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Q+A: Cafer Solgun on helalleşme and confrontation in Turkish politics
In November 2021, the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu took the "decision to embark on a journey of helalleşme,” a concept that involves settling past grievances or as he described it, a way “to be able to make peace, to be able to continue.”
Kılıçdaroğlu used the term to underline the need for his nation to reconcile with recent and distant events that continue to influence people today, which he said include:
“Those who carry the wounds inflicted by 28 February, the headscarved girls who were brought into persuasion rooms, Roboskî, the victims of Sivas and Maraş, the prisoners of Diyarbakır prison, the Gypsies whose neighborhoods were usurped and who were exiled, non-Muslim minorities groaning under the Wealth Tax, victims of the events of 6-7 September, the soldiers who were dragged into courts and their families, the brightest young minds who migrated to London, Ali İsmail Korkmaz's family, Soma, Mısra Öz who lost her son Oğuz Arda Sel and was dragged into the courts, Ahmet Kaya.”
Kılıçdaroğlu’s video address has since sparked various discussions on how the nation might come to "face" such pivotal events, at times feeding into pre-election narratives.
In response to the "helalleşme" rhetoric, the pro-Kurd Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) co-chair Pervin Buldan said at an August 2022 rally in Kartal: "Kurds will not forgive anyone without an honorable confrontation."
“Helalleşme is a concept related to both the past, the present and the future. In order for helalleşme to take place, the person who violates the ‘rights’ of another must meet the conditions to ask for reconciliation, and the person whose rights were violated must agree to forgive the perpetrator. Forgiveness, although religiously encouraged and presented as a moral virtue, is not a requirement.”
According to the Turkish Language Association, helalleşme is explained as “making amends for all that has passed,” while confrontation means “to understand thoroughly, to realize”, which some public figures prefer over the former and Kılıçdaroğlu’s approach.
To better understand the distinction between the two, and how current rhetoric might play out for public memory, we spoke to Cafer Solgun, a writer, journalist and founding president of Yüzleşme Derneği or the “Confrontation Association,” which is now inactive.
Alternatively known as the Association for Research and Confrontation of Social Incidents, the group aimed "to monitor the problems, the effects and consequences that extend from the past to the present” with “aims to search for solutions.”
Q: For what purpose was the Confrontation Association established in 2007? Does the association continue its activities?
CS: In general, our aim was to carry out studies that would create public awareness to enable the development of a healthy, genuine and functioning democracy in Turkey, which is only possible by confronting the past.
We held many meaningful panels, conferences and discussions with modest and limited resources. We published newsletters in magazine format and reported the results of our activities. Many scientists, academics, journalists and writers, who were experts in their fields and known as authorities, attended our events. We had a limited number of members, but the halls where our meetings were held were full.
If the concept of "confrontation" became a somewhat popular concept in those years, I think the activities of the Confrontation Association took a great part in this.
Unfortunately, our association does not continue its activities. The political atmosphere in the country started to change in a negative way, starting in 2015-2016. Discourses of reform were replaced by discourses of nationalism and "the survival of the state".
Gradually, interest in the activities of our association began to wane. We decided to close down operations in 2020.
Q: Where and how should confrontation begin in Turkey?
CS: First of all, it should start by confronting the "official ideology" and the official ideological mentality that constitutes the founding philosophy of the republic. The official ideological mentality has a quality that denies the realities of Turkey, fights with them, and wants to transform them. The Kurdish problem, the Alevi problem and problems relating to freedom of religion and belief are directly linked to this.
I don't know whether it is called the "deep state", the "invisible state", "Ergenekon" or something else, but the state's informal, illegal, "non-routine" activities, so to speak, are also a matter of confrontation.
It is necessary to evaluate the pre- and post-coups eras in this context. There are massacres carried out in order to “ripen” the conditions for the coup. There are "unsolved" political assassinations and murders in which almost everyone knows the "deep state" was the perpetrator.
Take the Hrant Dink murder case as an example. It is a murder in which all the security-related institutions of the state are involved in some way. In this sense, it is a "state" murder. So are many other events: the Maraş massacre (1978), Çorum massacre (1980), Sivas massacre (1993) are the first examples that come to mind. Kurdish and Alevi massacres such as Ağrı-Zilan (1930), Dersim (1937-38) are also state operations.
Is it possible to have a healthy and unified society without confronting this bloody history – of which I have only given some examples – and the wounds it caused? Can a genuine, healthy, functioning democracy be built without facing this history?
