Inclusive policy in Turkey has major potential

If Turkey aspires to 'zero problems with neighbours', as the foreign ministry has promised, shouldn't it follow an analogous policy at home? Turkey's many minorities would like to think so.

If Turkey aspires to "zero problems with neighbours", as the foreign ministry has promised, shouldn't it follow an analogous policy at home? After extraordinary changes in the last decade, there are signs that Turkey could realise this possibility.

In a step that begins to undo decades of discrimination, Ankara plans to return hundreds of schools, hospitals, orphanages and other properties seized from minorities since 1936. Some of these confiscations were of small importance, but some were part of orchestrated campaigns against the Greek, Armenian and Jewish minority communities. The properties may be valuable to these communities, but the symbolism is priceless.

"The time when a citizen of ours would be oppressed due to his religion, ethnic origin or different way of life is over," Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in Istanbul on Sunday.

Words alone will not heal Turkey's ethnic and religious wounds, but they do offer a place to start. The country's history is filled with crimes against minority groups, repressed by a secular government fearful of sectarianism. The property disputes were just one chapter that needed to be closed, in no small part because of EU pressure.

But any discussion of minority communities in Turkey must now involve Kurds, who make up almost 20 per cent of the population. When the country was founded, there was a ban enacted on the Kurdish language, clothes and culture - absurdly repressive acculturation methods that have only been partly relaxed in recent years.

To his credit, Mr Erdogan has acknowledged the historical mistreatment of Kurds, pursued detente with the Kurdish state in Iraq and loosened restrictions on Kurdish-language broadcasts and education rules.

More needs to be done. There has been an upsurge in violence between security forces and the rebel group PKK, eliciting renewed calls for a crackdown on Kurdish political parties and population centres. Secret talks between Ankara and the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, have yielded little. And on some promises, Mr Erdogan has backtracked.

As even Ocalan appears to have realised, the scattered militants of the PKK can never represent 14 million Kurds. It is past time that terrorism was treated separately from minority rights.

For historically marginalised minorities, the rightful restoration of property is just one step. Now, let us see what comes next.

Published: August 30, 2011 04:00 AM


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