Gülay Türkmen: “Islam Plays Ambivalent Role in Turkey’s Kurdish Conflict”

The secular identity, not subscribing to exclusionary secularism but a much more sensitive approach to religious claims, would be more inclusive and pluralist.
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Dr. Gülay Türkmen is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Graz’s Centre for Southeast European Studies. She is a political sociologist examining how macro-scale historical, cultural and political developments inform questions of belonging and identity-formation in multicultural societies. Dr. Türkmen is the author of Under the Banner of Islam: Turks, Kurds, and the Limits of Religious Unity, recently published by Oxford University Press.

Mehmet Yegin (MY): Former member of the Turkish parliament Sirri Sakik pointed to the possibility of a new Kurdish peace process in December just as Erdogan’s “People’s Alliance” partner, Devlet Bahçeli, signaled the opposite, calling for the closure of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). So, where is the Kurdish issue heading: to a new round of peace talks or closure of the Kurdish party? If there were another peace process, how would it differ from the previous ones?*

Gülay Türkmen (GT): It is difficult to answer this question because, as we all know, Turkish politics is like a roller coaster. It changes on a daily basis. But I don’t think that a new peace process is likely, especially due to the fact that the coalition partner of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). The MHP is ultranationalist and it doesn’t seem like it would allow for a new round of peace talks. In this sense, I think the closure of the HDP is more likely than a new round of peace talks.

In the case that there were a new peace process, we wouldn’t even know if it were any different due to a lack of transparency. The most significant problem of the previous peace processes was their opacity, we didn’t know what was going on behind closed doors. One option would be to include all political parties currently in the parliament in talks. This could lead to a much stronger agreement and be much more inclusive and pluralist.

MY: When we talk about Islam as a tool for conflict resolution, people in Turkey mostly understand Islam as a supranational identity for Kurds and Turks, the religious identity of your four-fold categorization. Could you elaborate on this identity?

GT: In my book, I use a fourfold typology of identity categories: religious, secular, religio-ethnic, and ethno-religious. Religious identity is usually put forward by those who embrace an approach that sees Sunni Islam as the common bond between Turks and Kurds. Considering that the majority of Kurds and Turks are Sunni Muslims, they suggest overlooking ethnic differences and focusing on religious identity as the common bond. This has its roots in the Islamic concept of Ummah: unity of Muslims worldwide. Under that rubric, they suggest that Islam can act as a tool for conflict resolution.

MY: It seems that Kurds who subscribe to this identity blame the republic for the Turk/Kurd divide. In your interviews, there are references to the nostalgia of Ottoman times and anger about the closure of religious schools/madrasas. But as you review the history of the problem, we see that the issue was present even before the foundation of the republic. Does this point to a false premise around the use of Islam as a tool for conflict resolution, considering that it wasn’t useful pre-AKP? Is it useful after the rise of the AKP?

GT: In the interviews, this nostalgia for Ottoman times was a recurring theme. I used historical analysis in the book, and I displayed that Kurds and Turks were not necessarily living together peacefully under the Ottoman Empire. The Kurds enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy, however, there was still a rocky relationship. So, yes this is kind of a false premise.

In terms of the closure of madrasas, the republican secular elites were trying to kill two birds with one stone. Madrasas, even though symbols of religious scholarship, were also places where Kurdish nationalism was coming into being. By closing these madrasas, the republican secular elites weren’t only closing places of religious education but also preventing Kurdish nationalism from becoming a full-bodied ideology.

MY: In your book, you also refer to an ethno-religious identity, a Turkish-Islamic synthesis. People that subscribe to this identity advocate the superiority of Turks. You make an interesting point in your book that some claiming Islam as a supranational identity are actually inherently promoting Turks’ superiority without being aware of it. How is that possible?

GT: Rather than not being aware of their nationalist leanings, they more or less coat this nationalism in religious garb. The more I spoke with them, the clearer the nationalist current became. So, ethno-religious identity prioritizes ethnicity. This was common among most Turkish Muslims that I interviewed for the book. One such interviewee was a Gulenist who argued that Turks and Kurds should comprise one body. For him, Turks constituted the mind while Kurds constituted the heart, legs, and arms. He was emphasizing how courageous Kurds were while arguing their need for Turks as the brains of the operation who can think, strategize, and lead. There are also examples from the Menzil Tariqah that similarly highlighted Turks’ superiority over Kurds. These Turkish Muslim interviewees shared a common attitude that undermined Kurdish demands, an example of which is Kurdish Friday sermons. Here, they said, “everyone speaks Turkish in Turkey, so why would we need Kurdish sermons?”

MY: In your book, secular Kurds complain about their nationalist socialist friends and Islamist Kurds complain about their nationalist Islamist friends. In turn, the HDP currently has both socialist and Islamist members of parliament. Has the HDP been successful in transforming from an ethnic to mainstream party?

GT: They’ve been undergoing this transition for a while now. It is not just Kurdish people who were HDP candidates in elections. They allied with socialists and some Islamists in parliament and within their own ranks as well. But they were not successful in conveying this to the overall population in Turkey. They are still seen as an exclusively Kurdish party. This is not only a failure of the HDP but also a reflection of the repression that they’re facing. They’re not allowed to appear on mainstream TV channels and they’re not provided access to public spaces to convey their message to the overall population.

MT: I know you don’t advocate for any one identity, but if religion were to be used to solve the Kurdish issue in Turkey would the religio-ethnic identity, in which Islam acknowledges the Kurdish ethnicity, be the most promising path?

GT: The religio-ethnic identity is a bit more promising than the religious identity that remains blind to ethnic or national claims. But this identity still leaves out non-Muslim and non-Sunni Kurds and Turks. Alevis, for example, which constitute a large group in both Turkish and Kurdish populations, are excluded. Rather than the religio-ethnic identity, the secular identity, not subscribing to exclusionary secularism but a much more sensitive approach to religious claims, would be a bit more inclusive and pluralist.

MY: Bringing all these identities together, what would you say about religion being used as a tool for conflict resolution in the particular case of Turkey and the Kurdish issue?

GT: Islam plays an ambivalent role because it has been employed both as a tool of assimilation and of resistance. In Chapter 3 of my book, I explain how Islam has been used as a tool of resistance via civil Friday prayers. We cannot really ignore the importance of religion for certain groups within the Kurdish population. The AKP and HDP are still the two main parties able to capture the Kurdish vote. The HDP represents Kurdish demands and the AKP embodies the religion factor that garners much of the party’s electoral support. In that sense, religion can still play a significant role, a unifying role, but it cannot be the only unifying factor. During the previous peace process, both Erdogan and Ocalan highlighted Islam and Muslim fraternity as a unifying discourse, but it turns out that wasn’t enough. This was because it left out too many people and too many different segments of the population. Yet, we need to keep in mind that the failure of the peace process was also due to other external and internal factors, such as the developments in Syria and the HDP’s announcement that it would not support Erdogan’s bid for the presidency.

*Editor’s note: This interview had taken place before a prosecutor in Turkey filed a case on March 17 with the constitutional court demanding the closure of the HDP.