MUSTAFA AKYOL mustafa-akyol
The fundamental design flaw of the Turkish Republic
HDN | 12/18/2009 12:00:00 AM | Mustafa AKYOL
In the beginning, the state said, 'Let there be no Kurds.' And it hoped that everybody would see this official light, and see that it was good.
On May 1, 1920, Mustafa Kemal, who would soon be the founder of the Turkish Republic, delivered an important speech at the Parliament in Ankara.
“The people who have formed this supreme assembly are not just Turks,” he said. “They are also Circassians, Kurds or Laz. They are all different components of Islam. They all respect each other, and each other’s ethnic, social and geographic rights.”
That was the time of Turkey’s War of Liberation (1919-1922). As the leader of this national struggle to save the homeland from European invaders, Mustafa Kemal used rhetoric that would appeal to all “components of Islam” in Asia Minor. (The non-Muslim component, the Armenians, was tragically expelled in 1915.)
[HH] The Republic to end all peace
In fact, Kemal was personally not the greatest fan of Islam, and believed in Turkish nationalism rather than a pluralist nation of various identities. But it was not the right time to voice such views.
So, over the next two years, he continued to speak about the “brotherhood” of all Muslim peoples, and especially the Turks and the Kurds, the two largest groups in Anatolia. Most Kurds put their faith in this message and supported the War of Liberation.
Once the war was won, however, Kemal’s rhetoric rapidly changed. When he announced the formation of the Turkish Republic in October 1923, he was no longer speaking of the “components of Islam that respect each other” but only “the Turkish nation.” The Constitution he orchestrated the following year took a bolder step. “The people of Turkey,” it announced, “are all called Turks regardless of their creed and ethnicity.”
The same year, Kemal also abolished the Caliphate and banned all Islamic schools, both highly popular among the religiously conservative Kurds of southeastern Anatolia.
The response came in early 1925, when a Kurdish revolt led by an Islamic sheik broke out. In return, the Kemalist government not only brutally suppressed the revolt, but also established martial law in the entire country, closing down opposition parties and even nongovernmental organizations. This heavy-handed policy led to other Kurdish revolts, which were, again, suppressed brutally. In the one that broke out in Dersim in 1937, the city was bombed by war planes.
One of the bomber pilots was Sabiha Gökçen, the adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal, whose name was recently given to the second airport in Istanbul. (The first one, of course, is named after her father, who took the surname Atatürk, “the father of all Turks,” in 1934.)
While suppressing the Kurdish revolts, Atatürk also initiated a policy of “Turkification.” Through education and propaganda, the Kurds were to be convinced that they were actually Turks who had regrettably forgotten their identity. “Our Diyarbakır is the home of the pure Oğuz Turk [of Central Asia],” Atatürk said in 1932. “We are all children of that home.”
“The land of the Turk is great, and it is only him that is great on Earth,” he added. “The Turk fills everywhere. And the face of the Turk enlightens every corner.”
This cult of Turkishness was the Kemalist solution to the Kurdish question. If the state venerated Turkishness enough, while banning all expressions of Kurdishness, or so the reasoning went, the “problem” would be solved.
[HH] From state to society
That was the fundamental design flaw of the Turkish Republic: The belief that the state has the right, and the power, to transform the society into whatever it wills.
The state simply said, “Let there be no Kurds.” And it hoped that everybody would see this official light, and see that it was good.
Personally, I object to this project on philosophical grounds. I believe that society, and the individuals that make up it, precede the state. Thus the state should be constructed according to the aspirations of the society – not the other way around.
But even those Turks who don’t have such philosophical objections to the state’s right to transform society are now at least accepting that it lacks the power to do so. Even some Kemalists now realize that the Kurds cannot be “educated” anymore to realize that they are actually “pure Oğuz Turks.”
So what should we do now?
The rational answer is to fix the fundamental design flaw of the Republic. To make it, in another words, a democratic state that respects the plurality of the society, rather than an authoritarian one that imposes an official identity and ideology.
This is what the liberal intellectuals who yearn for a “Second Republic” have been arguing all along. And the incumbent Justice and Development Party, or AKP, despite its all other mistakes and shortcomings, has taken the boldest steps toward this democratization since 2002.
However, we face two huge obstacles: First, many Turks are passionately devoted to preserving the design flaw, which has become a part of their national secular religion. They are resisting change by all means necessary.
Secondly, some Kurds have become so nationalist now that it might not be possible to win them over anymore with democratic reforms. Their resentment to the rest of Turkey has reached levels that are really hard to reconcile.
The design flaw of the Republic, in other words, has created a very flawed society as well.
That is why I am not terribly optimistic about the future of this matter.