Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Trouble with Leyla Zana

I stopped posting on this blog just over six months ago to focus on other projects with a post-election consideration of the BDP in the aftermath of last June's elections. Much to the chagrin of some of its followers and fellow Turkey observers, this post featured a photograph of Leyla Zana, a leading Kurdish activist representing the hardline segment of the "legal Kurdish nationalist movement" who had just been elected to parliament. It seems in some ways appropriate to pick up where I left off then, and this after six months of stirring political developments in the Turkish government's relationship with the BDP, the PKK, and the KCK, the political organization founded by the terrorist PKK between 2005 and 2006 and that has increasingly complicated the Kurdish political landscape, further blurring the boundaries between the BDP and the PKK.

In a recent interview with the Danish website Rudaw, which is supported by forces friendly to KRG president Massound Barzani, Zana declared that Kurds were no longer demanding simple autonomy, but rights to self-determination (for coverage in Hurriyet, click here). The troubles with Zana's claim are many, and not least is that "autonomy" is an instrument to actualizing rights a nation possesses to self-determination. In the interview, Zana says that a referendum ought to be held to let Kurds decide whether they want a federal system, an autonomy, or secession from Turkey. While many Kurds do understand themselves as belonging to a distinct nation, understood here as a unit exerting a demand to determine its own political future based on a common sense of belonging to a group, Zana is quite wrong to declare that somehow a territorially-based autonomy agreement or something else of the sort somehow falls short of recognizing Turkish Kurds' right to self-determination, which might be accommodated through any variety of scenarios.

First, I would like to say that there is nothing in my mind wrong with Kurdish nationalist politicians and activists articulating a right to self-determination and putting forward various political agendas to that affect. Though the Turkish state is far from ready to seriously discuss any such scenario and the AKP-led government unlikely to recognize a Kurdish right to self-determination and embrace a normal politics through which that right might be accommodate through minority rights-based policy solutions, Kurdish nationalism is a reality that will eventually have to be addressed. At the same time, Zana's understanding of how a right to self-determination might be asserted and thereby accommodated reveals a larger immaturity on the part of the Kurdish nationalist movement, and when accompanied by a significant number of Kurdish nationalists' unwillingness/inability to denounce violence, is greatly problematic and likely to lead simply to more violence. Here, it is also important to note that likely more than half of the Kurds in Turkey do not necessarily share such nationalist aspirations, and of those, far fewer, likely far less than 10 percent, support secession from Turkey. Kurdish Turks are more likely to look to Turkish cities in the West, in which about half of Turkey's Kurdish population now lives, than to cities in the north of Iraq. Kurds are tied to Turkey through politics, economy, culture, and family relations.

Further, the trouble with Leyla Zana is her dismissal of individual rights-based solutions to solve the conflict. While she acknowledges the government is attempting to solve the Kurdish question through providing for individual rights for Kurds (honestly, something that is still quite lacking), she dismisses these efforts as hopeless, declaring that Kurds "are not individuals but a nation." Just as assertive varieties of Turkish nationalism threaten individual rights and liberties, so does the predominant understanding of Kurdish nationalism that exists in most Kurdish nationalist circles. Ironically, Turks (including Turkish Kurds) have moved to embrace liberalism, as revealed by the rapid face of liberal reforms passed since Turkey began its EU accession process in 1999. Though the struggle for individual liberties is ongoing in Turkey and has suffered serious setbacks in recent years, from Zana's comments, one might conclude that liberalism (and with it, liberal nationalism) has a lot further to go in the predominantly Kurdish southeast than it does in the rest of Turkey.

In the past six months, the BDP's rhetoric has become increasingly militant and separatist, and to such a degree that it is difficult to recognize the party in comparison to the Democratic Society Party (DTP) that preceded it, and which was shut down in December 2009. The DTP, though far from liberal nationalist, was more reform-driven, more open to compromise, and in many ways, up against much greater odds than the current DTP. When the DTP was in power, the opposition CHP was dominated by assertive Turkish nationalists, and the AKP, though in some ways more accommodating than it is now after two summers of violent terrorist attacks and a failed liberalization initiative, much less able to fully tackle the problem. Now that the government has made significant headway in achieving civilian dominance over the army, a reasonable, responsible Kurdish nationalist party could in many ways accomplish a great deal, albeit with considerable resistance and back-peddling. Though the AKP government might in many ways be blamed for Kurdish nationalists' drift toward militarism and alienation, this in no way alleviates the BDP from responsibility, nor can the Turkish government be blamed for being reluctant to fairly deal with a political party that continues to endorse the utility of violence and align (perhaps even coordinate) itself with terrorist activity that has in recent months targeted civilians.

A solution to Turkey's Kurdish question is possible, but not without liberalism.

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