The principal cause of tension among institutions and polarization of society is a lack of political leadership to ensure harmony and build a consensus in Turkey to make the country more democratic, according to Tarık Çelenk, general coordinator of Ekopolitik, a Web-based publication produced by the ADAM Social Sciences Research Center.
“Turkish institutions are not in agreement on how to adapt to changes, both in the world and in the society, so we experience the resulting tension,” he told Today’s Zaman for Monday Talk.
“When it comes to specific problems, such as the Kurdish problem, I don’t think anybody who is conscientious would oppose granting human rights to the Kurdish people living in this country, but the problem is that there is a power struggle instead of leadership to integrate all ideas to take Turkey forward and create a better understanding of democracy based on a societal consensus,” he added.
Ekopolitik, which aims to develop new policy options for policy-makers and improve public understanding of international and domestic politics, stresses the importance of plurality, consensus and confidence building as well as harmony in society. Çelenk told us about their vision and programs in which they bring together people with different backgrounds, often people who consider each other “enemies.”
‘If children are treated like this, they will be lost’
A group of researchers from Ekopolitik recently went to Hakkari to observe the situation and exchange views with members of civil society and public institutions such as the municipality and the governor’s office. They also came together with so-called “stone-throwing children,” who make headlines when they participate in illegal demonstrations and are tried as adults. A new bill envisages the retrial of minors convicted under the Counterterrorism Law at special juvenile courts in order to secure more lenient sentences for them.
Gülsünay Uysal and Ayşegül Elif Aslantepe, who met with children between the ages of 4 and 14 in Hakkari, talked about their experience.
Where did you go in Hakkari?
Uysal: We went to the Bağlar neighborhood, which is a place where violent acts might take place involving children. We wanted to take pictures of children, but they reacted to that and even attempted to throw stones at us. However, after our group leader talked with them about our purpose, they treated us warmly. We understood that they were afraid because they thought we were going to give their pictures to the police. That was a trust issue. There were about 20 children who did not have anything to play with, not even a soccer ball.
What did you talk about?
Aslantepe: They told us that they don’t have a place to play. We asked them if they would play there if there were facilities, and they said they would be excited to have facilities and would definitely use them. They also said they wanted to read some Kurdish books.
What else happened there?
Uysal: As we were trying to approach the children, there was a police car passing by, and all of a sudden, there were a few shots fired. Right after the police car went away, we went near the children and saw the bullets on the ground. We were so shocked to witness such an incident. It’s totally unacceptable to fire at children no matter what. If children are treated that way, they will be lost.
Aslantepe: There was absolutely no need to fire where children are on the street.
‘What you do more important than who you are’
‘Having access to the mechanisms of the state is very important, and we have difficulty with that in Turkey. What you do should be important rather than who you are. Otherwise, we will not be able to make progress in what needs to be done in terms of solutions to problems. For example, we work with a civil society group called the ATİ association, which is not close to any of the political parties. We will send questionnaires to opinion leaders on the issue and will evaluate the results to design an action plan for a solution. There need to be projects for those young people for them to have a life, to have a future. There need to be youth activity centers, children’s centers and women’s centers. As civil society develops projects in that regard, the state should be supportive of them’
On your Web site, you have a little survey, and you ask, “Where is the country headed at this time when there is tension rather than harmony among institutions?” In response, readers are supposed to select from answers ranging from “Turkey will emerge stronger at the end of this process” to “The dynamics of internal conflict are getting stronger.” Why did you feel the need to pose such a question, and what is your answer to it?
[Francis] Fukuyama has some categorizations regarding states. According to these, there are first-class states, there are the ones that try to be states and there are also mini-states. The first-class states, such as the United States and Russia, are open to change, and they also quickly adapt to change. Turkey, as a country that was established following the Ottoman Empire, has to be able to follow changes and quickly adapt to those changes. And this can be achieved only if there is harmony among the institutions of the state. All institutions should be able to recognize changes in society and be willing to adapt to those changes. Turkey has been going through that process, but the struggle is not about how to become a first-class state — it is a power struggle, about who will have more power. Maybe Turkey needs to review its definition of state altogether in that process.
Could you please elaborate on this idea?
When the Republic of Turkey was found, it was based on the ideals of some segments of society, mainly the supporters of the Committee of Union and Progress. The ideals of the liberals and religious segments were largely ignored. Now the neglected segments of society are re-emerging, and they are saying, “We’re here, too.” At the same time, we have many changes in the world — regarding globalization, the environment, democratization, problems of nation-states, new definitions of citizenship, etc. Obviously, Turkish institutions are not in agreement on how to adapt to changes, both in the world and in the society, so we experience the resulting tension in society. That’s why the question seemed important, and that’s why it found its way to our Web site. When it comes to specific problems, such as the Kurdish problem, I don’t think anybody who is conscientious would oppose granting human rights to the Kurdish people living in this country, but the problem is that there is a power struggle instead of leadership to integrate all ideas to take Turkey forward and create a better understanding of democracy based on a societal consensus.
