Tuesday, December 17, 2013

How do Turks feel about linguistic multi-culturalism?

According to a recent poll, the answer depends on whose language and culture are involved.  Perhaps that's not so surprising, but it's worth noting.  According to a report in Rudaw, an on-line newspaper from Iraqi Kurdistan:
Most people in Turkey believe that the children of Turkish immigrants in Germany should have the right to education in their own language, but less than half as many back the same right for Kurds in Turkey, according to a survey by an Istanbul-based social research group.

The poll, taken in 27 cities across Turkey by the Konda Research and Consultancy Company and released to coincide with the UN-inspired Human Rights Week, places two opinions side by side: Turks believe that the children of Turkish immigrants should be taught their own language in public schools; they do not believe that the millions of Kurds under Turkish rule have the same right to language.

The survey reveals that 81 percent of the people polled agree that denying ethnically Turkish children in Germany the right to study in their own language is a human rights violation, while only 47 percent see denying the same right to Kurdish children in Turkey as a breach
A few points about these figures strike me as intriguing. (I will assume for the moment that they're accurate, and that they accurately represent broader tendencies in Turkish public opinion.) Actually, 47% is not "less than half" of 81%, though there's certainly a big difference between those two numbers. I suspect that the writer simply meant to say that 47% was "less than half" of the respondents, and the formulation got altered somewhere in the copy-editing process.

The question is how to interpret those percentages. From one perspective, it's a big deal that almost half of the respondents in this poll supported the right of Kurdish children to be taught Kurdish in school. Since the modern Turkish republic spent over a half-century trying hard to suppress any public use the Kurdish language, that figure might suggest that Turkish society has moved a long way toward accepting Kurdish language rights and, more generally, the notion of Turkey as an ethnically pluralistic society.

On the other hand, a socially meaningful interpretation of that 47% figure would probably require disaggregating the respondents along ethnic lines—and on the basis of the information provided in this article, one can only speculate about that. Roughly 20% of Turkey's population are Kurdish. Let's assume that Turkish Kurds constituted 20% of the survey respondents, and let's also assume (for simplicity's sake) that all of them supported the right of Kurdish children to be taught Kurdish in school. If so, then non-Kurdish respondents—i.e., members of the Turkish majority who consider themselves ethnically as well as legally "Turkish"—accounted for 27% of that overall 47% favorable figure. (The numbers of other ethnic minorities in Turkey are statistically trivial, not least because the once-significant non-Muslim Greek and Armenian minorities were expelled or massacred during the 20th century.) And that would mean, in turn, that roughly a third of the respondents from the non-Kurdish Turkish majority supported language rights for Kurdish children in Turkey. Frankly, a third of the respondents is still a pretty high proportion in this context (even if the number of favorable responses was inflated by the way those two questions were juxtaposed in the survey) ... but yes, a third is considerably less than half of 81%.

So the contrast is indeed pretty striking, and worth pondering. The analysts quoted by Rudaw were not at all uncertain about how this contrast should be interpreted:
“It is not very surprising that Turkish people distance themselves from the language and rights of Kurds,” said Ali Fikri Isik, a Kurdish literary critic and one of the pioneers of the Kurdish conscientious objection movement in Turkey.

He told Rudaw that Turks have not been able to incorporate the true meaning of “rights” to their own culture.

“You cannot develop a democratic stance toward something that you denied for years,” Isik said, referring to Turkey’s decades-long oppression of its Kurds, who until the turn of this millennium faced fines or prison for even speaking their own language in public or listening to songs in Kurdish.

Kurds comprise an estimated 20 percent of Turkey’s 76 million population and live in the predominantly Kurdish southeast regions, where Ankara does not allow the Kurdish language taught in schools.
[JW:  Actually, large numbers of Kurds now live in other parts of Turkey, which complicates this picture significantly.]
Zana Farqini, head of the Kurdish Institute of Istanbul, told Rudaw that the findings of the survey did not come as a shock.

“When linguistic and cultural rights of Kurds are discussed, the dominant ideology in Turkey is shaped by the paranoia of separatism. Not only ordinary citizens, but also top-level state officials have the same view about this issue,” Farqini said.

