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The future of Turkish-Kurdish relations

Dialogue no. 4, April 2006, between Khaled Salih and Mensur Akgun


Khaled Salih: Modern Turkey is a difficult entity to categorize. It can qualify as a failed state, with institutionalized intolerance and regional disparity, or a functioning electoral democracy. However any discussion, description, analysis of and prescription for Turkey must be more specific to render it meaningful.

My starting point is that Turkey is one of the slowest countries, especially compared to EU members, to transform from an authoritarian and dictatorial political system to a liberal democracy, though it formally abolished its single-party system before any former communist country that is now a member of the EU, and even before reforms in Greece, Spain and Portugal were introduced. The main reasons are, and will remain for years, its Kemalist ideology, institutions and political practices.

Kemalism, as a basic idea on which the Turkish state is built, was a top-down and internally aggressive modernizing nationalism. It denied the complexity and diversity of the population of the remaining Ottoman Empire. In sharp contrast to India after independence, Kemal Ataturk and his followers embarked on state-building that strongly emphasized the transformation of society by creating a new one in the image of an abstract idea rather than by negotiating a state and a society that would reflect the reality on which they were based. Its driving impulse was to eliminate differences within the new state through denial, assimilation, repression and strong centralization instead of managing the country’s diversity, which would have allowed for the plurality of ideas, identities and possible solutions.

Ironically, several decades of denial of Islamic identity ended up with an Islamist government eagerly negotiating with the EU, through which it hopes to create elements of freedom of religion in Turkey. Several decades of aggressive denial of plurality of identities, brutal repression and assimilationist policies drove the country toward militarization, military coups and several years of military confrontation with the Kurds.

Most Kurds hope that, within the EU accession negotiation process, imposed elements of liberal democracy will provide grounds to find new solutions for the Turkish (not Kurdish) problem in Turkey. However, in the coming decade or so, Turkish difficulties in adjusting to new conditions might, and probably will, lead to tensions and confrontations inside the country and with EU negotiators, because many within the military, the bureaucracy and the media are powerful enough to protect and preserve the illiberal or anti-liberal elements of Turkish nationalism.

Mensur Akgun: Thank you very much for taking the lead in initiating this discussion. I found some of your comments and analysis agreeable and some disagreeable. But since our intention in this discussion is not "academic", I will not go into the details of your comments and analysis. I don't think we can reach a totally converging interpretation of history.

What I would suggest is to emancipate ourselves from the nationalist discourse of both the Kurdish and Turkish kind. Let us take current conditions as given and discuss ways to improve them. We shouldn't lose time in instrumentalizing history for our "nationalist" agendas. There seem to be misunderstandings on both sides of the border. Let's talk about them. We are destined to live together and next to each other.

Moreover, considering the problems prevailing in Iraq and the democracy deficit in the Kurdish part of it, I would not bother myself so much with the problems of democratization in Turkey. Please don't get me wrong, but the current state of affairs is not as gloomy as you portray it. There are, of course, illiberal elements in this country, however their impact is rather modest. If you follow the results of the current debate between TUSIAD (Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association) and the prime minister, I am sure you can give some credit to my progressive interpretation.

For a better understanding of the democratization attempts in Turkey, I would recommend that you check the regular reports of the EU Commission. They are rather impartial and summarize both progress and setbacks.

However, just for the record, as a political scientist I wouldn't compare Turkey with India or with any failed state. I don't know what you mean by functioning electoral democracy, either. But I haven't seen any criticism directed toward the electoral system in Turkey for quite some time, though I may have to check the OSCE reports. If you have any vindication of your passing reference, I would be happy to know it.

On the other hand, you may be right with respect to Kemalist ideology. Kemalism may have embarked on state-building (and also nation-building) by creating a new state in the image of an abstract idea rather than negotiating a state and society that would reflect the reality on which they were based. But who didn't do the same while creating a nation?

As I said, we can debate history forever and we can try to support and base our positions with selective information. But this doesn't lead us anywhere. Let's be more concrete and exchange ideas on the solution of the problems, most of which emanate from misunderstanding.

