ANKARA: Will Turkey ever apologize to other oppressed groups?

Today’s Zaman, Turkey
Jan 18 2009

Will Turkey ever apologize to other oppressed groups?

Covered women who have faced various obstacles during their academic
lives because of their headsarves, say they wonder whether the Turkish
state will one day apologize to them for the suffering it has caused
them. A series of recent moves by Turkey to confront its past
mistakes in its treatment of certain groups or individuals has brought
to mind the question of whether the country will some day seek the
forgiveness of other groups which have long complained of being
deprived of religious, cultural or ethnic rights.

A campaign initiated by a number of Turkish intellectuals who
collected signatures for a statement personally apologizing for events
that took place in 1915 that Armenians claim constituted genocide
dominated the national agenda for several weeks, with many questioning
whether it could be a historic step for Turkey in confronting its

Then came the launch of the country’s first 24-hour television channel
broadcasting in Kurdish, a language that was prohibited in public
following the 1980 military coup.

Soon afterwards, a Turkish minister engaged in self-criticism over the
state’s misguided practices in the past, referring to people who had
been prosecuted on charges of singing Kurdish songs, including Ahmet
Kaya, Ahmet Arif and Mehmet Uzun. This move was followed by a Cabinet
decision to restore the citizenship of Nazım Hikmet Ran, one of
Turkey’s first modern, best loved and most illustrious poets. Turkey
stripped Hikmet of his citizenship in 1951 at the height of the Cold
War because of his communist views. He died in exile in Moscow in

The series of apologies to various groups and individuals in society
raises the question of whether other segments that have for many years
claimed that their basic rights have been violated will receive a
similar apology some day in the future. Among these segments are
Alevis, Kurds and women who wear headscarves, the behavior of the
state toward whom has been criticized on various occasions.

Havva Yılmaz, a covered woman who has faced various obstacles
during her academic life because of her headscarf, said she wondered
whether the Turkish state would one day apologize to her for the
suffering it has caused her. `I wish the state owed no apology to
anyone. Nevertheless, it would be pleasing to hear an official apology
for the headscarf ban years later. I wonder if the state would
consider taking such a step,’ she noted.

Yılmaz came to prominence last year because of a statement she
released along with her friends advocating freedom for all oppressed
individuals in society, including those suffering because of the ban
on the headscarf. Headscarves were banned at Turkish universities in
the late 1990s through a Constitutional Court ruling on the grounds
that they violated the nation’s secular principles because the
headscarf was seen as a political and religious symbol. The question
of wearing headscarves on university campuses has since remained

Parliament, controlled by the Justice and Development Party (AK
Party), passed a constitutional amendment last February to allow
students to wear headscarves at universities; however, upon an appeal
by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its ally
the Democratic Left Party (DSP), the Constitutional Court ruled in
early June that Parliament had violated the constitutionally enshrined
principle of secularism when it passed amendments to remove the
headscarf ban, and annulled the amendment.

`It is very important to grant people their rights in time. I wish
Nazım Hikmet had not been stripped of his citizenship. I wish
no one had suffered from the 1915 incidents. And I wish no headscarf
ban had been imposed; however, if the state takes a step in the future
to make up for the sufferings caused by the scarf ban, it will be a
delayed yet pleasing development. At least, we will understand that
the state has finally realized its mistake,’ Yılmaz stated.

Another group that expects an apology from the state is the Kurdish
population, which has complained that the state has withheld the
cultural rights Kurds yearned for. The Kurdish population’s aspiration
to enjoy long-desired rights and its fight to this end have turned
violent in the last 25 years, with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’
Party (PKK) launching an armed campaign against Turkish civilians and
security forces for autonomy in Turkey’s Kurdish-populated Southeast.

`As the understanding of apologizing grows more mature in society, I
believe we will confront our past and restore the rights of those who
were subjected to unjust treatment. This is something directly related
to the improvement of democracy. As democracy improves, we will make
up for our past mistakes. We see some groups and the state expressing
their regret to Armenians and Nazım Hikmet. So, what about the
rights of other oppressed groups? When we learn to apologize to all
groups who were subjected to unjust treatment, then we will become a
real state,’ remarked Mehmet Metiner, a Kurdish intellectual.

There is another community that believes it deserves an apology for
the policies the state has pursued toward it for many years. Turkey’s
Alevi community, a religious group thought to have between 6 and 12
million adherents in Turkey, has complained on various occasions about
being subjected to discrimination and deprived of their cultural and
religious rights.

Alevi demands include making state-run religious classes
noncompulsory, abolishing the Religious Affairs Directorate and the
recognition of cemevis (Alevi places of worship) by the state. They
also want full implementation of the principle of `equal citizenship,’
so that all citizens can enjoy their fundamental rights and freedoms
without being subjected to discrimination regardless of their
religion, origin, language, race or gender.

The governing AK Party recently shaped a new initiative to respond to
the demands voiced by Alevi citizens. As part of the new initiative,
Alevi dedes (religious leaders) will be granted a monthly salary. The
electricity and water bills of cemevis will be paid for by the
state. And the Madımak Hotel, where several Alevi intellectuals
were killed in a fire set by religious fanatics in 1993, will be
turned into a museum.

Though a considerable majority of the Alevi community is pleased with
the recent initiative that is aimed at thawing the ice between the
state and Alevis, some say the initiative wouldn’t suffice.

`Apologizing for mistakes shows the greatness of a state. A state has
pluses and minuses. Being sorry for the bad things experienced in the
past is not something wrong. On the contrary, it renders the unity in
society stronger and makes the state more powerful. The state should
apologize to various individuals or groups for its past mistakes,’
stated Fermani Altun, president of the World Ehli Beyt Foundation, a
prominent Alevi association.

Altun said society should as a whole react against the mistakes that
have been and are being committed. `In this way, we can develop into a
more democratic and improved society,’ he added.

18 January 2009, Sunday

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