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A civil war in Turkey is a possibility


Standpoint of Turkey 

A civil war in Turkey is a possibility

Hamit Bozarslan


Hamit Bozarslan

Director of Studies at the EHESS (Paris)

According to Professor Hamit Bozarslan, disintegration and fragmentation processes and radicalization dynamics are experienced very strongly in Turkey. It could be misleading to say that “Turkey is strong, because of this civil war is not a possibility”. Bozarslan, who has analyzed Isis’s process of emergence, says that Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia have played an important role in the sectarianization of Middle East. It seems that the only way to tackle the current impasse is for Islam countries, including Turkey, to make peace with secularism. We publish the second part of the interview that was made by İrfan Aktan.

The fact that the Turkish government can call some people traitors or that the press supporting the government can make call for lynching means entering into a cycle of violence. A similar situation occurred in Syria too. Bachar Assad or other international regional actors could have prevented Syria from reaching this point. But the stage that you call “A hundred-year-old history is collapsing” forms a crack like the breaking of a walnut shell that was hardened with nationalism and Islamism and this realizes itself as violence. Like you said, if there is not an envisioning of a future and actors that carry the envisioning, are we then going towards a civil war in that case? There is a discourse saying that Turkey can become a Syria. Are we going towards that?

I don’t know. It is not possible for me to make a prediction. I can say this: Firstly, AKP or at least some parts inside it are ready for a civil war in order to be able to perpetuate their own existence. Second, I remember in May 2011, we were all shocked. Between 15 March and the end of May, three hundred people were killed in Syria. How is it possible for three hundred people to be killed in a society? How can a society not find solutions to its problems and how can Bachar Assad use this much violence against the opposition? Bachar Assad uses a violence that renders time and place irrelevant.

Phases of separation can sometimes be really fast. No one could have guessed the point at which we are today on the 7th June. I think Turkey sees itself outside the world. However, we see that countries can collapse. We have seen the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is not very much related to the subject, but there is a British film called Children of Men. It is a futurist film. In that film, at some point, we see a television screen for three seconds. We see war scenes on that television screen and the speaker’s voice says “The war in the United States of America still continues”. I mean we do not know that there won’t be a civil war in France tomorrow, or America won’t collapse. At all these points, what is important is citizenship, willing to live together and the envisioning of a future. We need to be able to see that the societies that lack this envisioning and this determination are the societies whose future is uncertain.

Ibn Khaldun was able to see this very clearly in the 14th century. Freud reminded us that the victory of Tanatos, the god of death, could be possible. Therefore, we must not get into the illusion of thinking that Turkey or Iran is strong and nothing can happen to them. It is false that these countries cannot go to war or even if they go to war, in any case, they are strong enough. No one could have foreseen that Syria would be at this point today. Because of this, it is not possible for me to foresee the future. I hope that both Turkey and Kurdistan can get out of their current periods of inconsistencies and that the democratic system can be established in Turkey. However, disintegration and fragmentation processes and also radicalization dynamics are extremely intense, the fact that lynch campaigns have started shows to the West how far this can go. Turkey did not question the 70s’ events, it tried to overcome the 70s with state violence of September 12 coup. However, the events that happened in the 70s were important. The 70s were years of pogrom and mutual massacre. Without seeing these, it could be really misleading to say “The state is strong, we are strong as an ummah, Kurds and Turks have lived together for a thousand years so there is no problem”.

At the point at which Turkey has arrived, we can talk about a continuum with Syria, because the local policies of AKP are so much inclined towards violence and very much related to failures in internal politics. I want to dwell on ISIS’s violence and method. A new force has emerged which is attacking Rojava, Kurdistan, using the weapon of terror. One wonders whether or not Isis represents Islam. For simplicity, some argue that there are radical factions but that the real Islam is moderate, while others say that moderate Islam does not exist and that extremism sooner or later prevails. What do you think of the ideology represented by Isis ?

Since Ibn Khaldun, we know that in clan societies, if solidarity mechanisms and internal dynamics lead to the emergence of new groups but that they neutralize each other and prevent the emergence of a new power, then we will see the emergence of a radical ideology that is constituted as an alternative to the established power.

Can we evaluate Isis in this context of Ibn Haldun?

Yes. And there are examples of this. For instance, in 1988 The Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan, but the fact that war networks neutralized each other inevitably led to the formation of a new alternative, that was Taliban, and they came to power in a very short time. When we look at 2013, Iraq is a country completely broken to pieces, but there is not alternative to the power at hand. In 2013, there were at least twelve hundred militia forces. And Isis emerged as a result of the shattered and collapsed state of the power and of the society. To be able to answer the question “Does Isis have a connection to Islam?” is in my opinion almost impossible. Ibn Khaldun clearly states it there: “If you are the representative of a new cause, if you want to establish a new power, what you need is not a deep culture, but a religious or ideological culture that can be directly used in radical way.” And in order to establish power, it is not necessary to read the fifteen hundred volumes written on this or that verse or hadith of the Koran. On the contrary, you need to reduce the Koran to fifteen verses that are directly related to violence. It is not possible to say that violence was absent in the life of the prophet. Therefore, it is possible to answer the question of “Is Isis related to Islam or not?” in both ways. Because at the root of the cause or calling there is nonetheless an Islamic reference, but on the other hand, the point at which the Islamic reference arrives at finally is, like I said, El Maverdi, and he advises obedience to the state, in fact necessitates it.

