Antonio Gramsci’s famous statement that “the old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear,” though penned as early as the 1930s, captures and expresses eloquently the transformative and ambivalent nature of the world in which we live. One of the sites at which such transformation and ambivalence has occurred is that of “the political” where particularistic identity claims have begun to increasingly dictate the mode of articulation of political practices and ideological/discursive forms in national and global relations. This politics has a name: the politics of identity. Debates over multiculturalism and Islamophobia in the West and North America, the rise of religious fundamentalism and meta-racism, and the dissemination of ethnic conflicts in various places in the world, to name a few, constitute different manifestations of the politics of identity. Identity politics could constitute a ground for what William Connolly calls “the ethos of pluralization” as the ineradicable dimension of democracy. Yet it is through political claims to identity that the (communitarian) attempts at renouncing a democratic vision of society operate and assume self-referential legitimacy, as in the cases of ethno-nationalism, meta-racism and religious fundamentalism.
Turkey would not constitute an exception in this sense, and this paper attempts to analyze critically the identity politics in Turkey by focusing on what has come to be known as “the Kurdish question”. Since the 1980s, Turkish politics has increasingly been marked by the tension between the universal and the particular, where at stake is the clash between the secular national identity as the bearer of cultural homogenization and the revitalization of the language of difference through the resurgence of Islam, the reemergence of Kurdish nationalism in organized form, the non-Muslim minority question, the Headscarf Affair, and the sexual question. Despite significant differences among them, all these movements directly challenge the unifying discourse of Turkish national identity on the basis of which secularist and state-centric Turkish modernity reproduces itself.
Of these movements, the “Kurdish question” has been most politically troublesome and challenging. The Kurdish question has placed ethnicity at the center of Turkish politics, while also causing a very bloody and violent ethnic conflict, or “low-intensity war” between government forces and the PKK (the Kurdish Workers Party); a war that has left almost 40,000 people dead; more than 1,000,000 people displaced; and a society highly polarized, intolerant, and facing a serious risk of segregation. The Kurdish question has involved not only a growing Kurdish ethnic assertiveness in the form of identity politics which claims for the “recognition” of difference, but also and more importantly and devastatingly “a campaign of violence” and terrorist activities of the PKK. Thus, the demand for recognition has gone hand in hand with violence and terror, making it almost impossible to separate discursively and politically the politics of identity from that of war. As Cizre correctly puts it, “The harshness of the present armed conflict between the state security forces and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) reinforces the belief that Kurdish nationalism is not a simple expression of discontent, but a movement that demands changing the boundaries of the Turkish entity”. In fact, today, it is not possible to make Turkish modernity multicultural, Turkish democracy consolidated, Turkish economy sustainable, Turkish society a society of living together; and Turkish foreign policy proactive, multidimensional, and effective, without solving, or at least disarming, the Kurdish question.
Despite the recent efforts and calls for its democratic solution based on deliberation and democracy, the embeddedness of identity claims into violent ethnic conflict has also rendered impossible a critical and problem-solving analysis of the Kurdish question. Instead it has become an effective heuristic device for Turkish and Kurdish nationalist discourses to establish themselves as hegemonic in the political arena. These seemingly antagonistic nationalist discourses have acted in a strikingly similar fashion; both have securitized the Kurdish question, established a sharp disconnect between security and liberty, as well as security and democracy, and in doing so, privileged the former as the foundational ground on which the question is supposed to be dealt with. Rather than theoretical efforts aiming at providing an historical and critical analysis of the Kurdish question, it is the securitization of the political and societal polarizations that have dictated the way in which the question has been framed and dealt with. Thus, the Kurdish question has been used and abused by both the state-centric Turkish nationalism and Kurdish ethno-nationalism, in their seemingly antagonistic, yet politically and epistemologically almost identical modes of discourse and practice.
