Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Kurdish Question and the Future of Turkey

From Christopher Frey at the Canadian magazine The Walrus:
One could sense, in the wake of the pkk ambush, something more existential at stake than just the quarrel between Turks and Kurds. Militarily, the fight had mostly devolved into a low-grade regional conflict since the capture of pkk kingpin Abdullah Öcalan in 1999. Rather, the outrage on the street reflected deep-seated uncertainty about Turkey’s sense of itself and how it interacts with a globalizing world.

In May, just prior to the escalation of the pkk conflict, the country had emerged from a polarizing political crisis. The governing Justice and Development Party (akp), an organization with Islamic roots, had put forward Abdullah Gül, a former foreign minister, as its presidential candidate, prompting Turkey’s military leadership — enshrined in the constitution as the protector of the state’s secular character, and the instigator of four coups since 1960 — to contest Gül’s selection. The brass criticized him for comments he had made in the early 1990s questioning official secularism, and more symbolically for the fact that his wife wears the hijab. A constitutional court blocked Gül’s appointment, prompting new elections in July, but these returned the akp with an even larger majority, and increased the party’s share of the popular vote from 34 to 46 percent. The military boycotted Gül’s swearing-in.

Despite the akp’s Islamist bent, the party has proven itself to be the most adept and progressive manager of Turkey’s affairs in decades — a moderate, broad-based organization whose policies more closely resemble those of the centre-right Christian Democrats in Europe than Hamas or Hezbollah, and that draws support from across the political and ethnic spectrums. The akp has successfully wrestled with the chronic inflation that plagued the economy, dramatically increased foreign investment, and implemented the strongest steps yet to fight corruption in the public and private sectors. It also stepped up accession talks with the European Union and made substantive overtures to the country’s Kurdish population. In the symbolic debate over the hijab, meanwhile, it positioned itself as a defender of individual freedoms, overturning the law that prohibited women from wearing head scarves on university campuses.

Although Kemalists accuse the akp of secretly harbouring a radical Islamist agenda, the only evidence of this has been the implementation of dry zones in a few conservative neighbourhoods by local party officials, and a quickly rescinded attempt to criminalize adultery nationwide. Nonetheless, secular nationalists have gone to absurd extremes in their efforts to discredit the akp. A quartet of bestselling exposés last year asserted that the party’s leaders were in fact Zionist Mossad agents. More recently, after a statue of Atatürk astride a horse was vandalized in Denizli, the town’s mayor appeared at a press conference, holding up a photograph of the damaged statue. “As you see, the penis of the horse Atatürk sits on has been broken,” he said. “We think akp cadres have broken the penis.”

The pkk attacks, however, united the two sides. Wounded by its recent loss of face, the military saw an opportunity to reassert itself, while the akp had to demonstrate that it could handle a terrorist threat. The rest of the world, though, and particularly the United States and Europe, urged Turkey to proceed carefully. The Americans, who had reason to fear that a military incursion into northern Iraq would destabilize that country’s most secure region, agreed to provide intelligence about pkk positions there. But the perceived lack of support from Europe was more aggravating, and it fed into Turks’ frustration with the EU accession process. Leaders such as France’s Nicolas Sarkozy had already made alienating comments, while other officials had expressed fears that if Turkey were granted full membership it would become the second-largest nation in the EU after Germany, with 17 percent of the assembly’s vote. The West’s pressuring of Turkey to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, to improve treatment of its Kurdish citizens, and to back off from the dispute over Cyprus were also irksome. Turks have yet to work out these issues for themselves.
Frey's analysis is quite compelling here and follows my own assessment of the need for AKP to embrace pluralist politics in the southeast and come closer to the policies of Turgut Özal in terms of embracing cultural rights. Instead, AKP seems content to continue to tout Islamist bananas--a strategy that might win the party some votes, but from what I could gather from my own trip to Diyarbakır (June 14 post), not many. In contrast, what AKP's refusal to grant cultural rights will do is to intensify violence with the PKK and empower hawks on both sides of the conflict (see Aug. 12 post).

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