UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
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Organized by
the Management of Social Transformations Programme (MOST) of UNESCO
and the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation TESEV

Istanbul, Turkey
30 June to 2 July 1996

The Conference discussed comparatively various policy alternatives, and cases of countries where such policies are implemented, in managing cultural diversity. The question looming large in the background was the Turkish case, and in particular: « how can the Turkish Republic manage democratically the cultural and identitarian claims of its Kurdish citizens? ». The participants (some 25) were four foreign scholars, from the United Kingdom, Spain and France, and several prominent Turkish academics, industrialists and political personalities.

Various national policies for coping with diversity were analyzed, such as in Spain (multinationalism, large autonomy to regions where national groups such as Catalans or Basques, live), United Kingdom (where there are issues of multiculturality with recent immigration groups, as well as of multinationality, with the Welsh, Scottish and Irish nationalisms, in this order of strength), France (a civic, non-ethnic definition of the nation, individuals considered in the public sphere as equal citizens, regardless of their particularisms, the latter being restricted to their private life; non recognition of minority communities or languages), Australia and Canada (multiculturalism).

Beyond the obvious complexity of situations, and the always unique combination of factors and historical paths in each case, it appeared that in elaborating policies for a democratic management of cultural diversity, certain variables are crucial everywhere, such as the level of democratization attained; the existence of arrangements for an effective exercise of all political, socio-economic and cultural rights; a civic, contractual, non-ethnic definition of the nation and citizenship, requiring among other conditions, complete equality of individuals before law and a clear distinction of the public and private spheres; and a secularized society.

The case of Turkey, which was of particular interest to TESEV, is one of multinationalism (strictly speaking, not a case of multiculturalism, since there are no significant recent immigrant groups), with a very old minority population (between 15% to 20% of the total) settled in Anatolia for a couple of millennia - the Kurds - whose identiarian and cultural claims have strengthened over the last 20 years. A small but extremely violent fraction - the PKK - started a guerrilla for independence, about 12 years ago, in South-Eastern Turkey, which the Turkish Army is trying to suppress with large-scale means. The successive governments have not been able, to start a meaningful effort towards a negotiated solution. Many voices are heard and initiatives are emerging from the civil society, media and business circles, putting pressure on the government towards such a solution, all the more so that there are groups amongst the Kurds, including MPs at the Parliament, unsympathetic to the violent methods of the PKK and looking for a negotiated solution within the boundaries of the Turkish Republic.

The participants in the Conference underscored that while Turkey has, since the foundation of a secular republic, 70 years ago, practised a civic, non-ethnic conception of the nation and citizenship, and a pluralist parliamentarian system for several decades, democratization and respect for human rights need to be greatly improved. They also underlined the necessity of implementing two strategies, in order to advance towards a non-violent, political solution: to offer to the Kurds, and society in general, the prospect of negotiation and bargaining and to distinguish moderates, with whom discussions can be started, and radicals, resorting to armed conflict.

In terms of policy options to be considered, the participants agreed that given Turkey's historical experience and the origins of its modern state, very much inspired by the French republicanism, a French-type solution might be negotiated: in the public sphere, the citizens already enjoy, regardless of their Turkish or Kurdish origin, equal rights. There is no discrimination in terms of access to political functions, civil service, army or the job market. What is lacking is the recognition of cultural and linguistic rights in the private sphere, as well as the effective existence and the concrete possibilities of making use of them. This would require that beyond what the Kurdish-speaking citizens would be free to undertake on a private, voluntary basis, the Kurdish language (in fact there are two different Kurdish languages in Turkey and a further two used by the Kurds of Iraq and Iran) and culture be taught in the State schools and universities as a second language, TV and radio programmes established (on public channels or privately). Admittedly, the « French approach » is a minimalist one (for example, France holds French as the only official language, refuses to recognize minority groups and to sign the Council of Europe's Charter on Minority Languages) but probably it is a realistic approach that may overcome the very strong resistance of conservative groups in Turkey.

Another policy option mentioned was granting autonomy for local affairs to the South-East Anatolian region, where about half of the Kurdish-speaking population of Turkey lives. A difficulty with this solution, which can in fact be coupled with the first one, is that the other half of this population is scattered in major cities of Western, Southern and Central Anatolia, where they migrated for economic reasons.

In any case, along with political and constitutional solutions, this case also requires that the rapid economic development, which the other regions of the country have experienced over the last four decades (an average annual growth rate of some 5%), be extended to the South-Eastern region - the least developed part of Turkey. Serious efforts are now being made in this direction, but they unfortunately come very late.

This Conference was an excellent occasion for the MOST programme to offer its policy-relevant international and comparative research expertise to a selected audience of policy-makers and opinion leaders. This expertise is based on the research projects, meetings, and publications of the programme.

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