Ismail Besikci & the Reality of Kurdistan

Dec 24 2013 by Bülent Küçük  Boğaziçi University’s decision to honor sociologist İsmail Beşikçi with an honorary doctorate is doubtless a very important symbolic gesture. Beşikçi is a scholar who has devoted his life to researching the Kurdish question, for which he has paid a very heavy price, and a testament to academic freedom of expression. Boğaziçi University’s gesture shows that in Turkey, in spite of everything, the “University” can still exist as an autonomous, liberal institution. It also reminded us of the shameful history of the Turkish academy. Beşikçi’s speech about academic freedom and freedom of expression was delivered with incredibly stark, emphatic, and striking language; at the same time, it was witty and poignant.

In this article, though, rather than focusing on the relationship he established between the university, science, and freedom, I would like to briefly review and discuss a few basic points concerning the issue of institutional racism that constitutes the basis of the republican regime’s administrative, legal, and ideological rationality.  It is this institutional racism which Beşikçi himself investigates in almost all of his works—as a consequence of which he spent seventeen years in prison.

We should first start with an explication of several basic points about the issue of institutional racism. Institutional racism is not just a discourse consisting of the naïve prejudices of the advantaged (white) citizen against the other. Racism is a structural discourse that fundamentally functions at the intersections of social and cultural inequality and through instituting spatial and social distance. Let us remember that racism—even if it is not reducible to colonialism (because, for instance, anti-Semitism, a more global discourse that functions as a different kind of racism, has a quite different history)—is generally accepted in the literature as a constitutive dimension of the political, administrative, and economic rationality of the colonial regime. But why is institutional racism an administrative technique that accompanies the colonial regime?

First: it legitimizes the direct seizure of the resources in the region colonized, and makes unilateral economic exploitation and/or extraction possible. Second: it makes it possible to colonize the human resources of colonized regions—either as slave labor and/or as indentured (cheap) labor. Third: it debases the other and renders her/him as having a lower human existence, and therefore makes it possible to establish cultural dominance over the other. Fourth: it objectifies the other by discounting her/his political agency, based on the presumption that the other cannot represent him/herself; thus, it prepares an ideological groundwork for making it possible to administer by excluding the other from political processes. Fifth: it administers the occupied region with different colonial laws—or, in other words, with a “regime of lawlessness.” Because the legitimacy and hegemony of the colonial authority in the colony is constantly in crisis, the public-civil sphere is left very frail. By rendering itself visible through the presence of the police and the military, the state attempts to recuperate this state of constant crisis. In this sense, the state transforms here into a naked and more direct apparatus of violence. Given that the lives of colonized peoples are already degraded, this colonial law makes it admissible for the colonized to be crudely killed or displaced, and the perpetrators almost always remain “unknown.” In this way, racism makes it possible to directly seize resources and to intensively colonize labor, and it prepares a foundation for administering—and if necessary, eradicating—the other through the use of different laws that debase the other and culturally dominate her/him.

But to what degree are these five basic points valid when taking into account the Kurdish question and the reality of Kurdistan? In institutional representation, the academy, the mainstream media, and daily life in Turkey, the issue of racism is almost exclusively seen as consisting of a kind of scientific racism (kafataşçılık), biological difference/superiority, or prejudices and negative representations against black people. There has never been racism in its systematic and prevalent meaning in these lands because, it is said, “we don’t have a colonial past; Europeans do.” Even some academics who we consider to be most critical of the issue of racism prefer to understand it in the historical sense of scientific-biological racism, or they accept it is as an illogical discourse particular to local areas and marginal groups. While we’re on the topic, I must mention the speech given during the award ceremony by Professor Zeynep Çelik, another valuable scholar who received an honorary doctorate along with Beşikçi. Many of Çelik’s international publications analyze Ottoman urban and architectural history in relation to colonialism and orientalism, and is also someone who has closely studied the works of Edward Said and has written on Algeria. Although she and Beşikçi, who sat next to each other during the ceremony, have been looking for answers to similar questions in different contexts, I find the lack of (or inability to establish) a connection between her work and Beşikçi’s work in her speech to be symptomatic in terms of demonstrating the aforementioned structural mindset of the Turkish academy—that is, a symptom of silence over colonial history. Are there absolutely no connections between the history of Algerians and the history of the Kurds, or the modern histories of France and Turkey, in terms of their colonial practices and their practices of citizenship?

