Interview with Dr. Nazan Üstündağ: Major Social Problems in Today’s Turkey – Part II

Interview with Dr. Nazan Üstündağ: Major Social Problems in Today’s Turkey

Part II

Peoples’ Democratic Party’s Challenge in Forthcoming Elections and the Impact of Kurdish Movement’s Universal Discourse on the Liberation of the Middle East

The sociological transformation in Turkey is going on at full speed. One of the primary reflections of this transformation is the violence against women and hate killings. Against this increasing violence, there is further increase in the revolt and resistance of women. In addition, regarding the Kurdish question, both the Peace process and the participation of Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi) (HDP) to the 2015 general elections as a political party affect all social and political groups. In order to examine these dynamics in detail, as the Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), we have conducted an interview with Dr. Nazan Üstündağ on the major sociological and political dynamics in Turkey.

Dr. Üstündağ is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Boğaziçi University. She completed her PhD at Indiana University in 2005 with a thesis entitled “Belonging to the Modern: Women’s Suffering and Subjectivities in Urban Turkey.” She edited a book on the issue of health reform. Her field of research includes post-colonialism, feminist theory, narrative methods, state and violence studies, and the ethnography of state. Since 2013, she has been writing on the peace processes in the world. Her articles on contemporary issues appear in Özgür Gündem, Feminist Yaklaşımlar, Bianet and T24. She is also an editor for the Jadaliyya Turkey webpage. She is one of the founders of Barış için Kadın Girişimi (Woman’s Initiative for Peace), Barış için Akademisyenler (the Assembly of Academics) and Barış Meclisi (Assembly of Peace).

In this second part of our interview we addressed the major political and social developments in Turkey. We talked particularly about Kurdish Movement and Peace Process and also about Halkların Demokratik Partisi’s (Peoples’ Democratic Party) (HDP) status in 2015 general elections. Moreover, we evaluated the draft security bill, health care reform and foreign policy of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) government.

Summary of the Interview

Kurdish Liberation Movement now wants democratic autonomy, freedom for women and an ecologic world not only for Kurdistan but for Turkey and the entire Middle East.

Halkların Demokratik Partisi’s (Peoples’ Democratic Party) (HDP) will pass the electoral threshold. The HDP fronts everyone, not to pass the threshold but to call on everyone to build a new, libertarian, women liberating, ecologic world in Turkey and in the Middle East.

The universal values of a political party itself reorganise the party. For this reason, HDP should seek to reorganise all Kurds, seculars and pious people because these distinctions are the agreements which are imposed by the current system.

In the wake of the peace experiences since 1990s, the United Nations remark that peace processes which does not involve women’s participation, are considered unsuccessful. 

Peace Process is a very long process. Even with democratic autonomy, the peace process will not be completed in Kurdistan. The change in system, –which will lead people to evaluate democratically their relationship with one another– will complete the peace process.

Security bill draft is a bill of civil war. It is the legalisation of governments’ declaration of war with their police forces against any opposition. This brought significant obstacles to society’s social and political expression, particularly, within the framework of peace and democratisation process.

I have always considered Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) as a neoliberal party and, in this sense, I have always considered it as party, which limits liberty and potential of people. However in certain contexts, the AKP responded to some social groups and to their request of taking to the stage of history.

Intellectuals in Turkey always have invested in a project of ‘state’s restoration’ and therefore, they invested to this restoration with the AKP, provided that the AKP alters the state.

Gezi Movement is something over and beyond all and every political message. Likewise, October events cannot be narrowed down to any particular political message.

AKP’s policy on ‘transformation of health care system’ is completely an application of World Bank’s resolution, which aims to capture global health economy to a neoliberal framework.

Arab Spring is very important. It manifests energy for the desire of liberation and creating its own future in the Middle East.

I look positively to the continuity of negotiations, realisation of negotiations and the legitimate and open competition of negotiations with different universal models, rather than it proceeding in a hidden way.

Full Text of the Interview

All right, I want to talk you a little bit about Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi) (HDP) and its election campaign. First of all, how do you evaluate HDP’s project of ‘Türkiyelileşme’ in another words project of appeal to the entire Turkey? What should HDP do to get rid of the image of a ‘Kurdish party’ in order to fill the absence on left?

