June 20, 2007
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Tribal leaders 

Today's Zaman - By Dogu Ergil

First our chief of General Staff and then our prime minister acted like scolded children emulating their parents and declared they would not talk to the “tribal leaders” of Iraq to defuse mounting tensions from terrorist attacks from northern Iraq. Does this mean if these Kurdish leaders were of nobler blood they would be party to our concerns originating from their lands? Allow me to discuss our official relationship with our tribal chieftains to set the record straight:

1 -- Tribal chiefs, big landlords of feudal character (ağas) and sheikhs of religious orders are local notables of traditional agrarian societies in the Middle East. They are not only abundant in almost all of the region’s countries, but they still affect politics, economics, culture and daily life. The most important promise of the Republic of Turkey we hold so dear was to eliminate all these archaic formations in order to create a modern society. We have not. Now we are suffering from the effects of these lingering social relics of a past society whose specter we could not rid ourselves of.

a) Tribalism has created a contentious society, ridden with internal conflicts, limiting loyalty to the nation and the central national authority. National unity remained problematic because of “incomplete” nation building.

b) Tribalism, ağas and sheiks have helped to preserve a dependent/clientele society in which people cannot become individuals. Dependent people can neither become economic entrepreneurs nor agents of democracy.

c) Accumulation of poverty, frustration and feeling of deprivation has led to a rebellious spirit that found its way into political violence. We use to call it obscurantist rebellion; now we call it terrorism.

d) Political violence that has lingered on for decades depleted Turkey’s human and economic resources and has led to a cycle of underdevelopment that keeps recreating dissatisfaction aired as ultra-nationalism on the one hand and religious fundamentalism on the other.

e) Unable or unwilling to change the traditional structure of rural society, the republican elite, afraid of uncontrolled change that could challenge their unrivalled authority, allied itself with these traditional leaders for law and order. Law and order meant ruling over an undeveloped society with no demands and expectations other than what was provided by the central elite. Occasional rebellions were put down with the help of ağas and tribal chieftains and the blessing of local sheiks.

Stifling modernization and maintaining traditional relationships/institutions (including tribal formations and their chieftains) by force maintained a traditional and archaic order that the republic promised to eradicate in order to reach the level of “contemporary civilization.”

This is a very heavy price to pay for law and order that could never be kept because it was based on a wrong assumption: Law and order is best kept by the people themselves, especially when they are happy with what they have.

Even today we keep law and order in the Southeast by relying on loyal Kurdish tribes and their chiefs against their rebellious ethnic brethren.

2 -- The Kurdish leaders of northern Iraq were and are tribal leaders. But one (Mr. Talabani) has become head of state of Iraq proper and the other (Mr. Barzani) has become the head of the autonomous Kurdish local government. He comes from a family background of leadership of the “Kurdish cause” not only in the Iraqi context but the whole Kurdish geography. Their status has been acknowledged by both the Iraqis themselves (which is the source of the legitimacy of their newly won positions) and the international community. To treat and to degrade them as “tribal leaders,” not with the higher status they have achieved to be interlocutors of Turkey’s problems concerning Kurdish rebels enjoying a safe haven in Iraqi territory, only complicates matters.

Turkey cannot find a party with which to discuss the matter in Iraq because it is reluctant to talk to “tribal chieftains” on the one hand and it alienates all of the political players in this country when it threatens a cross-border military incursion on the other. This creates an impasse in the solution to the increasing terrorism that is hurting Turkey.

What is ironic is that those who resist negotiating with these tribal leaders have no better family backgrounds. The families of our last two presidents were peasants. Their rise to prominence has been due to education and government service, that is all. Family pedigree has played no role in their ascendance to the highest post of the republic, just as is the case for the majority of the prime ministers, generals and Cabinet ministers.

Claiming nobility in family pedigree is neither proper nor functional. Someone else may say the same when state matters are involved. Can someone offer me any logical reason or a positive clue as to what we are arguing in dealing with the most important problem of Turkey?


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