Monday, 21 December 2009

Could Turkey's "Glasnost" Establish Equality as the Founding Principle of the State?

Published in Articles

By Halil M. Karaveli (vol. 2, no. 23 of the Turkey Analyst) 

With its policies of a “democratic opening”, the AKP government has embarked on an enterprise that ultimately challenges the core identity of the republic as a specifically Turkish state. The revulsion that the notion of putting Turkishness on an equal footing with the other identities of society is eliciting suggests that it may, once again, prove difficult to find a liberal way out of the perennial dilemma of Turkey – to establish a secure foundation for the state in a setting of societal heterogeneity.

"Happy Who Calls himself/herself a Turk"

BACKGROUND: For the last two centuries, the ruling bureaucratic elites of Turkey and its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire, have been haunted by the same, perennial question: As they strove to keep the state strong, indeed alive at all, the ruling elites groped with the question of how to cope with the reality of a multiethnic, heterogeneous society. For much of this period, the expressions of societal heterogeneity have been deemed detrimental to the overriding concern of shoring up the state. For more than a century, the answers to the perennial question of how state power was going to be secured have ranged from ethnic cleansing to assimilation. Although the extent of coercion and violence has varied, the basic assumption has been that society needs to be kept subdued, that its diversity must be neutralized, either homogenized or purged, in order for the state to survive and prosper.

For the nationalist Committee of Union and Progress that ruled the Ottoman Empire during its last years, the solution to the dilemma faced by the state was spelled ethnic cleansing.  The inheritor Kemalist republic was eventually to succeed, not without recourse to violence, in molding a large part of the Muslim population of Anatolia into a nation “happy to call itself Turkish”. Nevertheless, the policies of assimilation were ultimately to fall short of the objective of turning a majority of the recalcitrant Kurds into Turks. With no end in sight to the quarter of a century-long PKK insurgency, the search for a novel approach is inevitably imposing itself on the state establishment.

Armenians being marched off during 1915

Indeed, at one level the Kurdish or “Democratic opening” of the AKP government purports to offer salvation for the state. In that respect, it is reminiscent of the “glasnost” (Openness) that was once proclaimed with the purpose of saving the Soviet Union. The Turkish public has used the opportunity to broach almost every aspect of the Kurdish issue as never before. But just like the glasnost of Mikhail Gorbachev, the opening of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has unleashed forces that are proving destabilizing.

The “opening” represents an attempt to harness societal heterogeneity, rather than suppress it. With it, the Turkish experiment in modern state building has come full circle: The first modernizers of the Ottoman Empire had similarly endeavored to save the state by an opening to “the others” of the empire, the Christian minorities. As inauspicious as the Gorbachev analogy is, so are the resemblances between “the opening” and the ultimately unsuccessful Tanzimat reforms of the period 1839 to 1876.

The Tanzimat reformers sought to forestall the danger of the state’s collapse by binding the Christian populations to the state. The principle of universal equality was announced; the institution of a common citizenship valid for all peoples of the empire was proclaimed. The Tanzimat reforms, however inconsistent and ambiguous in their application, nevertheless implied a most radical breach with tradition: they amounted to nothing less than an attempt on the pillar of the state that they were supposed to save, at its Islamic foundation. It called upon Muslims to relinquish their superior status, to forego their dominance, and to accept non-Muslims as equal citizens. The Tanzimat elicited the wrath of the Muslim majority  - the declaration of equality set in motion a violence that became the prologue to the ethnic cleansing of 1915 – and was ultimately undone by the opposition to it from within the very state establishment where it had originated. Turkish historian Taner Akçam ascribes the failure of the original “opening” to the hostility of the Muslim majority that “together with the state’s poor planning to implement such equality, rendered all efforts impotent.”

IMPLICATIONS: In a similar vein, the AKP government’s planning of the opening has elicited strong criticism. It has subsequently also become evident that opinions within the AKP diverge, and that Turkish nationalists within the ruling party have been mounting a successful opposition to the pursuit of a more radical reform agenda.

Many in the AKP may have seen the “opening” as primarily offering a means that promised to secure the party’s grip on power by holding out promises to the Kurds. The AKP leadership has also been at pains from the start to present the “opening” as enjoying the support of the state security establishment. The “opening” may indeed be a state project, inasmuch as there have been indications that parts of the state establishment, to a certain extent even the military, have concluded that something new ought be attempted to bring about an end to the eternal Kurdish insurgency. However, it is also evident that the “opening” is intended as something more than a remedy to a precarious security situation or as an electoral expedient.

