Wise People Commission experience by Tarık Çelenk*
June 27, 2013, Thursday
As a result of two months of fieldwork carried out by our Mediterranean group of the Wise People Commission, we had the chance to form dialogue with many different factions of society, and thus was able to assess a variety of reactions to and ideas about the ongoing settlement process.
Our general impressions have been recorded in these categories: political and social worries in society in regards to the settlement process, the general perception of the Wise People concept, thoughts on the general progress of the settlement process, social perception of post-process outcomes.
At the forefront of our work is analysis of the reactions and objections heard throughout society to the Wise People concept. The Wise People project was implemented as a way for the state to correctly understand societal reactions and thoughts on a critical issue. At the beginning, it was carried to an overly politicized point by political groups and media factions opposed to the settlement process. When the delegation began its work in the field, it made an effort to transcend these psychological and political barriers. Throughout the project though, this tension was never seen dropping below a certain level.
From some factions of society, positive reactions were elicited toward the delegation, due to respect and sympathy shown for delegation members, as well as general pleasure with the concept of civilian and non-political actors reaching out to citizens. In fact, this general situation was seen as a factor that made the process easier. It was also observed that the atmosphere of dialogue resulting from this project seemed to have a universally positive effect on the process, and on people’s reactions.
We can say that the sudden switch over to a foundation of dialogue — after nearly 30 years of hatred and violence — has created a healthy start with positive reactions. In order for a civilian dialogue atmosphere to be able to play a serious role in finding a solution to a problem with social, political and economic influences, the leadership needs to be able to create contacts on a societal level. In case a healthy societal foundation is not created herein, new or even old problems will resurface in a short time. Such a vital short-falling can be filled with concepts like the Wise People Commission, with umbrella type civil society organizations or with well respected social leaders and their small teams helping to change perceptions.
We must state that the majority of society’s thoughts with regards to the settlement process are composed of worry and hesitation. For nearly 30 years, every faction of society has been affected by a certain psychological state created by the Kurdish problem itself Political and social worries have led to a certain concealment of social conscience in all of this. The fact that the west in particular does not perceive the Kurdish problem in a healthy manner has led to the outcome of there being no shared viewpoint between the east and the west on this front. We must not ignore the influence on this outcome by the nationalist approaches so tied to the Kemalist, Turkish-Islamic syntheses of the 1970s, as well as the weaknesses in some thinking methodologies. At this point, it should be clarified that in certain cities we visited — such as Mersin and Hatay — where there is already a culture of dialogue in place, it is evident that there is much less alienation and feelings of suspicion toward the settlement process.
At the current point at which we find ourselves, the fact that this process is being overseen by the state in a restrained and progressive manner has led the way to the emergence of sensitivity towards transparency on this matter in society. The relative lack of clear and concrete information about the settlement process is causing worry and trepidation in society. The continuing violence on one hand, balanced on the other hand with the creation of a professional victim psychology within the Kurdish movement, has led the way to hatred becoming customary in the remaining factions of society. It should also be noted that at this point, many of society’s worries and hesitations about the settlement process are reflected in a series of developing symbols and figures. In particular, in the west, as the Kurdish Problem appears close to being solved, there is a feeling that the very identity of the Turkish Republic is under attack, and it is thus at this juncture that symbols like the flag, the country and Ataturk are being channeled for defense sets.
These are reflections manifested much more clearly in Arab Alevi and Turkmen-Alevi-Tahtacı citizens of Turkey who have already passed through many decades of trauma, and who have been deeply affected by the events surrounding Syria. These are groups that also perceive the settlement process as a threat. The most recent Gezi Park events show us once more that more than being a process of disarming terrorists, the settlement process also needs to include dealing with problems facing our Alevi citizens, and in fact all the democratic problems in society. It showed us this process really needs to turn into a Constitution process as well. The fact that the problem is so mixed and confusing awakens in us the realization that this process calls for societal, psychological and really professional oversight. The success of this process will also be tied to the leadership’s own ability to stay resolute and creative in relation to the process. At the same time, we are convinced that there is a need to remain sensitive when it comes to the families of the martyred and families of the village guards, who have been directly affected by terrorism. These two factions, which carry the unique ability to act as societal fault line when it comes to the Kurdish Problem, deserve special focus and care. They must be prevented from feeling as if they have been left outside of the process. While the families of martyred soldiers do not actually compose a large societal faction, they do create a very serious psychological threshold for others. We should note that they stand as the most important symbols when it comes to the societal views on terrorism and the Kurdish Problem. Thus, focusing on the sensitivities and the needs of these families will not only relieve worries and hesitations in this particular faction but, in fact, across a large swath of society. As for the village guards, they appear before us as one of the most significant problems created in all of the Southeast region.
We can say that the psychological position attributed to families of martyred soldiers by the majority of society is one occupied by village guards in the Southeast. It is critical to understand just how the guards, who share the Turkish army’s and other units of the state weight against the PKK, see this process. Insufficient attention paid to the village guards during this process could lead to new problems emerging in the region. At the top of some basic requests from the village guards is that the village guard system not be eliminated until the complete elimination of the terrorist organization itself. Their secondary demand on this front is that, following the insurance of their essential rights, that their re-integration into society be planned and arranged in a healthy manner. In short, the inclusion of both the families of martyred soldiers and of the village guards in this process, as well as projects aimed at individuals themselves on this front, would certainly help for ground to be gained in the process.
The Wise People concept has not only worked as a factor that helps relax and soften the societal atmosphere but also provides clues about the future of Turkish politics.
When decision processes which hold the potential to influence the actual fate of a people include civilian mechanisms, these function as factors which relax not only the society but the political arena itself. When civilian mechanisms flourish and multiply in participatory democracies, it has the effect of bringing more long-lasting effect and more all-embracing characteristics to political and social processes. The Wise People Commission can thus be seen as a very serious experience for modern Turkish politics. The outcome of this group’s work needs to be analyzed and considered very seriously.
To wit, it is a very important thing when a political culture which hopes to be a model within its own geographical region for other countries creates unique mechanisms like the Wise People Commission. Whether or not the current concept can be applied to other societal problems is a question that remains to be answered. Recent events like the bombings in Reyhanlı, the Gezi Park protests, and the growing influence of alternative modes of communication, including, of course, social media, have shown us once more that the state needs to put in more effort when it comes to creating lines of dialogue with society.
It appears that the state’s will in the future must include steering societal problems and crises deftly, perceiving society’s various demands and discomforts, internalizing the new dynamics of new eras, and creating civilian and broad-spanning mechanisms that help lead to a new political style. The entire Wise People Commission in this sense should be interpreted as being an experience that has helped pick up and record some very important societal signals.
The civilian approach being highlighted of late by the state needs to continue, with a focus on encouraging civil society groups to work together, to get people talking with one another, to create platforms where people can meet, and to support regional Wise People types of groups formed by leading thinkers and leaders in society. While these various groups are being supported, it should not be overlooked that the decision-makers (leadership) are just one dimension in these matters at hand.
*Tarık Çelenk is the general coordinator of Ekopolitik, a web-based publication produced by the ADAM Social Sciences Research Center, and secretary of the Wise People Commission for the Mediterranean region.