At this point we turn to realistic politics. The fact that Isis has arrived, that all the jihadists in the world are grouping up in this or that way in Syria and that they do not proceed to the south to Damascus but to the North, to Kurdistan, makes it necessary for more speculation on their potential associations with AKP. Whatever the reason, it is not the Kurds that caused the collapse of the Arabs in Iraq and Syria. Why Isis attacks Kurds?

The reason is quite clear. I have to look at Ibn Khaldun again. According to Ibn Khaldun, the groups that come from the suburbs of history turn into historical actors. We don’t need to look for historical actors in Damascus or in Baghdad. On the contrary, the actors that were rejected by history at some point become historical actors with their resistance.

In a certain context Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri say this for immigrants.

They say it, but at immigrants in Europe or America are not armed. At the moment the result that the collapse of societies creates is this: The Kurdish people are building a society. Whereas the Arab nations are collapsing, a Kurdish society is being formed. In Rojava, in Kurdistan, even in Turkey, a Kurdish society is being created. This Kurdish society is becoming institutionalized and creating a culture and a particular political climate. On the other hand, the collapse of the Arab societies makes it possible for the most radical groups in the Arab societies to unite and to form states. At the moment, two rising powers are facing each other. And this perhaps is inevitable.

Why is it inevitable?

Because the biggest obstacle for Isis to rise is not the regime in Damascus, it is the Kurds. The fact that they have an ideological standing, also that they present an alternative counter culture, as well as the fact that they have a national identity, constitute an obstacle for the religious identity that Isis is willing to impose. At the same time, the fact that they have a terrestrial completeness and that thanks to this situation they can control the entrance of Syria, Iraq and Turkey, inevitably brings these two dynamic forces face to face. However, these two dynamic forces being face to face create problems for Isis and it also creates problems that we can call ontological for the Kurdish movement. Because the Kurdish movement was in general a state-oriented movement until now. It was a movement that was against state-imposed nationalisms. In 2014, the Kurdish movement suddenly came face to face with an enemy that it did not recognize, define or make sense of. The Kurdish movement needs at the same time to define itself with regard to this new actor. This new actor is a becoming state but it does not represent the old states, it is a cross-border actor. It is an actor that does not defend Arab, Persian or Turkish nationalism. And the main problem that the Kurdish people are facing is how they will define themselves, their own cause, identity and claims with regard to this new actor.

This of course is valid for Rojava.

No, this is also valid for Iraqi Kurdistan. In Iraqi Kurdistan, 2014 was an extremely unpleasant year. Because of reasons like the fall of Shengal. Iraqi Kurds saw themselves a bit like the Athens and Kuwait of Middle East. Kuwait is an oil-rich country. And Athens is a country which has established democracy. All of a sudden, they saw that they had to become Sparta. That is, they had to become militarized again. They had to think about the army again, they partially militarized the people again. At the moment, there is a 1053 kilometer common border between Isis and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Does this process take, like you have said about Southern Kurdistan, take the Kurdish society towards a militarization in order for them to be able to maintain their own defense? I mean, like Öcalan said, do Kurdish people always have to think like people of Gaza, do they always have to in a vigilant state? Is it possible to continue with this without the building of a state, without establishing a frame of boundaries and laws?

Again, it is not possible to make a future prediction in terms of this. But these groups are now subjects, not in the meaning mentioned by the Prime Minister Davutoğlu, but in the meaning of history, able to perceive themselves as a group, with a conscience, a subjectivity and capacity to oppose. Playing a role in history in this or that way, perceiving oneself as a group, having a subjectivity all point towards having a capacity for resistance. Of course this possibly has a connection to becoming a state. But in a certain sense, it may not have that. We know that there are many groups that can resist without forming a state. Ottoman history is a witness to this too. If these groups did not have a capacity for resistance, the riots in the 19th century would have taken place. We know this from the Kurdish people as well. They were groups that were under a great deal of military pressure in the 19th and 20 centuries. Nevertheless, they could continue to remain subjects. If fact they could even subjectivize themselves. For example, the fact that Kurdish people had a historical reading, that they had the envisioning of a geographical map, that they had common symbols are very important factors. The Kurds were separated in the 20th history. But at the same time, when you look at this on a symbolic level, the Kurdish movement became a movement that united in the 1930s. The uniting of Kurds on a symbolic level took place in a very short time in the 1930s. At that time, virtually all Kurdish movements were focusing on the same map, the same historical reading. And I think this subjectivation still continues in our present day.

