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The Original Sins of The Turkish Republic

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] Yesterday Turkey celebrated the 87th anniversary of the foundation of its republic. Millions recalled the almost-miraculous rebirth from the remains of the Ottoman Empire in 1923 and praised its blessings with joy. I, too, am a supporter of the Turkish Republic. But I also regret the fact that some fundamental mistakes were made right in its genesis — mistakes that put distrust between the republic and the majority of its public. Things go back to Turkey’s War of Liberation, 1919-22. This was the national effort to save what is today’s Turkey from occupation by the Greeks, the British and the French. And it was a heroic story of which almost all Turks, including myself, are proud. Yet that also is a story with versions. Today most Turks believe that the War of Liberation was created and led single-handedly by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). But in fact, the effort to resist the occupation started before Mustafa Kemal joined it. Besides, the war was led not by him exclusively, but by the parliament that convened in Ankara in April 1920, which was itself a regrouping of the Ottoman Parliament in Istanbul. That initial Ankara parliament, which we Turks call the First Parliament, was a very democratic and diverse assembly, gathering delegates from almost all major cities of Turkey. It included many Kurds (six delegates from Diyarbakır alone, for example), and many pious Muslims, including some clerics in their religious garments. It also included liberals and socialists. During the War of Liberation, all these different trends in Turkey were united to save the country from foreign occupation. But they obviously had political differences. So, when the war ended in 1922, the division in the parliament became quite apparent, as delegates joined either the “First Group,” led by Mustafa Kemal, or the “Second Group,” which included both the liberals and religious conservatives who were increasingly concerned with Kemal’s authoritarian style. One of the parliamentary deputies who remained independent but supported the Second Group, Abdülkadir Kemali Bey, raised these concerns in daily Tan in a piece in 1923. “There are two enemies for the nation,” he wrote. “The enemy outside that the military resists and the enemy inside, which is the authoritarian rule that denies the nation’s sovereignty.” Once the Republic was announced in October 1923, political parties began to emerge. The First Group turned into Mustafa Kemal’s Republican People’s Party, or CHP — which is still around as the main opposition. The Second Group evolved into the Progressive Republican Party, or TCF, led by other war heroes such Kazım Karabekir and supported by prominent intellectuals such as Halide Edip, a leading Muslim feminist. Erik-Jan Zürcher, the Dutch historian who wrote a book about the TCF, notes that it was “a party in the Western European liberal mould” that opposed the CHP’s “centralist and authoritarian tendencies.” Its program advocated “decentralization, separation of powers, evolutionary rather than revolutionary change… [and] a more liberal economic policy.” It was also “respectful to religious beliefs and ideas.” But, alas, the TCF lasted only six months. In June 1925, using a Kurdish rebellion in the East as a pretext, the CHP government closed down its liberal rival indefinitely. Its leaders were tried in the Independence Tribunals, arbitrary courts designed to crush political opponents. Next year, other liberal figures such as Cavit Bey were executed by the regime under other false pretexts. In other words, the Turkish Republic, which was created by a democratic parliament in 1923, turned into a CHP dictatorship in just two years. That move from pluralism to Kemalism was its first original sin. The other original sins derive from here. Two major groups which had wholeheartedly supported the War of Liberation, the conservative Muslim Turks and the Kurds, felt betrayed by the republic, for the extreme secularism and nationalism of Kemalism violated their rights. No wonder why the eight-decade-long history of the republic has been marked by the resistance of these two groups to the Kemalist state. The Kurdish reaction has been often violent, coming off as rebellions and guerilla warfare. The conservative Muslim resistance, quite luckily, has almost never turned violent, and has expressed itself on the cultural and political level. This authoritarian republic, which acted “for the people, in spite of the people” as Kemalists jokingly said in the 1930s, could not go on forever. But it would be equally bad if the victims of the system created a tyranny-in-reverse, as turned out to be the case in Iran. The good news is that, instead of such a “counter-revolution,” as the Kemalists have long feared, Turkey is rather on the path of “democratization” — an evolutionary process which elevates the suppressed groups to first class citizenship and grants them political power. So, at the end, it seems that the original sins of the Turkish Republic will be not avenged, but pardoned. Scars will be not retributed but healed. And the republic, which will have made its peace with the public, will be stronger than ever.
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