Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Islamist Bananas: Co-optation and Cultural Rights

Kerem Oktem, Senior Researcher at the European Studies Centre at St Antony’s College at Oxford, offers a most insightful analysis of AKP's policy toward the Kurdish southeast. Oktem argues that AKP policy is motivated by a desire to co-opt Kurds by promising a better economic future (see Feb. 4 post). Reluctant to grant Kurds cultural rights, Oktem contends that AKP policy presents a double bind of exclusion and compassion, a promise of economic betterment and a denial of Kurds to participate in politics as Kurds.
The party’s main motivation seems to be to consolidate its inroads into the Kurdish areas and to replace, in the 2009 local elections, the DTP mayors. To achieve this goal, the AKP seems to be ready to squeeze the DTP out of the space of legal politics by launching investigations, by eroding the party’s legitimacy and by creating conditions under which a municipality cannot operate successfully.

Yet, this is only one aspect of the government’s strategy that also makes use of AKP networks25 and their ‘politics of charity’, targeting disenfranchised Kurds with services from Islamic charity organizations, a discourse of Muslim brotherhood and a promise of economic development. Commenting on a recent occurrence in Adana, where a local police officer appeased rioting children by handing out bananas, Ece Temelkuran coined the label ‘Islamist Banana Politics’. She suggests that Kurds in the Southeast are cut off their political struggle, while being subjected to a politics of charity that turns Kurds into a needy and pitiable group.

Yet, the AKP social policy is not limited to symbolic acts of charity: For a majority in the Kurdish provinces, as elsewhere in Turkey, services ranging from the provision of social housing, free schoolbooks and better access to the health system have had a positive impact on people’s daily life. While this is not a strategy that responds to the demands of the Kurdish movement, it does have an impact on the quality of people’s every-day life, in Turkey in general as for many in the region.
As to the prospects of AKP policy actually working to achieve a peaceful solution to the conflict, Oktem is doubtful. More hopeful is what Oktem refers to as the "European option," which promises Kurds cultural rights.
Having won the 2007 elections, the Erdogan government will not resuscitate a reform process that would respond to the longstanding demands of the Kurdish national movement and hence alienate the more nationalist factions within the AKP. Without the prospect of EU membership, the patronizing embrace through charity and limited community rights seems sufficient, and hence even modest progress on issues such as education in Kurdish unlikely. If the AKP delivers on its promises of regional economic development and consolidates the work of sympathetic Islamic charities, it could win over a growing number of disaffected Kurds. This would be a return, albeit with an Islamic flavour, of the republican policy of clientelistic co-optation for those ready to foreswear the idea of a secular Kurdish identity, and exclusion for those who do not.

A darker scenario would see Turkey released from the universe of mutual obligations with the EU, and a deterioration of the democratic system, worsened by a continued ground and air offensive against PKK positions in Northern Iraq. Under such conditions, the government would loose its support base among Turkey’s Kurds, and eventually also its grip on Turkish politics. Further militarization of Turkish society would almost certainly lead to increased levels of ethnic conflict and terrorist attacks in western cities and coastal regions. Radical Turkish ethno-nationalists with increasingly overt support from the security and state apparatus would push disenfranchised Kurds towards terrorist acts, recreating the cycle of violence and retribution experienced in the 1980s and 90s. Such a rupture in inter-community relations would be bound to have destabilizing effects.

The “European option” would be based on a genuine recognition of the Kurds as a political and cultural constituent of Turkey and the full implementation of the EU acquis communautaire on minority and human rights. It would allow for a decentralization of local government true to the principle of ‘subsidiarity’ and include the use of Kurdish in public service institutions. The legal representatives of the Kurdish movement would be encouraged to engage in Turkish mainstream politics, while an amnesty for PKK fighters would significantly reduce the PKK’s military clout. Under such conditions, the large majority of Kurds would be integrated into the political mainstream, while only splinter groups would cling to armed struggle and extremist violence.

Such a shift in perspective appears feasible within the kind of post-modern, non-confrontational and consensual political culture, which is at least partially characteristic of conflict-resolution within the European Union. At the height of its EU hopes, Turkey might have been on the trajectory towards such a ‘post-modern’ state of affairs. Without a firm EU perspective, Turkey will remain committed to the logic of zero-sum games, power politics and non-recognition, with only very limited incentives to reach out to a minority group, whose aspirations can be contained by other means.
Yet, a policy that ignores the demands of secular Kurdish nationalists and seeks to eliminate the conditions for their legal representation -even if sweetened by the carrot of cientelistic co-optation, charity politics and a discourse of compassion- disregards the considerable transformation of Kurdish society. Until the 1980s, Turkey’s Kurds lived in predominantly rural, socially conservative and parochial communities with little access to education and to the outside world. Today, they are still relatively poorer than the average. Yet, they live mostly in cities and are presented on all levels of Turkish society, from the economic to the cultural sphere. Young Kurds enjoy access to sophisticated trans-national networks of Kurdish politics and identity, often referred to as Virtual Kurdistan. The Kurdish Diaspora in Europe – itself an outcome of Turkey’s Kurdish policy in the 1980s and 90s- is an additional resource for the transnational negotiation and formation of Kurdish identity beyond the confines of republican identity politics in Turkey.

It is hardly probable that the AKP’s carrot and stick policy will undo two decades of secular-nationalist Kurdish identity formation by imposing the notion of Sunni-Muslim citizenship with a whiff of depoliticized Kurdish traditions. In the medium-run, there appears to be no credible alternative to acknowledgement and recognition within a ‘European option’.
In concurrence with Oktem, it is worth noting that a peaceful resolution in northern Ireland and the Basque Country was not arrived at until Catholic Irelanders and Basques were granted cultural rights and more able to negotiate their Irish Catholic and Basque identities with that of the larger state structure within which they existed. In the case of the Basque Country, it is useful to acknowledge that País Vasco constitutes one of the wealthiest regions in Spain, but that economic prosperity in no way translated to a willingness to surrender Basque identity and assimilate into Spanish culture. I am planning a trip to País Vasco in early May and look forward to exploring the Basque case in further depth.

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