- All religious sects are banned. Mosques operated under government control to prevent misuse of religion by individuals
- Abolition of all religious regulations. Penal Code (Italian), Civil Code (Switzerland), Commercial Code (Germany) renewed implementing best Western Standards.
- Time system, Weekend Holidays, Measurement System became aligned with Europe.,
- Latin alphabet is adapted.
Turkey has its ups and downs, but it is one of the oldest countries in the world with liberal traditions and values. Turkey is a European Union candidate, one of the oldest NATO members, a founding member of the European Council and a part of the Western World.
To learn more about Turkey’s process, you can read my article Why Turkey is considered First World Nation.
Long story short, Turkish reforms and our development is yet to be achieved by Arab countries or other Muslim countries. Besides ethnicity, Turkey also is very different in societal development when compared to Arabic countries.
Turkish is one of the first countries to accept Women’s Suffrage and gave equal voting rights to women in 1930. Western European countries like France (1944), and Italy (1945), Belgium (1948) followed the Turkish example a decade later.
This may be surprising, but gender equality was not an issue in ancient Turkish traditions. As one of my high school teachers used to say, “Turkish gender equality suffered after Turks converted Islam and Arabic gender equality got better after they became Muslim.”
Turkish people were nomadic people. Even if they wanted to, they had no luxury to isolate their women. Turkish women were working and always had social roles in Turkish Culture.
Turkish gender equality is also reflected in the Turkish language. Turkish grammar does not have gender-based nouns like Arabic or Western languages. The Turkish language also does not have a specific language structure for women like Japanese.
In Turkish, the Sultan title is both used to define King and Queen. The Queen is also another administrative figure in Turkish culture that is not seen in Arabic culture.
It is still common for Turkish women to be politicians and any other profession.
Sabiha Gokcen airport is named after the first women fighter pilot in world history. She flew around 8,000 hours and participated in 32 different military operations.
Turks preserved their identity when they converted to Islam
Let me tell you very briefly how Arabs and Turks first met and how Turks converted to Islam.
Islam was not just a religion in its early days, and it was also an empire. The Islamic empire was ruled by the Caliphs, who were also spiritual leaders of Islam.
In those ancient times, Turkic people had a Shamanic Faith (Tengrism), and they were mostly nomadic people living in Central Asia. The Turkish word for is Tanrı which comes from Tengrism.
Islamic Empire embraced the Arabic superiority principle, and they assimilated the populations in the regions where they reigned. Yet, Turks resisted changing their identity, and Turkic countries clashed with Islamic Empire for centuries.
Turks converted to Islam after the 9th century when Abbasid Dynasty took over Islamic Empire and abandoned Arab Supremacy principles.
For these reasons, unlike major Middle Eastern cultures like Egyptians, Turkish people preserved their culture when Turks converted to Islam and did not get assimilated into Arab identity.
Also Turks did not live under the Islamic Empire founded by Arabs. Instead, Turks formed their own empires.
Ottoman Empire vs Islamic Empire (Caliphate)
Islam religion is very different than other world religions in one aspect. Islam religion sets forth the rules about how a country should be ruled, and Islam presents a legal system called Sharia.
The Caliphate, the Islamic Empire, was a goverment ruled by Islamic principles.
Ottoman Empire was ruled by Muslim Dynasty and Ottoman Sultans gained the title of Caliphate when they conquered the Egypt in 1571. Yet, Ottoman Empire was not the continution of Islamic Empire.
Ottoman Empire administrative and cultural traditions reflected East Roman Empire (Byzantine) and ancient Turkish government traditions.
Assimilation was not a state policy of the Ottoman Empire, unlike Islamic Empire. Islamic Empire aimed to convert the religion of people where they conquered.
Ottoman granted religious autonomy and the only major difference between non-muslims and Muslims was their taxing structure. Non-muslims required to pay slightly more taxes, but non-muslims were free to establish their own cultural and religious institutes.
Religious minorities in Ottoman Empire were treated better than European countries. For these reasons, Balkan nations are still Christians despite the fact that Ottoman Empire ruled the Balkans for nearly 600 years.
Many Jews fled to Ottoman Empire escaping Inquisitions between the 15th and 16th centuries. In 1492, Sultan Beyazid II dispatched his Navy to the sanctuary for Jews expelled by Spain and Portugal with the Alhambra Decree. The majority of Turkish Jews living in Turkey are descendants of these Jewish refugees who came to Turkey in Medieval Times.
Turkish government style was always secular, like Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire. This historical background enabled Turkish people to form the Turkish Republic as a secular government.
Also, for these reasons, Turkish religious practices evolved differently than Arabs. This is another reason, Turks are perceived as light Muslims by Arabs, and most Turks believe that Arabs have a different understanding of Islam religion.