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Baris Karaagac explains the history of the Turkish state’s repression of the leftist and Kurdish movements

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. I’m discussing the Kurdish question in Turkey with Baris Karaagac. He’s a lecturer in international development studies at Trent University in Ontario. He’s also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crises, and Struggles: Capital and Labor in Contemporary Capitalism. Thank you again for joining me, Baris. BARIS KARAAGAC: Hello, Sharmini. PERIES: So, Baris, one of the big issues concerning Turkey is the way in which the current president has been able to combine the issue of religion and nationalism in the same breath, in terms of advancing his concentration of his power in the state. How is he doing that? KARAAGAC: Well, to be able to answer this question we need to go back in history. We need to go back to the [inaud.] times, actually. Before the Republic of Turkey there used to be the Ottoman Empire. And the Ottoman Empire was a multi-ethnic empire, but the dynasty was Turkish. But on paper, it was an Islamic empire. So Turks, or the Ottomans, saw themselves as defenders of the faith at the time. And then when the Republic of Turkey was established, by mostly military men, led by Mustafa Kemal, it became a secular state. And it adopted a very rigid form of secularism that was borrowed from France. So Islam remained as a very important part of a Turkish identity, but at the same time the state would be rigidly secular. This, of course, was met with a lot of opposition, where coming from different segments of the population within Turkey, and we see a number of rebellions. It was not–it was not popular among the masses, this form of rigid secularism. And after Turkey moved towards a multi-party regime in the late 1940s, they knew right, right as parties actually exploited this resentment among the popular masses and towards the state, Turkish state, and towards a rigid form of secularism. And the military, the armed forces, were seen as the defenders of the Turkish state, but also the secular republic. Towards the end of the 1990s we see a number of religious parties, but they never manage to gain a majority, or they never even manage to get more than 20 percent of the popular vote. But this changed at the turn of the century when the AKP got about 40 percent of the popular vote, and got the majority of seats in parliament. And one of the issues, one of the most important issues that the AKP and all the preceding Islamic parties used in order to gain support, was the victimization of the religious conservatives or the religious people in general, during the Republic. So this is one thing. Another important issue is, of course, nationalism. Again, if we go back to the 1920s, but particularly 1930s, we see that nationalism becomes a wildly important, one of the major, main pillars of the new regime and a new Republic. And Turkish nationalism was significantly influenced by, first, Italian fascism. For example, the labor law in 1936 was borrowed completely, almost completely from fascist Italy, and then by Nazi Germany. During the Second World War, in the Turkish government there were sympathizers of Nazis. So again, in this period we see a number of nationalist groups and their nationalist party becoming an important part of political life in Turkey. So a critical moment came in 1980. In 1980 the military, again, took over power for the third time in the short history of the Republic, and the ideology of the new regime that has been so-called Turkish-Islamic synthesis. So the military, in an attempt to provide an antidote to rising leftist movements, but also the Kurdish insurgency, came up with this new synthesis. So, both nationalism and religion will be used by the Turkish state to contain, and that counter both encouraged nationalist/[inaud.] movements, but also the socialist Left in general in Turkey. PERIES: And this part of the pursuit for presidency, with a different government structure, how would it help Erdogan in terms of consolidating his power and containing the Kurdish and the Left movements? KARAAGAC: Well, I think we can comfortably say, safely argue, that Erdogan has already consolidated his power in Turkey. But he wants to give it an institutional form. He’s already in control of the judiciary. He’s already in control of the police. And he’s made a pact with the Turkish military. So it is safe to say he’s already consolidated his power. The only opposition, credible opposition force, that has been struggling against Erdogan and the AKP has been the Kurds. So the next step for him is to eliminate that opposition. And in order to do that, in order to rally more support for his cause, he has skilfully used a combination of Turkish nationalism and religion against the Kurdish movements. PERIES: Baris, you’ve argued that Erdogan has been very successful in the way in which he has used religion in order to consolidate his power, and minimize the role of the Kurds in the Turkish state. How has he done that? KARAAGAC: Well, this has a lot to do with the actual composition or the nature of the Kurdish population, the populations in Turkey. When we look at the leadership of the Kurdish movement, when we look at the leadership of the PKK or the leadership of the HDP, we see that they are quite secular. And they’ve made it very, very clear that they will defend the rights of all religious communities in Turkey, but they support a secular state. But when we look at the Kurdish population, it’s a very divided and heterogeneous population when it comes to religion. Some of the most conservative religious groups within Turkey are among the Kurds. [Inaud.] Kurds. So the Turkish state, since the beginning of this insurgency in the 1980s, have used this [lens] within the Kurdish population to divide Kurds in their fight with the Turkish state. So there are so many reports, there are so many allegations in the last 20-30 years, that the Turkish state actually aided the creation, foundation of religious terrorist groups that would attack the PKK, or secular Kurdish forces in the region, it has aided them in various ways. So it has used Islamic conservatism in its fight against secular Kurdish movements. PERIES: Quite contrary to the stories you hear about Turkey in terms of its secularism and why the West is supporting them. But I thank you so much for joining us today, Baris, and we’ll continue this discussion about the Kurdish question in Turkey. KARAAGAC: Thank you, Sharmini. PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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Baris Karaagac is a lecturer in International Development Studies at Trent University, in Ontario. He is also the editor of the book Accumulations, Crises and Struggles: Capital and Labour in Contemporary Capitalism.