“I support any step towards peace and I can only be happy about the peace process. I applaud both parties for their courage and efforts. But let's not delude ourselves. Based on what we have seen so far, this is only an effort towards ending the conflict and pacifying the PKK.”
The quote above belongs to Mücahit Bilici, a cultural sociologist with a presence in both the United States and Turkey. A theoretical sociologist, he is an expert on American Islam as well as Turkish politics. His occasional articles, op-eds and commentary on Kemalism, Islamism, and Kurdish identity have appeared in Turkish and American media.
Professor Bilici was born in Diyarbakır and studied sociology at Boğaziçi University before going to the US for graduate studies. He holds a PhD in sociology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and is on the sociology faculty at the City University of New York's John Jay College.
He is also the author of a recently published book, “Finding Mecca in America: How Islam Is Becoming an American Religion” (University of Chicago Press, 2012).
Recently the Turkish government has entered into a peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), raising hopes both in Turkey and abroad that the long-simmering conflict between Turks and Kurds will finally be resolved. Where the peace process is headed is still an open question, however.
Sunday's Zaman interviewed Professor Bilici about the roots and the future of the Kurdish conflict.
How do you define the Kurdish problem?
The Kurdish problem is first and foremost a problem of human dignity. But more technically speaking, it is a problem of the Kemalist colonization of Kurdistan. Kurdistan is under the occupation of Turkish nationalism. All other components, no matter how serious they may be, are byproducts of this basic problem. In Turkey, Kurds were not and still are not equal to Turks. Kurds are equal to Turks only if they present themselves as Turks. Kurds as themselves are not recognized as equal human beings.
But who is a Turk?
Anyone who says he is a Turk is a Turk for me. A Circassian, Albanian, Tatar or Georgian who says he is a Turk is a Turk. I accept people on their own terms. I don’t care if they are ethnically Turkish or not. As a matter of fact, the majority of those who call themselves Turkish are not ethnically Turkish. This is irrelevant for me. I look at what people freely choose as their identity. But when they choose to impose their preference (which fits to their experience -- of immigration, Muslim nationalism, etc.) on others, then there is a problem. There they cross a red line. Similarly, anyone who says he is not a Turk, is not a Turk. Kurds say they are not. Therefore they are not Turks. They are Kurds. It is this simple. People talking about Turkishness being an umbrella identity have no idea of democracy. As long as Kurds refuse to be called Turkish, nobody has the right to call them Turkish. Period.
You said Kurds are not equal to Turks. Do Kurds, as citizens of Turkey, not enjoy the same rights as any other citizen?
Kurds enjoy equality only when they present themselves as Turks. Kurds are equal to Turks as long as they don’t claim to be Kurdish. “Kurd” is still a nonexistent entity in this country. The Turkish constitution and the state do not recognize Kurds as a political entity. Even worse, Turkish laws call Kurds Turks. Kurdish children in grade school are forced to recite Kemalist nationalist anthems in which they say they are Turkish. The Turkish constitution and the state rest on a foundation of dishonesty. They immorally force Kurdish children to lie about themselves. As long as a Kurd remains silent about his Kurdishness, he is an equal citizen. The moment he affirms his Kurdishness and human dignity, he is accused of Kurdish nationalism, separatism and even terrorism. The only recognized Kurds in Turkey are therefore PKK terrorists. They are also the only Kurds who are taken seriously by the government. In Turkey, some Kurds have become terrorists because that has been the only way they could become Kurds.
Soft revolution in Turkey
What do you think of the government’s strategy for solving the Kurdish problem?
This government represents a major democratic revolution. Frankly, the Justice and Development Party [AK Party] phenomenon is an underappreciated, silent revolution of democracy in Turkey. One can argue that, unlike the smaller-scale advances of Adnan Menderes or Turgut Özal, with the AK Party the Turkish forces of democracy -- especially religious citizens -- brought down the soft dictatorship called Kemalism. Therefore, the AK Party’s success is a story greater than the leadership of Mr. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or the few faces that appear in the Cabinet. The role of the Gülen community and many other civil societal forces needs to be better acknowledged in this great transformation.
