MESOP COMMENTARY : Amir Sharifi : The Wise Men of Turkey & Kurdish Rights

 The Wise Men Commission has finally emerged, entrusted with the challenge of preparing the ground, in the words of Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdogan, for “psychological operations” to settle the Kurdish question in Turkey once and for all.

The Wise Men, a lexical misnomer with underlying sexist connotations as it contains a few women, is essentially geographically constructed to include heads and representatives from seven regions of the country, representing social, academic, cultural, historical, economic, and political domains.

The selected Commission consists of sixty three prominent figures and celebrities ranging from academicians to musicians, journalists and authors to business experts and consultants, directors of human rights and law organizations to those of economic foundations and associations. The Commission appears to have been formed hastily because its inception has been the cause of uncertainty and confusion among some of those whose names have been announced in the media prior to being informed. Baskin Oran, a professor, one of the selected members in an interview with Zaman had said that he had not been informed of his selection until he had heard the news on television.

The specific objectives of the Commission would apparently come to light during a meeting, scheduled to be held with the Prime Minister on April 4. While the members of the Commission are respectable and prone to seek a democratic solution to the dilemma of political order in Turkey until recently caught in a bloody political and military conflict for decades, there are major challenges that this Commission should tackle and overcome. While the Turkish government and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have announced political compromises are necessary for the settlement of the issue at hand to find a plausible solution, the Commission’s greatest challenge would be to create an environment conducive to a more favorable psychological state of mind and unavoidably sociological context for the peace process when it comes to the Turkish general public. Undoing the failings of the past orientations cannot be achieved overnight, but implicit and explicit acceptance of past wrong doings can somewhat pave the way for preparing and transforming the ground when it comes to matters of public policy and its implementation. The Commission will encounter two major challenges in relation to its composition and the actual implementation of the peace process itself.

First is the notion of democracy from above and the assumption that a largely neutral body of experts can politically and culturally set the ground for historic and democratic transformations. Obviously public announcements, conferences, meetings, speeches by the members of the Commission can begin to have some effect on the psychology of the Turkish populace who know very little or nothing about Kurds and have been conditioned to harbor deeply engrained biased attitudes and are deeply committed to defending the officially sanctioned values and norms. As a corollary, the Commission has to deal with almost a century of official discourse of centralized hegemony and mediatized anti Kurdish sentiments in a country that until recently Kurdish fundamental demands were portrayed and perceived as a serious threat imposed by internal and external enemies and only shown through the prism of Turkish nationalism and ethnocentrism. While the Commission can try to undo the ideological implications of the exclusionary ideology, the main sociological hindrance to a democratic solution would continue to be the lack of involvement and co-engagement of the affected people and their representatives in this process. The Commission itself has the potential to be turned into the epitome of a genuine democracy reflecting the equal representation of all sectors of society, particularly those whose history has been denied and lost.

Secondly, without broadening the scope of the work and the actors involved, no social change would be conceivable without the direct participation of Kurds and their elected representatives. The Kurdish demands would transcend the ability of the Commission unless it lays the ground for constitutional amendments and institutional practices that would create the foundation for democratization of the Turkish and Kurdish society on a historical ground. Unfortunately the Commission in its present form reflects a power differential between Kurds and the dominant society. Most if not the great majority of the experts come from outside the Kurdish communities. Muhin Kizilkaya is the only Kurdish member in the Commission. Ironically if the purpose of this initiative is to ensure that the minority finds access to if not equal but proportional power, the peace process has already failed.

 One of the glaring contradictions in the Turkish Republic has been the invisibility of the Kurdish people in the country’s contemporary history. While Kurds welcome the gradual change and reforms for themselves and other minorities, they continue to be on the margins and at the periphery of decisions made for them. In other words, even the recent recognition of their grievances does not treat them as equal partners; they are seen as a problem rather than as an asset. Trouillot( 2005) argues that “Lived inequalities yield unequal historical power” as reflected in the structure of the Commission; such an orientation can only perpetuate the current state of affairs unless the historical agency of Kurds is also recognized otherwise as Bender (2009) has wittingly remarked “Unequal historical recognition yields lived inequalities.” Unfortunately both of these cases seem to be at work in the current peace building initiative.

The peace process does not account for this power differential nor has it proposed an equitable and plausible solution to address and redress these shortcomings and disparities during the peace process or transitional stages. Only a dialogic interaction between Kurds, their distinguished scholars, and different sectors of the Turkish society can collaborate to bring about the optimal results and equity. Kurds must be closely involved in matters that deal with their identity and destiny in the future; therefore, they must be treated as equal partners and agents rather than simply as the backdrop and background of the conflict between the state and PKK. To ensure essential consensus building, the Commission should broaden its membership to embrace the wider representations of Kurds and their existing and emergent institutions. This broad based participation would ensure the co-engagement of the wider public in a political process and struggle that would have a direct bearing on and implication for the success of a historic peace initiative. This is the most important challenge that the Wise Group would face in their historic mission. Let us hope their efforts would nurture the culture of democratic pluralism in Turkey.

Dr.Amir Sharifi – California State University, Long Beach –  President of the Kurdish American Education Society-LA

Published firstly in RUDAW