Let us emphasize: the presumptions that “we don’t have institutional racism” and that “there are some prejudices among our provincial citizens to be overcome by education” are both directly connected to the notion that the Turkish state does not have a colonial history (not to mention that biological racism was manufactured by educated white western scholars in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and that contemporary neo-racism endures most among the educated middle class people in urban spaces). So, in Beşikçi’s countless works on the “Kurdish question,” it is significant that he has established the connection between the colonial regime and institutional racism, which are normally seen as completely unrelated. According to him, there is a direct connection between the erasure of the Kurdistan region from memories and maps in Turkey subsequent to the construction of the Republican regime, and the Kurds’ ongoing history of catastrophes and suffering. In this sense, the Kurdish question in Turkey is ultimately a colonial question—that is, it should be signified as the “Turkish question.”

At the beginning of the 1990s, when the low intensity war was most foul, in the direct and very striking verbal defense that he bravely delivered at the end of his trial, Beşikçi said that in order for one to be able to characterize the republican state regime in Turkey as racist, it does not necessarily have to be organized like an apartheid regime. According to Beşikçi, when comparing the apartheid regime of South Africa and the Turkish state, the latter was different from the former, but in terms of racism it surpassed the South African apartheid regime. The apartheid regime was built upon classist and spatial segregation, but it did not attempt to categorically deny or forcibly assimilate the other. Yes, blacks and whites were forced to reside in different neighborhoods and regions, and they worked in different sectors and attended different schools. What’s more, black people were both dispossessed and pushed outside of politics. (In fact, although the apartheid regime came to a de facto and de jure end after the 1990s, there was not a serious change in structural inequality and everyday exclusion of black people. Even though the government has come under significant control by black people, it is common knowledge that the field of economics and property are both still under the control of the white population.) Nonetheless, according to Beşikçi, black people still had their right to their mother tongue and their own schools; though they were scorned, their identity was not denied.

In contrast, Kurdistan was partitioned into four parts and it was “shared” among four states (Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria), becoming “an international colony.” The Turkish state directly seized Kurdistan’s resources; it consciously and systematically refrained from transferring any resources there; and it intentionally left the region impoverished and “underdeveloped.” On top of this, for the duration of the Republic’s history, the state has administered the region differently than it has the western part of the country, using an exceptional, unique “colonial” law; it has violently oppressed not only those who revolted against this denial and state violence, but also the freedom movements that wanted to ultimately govern themselves; it has displaced a significant segment of the population using special “forcible settlement laws”; and it has destroyed them without any recourse to juridical procedures. The Dersim Massacre in 1937-38 is one of the most exemplary and dramatic examples of the application of this colonial law; another example is the massacre of the Armenians in 1915, at which time the Armenians here were not only destroyed, but at the same time their property was directly and forcibly seized. As if all of this were not enough, on the one hand, the state ignored the presence of Kurdistan as a region, and on the other hand, it denied the very existence of Kurdish identity and the Kurdish language. Due to its status an “international colony” in addition to the denial of Kurds and Kurdistan, Beşikçi asserts that Kurdistan is not even a colony, but rather constitutes an unparalleled case of being even below the status of a colony. In the rest of his famous, historical defense at the National Security Court, Beşikçi explained that in Turkey after the republic, Kurds can be “everything,” as long as their own identities were denied; but at the moment when they elaborated these differences, Kurds would not be able to be “anything,” even a “janitor.” He characterized this as “ideological-cultural slaughter.”

