[Originally published in Turkish Daily News]
In last weekend’s edition of the Turkish Daily News, fellow columnist Orhan Kemal Cengiz had a brilliant piece titled “Western Kemalists do not understand Turkey.” His main point was that “Western Kemalists,” who are “huge fans of Atatürk and the ‘revolution’ he and his friends brought about in our country” fail to get Turkey right. They, for example, unquestioningly buy into the creation myth of Republican Turkey — that the pre-Republican (i.e., Ottoman) period was an age of “darkness.” By showing several examples, Mr. Cengiz argued otherwise. “After 80 years of the establishment of the Republic,” he wrote, “it is really difficult to say that, in terms of mentality, we are more advanced than the Ottomans.”
In return, a litany of fuming emails poured into the editorial desk of TDN, which bashed him for being a liar, or, at best, an “Islamist.” (That is the routine reaction you get in Turkey when you dare to criticize Kemalism.) The fact is that Mr. Cengiz is quite a secular — yet not necessarily a secularist — person whose devotions are toward humanist values. As a lawyer, he is the head of the Human Rights Agenda Association, and has persistently defended the rights of minorities in this country. His recent case was the massacre of three Christian missionaries in Malatya by a gang of ultra-nationalist thugs.
A Sort of Dogmatism
Of course, one does not need to be an “Islamist” to see problems with Turkey’s official ideology. Being able to think outside of the box would be enough. Mr. Cengiz pointed how the lack of that talent blinds “Western Kemalists.” I can only add that the eastern (i.e., local) ones are no different.
There is a very simple reason for that: Kemalism is a sort of dogmatism. Its adherents try to understand Turkish society and the world by looking at not the facts on the ground, but the rules of their creed. Kemalism says that every Turkish citizen will be happy by saying “I am a Turk,” for example. So Kemalists don’t care whether our Kurdish citizens really become happy by saying so. They just reiterate the mantra, hope that it will be embraced by all, and accuse the dissenters for “treason.”
Last weekend I was on the same TV program with Ümit Fırat, a liberal Kurdish intellectual who opposes both the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) terrorism and the state’s authoritarianism. He was jokingly saying that the People’s Republican Party (CHP), the incarnation of Kemalism in politics, was carrying its election campaign in Diyarbakır by playing the “10th Year Anthem” with loud speakers. For the Kurds, that anthem, which was composed in 1933, represents everything that they despise: An authoritarian state driven by Turkish racism and suppressive towards Kurdish identity. The CHP folks were apparently not smart enough to realize that they couldn’t win Kurdish hearts by that message. No wonder that CHP won less than 2 percent of the votes in Diyarbakır. (And probably all of that came from the military personnel and other civil servants in the city.) The AKP, on the hand, won more than 41 percent.
Kemalism is an obstacle to getting not only the Kurdish question, but also many other issues ranging from economics to diplomacy right. To be fair, I also have to acknowledge the existence of “progressive Kemalists,” who interpret Atatürk’s principles less literally and in harmony with democracy and freedom. I think they are great. The only problem is that they are a minority.
The other type of Turks you can find are the ones who have outgrown Kemalism in most issues, but who still suffer from the “Islamophobia,” or, to use a broader term, the “Theophobia” that it has injected to Turkish society.
Secular Apartheid Revisited
Which brings me to another fellow TDN columnist, Burak Bekdil. His smart, witty and sharp pieces are full of much wisdom, but I am afraid also present a lack of appreciation of religious freedom. This lately appeared to me in his Dec. 7 piece, “Did Anyone Say Secular Apartheid?” It was me who said that in my Dec. 1 piece, “Secular Apartheid At Work.” What I told was the tragedy of a 17-year-old schoolgirl who was pushed out of the stage in the ceremony of the essay competition that she won, simply because of her headscarf. In return, Mr. Bekdil reminded another recent misfortune of “four Turkish schoolgirls… who had been subjected to religious pressure from their schoolmates.” And this is what he concluded from all that:
“The incident about the schoolgirls who were pressured to practice Islam denotes a criminal case because such acts amount to an ‘offense’ under the law, whereas the incident about the schoolgirls who were humiliated because they were wearing the turban was not nice, but was perfectly in line with the laws and regulations now in effect.”
Yes!.. Perfectly true!.. And that’s why our regime indeed deserves to be called “secular apartheid.” Because the suppression of the rights of the religious citizens are carried out by the state and due to “laws and regulations.”
On the other side, there are some bigoted individuals and communities in society who put “religious pressure” on secular people. (Whereas bigoted secularists exert similar pressures on the religious in their own neighborhoods). I am of course against all such cases of social intolerance. But it is a much bigger problem when intolerance becomes state policy.
Is it really that hard to get that? Or is Kemalism even more blinding than I have assumed?