Constitutional reform and addressing the Kurdish question in Turkey by Othman Ali*

PHOTO Today’s Zaman, Kürşat Bayhan

March 22, 2012, Thursday/ 17:18:00

The reforms that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government is planning to introduce to the constitution will have a lasting impact on the development of the democratic process in Turkey and lay a solid foundation for the settling of the Kurdish issue.

 However, this can be achieved only with the cooperation of all concerned parties, especially the leaders of Kurdish groups. Any unilateral decision will not be productive. Reforms of such magnitude need an environment free of terror, intimidation and political arrests and require national consensus.

In 2009, as a part of his government’s Kurdish initiative, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan promised to grant the Kurds a number of rights in an embracive and more inclusive constitution that was planned to be introduced. In November 2011, while meeting Massoud Barzani, Erdoğan reiterated his pledge to the Kurds; recently, he again made similar promises.

It is a long-lasting and historical achievement to address the Kurdish question in the constitution, and this can be achieved only with the involvement and the cooperation of all parties: government, opposition, relevant NGOs and representatives from the Kurdish community of all leanings and social backgrounds. In addition, for such a profound and critical change to be successful, the tension and the level of violence in the Southeast need to be reduced. All segments of the Kurdish community, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in particular, need to be positively engaged. Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek, who heads the parliamentary Constitutional Reconciliation Commission, and who was at the opening of the 26th Abant meeting, held from March 9 to 11 in the northwestern province of Bolu, has stated that Turkey cannot afford to miss this opportunity. Kurds also need to realize if they fail to avail themselves of this historic opportunity, they may need to wait for decades in order to have another chance.

Constitutional reform means addressing the roots of the Kurdish issue. It is a necessary and overdue process. Both government and Kurdish representatives need to realize that constitutional reform is a complex and painful process with compromises on both sides. In order to entice the active cooperation of the BDP, the government needs to temporarily close the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK) files and release most detained BDP members, especially, the elected deputies and mayors. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) needs to declare a unilateral and indefinite cease-fire.

The government has so far been on the right track in engaging the opposition, intellectuals and human right activists from all parts of the political spectrum. The nature of changes that the government intends to introduce needs national consensus. The last three decades of the bloody conflict in the Southeast has polarized Kurds and Turks. This makes the task of the government more difficult when attempting to sell its package of reforms to different segments of Turkish society. Erdoğan’s task is similar to that of a tightrope walker in a circus, which is to walk a narrow and dangerous line. This requires skills, fitness and experience. Erdoğan needs to do a lot of political maneuvering in the coming months. On the one hand, he needs to assure his majority Turkish constituency that by recognizing Kurdish rights, he is not going to compromise the territorial unity of Turkey. On the other hand the AK Party government cannot afford to ignore the fact that 14 million Kurds have a legitimate demand to see their ethnic identity recognized in the new constitution and their children to be taught in their mother tongue.

Constraints on the AK Party government

The world and the EU, which Turkey has long been striving to join, are watching how these reforms will unfold with regard to Kurdish rights. Finally, the countries of the Arab Spring, which see Turkey as an inspiring model of successful democracy in the region, have placed another burden on Turkey’s shoulders, and it needs to live up to its newly attained image. These are all constraints that the government needs to reckon with and ponder as it strides the path of constitutional reform.

If history is any guide then the reading of the past developments of the Kurdish question in Turkey and neighboring countries tells us clearly that unless the new constitution includes an unfailing recognition of Kurdish identity within Turkey and provides for the right of Kurds to have the option for their children to be taught in public schools in Kurdish, disillusionment, violence and separatist thought will gain a lot of momentum among the Kurds. In fact, the AK Party has already referred to the concept of developing a new macro identity (an “upper” sort of umbrella national identity) for Turkey that will make room for micro ones (a lower, ethnic identity). This is a daring and visionary concept that is worthy of serious deliberations.

This writer is fully aware that the pro-state Kemalist elite (both on the right and left) has been suffering from a severe inferiority complex since World War I and will not respond well to any suggestion for Turkey to have a pluralistic constitution, adopt concepts of “democratic citizenship” or have local regional governments with a certain degree of autonomy. In fact, the development of local administrations that allow for cultural expression is a part of the harmonization program that Turkey needs to join the EU. Nevertheless, the AK Party and Mr. Erdoğan, who has demonstrated unique courage and statesmanship, are well qualified to address these issues by nontraditional means.

