What is the similarity between the strong endorsement of secularism by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Cairo some time ago and the apologies he offered last week for the killing of thousands of Kurds by the Turkish state in Dersim between 1936 and 1939?
It is the tendency of most of the people who do not like the Justice and Development Party (AKP) leader to shift immediately in what I would call the “Yes, but …” mode.
When he recently visited Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, Erdoğan made a statement that caught many off guard. He advised Arab politicians to respect the principle of secularism while building up new, post-revolutionary state institutions. To the surprise of many in Turkey and abroad the Turkish leader defended a passive form of secularism that we know from countries like the United Kingdom and the United States in which the state maintains an equal distance to all religions and, as Erdoğan underlined, to those who do not share any religious belief. It was, in my opinion, a courageous intervention in a part of the world where secularism is perceived by many as synonymous with anti-religious. Erdoğan knew what he was doing, he realized that it would not make him very popular among staunch Islamists and still he did it because, for good reasons, he believes state secularism is a basic requirement in a multi-religious society.
What was the reaction of many AKP opponents? They downplayed the significance of his speech for the Arab world and straight away demanded that the AKP leader should practice at home what he preaches abroad. They were right in the sense that there are still many challenges with regard to secularism in Turkey that have not yet been met, ranging from the one-sided promotion of the traditional Sunni interpretation of Islam by the Directorate of Religious Affairs, a state institution, and the non-recognition of Alevi houses of worship to the refusal to reopen the Greek Orthodox Halki seminary because the church does not want to operate under state control. Indeed, these are all but a part of the many domestic issues on which Erdoğan has not shown the same commitment to the new secularism he promoted elsewhere.
My problem with the naysayers is that they missed a golden opportunity to confront the prime minister with the consequences of his own words. Instead of praising him for his bold redefinition of secularism first and then gently questioning him on the remaining inadequacies in Turkey, they fatally undermined their own credibility and effectiveness by minimizing the importance of his Cairo speech from the start.
One could see the same mechanism at work last week with the Dersim apologies. Knowing how difficult it is for any country to admit past mistakes, I think it was truly remarkable that Erdoğan fully acknowledged the responsibility of the state in the notorious massacres that took place in 1937 in Dersim. Of course one can criticize the prime minister for rubbing it so cruelly in the face of the helpless leader of the opposition, who damaged his own reputation and that of his party by refusing to join the prime minister in his expression off regret. And yes, there are many other violent episodes in the history of Turkey on which Erdoğan has not yet spoken out so clearly. But again, I am convinced it would be much more credible and productive to acknowledge the importance of this unique apology on behalf of the Turkish state first and only then move on to other painful historic dossiers.
In my view the prime minister has crossed a psychological threshold, and I agree with Hurriyet Daily News Editor-in-Chief Murat Yetkin that it could trigger apologies on other disputed episodes in Turkish history. We all know the examples: the 1915 massacre of the Armenians, the 1942 exuberant taxation of the Jewish community, the 1955 pogroms of the Greeks, the 1977 killings of Alevis in Kahramanmaras.
One day, Turkey has to come to terms with each and every one of these dirty pages in its history. The first time is always the most difficult one, especially in a country like Turkey that, at the official level, has always denied any wrongdoing.
That is why I sincerely hope that the next steps can be made jointly by both supporters and opponents of the present government. That will only happen when everybody is able and willing to appreciate and utilize historic turnings points once they occur.