Khaled Salih: I would like to pick up two points in your response. My comparison with India is based on the conspicuous contrast between India and Turkey in terms of official ideology and “national identity”. While modern India is based on acceptance and recognition of societal diversity, Turkey is based on denial and suppression of differences. Given the complexity of the Indian state and its population, this huge country has been remarkable in managing linguistic, religious, caste, ethnic, national and regional differences.

In contrast, Turkey’s strategy to eliminate Kurdish nationalism, religious identity of various groups and regional differences is a failure. Instead of “unity through diversity” (India), Kemalists have imposed unity through the elimination of differences (a strategy adopted by authoritarian state-builders in Europe between the 1920s and 1940s, as well as communist regimes). Canada, Belgium, Switzerland and post-Franco Spain are examples worth serious consideration by Turkish politicians, activists and academics in helping Turkey to become a liberal democracy.

The second point is that I do not believe Turkey’s problems “emanate from misunderstanding”. They are the result of a specific ideology, as well as specific institutional designs, policies and political practices.

However, I do agree with you that Turkey needs to solve these problems quickly and effectively. It is in the interests of Europe and the peoples of Turkey, as well as democracy, peace and stability. The Turkish political system has witnessed a wide range of changes in the past few years, which is good but not enough. Turkey needs fundamental transformation of its political system, a transformation similar to the European Union’s new members and post-Apartheid South Africa, but not post-communist Russia, meaning a constitutional, institutional and mental revolution (or dramatic evolution). The EU’s accession negotiations provide a golden opportunity for Turkey’s urgently needed transformation.

In relation to the Turkish problem with the Kurds, Turkey should deepen and broaden its democratization process to include the Kurds. A decentralized Turkey does not mean weakness; as in Greece and Spain, genuinely democratized systems that are linked to the EU mechanisms of regional cooperation can in fact strengthen the country. Group recognition can be seen as a sign of strength. It is easier to mobilize loyalty to a liberal democratic state based on democratic citizenship, shared interests and values, than to a system characterized by fear of suppression and assimilation. Arrangements in the UK to meet the demands of Scottish, Welsh and Irish national aspirations should inspire the current transformation in Turkey. Or, why not transform Turkey of the post-Helsinki era into a multinational and multilingual state (as in post-Franco Spain) based on the right to autonomy of nationalities and regions? Wouldn’t that help Turkey create a society of pluralism, tolerance, justice, solidarity, and non-discrimination, as expressed in the draft of the EU’s constitution?

Mensur Akgun: I am afraid I wasn't able to convey my message to you correctly. I didn't mean to criticize your interpretation of history. You may be right in comparing Turkey with India. Social sciences present us with enormous possibilities when it comes to choosing criteria for classification and clustering. One can always find an excuse for comparison to vindicate one's own view. Our literature is full of selective political interpretations that don’t lead anywhere and merely solidify the usual nationalist discourse.

As I suggested before, let’s go beyond history and talk about the current problems. Although I am not as liberal as you are, I agree with you that Turkey should change. Without doubt, Turkey's democracy offers cause for much criticism. But stimulating such a change will also require some sacrifices from the Kurdish side. Kurdish intellectuals, including yourself, should be ready to accept democratic self-determination within the existing borders of the countries they are living in. They should be ready to condemn every form of terrorism and refrain from extending support to organizations like the PKK.

Accepting democratic self-determination doesn't necessarily mean unconditional support for the territorial integrity of Iraq. Other factors, such as an untimely withdrawal of American troops, may lead to a total collapse in Iraq or even to a civil war, and the Kurds may have no option but to establish their own independent state. If this happens, the Kurdish state, for its own security and economic prosperity, should find ways to reconcile its differences with Turkey. Kurds in northern Iraq can have no better friends in the region than their northern neighbors.

Turkey with its large Kurdish population, functioning democracy, secular tradition, EU prospects, NATO, OSCE, Council of Europe membership and its political influence both in the region and elsewhere can be the best country to rely on. Even in a territorially intact Iraq, Kurds have a lot to gain from Turkey's friendship. Needless to say, the same is valid for Turkey too. Therefore for our next round I suggest to focus on bridging the differences, rather than on the differences themselves, and definitely not on the interpretation of history solidifying these differences.

