Stakes were high before Erdogan’s press conference on 30 September. So were expectations, albeit conflicting, as there was no social consensus on the basis of a new constitution. Each group has voiced its own priority; the Kurdish political leaders have had a long list of demands, like the Alewites, Christian minorities and religiously motivated groups whereas there has been an obstinate Kemalist-nationalist opposition fearful of a radical change in political, legal, cultural or administrative sphere. Of course, none of these demands, and challenging arguments, has arisen overnight. There has been a heavy luggage filled up with a history of conflict and mutual distrust, wearing away physiological and moral ties bridging these communities living on the same land.
In the Ottoman classical age state and society run through well-structured normative codes regulating the relations between social and political forces. Since the early 19th century moral and ethical norms keeping a whole structure of state and society together has gradually been torn apart. The Millet system, codifying each social group according to its religious identity, has stopped working properly as the wave of nationalism swept the Balkans and Arab lands. Legal and administrative reforms were nothing but a search for a novel model of statecraft where religion, namely Islam, would be ascribed a less definitive role. The Young Turks’ coming to power under the umbrella of the CUP in 1908 put a final mark on this transformation. The source of legitimacy for the rulers of the Ottoman Empire, then the Turkish Republic, would no longer be religious creeds. The CUP leadership simply envisioned building a Turkish nation-state emulating French or German models, enforcing the construction of a novel ethno-religious identity with the use of state’s coercive measures
In brief, the Republican elite held a similar vision and stuck with this strategy from 1923 to 1950. Religious minorities and the Kurdish groups suffered from the denial of fundamental rights that they had enjoyed under the Ottomans whilst Sunni Islam, independent of any ethno-cultural affiliation, was excluded from the domain of statecraft and culture. The Democrat Party between 1950 and 1960 rule has done a little to change this establishment, with the exception that freedom for the application of religious practices was expanded.
1960, 1971, and 1980 coups brought about further alienation, deepened this identity crisis and debilitated physiological ties between state apparatus and the vast majority of the population. Worse than that, there has been a considerable deterioration in mutual confidence between ethnically and ideologically different groups as a result of civil strife through these decades. Ethnic, sectarian and ideological demarcating lines became blunter. It seemed that Turgut Ozal’s liberalizing reforms eased the tension at some part in the second mid of the 1980s, yet the 1990s was a pure replica of the previous decades in terms of marring relations between social and state forces.
Such a brief summary of this saddening episode of Ottoman-Turkish history is just a short reminder of the socio-political status-queo Erdogan inherited in 2002. One of his major pledges was that he would fight for fundamental rights so far denied, and his individual story would be a perfect fit for this mission. The reformist spirit of the AKP government has worked well in its early years, despite stubborn resistance from the establishment. What seems to have turned volatile, especially since 2007, nevertheless, have been the signs that ethnic, sectarian and ideological divides rooted in society are still very strong and likely to surface swiftly. Added to this, the government’s inability to address the crucial question, namely the reconstruction of ethical and moral norms that had once worked well, despite rhetorical flatter to the Ottoman heritage, hampered any attempt to repair broken intra-communal ties and reciprocal relations between state and society. In fact, so much attention has so far been paid on the territorial decline of the Ottomans, as a result of which a vulgar use of neo-Ottoman discourse sanctifying the Ottoman presence in the Balkans and Middle East has became widely popular-even in TV series-The territorial issue was the tip of iceberg, tangible side of an enigmatic problematique, however.
That is why, perhaps, Erdogan’s package failed to deliver a convincing vision and criticisms towards it were so narrow. The restoration of basic civil rights for the Kurdish community angered nationalists while expanding religious freedom did not seem to concern the Kurdish groups. For all these reasons it is obvious that any further step that the government would take would cost them dear in the upcoming elections. A viable solution, nevertheless, does not lie in short-term goals fixed through political pragmatism. What seems urgent, albeit loaded with political risks in short-term, is a more radical reconstruction of a cohesive social fabric.
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Middle East Monitor