The meaning of ‘Türkiyelileşme’ which, I understand is that: Kurds used to have the demand of changing, transforming Kurdistan, how should I say it, only in Kurdistan. Now, Kurds have overcome this. Kurds are seeking to rule the entire Turkey because, I mean the Kurdish Liberation Movement and their apprehension by saying Kurds, Kurdish Liberation Movement now wants democratic autonomy, freedom for women and an ecologic world not only for Kurdistan but for Turkey and the whole of Middle East. For this reason, in my opinion, Kurdish Movement has succeeded to appeal the entire Turkey and even the Middle East. Thus, it has become universalised. On the other hand, by looking through HDP’s perspective, the HDP can be a significant power in the Middle East, in Turkey and in the world if only it can communicate and seek for this universal character.

Kurdish Liberation Movement now wants democratic autonomy, freedom for women and an ecologic world for the entire Middle East

Well how do you find HDP’s chance to pass the electoral threshold?

I believe it will pass for sure. I do not see any problems related with that.

Currently, it can be said that, an expectation and attention towards HDP’s chances of passing the electoral threshold has already been formed.  In fact, we heard that even some supporters of the Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi (National Movement Party) (MHP) would vote for the HDP. You have already answered the question about HDP’s chance of passing electoral threshold but according to you, who should HDP front; pious Kurds or urban, secular bodies which consider themselves in left wing? And how do you evaluate the events of 6-7 October in this context?

As I said, I think they have passed the threshold. They will pass. It should front all of them but not to pass the threshold, but to call on everyone to build a new, libertarian, women liberating, ecologic world in Turkey and Middle East, but of course this has some organisational problems. As an organisation, can it comprehend this well? Or can it organise these ideas well? No, not yet… But it is a breakthrough and this breakthrough will be enough for the HDP to pass the threshold, but not for ruling Turkey. Actually, considering the universal values that the HDP promotes, it should get 40%, 50% of the votes but its organisational structure is not capable of this yet and as it is  stuck with some traditional party politics’ reflexes, I believe it will only get around 11-12% of the votes. This is just one side. On the other side how should I evaluate events on 6-7 October?

We can consider October Events in the extent of a clash between two different Kurdish groups with each other; hence I want to learn what can be the consequences of HDP’s call on different groups?

I believe that a political party affects some groups more than the rest, in the sense that it has its own universal values and it reorganises these universal values. Of course the HDP should seek to both reorganise religionist Kurds and the urban seculars because these distinctions are actually the agreements, which are imposed by the current system. Otherwise, the oppression against the urban precaria and it is loss of power due to capitalism in the recent period, and pious Kurdish people in deserts, who are removed from agriculture and the destruction of their lands, are not unrelated to each other and these are not separated issues. We claim that both of these are caused by the very same means of domination and rulership and we should dream of forming new groups in Turkey, in the extent that we can expose this. Truly, the government imposes the current distinction, between urban seculars and pious Kurdish people. I do not accept this distinction anyway. I believe that there are the oppressors and the ones who are being oppressed. I think there are those who lose power and those who gain power.

HDP calls different bodies not to pass the election threshold but to build a new, libertarian, women liberating, and ecologic world

Then, as we both agree on the significance of Öcalan’s call for disarmament regarding the current situation of peace progress, can you share your opinions about the peace process and its current situation? For how long do you think that the context of peace process can be continued? Or by being not open to public sphere, does the process destroy the peace and mutual agreement?

I believe there are plenty of problems in the peace process; not being transparent, not holding space for the participation of current social groups, not having equal parties around the table… These are all very major problems but I am contented with the peace process. Namely, because I think that progress in the peace process will benefit all the communities in Turkey. I mean I think that, this peace process, so that it can create a social peace, peace despite the government, struggle and negotiation with government… I care about these a lot. Because peace does not only mean to give native language rights, or other private rights or things like these. Peace means to build a new society, to frame a new contract, which let people live together again, to form a new ‘collectivism.’ This requires to struggle for a long time, it cannot be solved by sitting around a table. However, the table that we currently have provides platform for this struggle.

