Hope for change in Turkey

Though it is certainly not unique to Turks, the perception of many in this country is being shaped by the swinging pendulum effect of expectations amid frustrations. Since we get by with the information stored in our short-term memory in our daily lives, we all want quick fixes to our problems, forgetting how complex they are and what kind of history they have.

I would say this at the outset. When it comes to dealing with long-running problems in Turkey, it is simply unrealistic to anticipate solutions in the short term. The state has long ignored problems with Kurds, minorities, Alevis and faith-based movements and maintained an attitude of denial. We are having a hard time facing the past, making progress in solutions, painfully slow and cumbersome at times.

Yet there is enough evidence out there to be an optimist and see the glass half full. To give credence to critics who say the government-launched initiatives on Kurds, Alevis and Roma as well as a rapprochement with Armenia are now dead does a tremendous disservice to this great nation. Claiming that no substantive improvement has been recorded to date is far from the truth.

Though the government can do much better, we surely need to appreciate the recent transformation taking place in Turkey. Just a decade ago, nobody even dared talk about the problems of Kurds openly and plainly. If you did, you would have lived with the consequences either in the form of lengthy prosecutions or public bashing. Today we are openly debating Kurdish issues, and many Turks are learning for the first time of the injustices and gross human rights violations endured by Kurds. The old system was based on deceit, and any allegation that Kurdish rights were violated was mere propaganda by terrorists and as such, giving credence to them was unpatriotic.

Not anymore. During the Ergenekon trials, we have learned from the overwhelming evidence submitted to the court how state security forces implemented harsh tactics and even resorted to extrajudicial killings in the Southeast. While perpetrators are being tried in the courts today, the public, Turks and Kurds alike, are reconciling with each other based on empathy.

We now have a state TV channel broadcasting in Kurdish for the first time, something unimaginable a decade ago. Private TV and radio stations are allowed to broadcast in Kurdish. Kurds are now holding votes to return the original names to villages and towns. Granted that many more steps need to be taken on this path, it takes some time to address all grievances while society is being pulled and pushed by different gravitational forces.

The government for the first time acknowledged that Alevis do have problems and organized a series of workshops to address the issue, bringing all groups within this community around the same table. Though some Alevis have diverging views on how to proceed, the bulk of them agree on what the government should do. This is a remarkable achievement in and of itself as it symbolizes a sharp departure from the policy of denial of the past. The healthy discussion engaging both public and private parties will eventually bear fruit, despite the bumps and challenges that will confront us along the path.

Government officials have for the first time taken interest in solving the problems of non-Muslim religious communities in Turkey. In the past it was impossible to see a politician sitting with the Greek patriarch out of fear that he or she would be labeled a traitor right away. Now the prime minister and his ministers are holding talks with leaders of religious communities out in the open and listening to their demands and complaints in a bid to find a solution to their decades-long concerns.

The attempt to reconcile with the public is not limited to minorities. For a long time, the pious Muslim majority in this country was not spared the repression of the state, either. Just because their wives wore headscarves or they attended weekly religious services during Friday prayer, bureaucrats were denied promotions or prevented from holding high offices. Military officers were discharged simply because they were suspected of being practicing Muslims in their private lives. Mothers with their heads covered were denied entry to military sites to watch their sons during their swearing-in ceremonies. The military even tried to block the election of President Abdullah Gül because his wife wears a headscarf.

Even with neighboring Armenia, we are trying to restore ties that were cut with the border closure in 1993. Fixing relations that were practically reduced to what to call the 1915 ethnic clashes between the Turkish and Armenian communities has potentially huge benefits for both countries in an energy-corridor Caucasus. The protocols signed last year to normalize relations between the two countries have not yet been ratified in the respective Parliaments, but the euphoria around rapprochement has created enough momentum on both sides to engage in a civil dialogue. No matter what happens on the government level, we are seeing both Turkish and Armenian civic groups increasingly engaging with each other. They are organizing panel discussions and workshops and pursuing projects in common that can be called confidence-building measures on the nongovernmental level.

The passage of a resolution by US House Committee on Foreign Affairs labeling the 1915 events “genocide” and the Turkish reaction, which included recalling the ambassador to the US home for consultations, are not a biggie. We know that the bill will never reach the desk of the US president and that the Turkish government’s reaction was intended to appease the public.

Once you get the ball rolling, it’s hard to stop. We are able to debate anything and everything in this country for the first time since the establishment of the republic. The critical mass that needs to be developed to overcome resistance to change will be reached eventually. To its credit, this government seems to have recognized that people in this country do want full democracy and transparency, rule of law, respect for human rights and accountability. It is taking the right steps, albeit slow and with mistakes at times, in the right direction. It could always do better.

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