The shadow of the present over Dersim

The shadow of the present over Dersim

What started as an intra-party row within the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) has reignited debate over the controversial Dersim killings (1937-38) and turned into a debate between the opposition and the government.

In the end, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan apologized for the killings in the name of the state. It was a rare moment in Turkish political history, yet the heated debate is continuing not only between the government and the opposition, but among all the parties, including the Kurdish opposition party, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), as well as Alevis and the “Kızılbaş” (the so-called “Redheads” – a reference to the Alevi Kurds of Dersim).

Some have argued that the government is using the opportunity to harass the CHP, which was the ruling party at the time of the killings. In fact, the controversy plays into the hands of the governing party not just because it presents a big chance to blame the opposition party for its historical misdeeds, but also because it overshadows the troubled issue of its current foreign policy concerning Syria. It seems that Turkey’s involvement in a plan to topple the Syrian regime is increasing and that “the crucial moment” is approaching. No government in Turkey used to like to have an open debate on foreign policy, and the present government is no exception; on the contrary, the issue is even more “sensitive” now.

Still, any reason to discuss historical events should be considered a good opportunity to face up to Turkey’s troubled past. Nevertheless, Turkey is far from using such opportunities to engage in some honest self-criticism. On one hand, the CHP reacted against the questioning of its past in the most immature way and went into a defensive mode. On the other hand, nobody with the exception of the Kurdish opposition is willing to discuss the matter in relation to the present policies concerning the Kurdish question.

At the same time, the conservative right-wing political tradition is no less authoritarian and nationalistic than the Republican tradition in terms of authoritarian politics. However, the governing party, which is the latest representative of this tradition, is very reluctant to face up to the contribution that the conservative political discourse has made to authoritarianism in Turkey. On the contrary, all attempts to face up to the past become good excuses simply to focus on Republican secular politics and hide conservative authoritarianism behind the Republican secular one.

The purpose of coming to terms with the past should not simply be a matter of finding out “who was most responsible” for this or that event; coming to terms must also present an opportunity to question and review present politics in light of the past.

For the time being, it seems that present political concerns are still overshadowing efforts to remember the past in the interests of shedding light on the present.