Sunday, May 2, 2010

More Than Bananas

For another piece from the Middle East Report Online on Turkey's Kurds, see Will Day's 2008 consideration of the politics of Kurdish poverty in the southeast. Day takes a look at purely economic solutions to the problems, as well as support for the AKP in the region. From Day:
The politics of that “problem,” as indicated by the discrepant displacement and unemployment figures, largely define what can and cannot be said in the poverty debates. For the Turkish state, in fact, poverty in the southeast is a condition prior to politics, strictly separated from questions of history, identity and culture. “The problem of citizens [here] is a humanitarian problem,” as Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, governor of Diyarbakır, told the mainstream newspaper Referans in January. Ankara appoints governors to oversee the southeastern provinces. “Cultural identity is not the basic problem. The agenda of the people is economic; the agenda is sustenance. Any other claims are political.” So long as the desires of the people of the southeast are rendered as a universal, biological need—sustenance—the state will recognize them. The governor dismisses questions about the historical and political origins of poverty as “the worst form of exploitation, human exploitation.”

It is a viewpoint that clashes somewhat with those of poor Kurdish youth, even those, like Mehmet, who have seen some benefit from the state’s solicitude since their own stint shining shoes and selling tissues. Mehmet’s elder brother received an interest-free loan from the governorate, one of a number of state-sponsored programs to encourage entrepreneurship, and set up a small kebab stand. He divides the profits between supporting his ailing parents and saving up for his imminent marriage. Mehmet works for free, but when he needs pocket money, his brother obliges.

Mehmet wakes up every morning at 5:30, buys fresh liver and meat for the stand, and heads to high school (having dropped out years before to work, he is now five years senior to his first-year classmates). After school, he runs the stand until midnight. Three days a week, he attends a training program, provided free of charge by the Diyarbakır Metropolitan Municipality, that will certify him to lay natural gas lines.

Mehmet’s understanding of Diyarbakır’s economy, nevertheless, is colored by a broader feeling of exclusion. “When we go west to find work, people hear our accent, or the police take one look at our ID cards [where one’s place of birth is listed] and they say, ‘He’s from the east, he’s a terrorist.’ When we stay here, there are no factories, no jobs, and we can’t get a decent education or score well on the national university exams because the state only sends the worst teachers here, and any talented teachers here escape to the west if they find the chance.”

That the present shape of poverty has a political history, and that the presence of poverty does not erase other claims—that one can be hungry and desire education in Kurdish, that one can hope for both a more equal distribution of wealth and a more equal distribution of dignity and life chances—captures, in condensed form, the kind of recognition advocated by the NGOs and municipal governments working in the southeast. These NGOs and municipalities are the new legal, public face of Kurdish politics, emerging from a series of political reforms in motion since the early 2000s. From their perspective, the separation of poverty from politics is equal to a denial of historical and social reality. “The problem,” stresses the mayor of Diyarbakır, Osman Baydemir, “is economic, social, cultural, political, legal and administrative. An integrative approach is essential to bringing improvement.” The politics of poverty extends even to word choice. The Turkish state favors the term yoksulluk (an abstract noun indicating an existing state or condition of “poor-ness”), while domestic NGOs and regional governments prefer yoksullaştırma (a verbal noun emphasizing action behind the state or condition described, and translatable as “causing to be poor,” or impoverishment).