In recent years, especially since 2000, Turkey has been undergoing a significant transformation process whose manifestations have been felt in politics, economy, culture, and foreign policy. Yet, the Kurdish question has remained hostage to violence and terror, and has sunk more and more into the grip of securitization and ethno-nationalism. In this era, Turkey has been governed by a strong majority government formed by the AK Party (the Justice and Development Party) It has begun its full accession negotiations with the European Union, and has become one of the key regional and global actors of globalization in the areas of security and economy. It has also achieved economic dynamism even at a time when the global economy has been confronted by severe crises. Moreover, Turkey has initiated what has come to be known as “the democratic opening” with the intention of introducing a reform package in the areas of minority rights and freedoms concerning education, broadcasting, organization and expression of cultural difference; has started the state-based negotiations with the PKK for the disarmament of the Kurdish question, while the pro-Kurdish party the BDP (the Peace and Democracy Party) has increased its power and influence in the 12 June 2011 national elections by obtaining 36 independent MPs. Yet, these changes unfortunately did not rescue the Kurdish question from violence, terror, and ethno-nationalism. Today, while Turkey’s active globalization and Europeanization are increasing its global visibility, it continues to suffer inside from the on-going low-intensity war between the Turkish state and the PKK; from the growing risk of becoming an ethnically-divided, polarized, and conflict-prone society; as well as from the endurance of the dominance of the language of security and conflict over democracy and liberty.
It should be pointed out, however, that the Kurdish problem in its historicity has been dynamic and open to reconstructions, as Turkey and its modernity has undergone crises and transformation. It is in the recognition of the dynamic character of the Kurdish question that lies its democratic solution. In this paper; I will suggest that the democratic solution to the Kurdish question lies in; (a) a critical analysis of state-centric Turkish modernity and its recent crisis, in order to show that since the inception of the Turkish Republic as a modern and independent nation state in 1923, the Kurdish identity has always been constructed as the Other of Turkish national identity; and (b) an attempt aiming at a democratic reconstruction of the political in Turkey, which sees a multicultural and differentiated understanding of constitutional citizenship as a constitutive norm of “living together in diversity”. By doing so, it would be possible to seek a feasible and effective solution to the Kurdish question not in “ethnic terms,” but by exploring possible ways of “articulating identity-claims to citizenship rights with an emphasis on the practice of democracy”. Of course, such an articulation, as Benhabib correctly points out, requires first abandoning a false dichotomy drawn between identity and citizenship, second an attempt to go beyond the purely legal-universal conception of citizenship, and finally, by approaching citizenship and identity from a perspective that sees modern citizenship not only as a legal and political membership in a nation-state, but also as an articulating principle for the recognition of group rights. Such recognition as the rights of the Other requires an enlarged understanding of citizenship including not only individual and group rights, but also its “denationalization”. As will be noted, the Kurdish question during the 2000s has been organized and voiced increasingly with reference to the idea of equal and constitutional citizenship as a result mainly of Turkey’s European integration process. To substantiate these arguments, let me start with a brief analysis of Turkish modernity.
As Feroz Ahmad correctly observes, “Turkey did not rise phoenix-like out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. It was ‘made’ in the image of the Kemalist elite which won the national struggle against foreign invaders and the old regime.” In the process of “making,” the primary aim of the Kemalist elite was to “reach the contemporary level of civilization” by establishing its political, economic, and ideological prerequisites, such as the creation of an independent nation-state, the fostering of industrialization, and the construction of a secular and modern national identity. Kemalist elite’s understanding of civilization was premised on the equation of modernity with progress, that is, on the making of a modern nation through the introduction and dissemination of Western Reason and rationality into what was regarded as traditional and backward social relations.
Moreover, Kemalism as a project of modernity operated as a social engineering project that aims at creating a modern nation in a social formation where the material and institutional availability of the conception of modern nation was absent. The creation of a modern nation was achieved through the state acting not an arbitrary institution nor an expression of class interest, but an active agent that while taking its inspiration from the genuine feelings and desires of the nation, shapes and reshapes it to elevate the people to the level of contemporary (Western) civilization. Therefore, the Kemalist idea of the state was embedded in the question of how to construct a national identity compatible with the will to civilization. It is for this reason that the Kemalist elite initiated a set of reforms imposed from above with the aim of enlightening the people and helping them make progress. These reforms were namely those of republicanism, nationalism, etatism, secularism, populism, and revolutionism-reformism (from above).
