The Turkish flag, symbol of unity and discord

The fight against the PKK is a boost for the Turkish flag industry. Flags are everywhere: they hang outside houses, stick to car windows or hang giant-sized on public buildings. “Everybody who waves the flag is convinced that he is defending the only true Turkish values.”


The Turkish national flag is constantly visible. In enormous sizes on public buildings, languidly flying on central Taksim Square and next to Topkapi palace, and recently more often in a smaller version from the windows of houses. On the street there’s always a flag-vendor nearby, and demonstrators, for whatever purpose, carry every size of flag with them in huge quantities. Flag producer Günay Bayrak, the biggest in the country, couldn’t meet the demand this year. “It was not possible to increase production by more than a hundred percent”, says director Önder Günay.

Opposing opinions 

What is remarkable is that the Turkish flag is used to emphasize varied and sometimes opposing opinions. In recent months more and more people have been demonstrating to promote a cross border operation of the Turkish army into northern Iraq, and funerals of soldiers are often a platform to propagate this opinion. But recently in Istanbul a contra demonstration was also festooned with flags. “Both groups”, says Aruş Yumul, sociology professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, “feel that Turkish values are under threat and defend their vision of the country with the flag.” Advocates of a cross-border operation think it necessary for the defense of national borders deemed to be under threat, while opponents believe that military action will further alienate different groups in Turkish society and will therefore corrode the unity of the country.

The flag, says Aruş Yumul, represents all the values of the country and you can choose which values are most important for you. “The flag symbolizes the state, but of course people are part of that state so they feel they are the representatives of the state. They appropriate the flag and give it their own personal meaning.”
Especially over the last year showing the flag has become endemic. Before the parliamentary elections last summer both secularists and followers of the Islamic party waved the flag, now it’s the advocates and opponents of an attack on the PKK in Iraq who make themselves heard, and besides that there are national holidays and now and then a football party. “The flag has become a symbol of both the secular order and the Turkish religious identity, and of respect for the country’s borders. Everybody who waves the flag is convinced that he is defending the only true Turkish values”, Yumul says. You could saythat waving the flag now seems to symbolize the divisions in the country rather than its unity.


In the centre of Üsküdar, an area of Istanbul on the Asian side, Gülsen Çitak buys a rather huge flag with a portrait of Atatürk on it. She pays fifteen liras, which is about eight euros. Why is she buying it? “Mainly for the martyrs”, she says, referring to the almost daily Turkish casualties in the fight against the PKK. That’s also the reason why thousands of people nationwide hang a flag out of their window. Why Gülsen, a woman in her fifties, chose a flag with Atatürk on it, is hard for her to put into words, but flag vendor Ahmet Çorakçi is not surprised: “Women more often buy a flag with Atatürk on it. He gave women rights and therefore he is especially important to them.” For Ahmet and his sales assistant Ismail business is good. “These last few months, sales have gone up because of PKK violence”, says Ismail. “But to be honest, I would prefer the terrorism to stop and business to be worse.”

In the factory of Günay Bayrak, where Ahmet and Ismail also get their flags from, metres of flag are cut into the right size at a dazzling pace. Close-by, groups of women at sewing machines stitch a white piping onto the flags, so that later on a stick can be inserted, either a flexible stick with car-clip, or a rope with suction cups. Although flags of many other countries as well as company flags are also printed, the production of the red-white Turkish flag runs at especially high speed. How many of those will be produced by Günay Bayrak this year, owner Önder Günay doesn’t know. He doesn’t count per piece: “This year, we will produce around 2.5 million metres of flags.”

Published in daily newspaper ‘De Pers’, december 5 2007

(photo by myself)

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