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December 16, 2012, Sunday

Can Turkey be multicultural?

Since the end of the Cold War the most daunting challenge facing our country remains the same one: the Kurdish question.

Is there still hope for Kurds and Turks to live together without resorting to destructive nationalism? The answer to that question to a great extent still depends on whether Turkey can become multicultural. Multiculturalism will not solve the demands for political decentralization or federalism coming from an increasing majority of Kurds in Turkey. Yet, without multiculturalism, Kurdish demands for political and administrative decentralization will continue to fuel violence. In other words, if Ankara wants to stop the bloodshed and if it really wants to win the hearts and minds of Kurds, the journey towards genuine democratization has to start with multiculturalism.

Can Turkey become multicultural? What would a multicultural Turkey look like? This may sound overly simplistic but you will know Turkey has made progress towards multiculturalism when you call the Ministry of Interior in Ankara and you hear a voice message saying: “Press # 1 for Turkish, or press #2 for Kurdish.” I can already hear Turkish nationalists sarcastically asking why stop at just Kurdish, what about “press #3 for Arabic, #4 for Georgian, #5 for Albanian and #6 for Laz”? Let's be serious. Multiculturalism needs to acknowledge that Kurds are the largest minority in this country and the last time I checked there were no demands from other minorities that had led to anything like the massive violence that caused the death of 40,000 people in the last 20 years.

Turkey has a Kurdish problem and Ankara has to recognize that “assimilation-oriented Turkish nation-building,” which denied and repressed Kurdish language, culture and ethnicity, is at the heart of this problem. Culture and language are intimately intertwined. This is why education in Kurdish is so crucial for Kurds and equally crucial for a multicultural Turkey. Moreover, those who oppose granting cultural rights (such as education in their own language) to Kurds should realize that the window of opportunity for solving the Kurdish problem with just educational and cultural rights is rapidly closing. In case you have not noticed what politicized Kurds really want are political rights such as federation and autonomy. At this point multiculturalism is in the category of “necessary but insufficient” for future Turkish-Kurdish harmony.

So let's repeat the above question: Can Turkey become multicultural? To be honest, I am not optimistic. Take the question of religion for example. The sad irony is that in democratic and secular Turkey, a Turk by definition is a Muslim. Yet, in the less secular and less democratic Arab word, despite their growing problems, there are still millions of Christian Arabs. No one questions that Copts in Egypt or Maronites in Lebanon are Arabs. Modern Beirut, Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad are still home to millions of Christian Arabs. But how many Christian Turks have you met? A “real” Turk can never be anything other than Muslim. When I think of Christian Arabs, an array of people -- from Edward Said to Tarik Aziz (Minister of Foreign Affairs in Saddam's Iraq) -- comes to mind. They identify with their Arab nations despite their non-Muslim identity.

Unfortunately there is something in the modern Turkish identity that is inherently apprehensive of non-Turkish and non-Muslim identities. Kemalist nation-building and the legacy of Ottoman decline seen through the lens of subversive domestic minorities is at the heart of the problem. Greeks and Armenians fall in this category. What about Jews who did not embark on separatist nationalism? Ishak Alaton's words to Jenny White in her new book “Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks” say it all: “Jenny, the man you interviewed today, who has reached his 82nd year, has never been given the feeling by this nation that I am part of it.” Yes, multiculturalism will be an uphill struggle for Turkey, even for Muslim Kurds.


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