Interview with Ertegrul Kurksu

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Eastern Europe, Interviews

Turkish activist

On anti-Americanism

When I was a schoolchild, almost everyone was in favor of America. Right-wingers especially were all pro-American. Today, it has almost completely changed. Now right-wingers are anti-American, particularly after the Iraq War. Almost every government and state source openly declares that the United States is after a divided Iraq; that this will end up with a divided Turkey; this policy is extremely harmful; and that the United States is either tolerating or covertly supporting the Kurdish separatist movement. At least three times in the last three months the Chief-of-Staff of the armed forces was of this opinion. It wasn’t in concrete terms; rather, he hinted vaguely of Washington’s implication in all those Kurdish terrorist acts. There was also the finding of American weapons in the PKK guerrilla arsenal. The U.S. government promptly replied that this is not American policy but the result of complications in Iraq, that the arms handed over to the Iraqi government eventually ended up in the arsenal of PKK. Nonetheless, such episodes fuel resentments.

On political divisions in society

Those republicans who consider themselves on the left – the Republican People’s Party (RPP), which is a member of the Socialist International – fully supported the armed forces in their approach to the government. However, they’ve adopted a low profile after the landslide victory of the Justice and Freedom Party (AKP). They are not using strong words, but generally, they are boycotting the new president’s receptions at the presidential palace. In this sense, the RPP – the Kemalist intellectuals and activists – are with the army. On the other hand, in the last 10 to15 years, a new generation of liberals has grown out of the RPP, from the former right-wing party. This is a new trend, particularly in business associations and among young entrepreneurs. They are university graduates, big CEOs, and intellectual workers. They are centered generally in Istanbul. But in almost every industrial Turkish town you can find this trend. This goes hand in hand with the AKP. In this election, this sector of the progressive people supported the AKP, and that’s why the party got such a large vote. There wasn’t a socialist alternative in every city, so many progressives voted for the AKP. Progressives are sharply divided in this respect, and every day this divide is growing.

On Islamism

I’m not sure that the present government is stripped of its past inclinations toward Islamic rule. They still have traces of it. However, they are desperately in need of becoming global. The global market is now seeking Islamists. The global market is of course seeking liberal governments, governments that liberalize everything. The AKP has been willing to liberalize. They are false liberals, the AKP. But if for a decade, you behave like a liberal, you become a liberal. So there is a new cadre of government officers, of decision makers. They are not just headscarved women. It’s a lot more heterogeneous than what has been seen from outside. So, AKP’s liberalism should not be taken for granted. It’s false. But in the end, in 10 or 20 years’ time, they will turn into Muslim democrats, just like German Christian democrats. Of course, Christianity and Islam are very different: a Muslim democrat cannot be mirror image of Helmut Kohl. However, they will distinguish between heavenly and worldly affairs. These are secular Islamists. They benefit from secularism. They were educated in secular schools. They have traveled to America. They have gained their present popularity not because they have behaved like Islamists but because they have behaved like devoted people who have strong Islamic inclinations but make a difference between heavenly affairs and worldly affairs. But there is a lot of skepticism about their transformation. Some people will always believe that they have a hidden agenda and that, at a suitable time, they will show their faces.

However true this might be, culturally they are pushing for Islamic values in daily life. But this is also a contradictory process. More young girls with headscarves are coming out in the open. They are becoming part of the public. With a headscarf, you can meet your lover in the park, kiss your lover in the park, and still come home as a decent person. But without a headscarf, you cannot do this. On the other hand, the Turkish way of practicing Islam is different from the Wahhabi style. There is, for instance, the huge libertarian sect called Alevi. These are very progressive people who don’t make any distinction between men and women, who send children to all kinds of schools. There are 20 million Alevis, almost one-third of the Turkish population. It is nonsense to claim that 90 percent of Turkey is strictly Islam. Maybe in their heads, they believe in the same Muslim Allah; maybe when they go to sleep at night, they dream of the same Muslim Allah. But they are something different during the day. This is not a fertile ground for the Taliban or al-Qaeda Islam, not even for Algerian-style Islam.

Secular life in Turkey is not an invention of the republic. It has a background in the daily life of the Ottoman Empire. In the reform days of the early 19th century, almost all the Ottoman laws were reformed in this sense. So that’s why I’m not paranoid of a takeover of Islam.

