When the AKP came to power a decade ago, many believed that it heralded the end of Kemalism now that an Islamist party was running Turkey. Kemalism has always been associated by the outside world with secularism (or perhaps more accurately, laicism) and the prevailing viewpoint was that the AKP would do away with the old Kemalist philosophy. This overlooked the inconvenient fact that dating back to Atatürk and Inönü and throughout the remainder of the 20th century, the CHP and the military only allowed new actors into the political system if they agreed to maintain Kemalism and protect its core tenets, and when this agreement was violated the military was all too willing to step and reset the system back to what it viewed as its natural equilibrium. When Atatürk determined in 1930 that an opposition party was needed in order to channel discontent and provide the CHP with some competition, his only requirement was that it agree to uphold Kemalism. Similarly, when the DP won Turkey’s first free and fair elections in 1950, the party was mocked in some quarters for being a carbon copy of the CHP due to its embrace of Kemalism. All of Turkish political history dictated that the AKP would not be allowed to compete and take over the reins of government in 2002 absent a commitment to at least tacitly maintain Kemalism, and the subsequent decade has revealed this to be the case.
While the AKP has tried to soften enforced secularism at the margins, it has actually embraced other aspects of Kemalism with surprising vigor, particularly nationalism. As one of the six arrows of Kemalism, nationalism was meant to stress Turkish – rather than Ottoman – identity and focused on civic rather than ethnic citizenship as a means of foreclosing nationalist hope for groups such as the Kurds. Every citizen of Turkey was to be considered a Turk irrespective of ethnic background or heritage, and recognizing the Kurdish national movement would violate the Turkification project. Erdoğan and the AKP have taken up the mantle of Turkish nationalism, perhaps as a way to preempt or blunt any criticism that the AKP seeks some type of pan-Islamic arrangement, and this has manifested itself most visibly over the issue of Kurdish autonomy. On Monday I highlighted what I believe to be foolish behavior on the Turkish government’s part with regard to Nevruz celebrations and expressed that it would just lead to an ever larger outpouring of Kurdish demands for autonomy. Naturally, yesterday and today there have been more clashes and injuries and the official Nevruz celebration has been cancelled in Diyarkabır, which has Turkey’s largest Kurdish population. Just as predictably, a PKK bomb exploded outside the AKP office in Diyarbakır, explosives were found in a number of other locations, and four special forces soldiers were killed in clashes with the PKK. Inevitably, the uptick in terrorist violence along with the heavy-handed response of the government to Nevruz festivities and civilian demonstrations will lead to even greater disenchantment among Turkey’s Kurds and a hardening of Turkey’s position on Kurdish autonomy. In many ways, Nevruz is beginning to resemble marching season in Northern Ireland, during which Ulster loyalists inevitably clash with police and violence, chaos, and civilian deaths ensue.
While it appears as if this could all be easily avoided by a more open and honest discussion about the place of Turkey’s Kurds within the state and whether Kurdish autonomy – rather than outright independence – is a feasible compromise, such a discussion is unlikely to occur. Ideological legacies are notoriously difficult to overcome, and Kemalism has thoroughly shaped Turkish politics, society, and discourse for 90 years. If the AKP, a party populated by religiously devout officials that is open about its desire to see some of the secular restrictions loosened on things such as head scarves in government buildings, has only tiptoed at the very edges of challenging secularism, it certainly is not going to tear down the Kemalist wall surrounding nationalism. Ideology is not something that can be easily discarded, and in the case of the Kurds it means that an important rethinking of the Kurdish question is not going to happen. Instead, the government and the PKK will continue their battle, Kurdish political parties will fight with the government over Nevruz observance and whether Kurdish can be spoken in public settings, and an important policy issue that is hampering Turkish political development and society will remain taboo and unresolved.