In the context of the Kurdish situation, institutional racism functions through the cultural erasure of the other, embodying the desire—in Mesut Yeğen’s terms—to make Kurds “future potential Turks.” This institutional ideology speaks by emphasizing the shortcomings and the cultural and political backwardness of the other, and by supposing that it is more civilized, more modern, than the other; it urges Kurds to resemble itself. In order to domesticate Kurds, it mobilizes resources to say “come be like us,” “love this country like we do.” Put another way, over the course of the republic, as long as Kurds have not articulated their cultural differences, represented themselves politically, spoken for themselves, or governed themselves, their existence has been denied on the basis that they could possibly be “one of us.” As a consequence of the partial recognition of Kurdish identity, this situation has changed somewhat with the AKP regime; however, by continuing to deny Kurdistan and its colonial realities, the transformed state under the AKP has reduced the Kurds to a minority status and it has not—yet—come close to sharing political power with them, because recognizing Kurdistan also involves a tacit recognition of the Kurds’ political sovereignty over the region.

When it comes to non-Muslims and Jews, this conditional attitude to “be like us” is obviously different, because attitudes toward them, predicated on the belief that it is always already impossible for them to be “one of us,” function through distance and institutional exclusion. From this perspective, for example, Jews as figures in popular discourse are too western, too wealthy/powerful, too urban/modern, and too cunning. Conversely, Kurds are too eastern, too impoverished, too provincial/traditional, and too naïve (thus the fantasy that Kurds are frequently used by the Jewish lobby without realizing it). In this sense, we can say that Muslim Turkish identity is located in between these two excessive figures: not too modern nor too traditional, not too cunning nor too naïve, not too eastern nor too western, not too rich nor too poor; in other words, not too Jewish nor too Kurdish, but phantasmically located right in between the excessive Jews and the lacking Kurds.

Neo-Racism in a Post-Colonial Context

Another important point to which we must pay attention in postcolonial contexts is the continuation of colonial practices and discourses in different ways across Europe’s various metropoles. In the diverse cities of Europe, it is significant that the biologicial/genetic form of racism has been replaced with a new kind of racism built upon cultural difference. This neo-racism claims that cultures are “incompatible” and that “the other’s culture spoils and corrupts my culture.” For this reason, neo-racism also prefers to keep the other far away, maintaining a spatial and class/social distance from it. It demands: “Remain different and know your place so that my superiority is apparent.” But who and what does this post-colonial technique of exclusion serve?

First: the colonial technique of apartheid shows its continuity in the way that sectoral and class segregation is overdetermined by the culturalized division of labor in European metropoles. For example, migrants are stuck in positions of cheap labor in specific fields of work. In the state bureaucracy of Europe, the number of “educated” migrants from previously colonized lands who work in high-ranking positions is incredibly limited. (Let us remember that while locals were working in big tobacco fields in the colonies, white Europeans were employed in high and middle rank positions in the state’s security and administrative bureaucracy, as well as in international companies.) The hierarchical division of labor means that migrants find employment that comes with low wages and low prestige and that is precarious—in other words, they work in fields that the advantaged citizen finds unbecoming. Migrants, having been culturally devalued, accept these conditions. It is for this reason that, in colonial and postcolonial contexts, cultural domination is intertwined with class disparity, and that the scorned other is also at the same time the impoverished other.

Second: colonialist apartheid practices, having transformed and softened in European urban environments, show themselves by maintaining the spatial segregation of the other by ghettoizing the other; criminalizing the other; and distributing insufficient resources to residential areas, depriving the other of city resources. In this sense, the poor slums of European metropolitan cities emerge as new spaces for colonial relations that combine political and cultural domination with economic exploitation.

Third: migrants are excluded not only from the field of political rights, but also from forms of public deliberation and participation. Because they are not citizens, they are deprived of political rights and are kept perpetually under suspicion. On top of this, they are systematically subjected to double standards in the application of ordinary criminal laws. In practice, in other words, a separate legal system functions for them. The reason that the number of imprisoned migrants and black people is proportionally much higher—apart from the fact that they are disproportionately criminalized—is precisely due to this different, duplicitous practice of punishment. In this context, political philosopher Etienne Balibar sees the deportation of migrants who have committed crimes as a double punishment. Not only are they “punished,” but also “banished.”

Fourth: migrants who migrate to Europe from formerly colonized regions carry the pain of degradation and colonial experiences along with them to these new spaces. They are socialized with feelings of structural deficiency and resentment against the dominant identity. For this reason, migrants are forced to choose between two positions: one group, taking on a “respectable” identity, will work hard to be free of the deficiency and shame they feel; they will go to school and learn a profession; and therefore, with their desire to “integrate” into society, they will wait for the day that the majority will accept and embrace them. Those who already think that this is an empty fantasy and continue to invest in the pain of exclusion are prone to becoming even more marginalized and living their lives feeling resentment towards the majority.