For other local actors, recognizing more than basic human need in the southeast is not only essential to designing more effective poverty relief. Many NGOs and research groups working in the region hope that discussion of forced migration and its role in the production of the new urban poverty may also urge the state toward a deeper commitment to assisting in the rehabilitation of the regional economy. If the claims of the southeast can be associated with principles of the European Union and the UN—such as cultural rights and participatory local governance—they may acquire a stamp of legitimacy that pushes the state to reevaluate its reflexive equation of southeastern grievances with PKK demands.
Since 2008, the AKP and the military have considered granting some "cultural rights" to Kurds, though both parties are for more comfortable discussing the economic dimensions of the Kurdish question -- which are, no doubt, less controversial and more palatable to nationalist Turks. Some Turkish opinion leaders have harshly criticized purely economic-centered political solutions. From my look at the Kurdish question in January 2009, before the government announced its recent 'Kurdish opening' (documented here):
Instead of talking about political and cultural rights, Prime Minister Erdoğan is more keen to talk about economics. Turkish intellectual Ece Temelkuran has compared AKP policy in the southeast to giving out Islamist bananas, an attempt to perhaps bridge the development gap, but an approach that ultimately fails to address the demands of Kurds for the state to recognize their unique identity and standing in Turkish society. (For a similar argument, see Kerem Oktem, who assesses these Islamist bananas as tantamount to co-optation.) While some Turks far too often decry such a demand as separatism, other Turks and most Kurds see recognition as the foundation of basic human rights -- the right to address each other in their own language without state interference, to educate their children in the language of their grandmothers, to celebrate their culture in free assembly, and to enter politics as individuals with identities that might be both Kurdish and Turkish, and therefore, more difficult to negotiate than that of the average Turk. However, what Temelkuran identifies as "Islamist banana politics" and the politics that analyzes in his consideration of AKP policy, fall far short of meeting this demand. Nonetheless, AKP holds economic development and the creation of a state television channel as sufficient compromises, a secret battle plan to combat a war on terrorism that fails to extirpate the root of the problem. While AKP's realization of the need to develop the southeast is light years ahead of the thought asserted by other political parties, it still simply not enough, and as a result, likely to fail. Nonetheless, even when AKP's economic policies for the Kurdish southeast are highly dubious, they have often tacitly endorsed by some in the Western media (see the New York Times' treatment of GAP this March).

Islamist banana politics gained further legitimacy this fall when the government and military began working more closely together. As indicated by the recent resignations of former AKP deputy chair Dengir Mir Mehmet Firat, an ethnic Kurd, banana politics are likely to become even more entrenched as the government further eschews cultural and political rights . As Lale Sarııbrahımoğlu elucidates, his replacement, Abdulkadir Aksu, also Kurdish, "has been widely viewed as a reflection of the AK Party's shift in policy from one that supports the greater engagement of Kurds in the political process to one that has further narrowed the room for maneuver for Kurds to express their political opinions." Further signalling this new era of cooperation and consensus on the Kurdish issue, the military top brass, typically quite reticent on political approaches to the Kurdish problem, has publicly agreed with the prime minister that the solution is economic. While this is undeniably in-part the case -- and, despite the TSK's discussion of non-military solutions being a positive step -- the danger is that too exclusive a focus on the economy is incapable of leading to a comprehensive political solution, thereby risking failed policy, and likely more violence as a function of resulting frustration. Not only are banana politics not fair to Kurds, but they are not pragmatic.

Insidious defenses of banana politics cite AKP's decisions as made in agreement with Kurdish public opinion (though the polls are dubitable, and show only the slightest of majorities placing economic over cultural/political concerns), in addition to an exaggerated disconnect between Kurdish intellectuals/political leaders and the overwhelming majority of Kurds, who are overwhelmingly very poor people. The myopia of the banana defenders is on full display in arguing the last point since any amelioration of the living conditions of Kurds will likely raise consciousness of cultural repression, not diminish it. For examples of banana defenses, see Abdulhamit Bilici and Mümtaz'er Türköne. In one defense, Türköne argues,
"For [DTP], the victory of the AK Party, especially in Diyarbakır, will be a nightmare. If the AK Party wins in southeastern Anatolia, the Kurdish question will enter a new phase. The PKK and the DTP will not remain the sole powers designing pro-Kurdish politics. Pro-Kurdish politics will be ‘pluralized.’"
The AKP did not win in local elections, instead suffering heavy setbacks throughout the southeast. When the government announced plans to move forwrd with the 'Kurdish opening,' many observers thought the AKP and critical figures in the Turkish state had come around. However, with the initiative now stalled, it is clear that any such turn will not be wholesale, that reform on the cultural/minority rights front will come incrementally, and that these changes will, indubitably, be hard fought. While the future is not clear, two things are near certain: one, thinking like that expressed by Turkone in 2008 is and will not produce peace; and two, that the production of peace will not come in one sweep of reforms, but will necessarily be be process-oriented, multi-faceted, and require the engagement of all parties with stakes in the issues involved in the conflict. No one is going away anytime soon.

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