But all this is now past. We need to look forward. Looking forward, however, the AK Party is only a first revolution. Turkey needs two more revolutions. The first revolution, the AK Party revolution, was a revolution by and for the rights of the religious masses who constitute the majority of Turkish society. This liberating force is now turning conservative. It was the first step in the de-colonization of Turkish society. Back in 2009, I published an op-ed in the Taraf daily, where I argued that the period then unfolding should be called an era of de-colonization. Technically speaking, we are still undergoing a process of de-colonization. Turkey today needs a second democratic revolution: the liberation of Kurdistan. We know very well that most participants in the first revolution are reluctant and even resistant to such an idea, but democratization and human dignity calls for a revolution whereby the Kurds will be recognized as shareholders in the sovereignty of what is now only a “Turkish” state. The first revolution gave religious Turkish citizens a state that belonged to them. The second revolution should give the Kurds a state that belongs to them, too. Kurds will get their state. One hopes that this state will be Turkey, a Turkey that has repented of its sins against its Kurdish co-owners. Because of Kemalist nationalist indoctrination and the countering nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire, most religious Turks unfortunately harbor a sacralized conception of the state. They have yet to come to terms with the fact that the state belongs to all citizens as individuals and as groups. Most religious people think that the Kurds are fine as long as the state shows them compassion and treats them like house servants. It does not occur to them that the Kurds should share in ownership of the state. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to eradicate the ignorance that has been cultivated among Turks.
What is the third revolution?
Oh, the third revolution is seemingly minor but equally important: It is the restoration of the rights and recognition of wrongdoings done to non-Muslims such as Armenians. We will eventually come to terms with their reality, as well. If for no other reason than that growing Islamic consciousness will make it impossible not to repent this secular-nationalist sin committed in the name of Muslimness.
Are you satisfied with the government’s approach to the Kurdish problem?
The current government is definitely progressive and has done a lot towards solving the problem. But there is a serious problem of attitude. It treats Kurdish rights as charity. The basic rights of the Kurds cannot be subject to the courtesy of the prime minister or the pity or approval of the Turkish masses. Kurds’ right to equality and sovereignty is not negotiable. If Kurds qualify for certain democratic and human rights, those rights cannot be dependent on the approval of Turks, no matter how numerous they may be. The approval of Turks may be a political problem for the AK Party, but it is not the Kurds’ problem.
But don’t Turkish people need to be persuaded about this sensitive problem?
Not really. Turkish people need to be educated and cured of Turkish nationalism. When Turkish nationalism and Kurdish nationalism are seen as equally repugnant, then we can speak of Kurdish equality. Today, Turkish nationalism is officially and publicly celebrated, while Kurdish nationalism is associated with separatism and terrorism. A Kurd is not a citizen but a subject. Kurds in Turkey are subjects of the state and not its owners. In a democracy, subjects and owners are the same. In Turkey, Kurds are only and always subjects. The Turkish state does not belong to Kurds, although it rules over them. Kurds can become owners of the Turkish state only when they lie about themselves. Today democracy has placed a challenge before the Turkish state: It should either recognize Kurds not as its subjects but as co-owners, or else eradicate any references to Turkishness. In other words, the state should become either everybody’s or nobody’s. If it is to be everybody’s, then the recognition and incorporation of Kurdishness is necessary; if nobody’s, then de-Turkification is the major task ahead of us.
Do you think that the Kurds have the right to an independent state?
Kurds have every right to secede from Turks. This is their democratic right. Turks have the same right. Recognition of this right is an obligation on Turks. If Turks want to live with Kurds, they should be ready to recognize the fact that Kurds have the right to separate and have a state of their own. When Turks achieve this degree of maturity in democratic consciousness, then the Kurds will have become equal. I am saying all this while I, myself, am against the idea of separation. I think that the Kurds should live and share in the existing state. But in order to restore their stolen identity and dignity, the Turks must recognize them as equals. Treating the rights of Kurds as if they were a charity from the Turkish state will not achieve that.
If we are sincere about not wanting Kurds to start a separate state of their own, we have to make the existing state their own. If Turkey turns itself into a Kurdistan [a homeland of the Kurds], then Kurds will feel free and they will not need another Kurdistan. If not, then the Kurds have every right to ask for Kurdistan. Turkey should become a Kurdistan for Kurds, a Turkistan for Turks, and yes, an Armenia for Armenians. If that even requires a name change, so be it. That’s what true democracy is all about. That’s what the three necessary revolutions will do. My point of departure is not ethnic. For me what matters is human dignity and human sovereignty -- which is the original notion of “khilafa” in Islamic terminology. Whatever I recommend for Kurds can be equally applied to Turks or any other group. Kurds will feel equal when they have everything that their Muslim brothers, the Turks, have: state, recognition, ownership, voice.
Is the situation really that bad? How important is recognition?