Well then, what can be done to integrate these communities with each other and to heal the collective memory?

Integration of communities, collective memory… These are important things for sure. A lot can be done like confrontation with past but I think the most can be done at neighbourhood level because there are great tensions in the neighbourhoods. And this is not only between Turkish and Kurdish, but also between Alevis and religionist Sunnites. As we have talked about previously, it exists between women. You see it exists between the young ones and elders. We are living in a society in which people only interact through hatred or market. Yet, it is needed to increase the number of domains of interaction, and to democratise them. I mean these kinds of organisations are needed to be provided, since those already exist in the program of HDP, I identify myself as a supporter of HDP.

Universal values of a political party reorganise the party. HDP should both reorganise Kurds and urban seculars

In your more recent article, you have discussed that the peace process negotiations naturalise male dominance in the public realm. Is it originated from Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi’s (Justice and Development Party) (AKP) common paternalistic behaviour or are there any other underlying reasons?

For instance there is an issue of having a grasp of secrets, I mean there is a set of secrets, there are the ones who have a grasp of those and the ones who do not have a grasp of those. Generally those are women, who are away from those secrets. I mean virility is built through secrets. On the other hand, the issue of sovereigns sitting around the table, by saying sovereigns I mean, dignitaries sitting around tables, those dignitaries talking about a set of issues and society is completely unaware… Those empower specific virility types anyway. Hence, in the wake of the peace experiences since nineties, United Nations remarks that peace processes, which do not involve women participation, are considered unsuccessful. Because, societies are democratised and become socialised as long as women sit around those table. For instance last year, in Colombia, two women sat around the table, one of them stems from human rights movements, and the other stems from woman movements. So that social problems could be too spoken about around the table.  I care about the presence of Ceylan Bağrıyanık and Pervin Buldan around the table but beyond this, presence of more woman, women from human rights movements, women from Turkish Feminist Movement and perspicuously relaying information to public about what is being talked around those tables, talking about woman issues, talking about what has been happening to women during this war, will further socialise and deepen the peace processes.


The participation of women on peace processes makes these processes more socialised and more profound

So do you think one of the reasons that let ‘Peace Process’ prolong so much is the lack of women participation?

I do not think Peace Process is stretched that much. I interpret this issue differently. Peace processes are long processes by nature and they do not get solved in short term. For instance, if we were to provide a ‘democratic autonomy’ tomorrow, the peace process in Kurdistan would not be over. That is to say, we are talking about changing the system and securing a new contract. We are talking about people relating with each other more democratically. Therefore in my opinion peace process is a very long process.

Let’s talk a little bit about domestic politics, what do you think about the so-called ‘domestic security bill’ that AKP’s representatives did not hesitate using force in order to pass it through parliament? And how does this violence reflect on general public? Does this bill carry a threat for the peace process as well? If so, what sort of threat does it pose?

Apparently, this is a civil war bill. I mean, it is the legalisation of the state waging a war against its people and dissenters by using the police force. I do not see any gray areas on this bill. I think it should be defined this way. For the purpose of estranging people to political issues, at the very same period that peace and democratisation process allowed people to express politically and socially, this is a huge obstacle. So I consider this as a civil war act.

It is the legalisation of the state waging a war against its people and dissenters by using the police force

Alright, one of the founders of the association called ‘Genç Siviller’ (Young Civilians) Turgay Oğur recently posted a tweet so as to express his regret saying ‘I supported this administration; I deserve to be caged and exposed like monkeys.’ In this regard, after which incident has your belief towards AKP faded away?

What do you mean ‘your belief towards AKP’?!

I mean if we say that it came to power for democratic purposes, after that, please let me finish, in this regard do you think that intellectuals and opinion leaders should deliver a self-criticism before rerouting the public or accept their miscalculations?

