March 16, 2008

A New Outlook?

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Since its founding after World War I, the Turkish state has had a clouded history with the integration of minorities. Founded out of the multi-cultural Ottoman Empire, Turkey forged an ethnic identity that came into conflict with Greek and Armenian residents of the Anatolian Peninsula. The conflict with the Armenians is often referred to as genocide, though the Turkish government steadfastly refuses to characterize it that way. Kurds are spread across the Middle East; they live in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. The Turkish Kurds have had the most sustained conflict with their government. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has been fighting since the 1970’s and in general, the Kurds in Turkey have faced legislation that discriminates against them. For one, Kurdish language has been severely restricted over the years. With the newfound autonomy of Kurds in Iraq, the Turkish government has had to confront the possibility of a strengthening separatist feeling and the possibility of an independent Kurdistan. Such fears and increased PKK activity have lead to Turkish military action in Iraqi Kurdistan. It seems, however, that the Turkish government realizes the importance of integrating Kurds and has adopted more forward-looking policies.
Then there is the question of the EU. Turkey has wanted to become an EU member for quite some time but unfortunately, due to anti-Turkish feeling in Europe, roadblock after roadblock have been put up to block Turkey’s accession. Some have been legitimate, including the EU’s demand to loosen restrictions on freedom of speech and better incorporate the Kurdish minority. Other times, EU members are stalling because they feel uncomfortable allowing a Muslim country into “Europe.” It is good then that Turkey is taking the policy-based EU objections seriously, finally moving to offer an alternative to insurgency to the Kurds by expanding economic investment and cultural empowerment. Though these polices may result from necessity, they are signs of progress.
Progress in Turkey has not been based in the secular elite. Instead, it has come from the Justice and Development Party, Turkey’s Muslim version of Europe’s Christian Democratic Parties. Given the paradigm that we live in, it is ironic that the force behind modernization and opening are the forces of political Islam. Granted, it is an extremely moderate form, but the Justice and Development Party should remind us that we do not live in a black and white world of “us versus them.” Turkish reforms should give us hope for the future, and reinforce our confidence in a westward-looking Turkey, even if it is one led by Islamists.