By Mustafa Akyol | 13 April 2010
In such a divided country, people tend to think in terms of ‘us’ against ‘them.’ The latter includes not just people with whom you disagree politically, but also clash existentially
Two days ago, Ahmet Türk, the former leader of the former Democratic Society Party, or DTP, suffered a physical attack. The Kurdish politician, whose pro-Kurdish party was closed down four months ago by the Constitutional Court, got a sudden punch in his face. The place was Samsun, a town in the Black Sea region that has become notorious as a crucible of militant Turkish nationalism. The 27-year-old militant who attacked Türk, İsmail Ç., a waiter in a coffee house, was apparently a staunch nationalist.
What was more telling was what his boss, Kazım Topaloğlu, told to the press. “I am proud of İsmail,” he bluntly said. “This is something any Turkish citizen would do.”
Well, I know many Turkish citizens who would not punch people in the face, at least for political reasons. But the fact that this particular punch-promoter, Mr. Topaloğlu, finds such things totally normal and justified is worth pondering.
This incident, in fact, is just one of the countless episodes that underline a disturbing fact about Turkish society: we have deep cleavages here, and people on opposing sides hate each other almost passionately.
The cleavage that the PKK, the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party, has created with its almost 30-year-long guerilla war against Turkish authorities is the deepest one. The PKK’s terrorist tactics have left more than five thousand Turkish soldiers dead, leaving pain for families and a bitter Turkish majority. The attack on Ahmet Türk, whose party was seen as the PKK’s political wing, is the outcome of this acrimony.
But when you listen to the Kurds who are sympathetic to the PKK, you get a totally different picture. They will tell you stories of torture chambers, extra judicial killings and the destruction of villages, tools that the Turkish security forces used during their “counter-terrorism” campaigns. They will also protest the state’s eight-decade-long policy of cultural assimilation and forceful “Turkification.”
The people on the opposite sides of the cleavage, in other words, have totally different realities. What is worse is that most of them never try to raise their heads and get a sense of the reality of the other side. Hence comes the hatred against “Kurdish treason” on one side, and the “Turkish yoke” on the other.
The other major cleavage is the one between the secularist/Kemalist Turks and the conservative/Islamic ones. This one, thank God, does not have a history of armed conflict, but is still quite bitter.
Here again, you have totally opposite narratives. When the Kemalists recall the ’20s and ’30s, they praise the cultural revolution that Atatürk pursued to Westernize the nation. They, for example, applaud the “hat revolution” of 1925, by which the state banned the Ottoman fez and imposed the trimmed hat imported from Europe. What the conservative/Islamic Turks remember from this episode, however, are the clerics and other conservatives who were executed for refusing to wear the hat.
What sounds like “liberation from tradition” for one camp, in other words, looks like tyranny to the other.
One can say such political cleavages exist in other societies as well. “Liberals” and “conservatives” of the United States, too, for example, oppose each other passionately. But the cleavages in Turkey are so deep that the opposing camps even do not speak the same language.
I mean it literally. The Kemalist Revolution wanted to change not just people’s headgears but also the very language they speak. Hence the Turkish Language Institution, founded in 1932, created a new language by systematically replacing all words with Arabic or Persian roots with artificial “Turkish” ones. Yet not everybody bought this “newspeak.”
Newspeak versus the old
The result is that today there are often modern and traditional words for the exact same meaning. (Both “akıl” and “us,” for example, mean “reason,” but the former comes from the Ottoman past and the latter from the Turkish Language Institution.) And you can tell directly whether someone is a Kemalist or conservative, if they show a specific tendency to prefer the newspeak or the old language.
Alas, even the very names of people here are quite revealing. There are Turks with tell-tale names such as Evrim, Devrim, or Ussal. These literally mean Evolution, Revolution, or The Rational. When you meet someone with such a name, you automatically understand that he or she comes from a lefty Kemalist family. When you meet people with names such as Abdullah, Necmeddin or Sümeyye, you presume the opposite.
In such a divided county, people hardly find common grounds. They rather tend to think in terms of “us” against “them.” The latter is not just people with whom you disagree politically, but also clash existentially.
To be honest, discussing the sensitive topics of politics and culture in such a divided society is often frustrating, and sometimes dangerous. But it is, at the very least, never boring.