On female education

In the countryside, the government has been forcing families to send girls to schools. This is really a bread-and-butter issue. The government is paying the family an extra fee per child if they send the child to school. So, if you have five daughters, you basically get a worker’s wage. Education is compulsory for eight years. That means a female student is 15 when she finishes primary school. Then she can decide if she wants more. So, the attitude of even the conservative families toward the education of girls is changing. You wouldn’t expect Islamists to force girls to go to school. But this is also to win the hearts of women.

On the army

It was openly discussed before the recent elections that an army takeover could be better, that the new generals are not American clowns, but progressive people like Chavez. But this was a fairy tale. These people were colonels during the coup in the 1980s.

On urbanization

Many people in Istanbul and the suburbs have emigrated from rural parts of Turkey. They are continually transforming themselves. When I was a primary school child, I never saw such people. They were never in Istanbul. They were in their rural homes. Only after the 1950s and 1960s – after Turkey’s huge industrial leap – did they come to the cities. The first-comers changed themselves according to the urban model. But now the big cities are changing according to a global model. One can’t speak of a single dimension.

On the Kurds

According to the Turkish legal system, Kurds can’t pursue collective rights, only individual rights. For example, you cannot say: I want a primary school for Kurdish children. But you can say: I want to learn Kurdish if there’s a private Kurdish school. So, now we have Kurdish schools going up, and children learning the Kurdish language. This is not just young people. Kurdish intellectuals also want to be true Kurds, and rediscover their Kurdish roots.

During the 30 years of fighting, you never heard of strife between Kurds and Turks. But you heard lots of stories of Turkish soldiers killing Kurdish civilians and of Kurdish guerrillas killing Turkish civilians. But no civilians attacked other civilians because of ethnic background.

Most of the Kurds in Turkey living in Istanbul are doing every kind of dirty work because they are unqualified. They are working in construction, in heavy industries. Two million people of Kurdish background are living in Istanbul. There is increasing hatred. It’s not a Yugoslavian tension, but it’s growing. Turkish nationalists – who refuse to eat Kurdish bread, refuse to marry Kurdish girls – interpret this internal migration as a domestic invasion of Turkey by Kurds. Now we are going to see for the first time this type of ethnic hatred between Turks and non-Turks. And while the Turkish ethnic birthrate is dropping, the Kurdish birthrate is growing. The neo-Malthusians believe that this will bring about a big fight between ethnic groups.

On the EU

Originally, the major European powers France and Germany, and particularly European public opinion, didn’t want EU expansion to include Turkey. The EU is not only an economic project; it is a strategic project, and also a cultural project. So, these Europeans would like to use every opportunity to stop Turkey. On the other hand, they want to keep close ties with Turkey. That’s why they propose a “privileged partnership”. The second problem is that Turkey is a populous country. We will be 80 million when the day comes for Turkey’s membership in the EU. The German population doesn’t grow as rapidly. So, Turkey will be the biggest European country, and the Muslims will rule Europe. This is a cultural nightmare for them!

Staunch Republicans who want a unitary state believe EU membership will be the biggest threat to territorial integrity. It will mean the end of Turkey’s unified existence. Every culture or political entity will disintegrate and become part of the European conglomerate and not part of the Turkish state. Personally, I don’t care. But logically, you cannot convince them and say that nothing will happen. Something will happen. The integration of the modern state of Turkey is not yet complete. The Kurds have not been brought to an equal level with other parts of society. And the Kurdish struggle has also triggered other ethnic communities to seek their rights.

The opposition parties claimed that European countries would never take Turkey. They gave examples of what France and other countries had said about its integration into the EU. This makes the Turkish politicians supporting integration look naïve. The AKP claims to be the party that can bring Turkey into the EU. Some people bought that, but not as many as the AKP thought. There is anger, there is disappointment, but still there is a belief that the EU is in Turkey’s interest. More European leaders have made anti-Turkish membership comments, but this still hasn’t translated into voting for a party that is anti-EU.