I think AKP accomplished a significant mission which was to push some oppressed communities up to social and political stage. They never were a party that could accomplish more. AKP defines itself as conservative and neoliberal in first place. I was against all their economic policies right from the beginning. I considered it as a neoliberal party and in that sense restrictive about people’s opportunities and freedom. But in a certain conjuncture they responded to some social fractions’ aspiration to be a part of the history. In that sense I think they were successful. They brought down hierarchic orders that Kemalism and CHP constructed. Yes they developed some new hierarchies and they should be fought against. I suppose there is one common mistake here that intellectuals should respond to and we criticised all along which is intellectuals’ investment on a ‘restoration of government’ project. They supported AKP as long as they changed governmental structure which signified this restoration. However we defend the liberation of the society, not the restoration of the government. We want the government to be abolished, not to be reconstructed. That is to say degrading it to certain functions and making it lose its power and enchantment. So that it gets down to its felonies. That is why I segregate myself from those intellectuals. But I think what they have to face and self-criticise is not their misunderstanding of how Islamist and fascist AKP is, but their constant investment and trust on restoration of the government. They must deliver an self-criticism on this issue.

In Turkey, intellectuals always relied on a ‘restoration of government’ project but we defend the liberation of the society

I would like to ask about the ‘Gezi Parkı Movement’ for a while. We have seen in Gezi that different social formations, hand in hand, resisting AKP policies and police violence. On the other hand, opposition parties issued statements saying they learnt a lot from this movement and they comprehended people’s demands. Can we really say that they understood the message of unity and fraternity risen from Gezi, and that they could internalise it? And in the case of this internalisation should we expect an electoral alliance? Or how effective Gezi Protests are for the opposition in long term?

I think it boosted confidence of some social fractions. It developed different protest insightfulness. It created a contact between different social fractions. It was historical. It carries a very high importance. But I think breaking it down to a political message is problematic. Gezi was beyond any political message. I think October Incidents (Ekim Olayları) were also something like this. That means it must not be reduced to a political message. It surpasses every single political message. It is a demonstration of an alternative. They are executions beyond politics, beyond everything that we conceive as political. About this alliance case, an alliance is strictly related to reciprocity and the conjuncture of the time. It is not about reflections of Gezi or understanding Gezi or not. As I said, Gezi could not be reduced to a message. I think the same for Kobane Protests.

Gezi could not be reduced to a political message. Gezi was beyond any political message. It was a demonstration of an alternative

You examined the transformation of Turkish health care system over your researches on Turkish and European health care policies. Can you tell us about the changes that you noticed on the Turkish health care system during the course of AKP administration?

As I said at a certain time, yes I wrote about that. For instance the hierarchical order in Turkish security system; that associates of Retirement Board (Emekli Sandığı) takes more, ones from Social Security Institution (Sosyal Sigortalar Kurumu) has less advantage etc… I find the fact that they are non-existent now wonderful. This was supposed to be repealed. This was terrific. But on the other hand, to be leaned on… I mean general health insurance, the health being business oriented that I wanted to say, how should I say… ‘sponsor’??

To be financed…

Not to be financed and the continuation of the previous system which is paid for as well as the privatisation of the public hospitals… These are horrible things and it will get worse. We defended that it should be financed with taxes but alongside the abolition of the hierarchy between associations. Indeed, ‘transformation of health care system’ that AKP initiated is the implementation of the World Bank’s suggestions for driving economies, particularly health care economy, into a neoliberal policy. So, there is nothing much to say about it.

Lastly, to not exhaust you more, I have a couple of foreign policy questions. First off, how do you see the process that started with Arab Spring? Considering the current status of Middle East and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), can you tell us about the Peace Process’ importance regarding Turkish and Kurdish people’s existence on the territory?