Turkish nationalists preparing to attack a convoy of Kurdish politicians in Izmir

 It would seem that the overriding concern for the authors of the “opening” is to set the stage for the assertion of societal autonomy. “The reforms aim at empowering the society to express itself freely”, declared Ayşenur Bahçekapılı, a deputy chairman of the parliamentary group of the AKP, recently. Bahçekapılı is explicit about what has been implicit in the declarations of Prime Minister Erdoğan, that the “opening” entails a change of the identity of the state and of the definition of citizenship:  “The AKP is going to change the constitution. If we think about the democratic opening in the short, the medium and the long run, it becomes fairly evident that it has to lead to a constitutional change in the long run.”

Indeed, Erdoğan himself has stated as much, that the constitution will be changed in the long run. However, he has refrained from specifying the particulars of the constitutional overhaul that has apparently been in the working.  Bahçekapılı is more plain-spoken: “The definition of citizenship is also going to be substituted. Everyone will be allowed to express his or her ethnic origin and there will be a supra-identity to adhere to by stating “I am a citizen of the republic of Turkey”. And that will solve the problem.” The deputy chairman of the AKP parliamentary group emphasizes that the current reference to “Turkishness” in the constitution is “of course” going to be removed:  “Otherwise, democratization will remain elusive.”

Dengir Mir Mehmet Fırat, the former deputy chairman of the AKP, points out that “constitutional citizenship” is the sine qua non of solving the problem: “If we base citizenship on the constitution, instead of on ethnicity as is the case today – which requires everyone to declare himself to be Turkish – then the whole problem will have gone away.”

CONCLUSIONS: With its policies of “democratic opening”, the AKP government has embarked on an enterprise that ultimately challenges the core identity of the republic as a specifically Turkish state – in the image of the Tanzimat reformers that challenged the Islamic core identity of the Ottoman Empire with their introduction of the notion of equal citizenship.

Historians assessing the Tanzimat era have often described the reformers as insincere, as the declarations of equality were seldom followed by concrete action. The reforms were designed to save the state, and did not spring for any cultural awakening of the ruling Ottoman elite to the virtue of liberalism. The “opening” of the AKP has a similar, instrumental vein. Indeed, the AKP is hardly a liberal party; rather, what initially set the reforms in motion was the religious conservative thrust to open up further space for the assertion of the Muslim identity. However, liberal supporters of the AKP, such as Şahin Alpay, a columnist in the daily Zaman, hold that the “opening” nevertheless expresses a conversion to liberalism, as “Muslims have finally recognized that they can only be free if others, Kurds, Alevis and non-Muslims, are free as well.”

Yet, even if the religious conservatives have indeed become liberals in spite of themselves, the principle of universal equality still remains as poorly appreciated by the majority of the Turkish population as it did one hundred and fifty years ago. Ahmet İnsel, a leading liberal intellectual, asserts that “Turkey’s main problem is that the Sunni Turkish majority does not accept those who are not Turkish and Sunni – the non-Muslims, Alevis and Kurds – as equals. This is a problem that goes back to the Reform Edict of 1856. The sultan’s declaration of the equality of all Ottoman subjects was perceived as the worst disaster that had ever befallen on it by the dominant population.”

There is nothing that suggests that the dominant Sunni Turkish population of today is any more prepared to accede to sharing its state with the “others” of society. Turkish nationalists, incensed by the suggestion implicit in the “democratic opening” that Turkishness may be dispossessed of its constitutionally enshrined superiority and put on equal footing with the other identities of the country, are gathering in the streets – and they do it in cities such as Izmir, with a self-image of being “westernized” and “enlightened” – to attack Kurds.

The conclusion of historian Taner Akçam has an eerie relevance today: “While the reforms [of Tanzimat] were expected to bring about closer relations between Muslims and non-Muslims, in fact the very opposite occurred.” Its inability to forge a common bond of equal citizenship doomed the Ottoman Empire. The continued opposition to equality as the basis of the state suggests that it may, once again, prove impossible to find a liberal way out of the perennial dilemma of Turkey.

Halil M. Karaveli is Managing Editor of the Turkey Analyst and a Senior Fellow with the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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