Very important. Politically speaking Kurds are animals or objects, treated as a problem by the Turkish state or as an economic and psychological burden by the Turkish public. Kurds are not recognized and therefore their humanity has not been established within Turkish politics. That Kurds have so far been treated like animals is a simple consequence of this lack of recognition. Kurds’ entry into humanity and politics therefore had to come through PKK violence, where Kurdish existence as a source of human sovereignty imposed itself. The Kurd might exist today, but he is not equal yet. The Turkish constitution has not changed yet.
How about the language of “Islamic brotherhood,” do you think it is a useful approach to the problem?
When you instrumentalize religion it is no longer religion. If you pray “salat” [Muslim daily prayer] to impress your boss rather than your God, then what you do is not prayer but hypocrisy. This is so both Islamically and according to human conscience. The language of brotherhood can make sense only when the law and the rights of Kurds are respected. Today this language of religious universalism or brotherhood is employed to stifle the much-needed recognition of Kurdish particularity. Kemalists always said that they were Muslim, too (while, as we know, they were the most oppressive of sincere believers). Why should Kurds believe a similar claim? Besides, if you are my brother, does that mean you are exempt from the rule of law? Does that mean that in case of a disagreement we will not go to court? Today, the Kurds have taken the Turkish state to the court of human justice. Saying that Kurds are our brothers will not be a sufficient excuse for the injustices we are continuing to commit against them.
How do you see the recent direction of the Kurdish problem? The state and the PKK have agreed on a peace plan.
I support any step towards peace and I can only be happy about the peace process. I applaud both parties for their courage and efforts. But let’s not delude ourselves. Based on what we have seen so far, this is only an effort towards ending the conflict and pacifying the PKK.
Do you think this is going to end the conflict? Do you think the PKK represents the Kurds in Turkey?
There can be no peace or solution to the problem without the PKK. But a peace with the PKK will never be sufficient, either. As a matter of fact, the Kurdish struggle for dignity and equality will enter a new phase after the PKK is mollified and has been incorporated into the bureaucratic networks and institutions of non-violence. Then the Kurdish struggle for equality will be released from the shadow of PKK violence. The post-PKK period will be an era of popularization of the Kurdish struggle. It will become civil and civilian but will be more demanding, more irresistible.
A Kurdish Spring ahead
What do you mean?
The post-PKK era will be a Kurdish spring. This seems inevitable to me. And with the withdrawal of the PKK from the stage and the elimination of violence, this is going to be another silent revolution in Turkey. Out of fear of labeling by the Turkish state and the monopolization of Kurdish discourse by the PKK, many Kurds have remained silent or uneasy about active involvement in defending their rights. In the near future we will see a spread of Kurdish consciousness and an expansion of the struggle for civil rights. The PKK’s near monopoly control over the Kurdish voice will be replaced by a democratic Kurdish resurgence against which a democratic Turkey will have no defense. History is on the side of the Kurds; God is on the side of the Kurds. The impoverished, secular-nationalist language of the PKK will be replaced by a more authentic Kurdish voice as a result of two things. First, the Kurdish struggle is becoming democratized and popularized. Thus, more and more Kurds from all walks of life are joining in this struggle. Second, the Turkish party is no longer one of secular Kemalist dictatorship, but of democratic Turkish religiosity. Both of these factors are going to shape the future of the Kurdish struggle. Most of the struggle will in fact be carried out within Islamic discourse.
The Turkish state will eventually acquiesce to the demands of its Kurdish citizens, who are its forgotten co-owners. But for now it resorts to religion in perpetuating the status quo of non-recognition. The current trend towards talking about “religious brotherhood” will be revealed as bankrupt because it is exploiting religion for the sake of state and nationalism. Kurds, who are no less religious than their Turkish brethren, have already started to undo the PKK’s secularist-leftist language. Kurdish democracy will soon transcend the narrow language of the PKK and will defeat Turkish nationalism, which is dishonestly instrumentalizing religion.
Any final thoughts?
I would say that today we need a second democratic revolution: the de-colonization of Kurdistan. Kurds must be liberated from the oppression of Kemalism and Turkish nationalism. We should allow and help the Kurds to enact their own revolution, to prove to the Turks and to themselves that they are true equals and do not require the guardianship of Turks. If religious Turks want to understand how ugly their approach to the Kurds is and has been, they should recall the treatment they received at the hands of the so-called secularist guardians. It is the same anti-democratic tutelage. Religious Turks should stop acting like Kemalist generals.
In the meantime, the Turkish state has to officially and publicly apologize to the Kurds for the oppression and injustice committed thus far. This is a much-neglected component of peace and reconciliation. Nothing will replace an apology, and without an apology no peace effort will be complete. The Turkish state owes Kurds a big official apology.