What is important for our purpose here is that these reforms have also functioned to create an organic vision of society, a unity between the Turkish state and the nation. It is through sthese reforms and the assumed unity between the state and the nation that Kemalist nationalism initiated its boundary-producing performance between the self and the Other. Hence, the national identity was meant to be an organic unity of the secular and national non-class based identity which necessarily involved the subjugation of its Other, i.e. the Kurdish identity, Islamic identity and non-Muslim minorities. This identity was the citizen as the symbol of secularism and civilization, virtuous enough to privilege state interest over her/his own interest, and the other was expected to accord primacy to citizenship over difference.
To the degree that the Kemalist discourse of nation as an organic unity between the state and the people (constructed discursively as citizen-subject) acted successfully, the Kurdish question did not appear as the politics of identity. Even the Shaikh Said rebellion in 1925, the major reaction to the newly found republic, contained references to religion, economic backwardness of the region and the centralizing policies of the state. In this period, the Kurdish question was “silenced,” “frozen into history as the Other” and “assimilated” into the Kemalist discourse of nation as “consisting of a group of people who inhabited the same piece of land, who were bound by the same laws, and shared a common morality and language”. As Yeğen points out, the exclusion of the Kurdish identity from the modernity project takes the form of “concealment” which finds its clear expression in “the striking silence of the Turkish state as to the ‘Kurdishness’ of the Kurdish question: Whenever the Kurdish question was mentioned in Turkish state discourse, it was in terms of reactionary politics, tribal resistance or regional backwardness, but never as an ethno-political question.”
In the period from the 1920s to the 1980s, the Kurdish question remained not as a question of identity nor an ethno-political act for recognition, but as a “regional problem” stemming from the pre-modern and tribal formation of the economic and cultural backwardness: a regional problem whose solution should be sought in the assimilation of the Kurdish question into the discourse of political modernity as a unity between state and its people. It can be argued, therefore, that the emergence of the Kurdish question as the politics of identity involving an ethnic claim to recognition occurs in the 1980s, especially in the 1990s. In other words, in the last two decades, Turkish modernity has witnessed the transformation of the Kurdish question into the politics of identity, which can no longer be concealed, silenced or frozen into history as a regional question. In what follows, I try to explain the main reasons for this transformation.
The crisis of Turkish modernity
Turkey’s exposure to globalization since the 1980s, as well as its European integration process which has deepened since 2000, while starting Turkey’s radical transformation process in almost every sphere of social life, has also triggered the crisis of Turkish modernity. The state-centric, assertively secular, and homogenous idea of modernity and national identity has been strongly challenged from external and internal factors, whose manifestations have given rise to a variety of significant developments in politics, economy, and culture. While the resurgence of Islam has created its own political parties which have ended the political dominance of center-right and center-left parties, the politics of identity emerged as a new dimension of Turkish politics and modernity. In addition, with Turkey’s exposure to globalization, Turkish economy has been restructured by neoliberal market norms and discourse. All of these general developments, have continued and their importance and impact have grown, creating the most powerful political party in Turkish history and its unbeatable strong majority government, that is, the AK Party; the most troublesome and fundamental problem confronting Turkey, that is, the Kurdish question; and the most powerful ideology of Turkish politics and economy, that is, neoliberal free market rationality. In this process, Turkish modernity has begun to face the crisis of legitimacy and representation.
The crisis and transformation of the Turkish modernity has manifested itself in the fragmentation of political culture, the growing importance of society as a site of resisting the strong state tradition, and the multiplication of societal actors in economic and cultural spheres of life. The fragmentation of political culture meant the crisis of the state-centric and monolithical understanding of secular reason, organic society, and the republican (duty-based) model of citizenship, which has given rise to different claims to identity and recognition. Political culture has become a site at which a discursive space occurred for the redefinition of the Kurdish question with a strong and ethno-nationalist emphasis on identity, and thus the “Kurdishness” of the Kurdish question reemerged as a claim for ethnic recognition. Moreover, the historical context in which this momentum has occurred is not only national but global. Neoliberal economic globalization, the end of the Cold War, the Gulf War, the regional integration in Europe, Turkey’s application to EU for the full membership status, the post-9/11 world: all have made significant contributions to the growing importance and effect the Kurdish question as the politics of identity/recognition.