Finally: racism does not merely consist of an instrument of symbolic and class domination over the other through instituting forms of segregation and distance. Forms of spatial, cultural, and class segregation bear a unifying effect on this privileged, dominant identity, totalizing what is in reality an internally classed and culturally differentiated entity into a community. In other words, the segregation of the other renders invisible difference, inequality, and heterogeneity within the dominant identity; it provides solidarity by making the majority, and it weds the state to the dominant identity. This magical colonial distinction is what makes Europeanness, Frenchness, Englishness—in other words, the constitution of a “we”—possible. For example, the fundamental distinction that establishes the European today is the Muslim “incompatible” other (it used to be the Jews). For this reason, even the poorest German or French will consider him/herself relatively more well-to-do and more superior than a middle-class Muslim immigrant (even if some immigrants react to this, frequently they will tacitly accept this superiority). Consequently, cultural racism as a post-colonial technique of exclusion is not merely the ignorant, provincial prejudice of the slums, nor a neo-Nazi ideology; to the contrary, it is an incredibly versatile, functional form of institutionalized parlor racism.

Neither Beşikçi nor other researchers have devoted much attention to the post-colonial context of Kurdish people’s lives and experiences as discussed above (although there is a new generation of academics who are conducting research on these topics). In this sense, in terms of being able to see the parallels between Europe and Turkey, let us suffice ourselves with replacing the category of “Muslim migrants” described in the above paragraphs with the category of the “Kurdish migrants” who were forced to migrate and settle in Turkey’s west after the 1990, and conclude with the following questions: What framework should we use to simultaneously understand the current condition of the Kurdish region, still ruled through extra-ordinary laws, security apparatuses, and military presence (the colonial dimension), together with the condition of Kurds who are subject to poverty and devalorization and forced to live in spatially segregated areas in the Western metropoles in Turkey, or elsewhere in diaspora in Europe (the post-colonial dimension)? Which perspective should we use to parse the simultaneous scorning of the Kurds, who are displaced to live in the slums of the big metropoles of the west, and their articulation in the capitalist market as cheap labor in these new urban spaces? By using the traditional narratives that make reference to the harmless and naive prejudices of the sensitive western (Turkish) citizen, or to Kurds’ lack of education (again, the colonial dimension)?

In Closing

Beşikçi’s oeuvre is known for its intellectual contributions to the Kurdish freedom movement in Turkey. However, it is also true that there has been a strategic divergence of ideas between Beşikçi and the movement, which underwent radical discursive and strategic transformations after the 2000s. The fundamental point on which Beşikçi and the Kurdish freedom movement diverge is not the question of whether the Kurdish question is a historically colonial question; it is the different answers they have to the question of how to overcome this colonial domination. Unlike Beşikçi, the representatives of the Kurdish freedom movement—in this new process—do not understand that liberation should be the total elimination of the colonial state apparatus altogether and the construction of a new Kurdish nation-state to replace this colonial state. They aim to establish freedom and equality from a more universal and a more local/regional foundation. On the one hand, the movement aims to pulverize the colonial state’s fundamental administrative and political mechanisms using local and place-based democratic organizing in order to transform these mechanisms; on the other hand, by constructing solidaristic community economies, they aim to narrow the field of capitalist economic activities and disable monopolistic market relations. These two points constitute the two fundamental pillars of the Kurdish movement’s new methodology for de-colonization.

In the situation after the 1990s, when the colonial and post-colonial contexts have become completely interlocked, the question of liberation for the Kurds has become even more complicated. So this new methodology for de-colonization, conceived as democratic autonomy, is working to address both the situation in Kurdistan (the colonial context) as well as the demands and needs for Kurds and other peoples in the western metropoles (the postcolonial context). Doubtless, de-colonization and the subject of how a new future will be constructed are topics for a separate article.

[This article was first published in Turkish on Jadaliyya on 20 December; that version can be found here. It was translated by Nicholas Glastonbury.]