I care about Arab Spring a lot. I care about the Arab society’s and local Middle Eastern groups’ demand for democracy and freedom and their activism. But of course unfortunately, like all the other social events, if there is insufficient coordination between groups and no necessary infrastructure, regardless of preoccupations and intentions, they inevitably get into relations of power. We have seen this on Arab Spring several times. Unfortunately enough Turkey has a massive role of getting them into these political games. But I take heed of this. I do not think it is going to remain this way. There is a great deal of energy revealed in Middle East towards determining its own future and a desire to be free. ISIS is an organisation that turned this reality; let’s say reality, into malice. For example, think about the energy in Europe revealed in 1920s and 1930s, at one side, had been turned into a movement of freedom by Communism but eventually taken over by Nazis and turned into malice. I think there is a very similar pattern which means that reality is shown up in Middle East. And it is revolting against Europe, against colonialism, against fascism, against dictatorships but it is taken over by the ISIS because they were better organised. They were able to coordinate in Iraq and turned it into malignity. Kurdish Freedom Movement defends another alternative. It defends a democratic autonomy, it defends the liberation of women, and it defines itself over this reality. These two came onto the scene as two clashing rivals. In my opinion, you cannot interpret them separately from the Peace Process. So, the Peace Process plays a very important role for Kurdish Freedom Movement to show its global demands and show that these demands are essential choices for all the Middle East. And of course to count in all the other nations like Turkish, Armenian, Assyrian etc. both Rojava and the Peace Process are too important. These, I must say, are strictly related with each other.

I care about Arab Spring a lot. There is a great deal of energy revealed in Middle East towards determining its own future and to be free

Considering the Peace Process, what are your thoughts about Turkish foreign policy with respect to Kobane events?

It is complicated. Obviously, they played their cards on ISIS. They thought Kobane was going to be occupied. I think their relation with ISIS is tactical rather than strategic. That specifies an alliance against Kurds. Because Turkey was investing on other groups like El-Nusra and Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS was closer to Saudi Arabia and El-Nusra was closer to Turkey. And we saw that they came to blows when Mursi was in charge. So I think there is a tactical alliance but Turkey paid the price for it and will continue to do so. Kobane is, suffice it to say, a victory of Kurdish Freedom Movement and this movement surrounded Turkey by completely different sides. Of course this is one of the reasons that negotiations are still on. So I see it as a positive engagement. It is much better to have these negotiations on, to have this reality, to have an open discussion and to see that different global standards are competing with each other fair and square, than have these negotiations with no transparency whatsoever.

So do you think a NATO intervention against ISIS is possible?

 I do not know but I prefer not.


I mean, as a matter of fact, ISIS is the consequence of NATO’s or NATO forces’ damaging and direct intervention. If there happens to be another one, there will be more damage and more vicious groups like ISIS. Solution is hidden in Middle East’s own establishments. This could lead to its own establishments. This might be the way Europe should follow. Otherwise, European countries’ effort to run Middle East with their intelligence services, with their military power or with economic sanctions is one of the things that created ISIS.

“I find it much better to be able to discuss this negotiation and to see that different global standards are competing with each other fair and square”

Final question; I want to ask you if it is right to read the rise of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece as public’s opposition to neo liberalism. How do you interpret the support that Syriza has announced for HDP? How this could turn out in today’s politics?

Now, Syriza and… Of course I find it favourable. It is an important acquisition for the left that after all these years socialism, a socialism merged with radical democracy, has stood out as a choice in the world and in Europe. I think the problem in Greece and the one in Turkey are different from each other. Greece really had an economic crisis. Maybe Turkey will face a crisis of this sort but for now we cannot say such a thing. Turkey has an enormous ‘representation crisis.’ Turkey has discriminations, conflicts, civil wars… They all exist. That is why I think it is different from Greece. Nevertheless; Turkey should observe these changes, learn from Syriza experience and instruct the Syriza experience. But in the meantime Turkey must not forget that this is a transit country in the Middle Eastern territory, this is a part of the Middle East and our problems are different than the ones that Syriza is a solution for.

So do you think Syriza’s support to HDP will be a contribution to current political environment?

I do not think so. These things do not produce much impact in Turkey.

Thank you for your time.



© 2015 Research Turkey. All rights reserved. This publication cannot be printed, reproduced, or copied without referencing the original source.

Please cite this publication as follows:

Research Turkey (May, 2015), “Interview with Dr. Nazan Üstündağ: Major Social Problems in Today’s Turkey (Part II): Peoples’ Democratic Party’s Challenge in Forthcoming Elections and the Impact of Kurdish Movement’s Universal Discourse on the Liberation of the Middle East”,Vol. IV, Issue 5, pp.19-33, Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey), London, ResearchTurkey. (



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