Erdogan’s 'Quiet Revolution' Reaches Kurds

Turkey’s prime minister recognizes minority’s right to political representation, broader use of Kurdish language.

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Kurds wave Kurdistan Workers Party`s (PKK) flags during a September 30, 2013 demonstration in Diyarbakir, Turkey.
Kurds wave Kurdistan Workers Party`s (PKK) flags during a September 30, 2013 demonstration in Diyarbakir, Turkey.Credit: AFP

Seventy-five years have passed since Turkish soldiers, in 1937-38, massacred some 70,000 residents of the Kurdish province Dersim. Three years later, the Turkish government changed the province’s name to the more Turkish-sounding Tunceli. In similar fashion, some 12,000 villages and towns received Turkish names as part of President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s drive to assimilate the country’s ethnic minorities and erase Turkey’s ethnic and cultural differences from the collective memory, leaving only a strictly Turkish identity.

Any effort to oppose this identity – by speaking any language but Turkish or giving Armenian or Kurdish names to children or villages - was a criminal offense.

The reforms presented by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday are, therefore, an historic move as they annul this restriction, allowing Kurds and other minorities to use the original names of their villages and towns, teach in Kurdish and, in effect, have a better opportunity to participate in Turkey’s political life. Kurds will now have the right to establish private schools that teach in Kurdish and to use the language in existing schools. The language will now also be acceptable for use in political campaigns.

Kurdish representation in parliament will have to await further legislation that would lower the electoral threshold, which, at its current at 10 percent of the votes, effectively bars all smaller parties, mostly those representing minorities. Erdogan has yet to decide if the threshold will remain as is, be lowered to 5 percent, or simply be cancelled, but in any case it seems the prime minister will find a way to enable more Kurdish representatives to be elected to parliament - and afterward support his economic and political initiatives.

Erdogan presented these steps as the second stage of his "Quiet Revolution," following reforms passed three years ago that included a change in the legal system and in the manner judges were chosen, as well as the distancing of the army from the civilian establishment. This was an important stage in dismantling the Kemalist heritage, which authorized the army to defend the constitution and demanded that the judicial and security establishments implement a unified ideology of nationalist secularism without compromise. Legislation in line with this heritage dealt heavy punishments to anyone who even hinted that the Kurds deserved minority rights, or referred to the PKK – the Kurdistan Workers' Party – as anything but a terrorist organization.

Two years after holding talks with Kurdish secessionists – a sharp break with past policies – Erdogan now presents a new direction. Kurds and other minorities can now officially define themselves as cultural – but not national – minorities, without it being considered a threat to national security. The Kurds insist, and rightly so, that the reforms are still incomplete, and that they ignore political prisoners, most of them Kurds or supportive of Kurdish rights. According to Kurdish leaders, the education system, even after the proposed reforms, cannot guarantee equal education; still, there is agreement that these are unprecedented steps, especially with Erdogan stressing that they are “another helping” of the reforms, with more to follow.

Ban on head scarves canceled

Another important move includes canceling the ban on traditional head scarves in public places (except for judges and prosecutors and in the army.) Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul have already long since violated this law when appearing for formal public events with their wives wearing hijabs. Still, the official ban remains one of the symbolic foundations of the secular state. Naturally, rescinding the ban might not be welcomed by secular and nationalist movements, which claimed and will continue to claim that this could be the first step towards religious law. Yet others say that the ban, in effect, barred many women from academic and governmental institutions that insisted on “secular appearances,” and that from now on many women will see new opportunities open before them.

In the press conference called to announce the reforms, Erdogan insisted that they are not the result of negotiations but rather an expression of the people’s will. Still, the prime minister hopes these steps will increase his chances in the 2014 presidential elections. The dramatic change regarding the Kurds, including the steps that led to the withdrawal of some of their armed rebels from the country, and Erdogan’s effort to ensure the support of the Kurdish parties for the present and future reforms, sped up the current reform process. Erdogan's next set of reforms will deal with the authority of the president and government, which will probably mean a struggle not only against the weak opposition but also against leaders of his own party, who will oppose his gaining more powers as future president. To reinforce his own position, Erdogan must ensure support from other parties, which, again, explains his new rapport with the Kurdish factions.

Furthermore, Erdogan hopes that the new reforms will weaken criticism aimed at him due to his foreign policy, which has isolated Turkey and weakened its standing as a regional power. Unfortunately for Erdogan, foreign policy has become a major issue, and together with the brutal attacks on the Gezi Park demonstrators, it threatens his political status. That said, and in spite of Erdogan's personal interests, these reforms are an essential move in the promotion of true democracy in Turkey.

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