Atatürk's Republic

Following Turkish News, Politics, Arts and Culture

Happy is he who calls himself a Turk

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With the hangover of the election upon, it is easy to feel like America has become a hopelessly divided society.  Left and Right have become identity markers that at times can seem to trump all other factors pulling people together or driving them apart.  The divisions currently plaguing  America were recently put in perspective by the sharper, more violent divides plaguing Turkey.  Turkey’s independence  day, known as Republic Day, celebrations last Monday marked by stark displays of Turkish disunity.  At center stage was the long-standing rivalry between the Islamist ruling party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish) and Turkish secularists, historically organized under Ataturk’s People’s Republican Party (CHP in Turkish).  Previous to the holiday, PM Erdoğan had announced that public celebrations in the capital would not be permitted due to vague threats of violence.  This ban unsurprisingly angered secular citizens, who hold state holidays in a quasi-sacred regard.  Erdoğan’s banning of independence day celebrations could be compared, over-dramatically but not inaccurately, to informing devote Christians that they would not be allowed to publicly celebrate Christmas.  The ensuing clashes between the police and protestors last Monday overshadowed the official ceremonies conducted by the Prime Minister, President and members of the military.  Simultaneous to the controversies surrounding the Independence Day celebrations, another protest with life or death consequences has been playing out in Turkey’s southeast.  For almost two months now, imprisoned ethnic Kurds have been engaging in a hunger strike.  Their demands for Kurdish language and cultural rights, namely Kurdish-language primary education and the right to use Kurdish when mounting their defense, seem ridiculously basic to an outsider, especially an American.

These two protests may seem to be completely unrelated, but they both highlight Turkey’s painful internal divisions.  The division between religious and secular as well as Turk and Kurd dates to the founding philosophy of the Republic.  Atatürk was a true believer in the ethnically homogeneous nation-state model.  After having lived through the violent shattering of the Ottoman Empire along ethno-religious lines, it is not surprising that Atatürk believed that a strong Turkey could only be built upon a base of national ethnic unity and modern sensibilities.  In theory, anyone could/can be Turk so long as they accepted boundaries defined by Atatürk, namely that a true Turkish citizen is someone who speaks the Turkish language, practices Turkish cultural norms and is nominally Muslim but secular in practice.  For decades pious Muslims, though undeniably “Turkish” in every other way, were considered an “outsider” group.  They were (are) members of the “unconverted” masses that were expected to eventually see the light of Kemalist secularism and join the ranks of their “modern” Turkish brethren.  Kurds were similarly expected to be converted into Turks.  In the early Republic, Kurds were denied to exist.   They were deemed to be “mountain Turks,” semi-savage Turks who had forgotten their heritage.  To help them “regain” their Turkishness, Kurdish cultural practices and the public use of the Kurdish language were outlawed.

Now that the AKP is in power, the oppressed are becoming the oppressors.  Though they rose from the ranks of the marginalized pious classes, the AKP is a product of Turkish emphasis on uniformity.  They have shown that they have only marginally more sympathy for other oppressed groups in Turkey than previous governments.  Less surprisingly, the AKP, like the secular governments of the early Republic, is attempting to make it’s version of Turkish history the dominate narrative.  The Republic Day incident is simply the latest in a long line of historic and cultural spin in Turkey, which has included the building of museums, mosques and a general emphasis on Ottoman (read: Turkish Muslim) history over other aspects of Turkey’s rich heritage.

Despite the recent exchange of choice words between Erdoğan and the leader of the CHP, I have hope that pious and secular Turks can work out their political difference because they are just that, political.  However, it seems almost too obvious to state that Turkey’s Kurdish minority will continue to undermine the stability of the Republic until Kurds are given the full rights they deserve.  The AKP and its leaders need to draw empathy from its own experience as political outsiders and give in to the demands of the Kurdish hungerstrikers.  The acceptance of Kurds as both a distinct minority and full Turkish citizens is the only way to defeat the PKK and ensure the future strength and stability of the Turkish state.  If Erdoğan could achieve this, and I believe that he has the power to do so, he could become the founder of era of e pluribus unum in Turkey.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

November 8, 2012 at 9:44 pm

One Response

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  1. […] least a step in toward addressing discrimination against Alevis.  As in the case of Turkey’s Kurdish minority, the AKP has recently been back sliding toward a more repressive position on Alevi rights.  An […]


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