Turkey is in the midst of a historical turning point. For the first time, we feel that the thick and heavy cover sheet of the past is being removed. For the first time, our historical assumptions are being questioned.
Now, history is running at a greater speed. From one aspect, it is an exciting feeling. Unexpectedly, a moment in the past that we think is forgotten grasps us. As in a song by Edith Piaf, it urges us to recall, but from another aspect this is not easy. Confrontation becomes painful, but it is also healing us. For the victims of a painful past, for those who are unaware of it and for the political and spiritual inheritors of that crime; for all of us, it has a healing impact. Like in the Armenian and Kurdish questions, like in the Dersim question...
What happened in Dersim?
I was born into a Turkish and Sunni family in a small town on the other side of the Munzur Mountains, Eğin, near Dersim, which is located in Eastern Anatolia. What I knew about Dersim [A violent government response to an alleged rebellion led by Zaza Chief Seyyid Rıza in 1937, which killed thousands of Kurdish Alevis] was limited to the official explanations in the history textbooks, which argued that it was an uprising. But this explanation did not correspond to narratives by our parents. In fact, we all knew that something terrible happened in Dersim. Even though the people of Dersim did not talk about this, we were able to sense the depth of their sorrow. Maybe some were aware that what happened in Dersim was not an uprising; but we found out about this only recently. The Turks became familiar with this after a sudden apology offered in the aftermath of a political polemic.
Dersim was an imposed conflict. Afterwards, memories re-emerged. We realized that what happened was a massacre rather than an uprising. It was a tragedy that could even be considered genocide, given the gravity of the incidents. Turks experienced this confrontation at an unexpected time. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the leader of the mildly Islamic Justice and Development Party (AK Party), offered an official apology for what happened in Dersim on behalf of the state. The people of Dersim were already aware of what happened in history, but millions of Turks and Sunnis found an answer to questions over what happened with this apology.
One of the official arguments collapsed in this way. This was a difficult situation for the Kemalists, who were trying to separate Dersim from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. They would either justify the inhumanity in Dersim or they would revisit their views on the official ideology. Some preferred the first and some others the latter. However, nothing remained the same after the Dersim confrontation and it seems that it will not in the future as well.
Dersim confrontation is indication of normalization
This confrontation in Dersim can be viewed as the outcome of the democratization process in the last decade in Turkey. Turkey is experiencing a great sociological and political transformation.
This is a crucial period in the republic’s history where the most significant steps towards the resolution of the Kurdish issue have been taken. Despite the pains suffered and the Uludere massacre, this is the case. And like it or not, the leading political actor of this process is the Erdoğan-led AK Party. Besides, these accomplishments have been made despite the critical stances of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
Undoubtedly, this success is not attributable to the government alone. Democratization achieved by the support of democrats, liberals and minorities represents a grassroots movement. But as a political scientist who thinks that he has best understood the characteristics of the state in this country, I would like to emphasize that this process is not irreversible. And it seems that the government has been deceived by the positive atmosphere characterized by economic achievements and the retreat of the military from the political sphere.
However, we are in the initial stage of normalization. This process should continue for a better understanding of what happened in the past. But it appears that this will not be that easy.
There will be hurdles before normalization
There are two major obstacles before the normalization process: First, it is possible that the ruling AK Party may abandon its reformative stance and make a pact with the establishment; unfortunately, there are some recent signs in the discourse of the government that this might actually happen. The AK Party failed in the Uludere test. And if it were a setup framed by the circles within the state that do not want to see the Kurdish issue resolved, the government has contributed to the success of this setup due to lack of wisdom and prudence since the beginning. The increasingly authoritarian discourse that it has relied on in recent times can be seen as part of this unconstructive approach. His offensive remarks against the media and his accusations directed against the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) of treason are examples of this.
The second hurdle before the democratization process in Turkey is the insistence of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to carry on an armed struggle. By any criteria or standards, there is no justification for an armed struggle in Turkey. Today, regardless of the government’s mistakes, there is no justification for violence. Neither lack of prudence in the Uludere massacre nor the Kurdistan Communities Union’s (KCK) operations can be taken as a justification for a violent response. As a liberal democrat, I support the Kurdish demands for education in their native language and administrative reform. But these are matters of a peaceful political struggle, and killing for them is like using dynamites to pop corn. Of course, Turkey is not a democratic heaven, but there is no systematic state terror like that of the 1990s, extrajudicial killing or unresolved murders. Moreover, the ongoing clashes in connection with the Kurdish issue pose a serious risk for the reemergence of the Kemalist oligarchy and the Ergenekon state. It should be noted that the conflict in connection with the Kurdish issue is the greatest source of militarism in Turkey.
