Yahya Madra
Feb 13 2018

A people, or peoples? The Turkish left grapples with identity

The first thing that many, including foreign journalists and commentators who should know better, trip over when referring to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is the location of the apostrophe. Is it “People’s” or “Peoples’”? Of course, the distinction is not only unmistakably clear in Turkish (“Halkın” and Halkların”, respectively) but also the latter, plural nomination refers to a very well-known and important socialist slogan: “Halkların Kardeşliği”.

A quick translation would be “Fraternity of Peoples” even though fraternity betrays the gender-neutrality of the Turkish language and perhaps “fellowship” would be a better translation. Or, given HDP’s strong commitment to gender egalitarianism, why not translate the slogan as the “Sisterhood of Peoples”?

But the slogan marks a deep divide within the broadly defined left in Turkey: Those who are willing to recognise the plurality of peoples - Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, Arabs, Jews, Syriacs, and so on - and those who deny it by suppressing difference under a certain purportedly universal notion of Turkish citizenship.

The latter group claims to be leftist and understands its interpretation of Turkish citizenship as a non-ethnic, universal category, an important hallmark of its leftism. They refuse to grant language-related rights (e.g., use of Kurdish as a language of instruction in public education) to Kurdish people and consider any politics that recognises ethnic difference as identitarian and therefore reactionary.

In contrast, the HDP represents an important critical vein within the left in Turkey that recognises that the “Turkishness” of the Turkish state is not and has never been a neutral category and the universalist discourse of the republican left in Turkey conceals an unacknowledged “white privilege” and is all the more pernicious for that reason.

In recent years, this problem of the “white privilege” of Turks and its hold on Turkish leftists who claim to be universalist has been systematically investigated by Barış Ünlü, a political scientist who happens to be one of the thousands of academics who are purged through executive orders under the ongoing 18-month state of emergency.

In a book that gathers his research on the matter, Ünlü names this phenomena “the contract of Turkishness” and argues that the pretence of universalism hides a highly structured hierarchy that organises not only the bureaucracy, but rather the entire social formation.

In this sense, that seemingly minor mistake regarding the location of the apostrophe in the name of HDP marks a very important division within the political topography of the left in Turkey. Indeed, a lot rides on this difference.

First and most immediately, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political survival rests on this difference. Now, with the war in the Syrian district of Afrin, the prospects of a leftward shift by the main opposition Republican People’s Party (note the location of the apostrophe here) towards forming a united front together with the HDP against Erdoğan’s further consolidation of power have been significantly reduced.

By criminalising the HDP and framing it as a separatist actor, Erdoğan is doing his best to drive a wedge between those leftists who see the plurality of peoples in Anatolia and those who claim to be blind to differences of identity and yet precisely by denying the existence of those hierarchically structured regimes of difference, further reproduce and entrench them.

All of this brings us to the prospects of the HDP as a project that speaks to the entirety of Turkey. Here, the term is “Türkiyelileşmek” and can be translated as “becoming of Turkey” with the emphasis being not on the nationhood (Turkish) as an ethnic thing, but rather on the country (Turkey) as container of many peoples without erasing their identities.

Most commentators and pundits say that after the June 7, 2015 election, the HDP has failed to live up to the task of becoming of Turkey. But looking back from the vantage point of the nationalist frenzy of today’s Turkey, it is the Turks who have failed to live up to the task of becoming of Turkey. Today, even the term itself is forbidden in the public discourse as it evokes the failed peace, or ceasefire, process that Erdoğan and the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) are doing everything to erase from the collective memory as it contradicts with their current ultra-nationalist mode.

And perhaps that is the real objective of the war in Afrin. To eliminate the vision of a democratic peace process on which the HDP built its groundbreaking 13% vote in the June 7, 2015 elections. If the HDP is still to remain as a forceful political actor in Turkey, it will do so by keeping this vision alive in these dark days. If only to make life more difficult for those who want to erase the word peace from the dictionary.