05/05/2013

Turkey's Chance to Look Inward

"Apart from the flags, this is good news" said PM Erdoğan, but as critics like Can Dündar concur, how can they be expected to salute a Turkish flag, given recent history (National Post News image)
The political landscape in Turkey is changing faster than ever. I can hardly breathe when I start thinking about having to update this blog. Being relevant is becoming more and more difficult as the months, and days go by.

In the last month, we've had the most frenzied debate on identity in years, as questions on the value of nationalism, the nature of racism and the wording of the constitution, have all come to a head. The debate would have been heated anyway, but the calling of a ceasefire by the PKK, and a withdrawal of that organisation's leaders the same month has lead to a lot of self-analysis in some quarters, and a deafening silence in others.

Firstly, Erdoğan provoked hostility from the opposition for claiming to have ended nationalism. In the same week - almost to prove how wrong he was - the CHP opposition's Izmir Deputy Birgül Ayman Güler, provoked hostility by claiming that the "Kurdish and Turkish nation cannot be considered equal". Pro-government newspapers started talking prematurely about a split in the CHP, as more liberal CHPers questioned the tact of Güler's remarks. Adıyaman CHP representative, Salih Fırat even quit the party in anger - not because of the remark itself, but because of the fashion in which liberals - not Güler - were disciplined by party leader Kılıçdaroğlu, desperate not to look soft on anything that questioned the CHP's revered 'one nation' wishful thinking. So much for the 'New CHP', yet again.

As for the call for a ceasefire, this was greeted by a huge crowd in Diyarbakır, waving Kurdish flags and posters of Abdullah Öcalan, who acted as the PKK's abitrator, or arbi-traitor - if, like many Turks, you think that negotiating with the leader of a country's internal enemy of twenty-five years doesn't quite make for an easy peace. 

However, the opposition parties, whose ideologies and actions contributed to the creation and protraction of the conflict, rather than celebrating the move towards peace, spent the day protesting in parliament that the Kurdish crowd (celebrating the first peaceful nowruz festival in my memory here) should have been waving Turkish flags. 

This protest, joined by the nationalists, was very masterfully critised in Milliyet by Can Dündar, who commented that: "We forced the flag onto them with denial, compulsion and oppression. Kurds see the words "How Happy Is He Who Calls Himself Turk", arranged onto the mountains among other slogans like "Turkey for the Turks" - they begin school in the morning saying "I'm Turkish, I'm true and diligent"

The last sentence is a reference to the hypnotic mantra which children in all schools all over the country have been forced to recite from first grade - it is not exclusive to Kurdish areas alone. Thus it is not just the Kurds, but those who are content to 'call themselves Turk' who are also the victims of the corporatist ideology. Many young minds have been taught to believe in their own superioity above those who critique, or disagree with the state ideology. Indeed, it is integral to understanding the social conflict, that the very ideology which denies national and cultural diversity in the name of uniting the country, has consistently divided it. 

Half-Turks and Half Truths

In a sense, the ideology did not utterly fail. It should not be ignored for example, that the most statist area of the country - Izmir, from where the CHP parliamentarian's racist comment came, is almost entirely populated by people whose descendents were forcably exiled during the Greek-Turkish population exchange in 1923. The Muslim Kosovas, Bulgars, and Albanians were initially greeted rather fearfully as 'yarım Türkler', or 'half Turks' by their hosts. In a major contrast, Izmir is now regularly draped in a sea of red and white, is aggressively nationalist, and remains the only part of the country which votes overwhelmingly for the CHP opposition. 

 The idea that 'if we can intergrate and assimilate, why can't they?' is a regular, and not a totally irrational view held by most of Izmir's CHP's naysayers - however it misses two important points. 

One Kemalist friend of mine in Izmir explained her way of thinking by comparing the problems Kurds of the South-East to those of the Laz people in the North - assimilated to the point that very few can actually speak the language. However, she completely ignored the idea that assimilation of the Laz was the only choice for that community, especially one so small in number. In any case, she focused her attention on how, despite poverty in the region, the Laz had been an utterly peaceful group. Because of the parametres defined by the unitary ideology of the CHP, believers have only been able to conceive of the Kurdish problem publicly as an economic problem. It is easier to dismiss cultural and social yearnings when, as in the case of the Laz and Aegean emigrant families, assimilation is a question of survival, not subjugation. As Republican-era general Fevzi Çakmak said in reference to the management of Kurdish/Zaza province of Dersim: "Dersim must be taken over as a colony. From there, it must be governed as a colony" (Doğan, Savrulanlar, p.99). The same mentality has never governed the other provinces of Turkey.

Never-the-less, the comparison to the Laz was very thought-provoking, and as with all my commentary, I do not claim to have the knowledge to analyse the contradiction in as much length or detail as it deserves. However, there is a fact which maybe useful to the debate, that may be argued as long as one accepts the notion that identity, and especially national identity, is taught - not ingrained.

Kurds in the School of Turkish Nationalism

Across primary and secondary schools all over the country and every national history museum from Anıt Kabir in Ankara, to the Gallipolli Memorial in Çanakkale, there are maps showing the horror story of what Turkey could have been, had Mustafa Kemal not allowed European Imperial powers to carve the remnants of the Ottoman Empire as they pleased. I tried to find a photograph on the internet which had been lifted directly from a textbook, but the closest example of a typical map is shown below. Notice that there is a red line showing the modern boundaries of Turkey, the holy Misak-ı Millî which were established with the treaty of Lausanne. This, combined with constant portrayal of the battle of Çanakkale as the founding victory which would begin a series of defeats and victories whose natural end was the Turkish Republic, the myth is extolled, that the current form and order of Turkey was the product of destiny. Whether it was, or was not - the point is that the image is taught to instill a sense of horror and gratitude that things could have been, well, smaller.


A nation, as it is defined through Turkish schooling, is a corporate entity where everyone must revear the flag, the state and the national language, amongst other demands.  For those who identify consciously as Kurds, however, the division of the nation is not a horror story, it is a reality - in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, as one can see on the map below. There is ample evidence to suggest that the Kurds have been schooled in nationalism by the Turkish state itselfi which sowed the seeds which would be reaped after decades under martial law and racist policies. After all, the early Kurdish revolts in the Republican period - namely under Sheikh Said, were as much concerned with promises broken by the regime regarding the Caliphate, as they were with its broken promises on autonomy and cultural rights.  

Despite problems related to the Kurdish minority in Iraq, Iran and Syria, Turkey has certainly fought the hardest and longest, and this should not be surprising as it is the only state which in its history has banned Kurdish, whilst claiming its non-existence even prefering the use of"Mountain Turks" in its formative years. Measures were also made to force the early Turkish press not to use 'Kurdish' as a term. Even to this day, in passing reference to the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkish news stations label the region 'Northern Iraq' - where one can imagine the spoken language is anything but 'Northern Iraqi'. 

Troubled Peace

This demonstrates how complicated finding peace in the coming months. So much socialising effort has gone in to teaching Turks that anyone unhappy to be Turk is not part of the nation, but that because of history, they simply have to be. Turkey's ability to rise above such ingrained ideological foundations could be the litmus test which sees whether the nation (all parts of it) can transend 20th century modernity, to a post-modern identity with greater inclusivity. At the time of writing, the government is drawing huge criticism for considering taking refererences to the 'Turkish Republic' out of the constitution - although this could may well be a side-show designed to keep the predictable, angry flag-wavers out of the Kurdish issue. It has shown to be a hugely successful strategy on several occassions, such as with the abortion remarks earlier last year.

In the meantime, some much can go wrong, but I'm holding my breath.


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