Whither identity politics?

Imagine a Turkish PM who argues that the Turkish nation and its nationalism is superior to those  of the Kurdish people.  Consider a Kurdish PM in the parliament putting Caussacian and Bosniac descendant of Turkish citizens into their ‘inferior’ place. Both scenes happened in the Turkish Parliament last week. Why are the statements these Turkish nationalist and Kurdish nationalist MPs make so very similar?  What do these two scenes tell us about identity politics in Turkey and peace negotiations between the AKP government and Ocalan?

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Students of Turkish history and politics know that the founding mindset of the Turkish Republic privileged being Turkish and Sunni-Hanefi, and layered the primacy of other groups according to their ethnic and religious origins. In this case, Muslim immigrants and refugees (Bosniacs and Caucassians) coming from the Balkans and Caucaus were welcomed since they had the fundamental quality of Turkish citizenship and they were seen as receptive to the Turkish ethnie. Apart from Sunni-Hanefi Kurds, non-Hanefi Kurds were categorized as second to Bosniacs and Caucassians because they were seen as troublemakers and difficult to manage because of their salient group identities. Alevis and non-Muslim communities were in a worse situation, and thus, in the outer sphere of citizenship and belonging. This logic has been in practice since the Ottoman Empire understood that it could not keep its territories together and the famous Union and Progress Party leaders started to impose their Turkification policies in the early twentieth century.

Not much has changed in terms of state practices of citizenship and belonging. The statements of these two MP’s reveal how identity categorization has been central to the hearts and minds of Turkish citizens. Thus, it is not a surprise that the Turkish public discusses such statements with a certain discomfort not only because of their underlying antagonism but, more importantly, because they go to the heart of Turkey’s identity problems. There is, it seems, a continuum in identity politics from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic that has frozen both Kurds and Turks into at least one homogeneous dimension: the superiority mindset.

Although Turkish nationalists argue that the peace negotiations and the bill granting Kurdish citizens the right to defend themselves in Kurdish in courts is provoking Turkish national sentiments, this cannot be explained only with this phenomenon, let alone justified. Nothing other than this nationalist conviction of superiority can explain the Kurdish MP’s statements as well.

Recognition of Kurdish identity and cultural and language rights is perceived as a threat to the primacy of Turkish nationalism and identity, and to the positioning of Turkish nationalism(s) in relation to its Kurdish twin. On the other hand, the Kurdish nationalists are also positioning themselves due to the shifting identity politics. They reassert their position by reminding other minority groups of their status.  This process will deconstruct the hegemony of Turkish nationalism, identity and culture while providing space for Kurdish people and their rights. Yet, shall we expect the twin to do same to other groups?

This is just the beginning. The change is coming but it will bring problems as well. While cultural wars will unfold as the new democratic Turkey is constantly under negotiation, such statements will mirror Turkey’s problems. Although such statements are unacceptable and neither of the MPs gave a proper public apology – one of them made more of a mess while trying – they mirror the problems of Turkey. The good thing is that the Turkish public has an opportunity to revisit identity issues and imagine a liberal and inclusive society. Hopefully, it will not remain only a diagnosis of problems but also a process – of cure, healing and reconstruction.