Moreover, as Cizre argues, in this context that “in contrast with the cold war times when the physical conflict dimension of Kurdish nationalism was almost non-existent, the post-cold war momentum for Kurdish nationalism came from two sources: the force of the official redefinition of the Turkish nation with a strong dose of ethnic homogeneity and the process of global change”. The official response to the radicalism of Kurdish nationalism has been to narrow the political space to Kurdish “identity claims”. More importantly, continues Cizre, “this has led to a vicious circle: the political space for the expression of Kurdish identity, interests and ideas is restricted by the failure of traditional political parties in conveying and processing Kurdish demands, and by the closing down of exclusively Kurdish parties by the Constitutional Court.” Since the beginning of the 1990s, Kurdish political parties have been closed down by the Constitutional Court. Yet, the more the Kurdish demands did not find parliamentary expression, the more the Kurdish radical ethno-nationalism has initiated its claims for recognition through violence and terrorism. As Kurds were not allowed to participate into the political system, their politics of identity has become an anti-systemic movement, involving war, terror, and violence.
If this is the case, then it is only through the promotion of a multicultural society and the incorporation of Kurds into the political system that emerges a possibility for the needed democratic solution to the Kurdish question: “Acknowledging the Kurdish reality by granting additional rights to the Kurds, moving towards the further democratization of Turkish society, and beginning a dialogue with certain Kurdish political groups would help to lessen ethnic tensions in the country.” The call for multiculturalism without “threatening the territorial integrity of the state” could also transform ethnic- based identity claims into demands for citizenship rights.
The possibility of a democratic solution
So far, I have tried to provide an historical account of the Kurdish question by situating it into Turkish modernity and its recent crisis. This attempt is necessary to see that rather than being static or fixed, the Kurdish question is a dynamic problem involving both continuities and changes. It has been subject to reconstructions and remodifications, even though the Kurdishness of the Kurdish question has endured. It has evolved in time and its challenges to the Turkish state have taken different forms.
In the 1920s and 1930s, the Kurdish question was articulated and voiced by the language of Islam, whereas in the 1960s and especially 1970s, it was incorporated into the left-reaction to the state by employing the terms of Marxist-Leninist discourse. Until the 1980s, the assimilationist state policies towards Kurds have been challenged and resisted, yet, the terms of such resistance was not ethnic, and did not produce the politics of ethnic identity demanding for recognition. It was only in the 1980s and especially 1990s that the Kurdish question was transformed into the politics of identity/recognition, involving a violent ethnic assertiveness, thereby becoming/perceived as a serious threat to the territorial integrity of the Turkish state. Robins explains the shifting goals, claims and discourses of the Kurdish challenge as follows: “In the 1920s and 1930s, the challenge from the Kurdish areas to the new state of Turkey was made in the name of Islam, with tribal affiliation also being exploited to mobilize opposition. In the1960s and 1970s, the challenge was couched in terms of Marxism-Leninism, a convenient ideological mechanism that legitimized both struggle against a national security state and the Kurdish clients of the state.” These challenges in these periods have different goals: “During the 1920s and 1930s the uprising in the southeast aimed at restoring Islam as the central organizing principle of a state that would embrace both Kurds and Turks mixed with a tendency among the tribes of the periphery to want to circumscribe the power of the state. During the 1960s and the 1970s revolutionary politics preached solidarity between the oppressed among both Kurds and Turks for the transformation to a single socialist state for all. It is only in the 1980s and the early 1990s that the maximalist aim of full secession for the southeast of Turkey has come to the fore, an objective that would divide Kurds from Turks irreparably.”
Recognizing the changing nature of the Kurdish question and its claims and goals allows us not only to come to terms with the historical and discursive construction of the politics of identity, but also to search for solutions to the question by going beyond ethno-nationalism that regards identity as a fixed entity assuming an essentially unchanging quality. This solution lies in democratizing the state-centric and assimilationist nature of Turkish modernity through a more democratic, pluralist, multicultural and constitutional vision of Turkey, Turkish national identity, and Turkish citizenship. In this context, van Bruinessen argues that “Like many other states, Turkey may find that its long-term interests are best served by adopting new forms of cultural and political pluralism.” The “costs of continuity” in the Kurdish question have been, and will be, enormous. Not to mention the drastic and tragic amount of human loss that has reached up to 40,000 people, we could also talk about the serious political, economic and physiological turmoil that the Kurdish question has created in Turkish society. This turmoil involves not only a serious economic cost, but also societal polarization, risk of social segregation, as well as the illegal drug and arms trafficking, black money laundering and extra-judicial killings. Moreover, the Kurdish question has become the main obstacle to the consolidation of democracy and the making of a new and civil constitution in Turkey. It has also limited Turkey’s foreign relations with its neighbors.
