[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
In the past five decades of Turkish political history, never has so much been hoped for by so many from so few.
The so few I am referring to are the leaders of the AKP government, and the ex-AKP politician, President Abdullah Gül. And the so many I am speaking about are the millions of Turkish citizens who have felt that they have been pushed aside and looked down upon by the state. Some of them are practicing Muslims who yearn for wider religious freedom, and some are Kurds who aspire for broader civil liberties.
Let me focus on the latter group, which has been joyfully welcoming President Gül this week in some of Turkey’s poorest cities and towns. In his very first trip, the newly elected president decided to visit Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish areas and sought to give them messages of hope and unity.
He emphasized Turkey’s cultural diversity, which was an obvious reference to the recognition of ethnic differences, and said that the country should seek unity in diversity. In return, he was greeted by affectionate crowds which showered him flowers, blessings and prayers.
From Young Turks to Sezer
To fully understand the importance of this mutual embracing between the president and the most marginalized elements of his society, one needs to contrast President Gül with his predecessor, President Sezer. In his seven-year term, Sezer not only refrained from making any public appearances in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish areas, but also abstained from even pronouncing the term Kurd, or even euphemisms such as ethnic diversity.
I had never heard him uttering the “K” word, and thus I recently Googled him to check whether I missed something. It turned out that he mentioned the Kurd citizens only once in his long years in office, and that happened when he was asked about it during a trip to Italy. (Similarly, he mentioned the term religious freedom only once, when he was asked about it by Pope Benedict XVI.)
It is no accident that President Gül is very different from President Sezer on these issues, because the two men represent totally different political paradigms. Gül is the president of the people, as I call him, while Sezer was the president of the state institutions which think that people need to be subdued and guided.
The origins of the latter view go back to the Young Turks, who dominated Ottoman political scene in the last two decades of the empire. Princeton historian Şükrü Hanioğlu notes that the Young Turks, although they frequently referred to the chic French motto of Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite were actually driven by biological materialism, positivism, Social Darwinism, and Gustave Le Bon’s elitism. They, according to Hanioğlu, defended an enlightenment from above and opposed the idea of a supposed equality among fellow citizens.
When the Turkish Republic was founded, the Young Turk worldview reformulated itself in the form of Kemalism, and became the official ideology. Its main goal was to create a modern and homogeneous Turkish nation. In this well disciplined and enlightened society, no women would cover her head and no citizen would speak a language other than Turkish.
It was this authoritarian modernization project that sparked Turkey’s Kurdish question. In the Ottoman Empire, there was no such trouble. Kurds were an accepted and free element of the empire, and nobody had any problem with their language or culture. (After all, the empire was Islamic, and the Koran says, in verse 30:22, that the existence of different languages and races on earth is a sign of God’s majesty.)
The Ottoman rulers saw no problem in even creating a Kurdistan province in the second half the 19th century. They have faced a few Kurdish revolts, but these were rebellions of local Kurdish notables who did not want to pay high taxes. Their motive was not Kurdish nationalism, which was popular only among a handful of secular intellectuals.
Yet soon Kurdish nationalism would erupt as a popular movement and the reason would be nothing but the excesses of Turkish nationalism. The harder the Republic tried to assimilate the Kurds and erase their culture, the more they grew radical and even violent.
From Özal to Gül
For all these reasons, Turkey’s Kurdish question can never be solved by people who cling to the Young Turk/Kemalist mindset. It is that very mindset which created the problem, and, unfortunately, it still insists on staying the course on the same disastrous policies.
No wonder figures like President Sezer or Deniz Baykal, the leader of the People’s Republican Party (CHP), have never gained sympathy among Turkey’s Kurdish citizens. In the recent elections, the CHP’s overall vote in the predominantly Kurdish cities was below five percent. Even that looked too much to me, until I was informed by a Kurdish friend, The CHP gets votes in the region from civil servants and military personnel and almost no Kurd would ever consider voting for them.
Yet there have been political leaders in Turkish history that Kurds sympathize with, and they have always been from the non-Kemalist tradition of Turkish politics, and especially from the line of Islamic/liberal synthesis. Turgut Özal was the perfect example, who, as a devout Muslim and a promoter of liberty, won many hearts and minds among the Kurds — and not just in Turkey, but also in Iraq.
Today President Gül and the Erdoğan government continue with the tradition of President Özal. When the Kurdish citizens look at them, they see not sinister autocrats that look down upon them, but modest democrats who share their values and understand their yearning for freedom.
This is a big opportunity for Turkey, to be sure, but also a big responsibility for the president and prime minister. Gül has made a good start, and he should continue with the same courage and determination. There are indeed so many who expect so much from him.