Could Germany be today's Germany without confronting its Nazi past, without German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in front of the Holocaust memorial and apologizing? Could South Africa turn a new page to face the future without confronting the racist Apartheid regime? There are many inspiring examples.
Q: How will you interpret the 2023 elections in relation to themes of confrontation?
CS: The ruling party says, “These elections are very important, give us authority once again”, while the main opposition parties say, “They have ruined the country for 20 years, we will come, everything will be better.”
Undoubtedly, some things will change with a change of power, but will this be a radical change? Will there be a change that purports to solve Turkey's radical confrontation and, by the same token, democracy problems?
For example, both the government and the opposition promise a constitutional amendment. But it is difficult to say whether the new constitutions they promise will provide a basis for solving the country's deep-rooted problems because both sides are determined not to change or touch the "unchangeable, inviolable" articles of the constitution made by the coup governments.
Therefore, these elections, unfortunately, do not excite me very much. The fact that the AKP-MHP coalition and its supporters is replaced by the CHP-İYİ Party coalition and its supporters undoubtedly creates an atmosphere of psychological optimism.
Maybe the economic crisis will subside for a while, but what will change in terms of a radical solution for our democracy problems? These elections may be very important for the parties, but why are they important for the people of Turkey? I often think about the answer to this question.
Q: In the rhetoric of political leaders, 'confrontation' has evolved into 'helalleşme'. Is helalleşme as inclusive as confrontation? Which one is more possible in today's social conditions?
CS: Helalleşme is a religious, an Islamic concept. It means shaking hands and opening a new page after a mistake or a fault. It contains a kind of "apology" at its core.
Confrontation, on the other hand, seems more like putting forward a will about the past, but in reality it is a will to build a new future. There are conditions. Their achievement depends on the lessons and experiences you have learned from the problems you are willing to face.
For example, in 2011, then-PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, made a statement about the 1937-38 Dersim massacre, saying: "If there is such a concept in the literature, I would apologize for the Dersim massacre, if necessary."
However, this statement was nothing more than political polemic against the leader of the main opposition party. For an apology to be a state apology, it must be enacted in the parliament. Then, we can talk about a genuine apology and confrontation.
Kılıçdaroğlu's "helalleşme" rhetoric is important, meaningful and valuable. However, I am of the opinion that “helalleşme” without confrontation does not have a permanent and final value.
Q: Assuming there are many events to face in Turkey's recent history, how realistic is the possibility of 'self-criticism' between the parties?
CS: In my opinion, confrontation with Turkey’s conditions is primarily a matter of taking responsibility for the democratic restructuring of the state. However, there is no doubt that the issue, the problems related to nationalism, racism and religious discrimination, also have a serious social dimension.
For this reason, our issue is not just about changing some laws or making a new constitution. These are also important and should be done, but we also need a serious and, so to speak, revolutionary mental change and social transformation.
For example, nothing will happen to Turkey if Kurds exist as “Kurds” in all areas of social and political life. If Alevis become “equal citizens” and the status of the Cemevi (a place of worship for the Alevis) is accepted, religion will not go away.
If the İstanbul Convention, which guarantees women's rights, is accepted, the "family" will not be destroyed. If we realize that the state is not a "high and holy" thing, but a device that is responsible for meeting the basic needs of the society and doing "business" with our taxes and power of attorney, we will also realize that we do not have to be a "subject of the state".
If we understand and respect that different ethnic, religious, ideological, political thoughts and beliefs are perfectly natural as long as they do not contain violence and imposition, we will understand that we can live "without enemies" and we will understand that the imposition of a uniform society is an impossible compulsion.
This is certainly not difficult, and not easy, however, what is true is this: We need to once more face one another’s sensitivities.
Q: Is it possible to build a future without confrontation? Is there a chance to move forward with unspoken mistakes?
CS: No. Not possible. What we call the future is, after all, the product of the past. A new future cannot be built by carrying the past with it like a burden. Confrontation is the opportunity to get rid of those burdens, to get rid of the dirt, rust, pain and mistakes of the past.
Diego Cupolo, co-founder + editor @diegocupolo
Gonca Tokyol, freelance journalist @goncatokyol
Ingrid Woudwijk, freelance journalist @deingrid
Verda Uyar, freelance journalist @verdauyar
Gökalp Badak, editorial intern @gklpbdk