At this point, the BDP has great responsibility and sadly, this party strongly condemns state violence whereas it remains silent vis-à-vis the PKK violence. Even the PKK’s violent acts against civilian politicians are overlooked by the BDP members who rely on strange explanations.
But there are some nice developments that raise hopes. Above all, Turkish society is changing rapidly; more rapidly than the political parties, forcing them to adapt to this process of change. Even the CHP feels obligated to draft a Kurdish report. It is still unable to realize that education in native language is a right; but its decision not to block such attempts could be seen as some sort of progress.
Secondly, the government’s initiatives on Kurdish and Alevi issues were important and they still are. The completion of the Dersim confrontation and the resolution of the problem is strongly linked to the fulfillment of both initiatives given that the Dersim people hold Kurdish and Alevi identities. So far, the government has not taken constructive steps not just because of the statist reflexes but also due to the boundaries of its Sunni orientation. But it is nice to see that these boundaries are changing and the government appears to be the most rapidly changing political actor.
Thirdly, for the first time, democrats from different circles in the civilian sphere have come together to discuss such notions as justice and peace. I take this very seriously. Let me give you three examples of youth slogans: the slogan used by the young people from Kritize.Net: “There is no snake that did not touch us.” This was a slogan in response to the statement “Bana dokunmayan yılan bin yıl yaşasın” (May the snake that doesn’t touch me thrive). In an attempt to destroy mental barriers, the Young Civilians traveled to Armenia where they displayed a placard, reading, “Arda, throw the ball to Sarkis,” in a soccer game. And the 3H Movement addresses the stereotypes of the official establishment on internal and external enemies by a slogan, “There is no enemy within.” This is a fairly recent and promising development.
The example I am going to cite in respect to the Kurdish and Alevi question is the activities of the Association of Confrontation which I am proud of being a supporter. The association led by a writer from Dersim, Cafer Solgun, held a civilian Alevi workshop. In this workshop, we analyzed the Alevi workshops held by the government; currently we are working on a report on what was missing in these endeavors.
Fourth, the discursive advantage is now held by the democrats. This means that the ideas that look strange in respect to the Alevi and Kurdish issues now will be the dominant views in the future.
How to heal the wounds of Dersim?
The steps to be taken towards democratization and further freedom in terms of agreeing on a solution to the Dersim issue may include the following:
The Kurdish and Alevi initiatives should be kept alive. The efforts towards confronting the issues should be further supported.
Further democratic steps including constitutional citizenship should be taken immediately. The state should be redesigned as an impartial apparatus vis-à-vis different faiths.
The Religious Affairs Department should be abolished; and religious affairs should be left to civil society. The people should be able to choose their own religious clerics and fund their temples and places of worship, as well as religious education.
The legislations known as the bills of revolution era should be abolished; and religious places should be legalized to this end, the Alevi cemevi should be given legal status; to this end, there is no need to wait for the abolishment of this legislation.
The state should not define the place of worship and recognize every such place as place of worship without reference to mosque, church or synagogue.
Mandatory religious courses should be abolished; the ban on religious education should also be lifted and the relevant clauses of the Convention on Children’s Rights should be implemented.
For Dersim, we all have to work together without waiting for these steps. To this end, the significant and specific steps towards the resolution of the Dersim issue may include the following:
The relevant information and documents on the Dersim Massacre should be made available to the researchers without any restrictions.
The relevant mechanisms of remedy after the apology should be identified and brought to life.
Training on Zazaki-Kirmanckî and Kurmanji should be placed on the agenda.
The criticisms on the possible damage in connection with the construction of dams in Dersim on the nature and religious considerations should be taken into account and before taking the relevant steps, the view of the Dersim people should be asked.
The name of Dersim should be reinstituted and proper measures should be taken to ensure that this city is not associated with a bloody operation.
Likewise, the names of the politicians and military servicemen involved in the massacre should be removed from the schools, streets and parks (like Alpdoğan Elementary School). The public schools should be cleansed of racist and chauvinistic remarks and statements.
The original names of places in Dersim should be reinstituted or a referendum should be held in the region to redefine these names.
The parliamentary commission of inquiry on Dersim should be taken seriously; however, the criticisms suggesting that this commission is trying to cover up the incident by compensation payments should be considered.
We were unable to prevent the massacres in Dersim in the 1930s. We failed to extend protection to the children murdered back then. But we cannot change the past. Yet we still can save the present and the future. This is not a problem for the Dersim people alone. This is a problem for all of us; it is a problem of healing and in this respect it holds a moral rather than political dimension.
*This is the full text of the author’s speech at the “Dersim 1935-38 Conference” held at the European Parliament under the auspices of the Dersim Anti-Genocide Association, the Association of Rebuilding Dersim, the Association of Kurmeşians and the Democratic Alevis Federation, which was hosted by the Leftist Group and the Greens on June 7, 2012.