23/03/2013

Peace in our Time?


Newroz Pîroz Be! Record numbers attended celebrations in Diyarbakır this year.
What a stark contrast this year's Newroz holiday has been to last year. This time in 2012, I was on a train going from my beloved neighbourhood of Bakırköy to Eminönü. As it was quite early on a Sunday morning, I couldn't help wondering why there were road blocks, police cars and large groups of young men marauding the otherwise empty main roads alongside the train tracks. It didn't take long for me to latch on that it was Newroz and the marauders were disgruntled, pent-up gangs of Kurds determined to make a public display of their feelings on the holiday which until 1995 had been banned in the name of Republicanism and the unity of the (Turkish) state. 

Feelings were high on that particular Newroz, as AKP Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin, a notorious nationalist, had barred the celebration day from being moved to the weekend.

Thanks to a hot mix of Şahin's stubbornness, the young Kurdish kids' jaded apathy and a whole back-catalogue of ignorance and institutional racism practised by Ankara for the last 80 years, my train was bombarded by rocks, bricks and Molotov cocktails. The train driver took the wise course of action of  reversing the train and heading back to the previous station. 

The Cease-Fire call

This Newroz has been a complete turn-around. The - now proverbial - train, is back on course. The press started taking notice that something strange was happening when the BDP made an extra push this year to break all the records for attendance at its sponsored celebrations and rallies in Diyarbakir and İstanbul. A sea of red, green and yellow flooded the town squares - the colours of Kurdish solidarity. Placcards with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcallan's face were hoisted up high. This was not a hostile crowd ready to throw rocks and intimidate oppressive gendarmes or divert public transport. Nor did it seem the usual protest-under-the-pretext-of-a-cultural-celebration which raises so many eyebrows amongst the mainstream media.

Öcallan declared a long-awaited ceasefire in a fully-documented speech available in Turkish and Kurdish (the English version is HERE). The leader definitively statied that:

"We have sacrificed decades for this people, we have suffered great consequences. But all the sacrifice and struggle did not go unwasted. Kurdish people regained their true self-identity... We have come to a point where we say “let the arms silence, opinions and politics speak”

The speech addressed the kind of truisms that Kurds, and many Turks, have been saying for years. That the Turks and Kurds got on just fine during the Ottoman Empire when they were united under the banner of Islam - similarly, they fought alongside one another during the First World War, and as Öcallan himself declared, opened the Turkish parliament together (although it all went pair-shaped quickly after that). In essence, under a corporate state with an active ideological desire to erase cultural difference, there can be no peace. Now that the existence of the Kurds is an indisputable political reality, talks without the threat of force can begin. I have met many Kurds, some who support an independent state and others who don't, but I have never met anyone who can claim that Turkey has treated this minority well over the years.

Years of disappointment

The reason I had no idea it was Newroz last year was that the Kurdish issue had almost become too dreary and disappointing to follow intently. One disappointment and false move after another marked the development of the peace process, or lack thereof. When the DTP was closed down in 2009, I would mark the time of my last overtly political statement on facebook, when I declared that the Kurdish party's closure, for links with the PKK, was a sign of Turkish democracy's 'one step forward, two steps back' regression. I was bombarded by outraged responses from Western Turks with a penchant for absolutisms. I ventured to make a way more nuanced status update in early 2011, when a number of Turkish soldiers had lost their lives in a clash in the East with the comment 'Everyone needs to calm down'. The return comment that sticks in my mind was an intently agressive, 'Maybe we should die calmly too!'

Here, I recognise my mistake. I had come across as completely insensitive because I had firstly neglected the fact that the Turkish military is a conscripted army - thus those who are killed, truly do belong to the society for which they purportedly fight. Secondly, the anger is justified. However, I had been silenced by an anger that had been misdirected for many years, to the joy of policy-makers. After the attacks of that year, people were lining the streets with Turkish flags and screaming for bloody revenge - yet the military, the press, the education system and the political actors who had all colluded to extend this conflict year-upon-year faced little criticism. In other words, peace was a lost cause in my eyes. 

A delicate time

Although I'm happy about the achievement of a ceasefire, it is a very dangerous time right now and it could still all go to pot. Turkish politicians get a lot of votes through populist rhetoric and policies which are informed by Turkism and anti-multiculturalism. The CHP has typically been a leading the way in this mentality. Only one month ago a scandal arose when, true to form, the MP for Izmir, Ayman Güler declared that 'the Kurdish and Turkish nation cannot be considered equals'. Party leader Kılıçdaroğlu, was quick to inaction and simply stated that party officials shouldn't state things like that "publicly", thus tacitly supporting Güler's claim in case any supporters doubted his commitment to the "majority-rules" nation-state. 

The opposition's reaction to this week's development was thus predictably jaded. After all, the last thing anyone wants is for it to be the AKP that solves an irretractable thirty-year old conflict. One CHP MP, waving a Turkish flag in parliament to object to Kurdish protestors' use of Kurdish flags wryly announced that 'today, things will be done in order not to upset our beloved terrorists'. The MPH had a similar protest over the use of flags, as if anyone could expect the Kurdishs to revere a flag in whose name their existence has been denied for almost a century. Erdoğan too, expressed that "Except for the flag, this is a positive call" on the headline of Vatan newspaper on Friday. Turkish public opinion's sensitivity to issues such as the use of flags shows just how delicate future talks will be, especially when you consider that talk of regional autonomy is bound to come up at some point. 

The AKP is probably the most susceptible of all parties to populism and the risk of public outcry, especially as it has picked up the mantle of Turkish republicanism - expertly highlighted a few months ago in the İstanbulian blog. 

Anti-nationalism fluffing the Turkish public for reform?

This republicanism seems to even have slipped into the dictates of the Religious Affairs Ministry, which has started giving imams instructions to include in the group prayers a supplication for blessings to the 'state' as apose to the usual 'nation', which one can only assume is a subliminal message to the party faithful that changes are coming. 

Publicly, there has been a lot of clashing over the issue of nationalism in public discourse between the inncumbent party and the opposition since Erdoğan claimed that the AKP had been doing everything to eradicate nationalism in the country. The CHP objected to this, invoking the spirit of Çanakkale, a battle won by the Ottomans during the First World War, but since appropriate by national historiography as the first fight-back of the Turks, precluding a nationalist Turkish state. 

The power of nationalism as an invisible hand in Turkish politics cannot be underestimated, so whilst I sigh in relief, I don't think it's the time to start holding my breath again.