We will come back to this idea, but now what is your answer regarding where Turkey is headed with those existing tensions?
It seems like the country has been going with the flow of international dynamics rather than closely monitoring its own dynamics and strategizing accordingly. Fortunately, the international dynamics dictate a regional leadership role for Turkey as opposed to the pre-World War I international dynamics, which dictated the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, all institutions in Turkey should see the coming developments and adjust and adapt, but they don’t do so. Therefore, they are being forced to make adjustments in time.
What is the danger here?
The danger is that the whole process could be steered by foreign actors when there is not enough agreement in society. There is also the fact that the way foreign actors see the situation is that Turkey is too important to be left alone. Nobody knows what might happen if it is left alone. There might be undesired instability. Therefore, there is international steering. However, Turkish actors in institutions could act more intelligently and face up to their shortcomings and turn the process into an advantage. This is the way to be a first-class state. Turkey can even turn some issues that are perceived to be dangerous into an advantage. For example, instead of seeing the Kurdish issue and the Gülen movement as threats, Turkey can use those issues as leverage to be a regional power in line with Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s vision for Turkey’s role in the region.
‘People who fought against each other in the mountains are able to talk’
Some of those ideas bring us to the establishment of your programs, in which you emphasize psychological factors in solving problems in society and also make every effort to include all parts of society in discussing solutions to problems.
For the last five years, he has been the coordinator of Ekopolitik, a Web-based publication produced by the ADAM Social Sciences Research Center, which aims to develop new policy options for policy-makers and improve public understanding of international and domestic politics. Born in Erzurum, he joined the Turkish Naval Forces in 1983 as an engineer. After his retirement from the military in 1999, he followed his passion in international politics and conflict resolution and started to work with civil society.
Correct. Prior to the announcement of the democratic initiative, we were having meetings in which we were bringing together people who have had difficulty understanding part of the Turkish society with people who define themselves as nationalists. We have been totally standing away from political interests or views while doing this. Our only concern has been to make efforts to develop a common language among the various people of this society. Considering psychological factors, we had a lot of help from Vamık Volkan, who is a noted political psychologist.
Who were the people you brought together, in terms of their background?
We have had a series of more than 10 meetings with people who define themselves differently from each other. There were liberal Kurds, Kurdish nationalists, Kurdish leftists, liberal Turks, Turkish nationalists and Turkish leftists. We stress a pluralist approach. Among them were also former members of the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK and former members of the special forces of the Turkish military who had fought against the PKK. We had similar meetings in Turkish Cyprus, where there is confusion among the public about where they belong. Some of them feel more Turkish, some of them Greek, some want to be belong to the United Kingdom, some to the European Union. Again, our goal has been to develop a common language.
What do you find striking about those meetings?
People have been able to get rid of their prejudices and develop friendships. People who fought against each other in the mountains were able to talk. What is important is getting together and talking.
Were they able to understand each other?
When there is such an effort to come together, a group psychology also develops in time, and they even try to find solutions to problems. This is a tremendous help in Turkey’s democratization process because these people are so real, not people involved in politics. If the government or state wants to progress in the democratization process, this effort should not be ignored but given importance because civil society opens the way for going forward in that regard.
What are some of the government’s shortcomings in handling the democratization initiative?
The government has had good intentions, but it did not have a strategy, and it still does not seem to have one. Secondly, the democratization initiative should not be presented as the government’s initiative. The government should have had behind the scenes talks with the opposition, reached a consensus and then presented it to society as a whole. The government should have ensured at the beginning that the opposition would own the initiative. There have not been enough efforts in that regard.
The prime minister seems to have revamped efforts now to garner the support of the opposition for constitutional amendments that are part of the democratization process. Is it too late now to do that?
The prime minister is headed in the right direction, but the opposition will not be convinced. They will hold onto concerns regarding the government’s previous approach and will not find the renewed efforts sincere enough.
What do you think about the government’s efforts to involve artists from the film, theater and music scene?
Those efforts have not been taken very well in the Southeast. What needs to be done is to stop for a moment and go back to the beginning of the process to secure consensus in society and then strategize and definitely ensure the involvement of civil society. There is not an agreed upon definition of the problem yet. The Turkish state has always waited to be understood by the public, but this is not what it’s supposed to do. The state should understand its people, not expect to be understood.