Actually the relations between Southern Kurdistan and Northeastern Kurdistan, namely the relations between PKK and PYD, PDK and KDP show that the relations do not allow this alliance or that the relations do not move in this direction. The Kurdish movement made so many callings, both sides made many efforts in this regard, but for instance a national congress could not be organized.

I think that doesn’t matter. We need to think in long-term with respect to that subject. For example, in 1980s and 1990s, there were internal conflicts within the Kurdish movement. Since the 2000s, this has not been happening. The second phenomenon is this: It is necessary for the Kurdish movement to be a pluralist movement. This necessity comes firstly from citizenship, because it is not possible for a democratic society to be a monadic society, and in terms of history there is such a necessity. Iraqi Kurdistan has very different  historical experiences compared Turkey Kurdistan. As far as I can see now, there are two general centers in the Kurdish movement. Or rather there are two great actors that are forming. These great actors are not controlling everything. It is absolutely not true that PKK controls PYD completely. It is absolutely not true that PKK controls PJAK. At the same time, it can not be said that Kurdistan Democratic Party control Iran Kurdistan Democratic Party. Yet, on one side Iraqi Kurdistan government – and that is a pluralist government – on the other hand PKK, PYD, PJAK emerge as two main movements that determine and structure the Kurdish movement. And the existence of these two main movements can be a great opportunity in terms of the Kurds. This should not be necessarily seen as a bad incident. Whatever the internal contradictions are, these two movements can at the same time be regulatory functions. Reducing internal contradictions, forming channels of communication and a common envisioning are highly important factors.

We said that Isis is the new enemy for the Kurds. On the other hand, the Kurdish movement and the Turkish opposition insist on the following point: some analyzes claim that the AKP supports Isis and encouraged it to attack the Kurds. How do you analyze the relationship and the transfer of ideas between the radical Islamist movement and a political party or a power that likes to present itself to the West under the appearance of moderate Islam?

Both Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia are highly responsible for the current state of the Middle East. All three of them. By supporting Shiism or Alawism, or by supporting Sunni movements, they played a significant role in the sectarianization of the Middle East.

So contrary to what was said, the main responsible party is not the West or America?

No, certainly not. A suicide attack was made between the years 2010-2013 in Iraq. These attacks were not organized by America. And not even one in a thousand people were Americans. Islam should be able to question itself. It should be able to question both its history and its geography. The second phenomenon is this: I think one of the main reasons why AKP gave support to radical Islamist movements was the Kurdish problem. It is a reaction to the formation of a western autonomous Kurdistan. The second is, this support that was given was a part of the sectarianization of the Middle East, and this sectarianization is seen inside, as well as outside. I mean, it probably is not a coincidence that the third bridge of Istanbul was given the name of Yavuz Sultan Selim.

The third phenomenon is this: It generally is not possible to answer radical Islam with Islam. When we do that, it necessarily becomes more oppressive. Then you legitimize Islamic and religious references, you present them as the only acceptable reference. The moment you do this, you inevitably show that there are radical interpretations of Islam too. There is a highly important researcher called Leila Babes, who is a professor in Belgium. She has written a very important book on the formation of the Islamic doctrine of state between the 7th and 10th centuries. This is what she says: “Islam developed some kind of anarcho-theocracy”. Theocracy says it is necessary to obey the state. On the other hand, the state protects the ulemas, but at the same time it does not contain Islam’s fair system demand or project. And as long as this fair calling exist, any formation can go and use violence against the state in the name of Islam. Therefore, the state doctrine of Islam that was formed between the 7th and 10th centuries reproduces within history both the tyrannical governments and the movements that rebel oppose to those tyrannical governments. That’s why I say that using Islam’s references to oppose Islamic radical movements on inevitably brings along with it on one side the legitimizing of political powers through obedience to the state in order to unite the ummah, and also some others can say “No, sir. The Koran does not say that. On the contrary the Koran advocates the establishing of a fair system, and this fair system can only be formed through violence”. Let us not forget this: Our information on the first thirty years of Islam is really limited. The state doctrine of Islam was not formed during the time of the prophet. It was formed between the 7th and 10th centuries. That’s why many people can say “El Maverdi puts it like this, others put it like that, but I base my reading of the Koran directly on the Koran itself. We have in the Koran what we call sword verses. Taking these sword verses as a basis I interpret the world and religion. And therefore violence is licit.” The only way out of this impasse is that the Islamic world, including Turkey, accept that secularism is inevitable.

This is where the actors involved in secular movements like the Kurds can play a decisive role. Thank you very much for this enlightening interview.

This interview was broadcasted in the program “Nasıl Yapmali” on Nuçe TV on 16.09.2015.





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