On Balkanization

The term Balkanization is not very popular in the language of Turkish public debate. You don’t hear it much. Still, it has some connotations. Ask any Turk who has passed through the national education system, and he or she will say that we had an empire running from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean. We conquered everything, but the West divided and ruled us. The deceitful Arabs and Bulgarians, they were very happy under the Ottoman Empire, but they then divided it up. Do you know why the Ottoman Empire disintegrated? Because Bulgarians said, we are Bulgarians; Kurds said, we are Kurds. So, that’s another interpretation of Balkanization: the negation of Balkanization. Of course, the Turkish ruling elites, deep in their hearts, still keep the trauma of the end of the Ottoman Empire, the Treaty of Sevres. If the treaty had been implemented, there would be no Turkey, except for a small part in central Anatolia. Turkey would have been occupied by the French, the Greeks, and so on. It is in the brain of every Turk who has been taught history in the national education system that Turkey was at one time destined to be divided, but that now we are unified because we left aside differences and we left behind classes (though of course you see a lot of class differences). This ideology is imbued so deeply in the minds of every Turkish student. We all live with the trauma of Sevres and we don’t want it to happen again.

The trauma of Balkanization is very deeply felt because many Turks emigrated from the Balkans, from Bulgaria, from Greece. Ask any Turk, “What are your origins?” and no one will say that they are a full-breed Turk. They will say, “My mother is a Albanian, my grandmother is a Circassian, my grandfather was a Bulgarian.” The most dramatic case was after liberation, after the war with Greece. The Greek Orthodox living in Turkey were forced to go to Greece, and those in Greece – mostly Muslims, but not necessarily Turks – were forced to come here. This is a very dramatic part of Turkish history. People who had spent generations farming olives were brought to central Anatolia where they had to breed goats.

When the Kurdish uprising was at its peak in 1998-99, we heard from the top officers and then from President Suleyman Demirel that “we cannot let Turkey become Yugoslavia, and we are going to do anything to prevent that.” The Turkish government was killing scores of people in the Kurdish areas. But in Demirel’s eyes, the Yugoslav federation disintegrated because they couldn’t kill Bosnians quietly enough. And ironically, the Turkish government was supporting many different separatist movements – in Bosnia, Chechnya, even in Cyprus.

On Americanization

Americanization has been more positively viewed by the ruling elite as the antidote to that European brand of policy that could result in disintegration. They say, “Look, do American Hispanics demand a separate state? No, they remain Americans. We are all Turks here, just like in America, in the melting pot.” This melting pot story is a response to separatist demands. It is an attempt to convince them that in a modern country like the United States, everyone is free but no one wants their own state. But the ruling elite forgets that the United States is a conglomeration of states, that it is a federal structure. Affirmative action is never considered in Turkey when speaking positively about the American system. Since America is very far from Turkey, you can say any story about America and it can’t be proved.

On technology

There’s a former Turkish revolutionary, Taner Akçam, who is now a professor in Minnesota and the author of A Shameful Act: The Armenian Genocide and the Question of Turkish Responsibility. A group of staunch Turkish nationalists fighting against Armenians’ distorted image of Turkey made entries into Wikipedia stating that Akcam was a terrorist, that he killed people when he was a revolutionary. So Akcam was coming to the United States from Canada. The border guard typed his name into Google, found the Wikipedia entry, and said, “Hey, you’re a terrorist!” It took Akcam a long time to get out of that one.

On atrocities

If we look back at Ottoman history, we do not see civil wars as severe as the American Civil War, the Greek Civil War, the Spanish Civil War. We just don’t have those civil wars. Instead, we have had wars between the state forces and minorities. And these have been generally based on religion rather than on ethnicity. The longest and most continuous war was between the ruling Ottoman armies and the Alevi communities. It took almost 300 years and then, finally, most of the Alevis were suppressed. This was one of the greatest human sacrifices in the history of the Anatolian soil. The second was the Armenian genocide, or deportation, or whatever you call it. Here, too, religion rather than ethnicity was the issue at hand. Forcing the Armenians out of the Ottoman territory was not part of a fight between Turks and Armenians, but between Ottomans and Armenian rebels. Of course, those rebels, in trying to gain control of territory, had to fight with Turkish villagers, who resisted. The Armenians demanded their independence, and the Ottomans wanted to stop them. How could you convince people to kill Armenians? By saying that they are going to divide our country? Since there was no nation-state in those days, this wasn’t so important. But you could say, “They are betraying our religion.”

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