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A Morning With Erdoğan (On Kurds and More)

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] Last Saturday, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had a six-hour-long meeting with about four dozen Turkish writers. The topic was what the government calls "the democratic initiative," or "a project for national unity." (A less politically correct definition would be "the effort to win the hearts and minds of Kurds, and to disarm the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.") And Erdoğan's goal, as it turned out, was to listen to different views rather than air his own. Most writers who were invited to the "working breakfast," which extended until late afternoon, were novelists or poets. Others, including me, were political commentators who have written on the Kurdish issue. And not all of these people were fans of Erdoğan. Ayşe Kulin, a famed novelist and a staunch secularist, noted this frankly. "I did not vote for you, will not do so in the future, and you probably know that," she said to the prime minister. "That's why I appreciate the fact you invited me here to hear what I think." The gap between both sides Here is how things went. We all gathered in the prime minister's office in Dolmabahçe, Istanbul. Unlike most official buildings in Turkey, the place was neither ugly nor lavish. Erdoğan arrived soon to personally welcome all guests, and then to make an introductory speech emphasizing the cultural diversity of Turkey. Then the floor was given to the guests, which included Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Jews, liberals, Islamists, conservatives, Marxists and more. For more than three hours in total, all these intellectuals shared their opinions, critiques and concerns. Roni Margulies, a Trotskyite Jew, pointed to the still-intact limits on free speech and reminded everyone he was on trial for referring to Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, as "Sayın." (A prefix in Turkish which denotes respect.) Fatma Barbarasoğlu, a conservative Muslim lady who wears a headscarf, complained about the discrimination that some Kurdish high school students seem to have faced in the recent university exams. I, for my part, noted that the government will not be too successful in its "democratic initiative," unless it explains to society why it is necessary. "The steps you take often look like too little for the Kurds, and too much for the Turkish majority," I said. "This huge perception gap in society makes it very hard to proceed. You need more effective public diplomacy to help the Turkish and Kurdish sides understand each other's story." Erdoğan listened to all these remarks carefully and took notes. Then, during the last part of the meeting, he commented back, by referring to each and every speaker, either acknowledging their contributions, or promising to follow the points they raised. All in all, I found him as a good listener, which is I think a must for being a good politician. If I am not wrong, no other Turkish prime minister has ever organized such a meeting before to listen to public intellectuals for hours. No other Turkish prime minister, with the exception of the late Turgut Özal, my all-time favorite, has also shown the courage to solve the Kurdish question by deviating from the 80-year-long official rhetoric (i.e., we-are-all-Turks-and-those-who-differ-are-traitors). That's one reason that I still have faith in Erdoğan's potential to make Turkey a better place. My criticism toward his excesses (such as his intolerance toward critical media, his bursts of anger, and his patrimonial style of politics) remains. But he is still the only leader around who can "sell" some crucial liberal reforms, such as the ones we need on the Kurdish issue, to Turkey's conservative masses. Other leaders on the scene (such as Deniz Baykal or Devlet Bahçeli) promise nothing but more of Ankara's rotten status quo. State or society A heated discussion that emerged in the intellectual's meeting with Erdoğan was, interestingly, right on this gap between the old and new ways of political thinking. Alev Alatlı, a bestselling novelist, spoke in a way which fell at odds with the liberal attitude that dominated the scene, and expressed her faith in the state with an interesting question: "By whom would you like to be tried? By a commission of republican judges, or a jury of randomly elected citizens? I would opt for the former." I, on the other hand, agreed with the answer that Etyen Mahçupyan, the editor of the Armenian daily Agos after the killing of Hrant Dink, gave: "I certainly would prefer the jury of randomly elected citizens. For I trust the conscience of society more then that of the state." This is not because Turkish society is a beacon of wisdom and righteousness. (No society is that way.) It is rather because the traditional Turkish state elite is worse, for they venerate nothing but the state, and put the official ideology above the rights of the citizens. And, honestly, Erdoğan's party is still the only considerable political force that offers a way out.
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