One dent at a time, Turkey’s nation-state edifice erodes
One of the first things that catches your attention when you drive out of the airport of Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s famous phrase engraved on mountain slopes in big white letters.
Bent on building a secular and modern Turkey after World War One, Ataturk carved a united Turkish nation out of the disparate ethnic and religious groups that inhabited the old Ottoman empire — sometimes by forced “Turkification” as was the case with ethnic Kurds.
That once-monolithic nation state is slowly being dented as pluralism becomes an acceptable fact of life in Turkish society.
Turkey’s announcement this week that it is preparing a “democratic opening” for Kurds has raised hopes the EU candidate country might launch bold reforms to end a conflict that has killed 40,000 people and brought pain to many more.
Cynics have been quick to point out the plan, which might include political, cultural and economic measures, is timed to pre-empt a “road map” that jailed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan has said he will announce on Aug. 15.
But regardless of its timing, there is no doubt that Turkey is changing.
Unthinkable only a few years ago, there is talk in Ankara’s corridors of power of a “Kurdish initiative”, an “Alevi initiative”, an “Armenian initiative” and even a “Greek Orthodox initiative”.
Ultra-nationalists and diehard statists are crying treason, fearing the dismemberment of the republic, and have accused the government of selling out Turkey to the European Union and the United States.
Some secular conservatives, always suspicious of a government with roots in political Islam, see change as part of a hidden plot to subvert Turkey’s secular constitution and promote religion in public life.
Many of these changes have been motivated by Ankara’s desire to join the EU and meet membership criteria, such as expanding rights to minorities and more free speech. Critics say the government is using the EU to advance its own agenda, and free the strictures on religious freedoms of Muslims.
But they also respond to demands from an increasingly dynamic, urban and diverse society open to global trends.
Bronze statues of Ataturk still gaze over Turkey decades after they were built but some of his ideals, such as a single Turkish nation using a single language, might be obsolete.
“Turkey belongs to the Turks,” goes another of Ataturk’s commonly cited phrases, but Turks are also more worldly.
The thriving middle class goes on holidays to Europe and other world destinations. News from all corners of the world is broadcast 24 hours a day. This has brought a different understanding toward diversity within its own borders.
The Kurdish, Alevi, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox initiatives reflect the growing pressure Turkey is facing to redefine a straightjacket notion of identity which no longer fits its society, analysts say.
Some newspapers have speculated the government is considering removing open displays of the “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk” slogan in the mainly Kurdish southeast to ease tensions. For years, Turkey’s official ideology had rejected the notion that Kurds were a separate ethnic group and the display of the slogans was seen as an attempt at forced assimilation.
“Turkey still has a long way to go to solve these issues, but the fact that we have moved from the stage of chronic problems to that of initiatives is noted by everyone,” Ibrahim Kalin wrote recently in the pro-government Zaman daily.