Khaled Salih: I am not trying to find an excuse for comparison to vindicate and solidify my nationalist discourse. As a student of comparative politics, I’m puzzled why India did not take a path similar to Kemalism and why Turkey did not produce ideas resembling Nelson Mandela’s. These are legitimate academic and intellectual points from which one can learn a great deal.

I welcome democratic self-determination for the Kurds within the existing borders of the Middle East. None of my earlier suggestions addressed border issues. I am concerned with internal political systems and orders. A liberal democratic political order in Turkey, Iran, Iraq or Syria will much more easily deal with sensitive issues such as language, nationality, multiple identities, self-government, land rights, recognition of and compensation for past injustice, “national” security, shared sovereignty and issues of violence.

It is not difficult to agree with you that a Turkey tied to EU processes is the best option for Kurdistan in Iraq. In order to build trust among Kurdish leaders, Turkey’s politicians and military bureaucracy should abandon the dual strategy of threatening the entity while offering themselves as its only viable ally. A secular and democratic Kurdistan will be an asset to Turkey because it can function as a buffer-zone against Islamic radicalism in the Arab part of Iraq. Such an entity would certainly contribute to strengthening the democratic trend in the region. If Turkish politicians publicly accept Kurdistan as a divided territory, acknowledge the trans-state character of Kurdish self-determination, provide a democratic space for Kurds to express themselves freely, and relinquish discussing Kurdishness and Kurdistan as acts of treason, then Kurdish moderate and democratic parties and organizations would help to marginalize radical groups, as we have seen among the Basques.

There is momentum for a dramatic move now. How about Turkey’s prime minister announcing (paraphrasing the Turkish foreign minister’s recent move on the issue of Cyprus): “There are only two options on Kurdistan. We can either leave the problem frozen as it is, which benefits nobody, or we can move forward. The Kurds are not doing anything to find a solution, so we have come forward with an idea that responds to the expectations of the EU and the UN. Representatives of Kurdish organizations in all parts of Kurdistan and concerned governments in the region are invited to a conference in Ankara, under the auspices of the EU and UN. I’m sure we will find an inclusive, peaceful and democratic mechanism sooner than we anticipate.”

Mensur Akgun: I think we are approaching a common understanding. I am glad to see you are talking and writing on democratic self determination where each and every individual can decide on his or her own political fate at the ballot box, within the existing borders of the countries of the region. I also believe that you renounced violence, although not unconditionally as one might expect from a liberal democrat.

I hope I am wrong, but it seems to me that the only remaining difference between us is in the instrumentality of the ballot box. I tend to believe that elections and democracy are not a means to an end but, when implemented properly, an end in themselves. As far as I read your comments, you seem to see them in your case as a means to national ends. Your emphasis on the trans-border character of Kurdish self-determination reminds me of a pan-Kurdish nationalist ideology. I am ready to support every right envisaged in the treaties and constitutions, but my support will stop at any type of nationalist ideology, including Turkish.

It is indeed true that we have to have liberal democracies in all these countries you named. However, as you will see through your own experience in Iraq, if not in northern Iraq, wishing to have a liberal democracy is not the same as actually having it. Conducting fair elections does not necessarily mean liberal democracy. Even if you sign all the international treaties protecting liberties and become a member of all the possible international organizations, internalizing the norms of liberal democracy may take time.

I agree with your comment that Turkey's politicians and military bureaucracy should take further steps toward the Kurds in Iraq (indeed, I have written extensively on this very issue in the Turkish press). Governments can take bold decisions, but public resistance should also be taken into account. In democratic societies one should always consider the opposition. I also agree with the essence of your suggested announcement. But no prime minister, including Erdogan, can be expected to commit domestic political suicide. The Cyprus and Kurdish issues are both major issues in Turkey now, but they are fundamentally quite different.

As I previously indicated, change will come incrementally though mutual understanding and confidence building. May I once more suggest that for our next round of correspondence, you write about any indicator or development that might boost confidence on this side?

