Thursday, March 19, 2009

What you thought you knew (but didn't actually know) about Turkey - 3

  • The dynamics of ethnic seperatism, Islamism and neo-nationalism

This is not the first time I'm writing about the Kurdish issue. But after reading Cornell and Karaveli's article, I became aware of some important factors that contributed to the formation of the problem as we have it today. I would like to note them here.

Kurds are organized around a tribal and feudal structure, and belong to the more Orthodox Shafi'i school of Islam. Right-wing parties have courted tribal leaders to win Kurds' support. Kurdish tribal leaders continue to play an important role in Turkish politics. However, their influential role does not necessarily translate into more education and economic development in the region. These leaders have an interest in keeping Kurds' loyalties exclusively to themselves.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) first emerged as a revolt against the feudal structure of the Kurdish society. The movement soon realized that the Turkish state protected the status quo, and turned to Kurdish nationalism as its driving ideology following the collapse of communism. Now its survival depends on its domination of Kurdish politics, and its interest lies in the continuation of the violent conflict. This attitude in turn provokes Turkish nationalism.

The authors call the Kurdish question the main failure of Kemalism, as it cast doubt on the credibility of the whole thought system. Along with secularism, it was built upon nationalism, theoretically replacing religious solidarity with loyalty to the nation state (although in practice, religious minorities were often discriminated against.) The AKP, at first, won Kurds' support by shifting the emphasis back to religious solidarity. However, the party itself is now moving towards a more nationalistic position. Actually, this tendency is not new. It is the legacy of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis idea following the 1980 coup. Gülen schools in African and Central Asian countries seem to promote Turkish culture more than Islamic values.

Meanwhile, mixed signals from the EU, the ideological confusion created by the Western support for Islamic conservatism and the reluctance of the US to uproot the PKK from northern Iraq have irritated secular nationalists and fuelled their suspicions about the motivations of the EU and the US. These now brand themselves as neo-nationalists.

With awe (and admittedly, some annoyance) the authors say:

Just as they have appealed to the right as well as to the left with liberal economic policies coupled with generous welfare subsidies, the Islamic conservatives manage to simultaneously canalize Turkish nationalism and Kurdish aspirations.

The local elections next Sunday will show whether this is still true.

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