“When former president Suleyman Demirel went to the Balkans, he told the Turkish people there to speak their mother tongue. When Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan went to Germany, he said assimilation is a crime against humanity. So when it comes to the rights of Turks living in other countries, they never think about the threat of separatism,” Farqini said.
[JW:   That kind of hypocrisy is par for the course with Erdogan, and this is hardly the most extreme example. It's characteristic, for example, that Erdogan once described China's treatment of the Muslim Uighur minority in Xinjiang, aka Chinese Turkestan, as "genocide" and routinely tosses accusations of "genocide" against Israel, but engages in total denial where real genocides are concerned. Not only does Erdogan aggressively deny the reality of the 1915 Armenian genocide—in this respect, he's simply in accord with the consistent long-term position of the Turkish government, which still makes it illegal to tell the truth about the Armenian genocide in Turkey, as well as the dominant Turkish popular consensus—but ever since his visit to Sudan in 2006 Erdogan has steadfastly denied "that there has been assimilation or genocide in Darfur" and has warmly supported Sudan's genocidal rulers. But be that as it may ...]
“The right to get education in one’s native language is not a negotiable right. Actually, it is a sacred and innate right that everyone should have without any exceptions, but the Turkish education system is based on double standards,” Farqini charged.
For the moment, we can side-step the question of precisely which individual and collective rights are "sacred," "innate," and non-negotiable under which circumstances. But the charge of double standards is hard to deny.

=> It so happens that the current Turkish government, led by Erdogan and the moderate-Islamist AK Party, has been more willing to accommodate Kurdish aspirations than previous Turkish governments. But everything is relative. And part of the socio-political reality underlying those survey results is a persistent sense of anxiety and insecurity about the whole project, now almost a century old, of trying to build a modern Turkish nation-state out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. So far, that nation-building project has been remarkably successful at incorporating a wide range of disparate (Muslim) ethnic groups, including refugees from various other parts of the former Ottoman Empire. The effort to fully assimilate Turkey's Kurdish population to that overall sense of "Turkish" identity has been the great, and conspicuous, exception to this overall nationalist success story. And the long-term prospects remain uncertain. This Rudaw article also reports on another survey:
Meanwhile, a survey by the Political and Social Research Center (SAMER) about the perceptions and expectations of Kurds in 22 Kurdish cities in Turkey – taken after a “Democratization Package” announced by the Turkish government in October – showed that a majority of the respondents did not back the initiative.

Nearly 67 percent of the participants said the democratization package has not met their demands. Only 17.4 percent thought that the initiative was sufficient to solve Turkey’s Kurdish issue.

When asked what the next democratization package should include, about three-quarters of the respondents said: The political status of Kurds should be recognized; Kurds should be able to get education in Kurdish at public schools; Kurdish should be one of the official languages of Turkey; the democratic autonomy of Kurds should established; there should be an amnesty for political prisoners, and local administrations should be strengthened. [....]
On the other hand, it's clear that a lot of (non-Kurdish) Turks continue to fear that accommodating this agenda would indeed lead the country down a path to Kurdish "separatism" and national break-up. Are those perceptions a manifestation of totally unrealistic "paranoia," as Zana Farqini suggested?  Maybe yes, maybe no, maybe a bit of both. (There was a very serious Kurdish nationalist insurgency in Turkey for decades, after all, even if it's now suspended.  Perhaps accommodating Kurdish aspirations would weaken or moderate the sentiments that drove that insurgency, but it might also help encourage and consolidate them. And Kurdish national identity remains a very unsettled matter in all countries in the region with substantial Kurdish minorities.  This Rudaw article was written in Iraqi Kurdistan, not in Turkey. Still, one can't help noticing that it refers to Turkey's Kurdish population, not as "Turks of Kurdish ethnicity," but as "millions of Kurds under Turkish rule.")

For a lot of reasons, the break-up of Turkey as a unified nation-state strikes me as a very unlikely prospect in any reasonably foreseeable future. But then what do I know? Actually, the long-term outcomes will depend on a lot of factors that are not easy to predict ...

—Jeff Weintraub