There is no denying the fact that Kurds are not the only ethnic minority in Turkey, but any attempt to compare their case with that of other minorities is futile and an unfair trivialization. Kurdish national awareness and the Kurdish issue have much more complicated political, security, cultural, socio-economic and regional dimensions than that of other ethnic minorities in Turkey. Some opponents of cultural pluralism may also claim that the teaching of Kurdish is not feasible due to some technical difficulties or the lack of standard Kurdish and the fact that many Kurds want their children to be taught in Turkish. These arguments, which have been put forward by the pro-status-quo elite in Turkey, are the same that the Arab nationalists raised in Iraq to deny Kurds their cultural rights. Today, Kurdish is the only means of instruction in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq) and most technical problems are being phased out. Once the constitution recognizes Kurdish as the second formal language or one of the formal languages of education, concerned educational authorities will create a language law for Kurdish education and the onus will be on the Kurds to address the technical challenges. There are numerous field studies that indicate that a very small portion of Kurds in the Southeast would prefer to have their children taught in Kurdish. Nevertheless, it is the inalienable right of people to have education in their mother tongue; Kurds are no exception.

Looking at other countries’ experiences

As the government in Turkey deliberates constitutional reform it needs to look at other countries experiences. A close examination of other ethnic conflict resolutions will demonstrate that developing a Kurdish language and literature in Turkey will not necessarily weaken national unity. In fact, many advanced democracies have developed multiculturalism as a means to counteract separatism. Canada, Spain and Switzerland are examples that Turkey needs to study closely. Besides, in South Africa the amazing national reconciliation was reflected in its new constitution, which makes room for formal education in more than one language and dialects in the country. After the success of the Arab Spring the people in Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco abandoned their monoculture policies and have drafted new laws to allow the development of the indigenous Amazigh language and culture.

Finally, our (as in Muslim) history and civilization is rich in its multicultural dimension as demonstrated in its latest manifestation with the Ottoman state and culture; this is something that we should benefit from. The late Ismael al-Faruqi, the most prominent Muslim scholar of the last century, rightly points out that Muslim civilization is based on its unique paradigm of Tawhid, which creates unity through diversity. It was this paradigm that made the Ottoman state the most successful multilingual, multiethnic and multireligious state for centuries. Unfortunately, the Western-inspired Tanzimat reform of the 19th century and Kemalism, which is its developed form, sees unity through homogeneity. This was forced down the throats of people by organs of the deep state with tragic consequences. Article 88 of the first (1924) Constitution of the Republic, for instance, stipulated that “the people of Turkey, regardless of religion and race, as regards citizenship are called Turks.” Although the wording of the article might seem at first sight to support the interpretation of the Kemalist idea of Turkish citizenship as a “civic” and “legal” bond devoid of ethnic and religious undertones between the individual and the state, the real meaning behind the scenes was very different. The constitutions of 1961 and 1982 followed the Kemalist project in establishing a modern state based on the principle of nationalism. Ethno-nationalist emphasis in the definition of citizen identity was further elaborated by a series of laws that prohibited the use of Kurdish in any visual, audio or written forms.

For three reasons¸ Turkey’s military-drafted constitution of 1982 is outdated. It appears that Turkey needs a new concept for citizenship that will be more inclusive and not ethnic bound. The concept of “Türkiyeli” (literally “from Turkey”) has a territorial connotation, and it is a more inclusive category than “Turk,” which is claimed to be an ethnic category excluding the Kurds. This concept was used repeatedly in the 1990s as “constitutional citizenship” and “citizenship in the Republic of Turkey.” Professor Baskın Oran of Ankara University makes a strong case for this change in defining the national identity, which I happen to share.

To sum up, the constitutional reform that the AK Party has proposed could serve as a major contribution to the settlement of the Kurdish question provided that it is pursued in a peaceful environment and all concerned parties are engaged positively.


* Dr. Othman Ali, Ph.D., is head of the Turkish-Kurdish Studies Center in Arbil, Iraq.

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