However, more than the problem of cost, it is the recent changes in the Kurdish question during the 2000s, mainly to the processes of Turkey’s European integration and domestic transformation, involving attempts aiming at articulating identity-claims to citizenship-rights that have brought about the possibility of a democratic solution. Three points are worth emphasizing. Firstly, focusing on the recent identity-based conflicts, as in the case of Rwanda, Bosnia, the Arab Spring, as well as in Turkey, we can see that in each case the possibility of democracy is impeded by the essentialist and ethno-nationalist claims to identity. The more identity remains both the cause and the solution to the conflict, the more the result would be the escalation and the reinforcement of the conflict rather than coping democratically with it. In our case, to the extent that the Kurdish identity claims results in ethnic assertiveness and violence, in which identity becomes essentialized as fixed and unchanging, it is necessary to recognize the limits of identity, in order to create a space beyond the politics of identity to deal effectively with the claims for recognition. Secondly, shifting our focus from ethno-nationalist assertiveness to the domain of citizenship could provide an opportunity for the construction of a more egalitarian and inclusive political culture strengthening the norms of “living together within cultural diversity” in Turkey. Moreover, locating the Kurdish question in the domain of equal citizenship without ignoring its “Kurdishness” enables one to rethink her/his loyalties and belonging not only in terms of identity and community, but also with a strong emphasis on the rule of law and constitutionalism. Thirdly, the call for citizenship should be post-national, differential and constitutional: (a) post-and de-national in the sense that it should not reduce the meaning of citizenship to a legal and political membership in a nation state; (b) differential in the sense that it should recognize not only individual rights but also cultural group rights, and thereby functioning as a point of articulation between identity and citizenship; and (c) constitutional in the sense that it should function as a common language or ground” for the constitutional guarantee and protection of both individual and group rights. Thus, we could create a possibility of preventing an identity claim from being articulated by ethno-nationalist discourses whose basic aim is to denounce democracy. This possibility is also a possibility for coping effectively with the recent legitimacy, representation and governing crisis of Turkish modernity by democratizing its state-centric operation.
As Kramer has pointed out, “Turkey’s Kurdish problem is more than just socioeconomic underdevelopment or the separatist terrorism of the PKK. It has to do with the difficult question of how to politically organize a multiethnic and multicultural society without endangering the legitimacy of the polity and its state. Even after the defeat of the PKK, the question will not go away as long as the state answers it in an unsatisfactory manner. The solution will not come in the southeastern and eastern Anatolian provinces unless it starts in the minds of Turkey’s elites.” The state elite has been aware of this, and, as noted before, the AK Party government has recently initiated the “democratic opening” process to enlarge the rights and freedoms of Kurds, whose implementation cover the areas of education, media, culture. Moreover, the Kurdish question has been open to public discussion and deliberation in the media, civil society, and universities. Similarly, the beginning of the preparation and drafting of the new, civil, and new constitution to reconstruct the Turkish modernity as democratic, plural, and multicultural is of utmost importance to solve the Kurdish question democratically and through the idea of equal citizenship. Finally, the state had started to negotiate with the PKK and its captured leader Abdullah Öcalan to disarm the question. Even if the desired end has not been achieved yet, and violence and terror still continue, the democratic and public deliberation and discussion of the Kurdish question has nevertheless become the accepted norm; discussions strengthening the role of the language of equal and constitutional citizenship both in the making of the new constitution and for the democratic solution to the Kurdish question.