Khaled Salih: My sense is that you are retreating from your initiative for self-determination because you avoid considering a rearrangement of the political order even within the existing borders by confining the concept to individual rights. You know very well that Kurds in Turkey are denied basic rights because they are Kurds, otherwise how can you explain that the Kurdish language, names and even letters, such as in Newroz (officially only allowed as Nevroz), have been forbidden for so many decades despite reform attempts in Turkey? A Turkish woman can be called Turkan, but a Kurdish woman named Kurdistan is still denied the right to travel with Turkish Airlines, let alone to enter Turkey or register with that name.

You label my note on the trans-state character of Kurdish self-determination as a pan-Kurdish ideology, but seem to suggest that idolatry of artificial borders is a neutral proposition. People are free to worship whatever they prefer, but remember that at the beginning of 1900 there were roughly 25 entities (states) in our world, while 100 years later the number has risen to 200. These are human creations and subject to change. The ultimate question is under what conditions these entities can be maintained or altered: whether they break up violently (Yugoslavia) or peacefully (Czechoslovakia); whether they are rearranged peacefully (Spain, Belgium, Switzerland, Canada), or violently (Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s). I prefer a peacefully renegotiated political order in Turkey.

You may think that the cases of Cyprus and Kurdistan are not comparable, but I think differently. It is about finding viable and peaceful solutions for fundamental conflicts, irrespective of international recognition (Cyprus) or denial (Kurdistan). The first case is about the external ambition of a state (irredentism), the second about internal hegemony and domination (Marxists call it internal colonialism). Recognition is the first step toward a constructive solution. Neither Mandela nor the apartheid leaders committed political suicide by agreeing to create a new political order in South Africa.

If you believe that Erdogan should avoid political suicide, then I suggest that TUSIAD organize an EU-supported confidence-building conference to identify the basic problems and propose mechanisms and procedures for finding a peaceful solution for the Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Turkey. There are peaceful Kurdish institutions, organizations and individuals willing to contribute, but I suggest the conference be held in Brussels so that participants are not arrested and don’t face the same charges as Orhan Pamuk the moment they refer to southeast Turkey and northern Iraq as Kurdistan.

Mensur Akgun: It seems that we will not be able to bridge our differences even in this last round. Yet it was a great pleasure to exchange ideas with you. We certainly need more time to develop a common vision and a better understanding of each other's position. I have a few final comments, or rather clarifications.

Let me begin with borders. As you well know, questioning the authenticity of borders is a process that invites chaos and turmoil. Territorial integrity and the inviolability of borders are almost sacred in international law. You and I can easily name tens of international instruments referring to the fundamental value of the interstate system. If the aim of collective self-determination is human emancipation, this can be achieved in a democracy via respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

With regard to conferences with peaceful Kurdish institutions, they are already taking place. For instance, in early March the Helsinki Citizens Assembly of Turkey and the Empathy Group organized a major conference on the Kurdish question at Istanbul Bilgi University. Turks and Kurds debated the problem and nobody has so far been arrested. Needless to say, this was not the only conference organized on this subject. But of course, I don't have any objection to organizing a conference in Brussels.

Your reference to the Orhan Pamuk case seemed to me an attempt to demonize Turkey in the eyes of our readers. The case was filed against him by a group of nationalist lawyers and was subsequently found inadmissible in court. Like any other democratic country, Turkey unfortunately has its fanatics who equate anything they don't like with treason. With further democratization, I am sure their voices will be heard less and their influence will drop.

Finally, I hope Kurds on both sides of the border will support Turkey in her efforts to democratize, and will denounce the use of force, that is to say terrorism, as a means to political ends. There are plenty of Kurds in Turkey and obviously more on the other side of the border.

I look forward to meeting you soon.

Mensur Akgun is the foreign policy director of TESEV, the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation. He is associate professor of political science at Kultur University, Istanbul, and columnist for the daily Referans. Khaled Salih is a senior lecturer in Middle East politics at the University of Southern Denmark. He is coeditor (with Brendan O'Leary and John McGarry) of The Future of Kurdistan in Iraq (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).