At the same time, the increasing activities of Kurds in Europe to enlarge their citizenship rights and freedoms in Turkey have played a significant role in articulating identity-based demands to citizenship rights. Kurds have been the most active Turkish citizens to use the spaces opened up by the European institutions. These activities have involved in the areas of litigation in the European Court of Human Rights, contacts with EU officials and politicians in Europe, and the European Parliament, as well as of cultural festivals and campaigns directed at European public and institutions. All of these activities have functioned to strengthen the Kurdish identity as an ethnic identity, on the one hand, and, at the same time, to the increase the use of the language of equal and constitutional citizenship by Kurdish actors, on the other. Despite the enduring power of ethnic assertiveness and violence, the language of equal citizenship has begun to shape increasingly the demands of Kurds during the 2000s. In other words, if during the 1990s, the politics of Kurdish identity was organized in the terms of ethnic identity, the 2000s have witnessed the articulation of identity and citizenship and the emergence of the possibility of democratic solution based on the idea of equal and constitutional citizenship. This possibility should not be missed.
*This article was presented at the Reset-Dialogues Istanbul Seminars 2011 that took place at Istanbul Bilgi University from May 19-24, 2011.
Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1975), p.18.
William Connolly, Identity/Difference (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996).
Kemal Kirişçi, ‘Minority/Majority Discourse: The Case of The Kurds in Turkey’ in Dru Gladney (ed) Making Majorities, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), p. 227.
Ümit Cizre ‘Turkey’s Kurdish Problem: Borders, Identity and Hegemony’, in Brendan O’leary, Ian S. Lustick, and Thomas Callaghy (eds) Right-Sizing the State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p.124.
Engin Fahri Işın, Patricia K. Wood Citizenship and Identity (London: Sage, 1999), p.4.
Şeyla Benhabib ‘Borders, Boundaries, and Citizenship’, PS: Political Science and Politics, 38 (October 2005): 673-677, p.674.
Şeyla Benhabib, The Rights of Others (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p.14.
Feroz Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey (London: Routledge, 1993), p.3.
Andrew Mango ‘Atatürk and the Kurds’ in Sylvia Keduri (ed) Seventy-five Years of the Turkish Republic (London: Frank Cass, 2000), p.22.
Kemal Kirişci and Gareth M. Winrow The Kurdish Question and Turkey, London: Frank Cass, 1997), p. 104.
Ibid, p. 97.
Mesut Yeğen ‘The Turkish State Discourse and the Exclusion of Kurdish Identity’, Middle Eastern Studies, 32 (May 1996): 216-30, p.216
This section is based on the research that I have conducted with Bahar Rumelili on Enacting European Citizenship in Turkey, as part of a larger, 2007-2010 EC Framework 7 project: ENACT, directed by Engin Işın of Open University.
E. Fuat Keyman and Ziya Öniş (2009) Turkish Politics in a Changing World: Global Dynamics and Domestic Transformations ( Istanbul: Bilgi University Press, 2007).
Ayşe Kadıoğlu and Fuat Keyman (eds) Symbiotic Antagonisms (Utah: University of Utah Press, 2011)
Ibid, p. 234
Kirişci and Winrow, p.203.
Philip Robins ‘Turkey and the Kurds: Missing another opportunity?’, in Morton Abramowitz (ed) Turkey’s Transformation and American Policy, (New York: The Century Foundation Press, 2000), p. 66.
Martin van Bruinessen, M. V. ‘Shifting National and Ethnic Identities: the Kurds in Turkey and Europe’, in Günay Göksu Özdoğan, and Gül Tokay (eds) Redefining the Nation, State and Citizen, (Istanbul: Eren Yayınevi, 2000), p.108.
Heinz Kramer, A Changing Turkey, (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2000), p. 52.
Bahar Rumelili, E. Fuat Keyman, and Bora Işyar, Towards a Post Journal of Common Market Studies, 2012.
The final/definitive version of E. Fuat Keyman’s essay was published in Philosophy&Social Criticism, vol 38 number 4-5 May 2012, SAGE Publications Ltd, (LA, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC), all rights reserved, p. 467-476, Special Issue: “Overcoming the Trap of Resentment”, Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations Istanbul Seminars 2011, Edited by: Alessandro Ferrara, Volker Kaul and David Rasmussen. Link to the issue http://psc.sagepub.com/content/38/4-5.toc