Liberal Intellectuals and Human Rights in the Turkish Public Sphere : Contestation and Pragmatism from the 1990s to the AKP-era

Abstract: This dissertation examines the public interventions, rhetoric, and actions of liberal intellectuals in Turkey between the early 1990sand 2012 regarding the rights of Kurdish and Islamic actors and restrictions on discussing the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Theanalysis of diverse texts published by the interconnected intellectuals – newspaper columns, academic articles, policy papers,reports, and manifestos – and the institutions they used shows how an effective counter-public could take shape in relation to thestate and to dominant publics. The interviews conducted with individual liberal intellectuals demonstrate the broader narratives ofTurkey’s past and future that structured their historical orientation and their choice of action and platforms. The liberalintellectuals’ narrative and how they construed the central sociopolitical dynamics illuminate why they endorsed the Islamicgovernmental party AKP. Concerning the Kurdish conflict, the liberal intellectuals tried to create spaces beyond both Turkish andKurdish nationalism while promoting the claim that the Kurdish issue should be solved within the framework of Turkishcitizenship. Regarding the Armenian Genocide, the liberal intellectuals took significant steps to establish the genocide as a Turkishcultural trauma in order to rewrite the foundational narrative of Turkey. For the liberal intellectuals these themes were part ofcommon broader objectives: to open up the space for free deliberation, to advance meanings not conforming to state ideology, andto enable new public formations. Although most of these actions did not occur with an explicit reference to human rights, theactivities of the discursive community of liberal intellectuals are analyzed as a form of human rights claiming, based on the politicaltheory of Claude Lefort who construes human rights as the generative principle of democracy and places political action andcontestation of power at the center of the definition of human rights. Using concepts and perspectives from the disciplines ofhistory, cultural sociology, and political theory, a way to study human rights claiming in concrete empirical contexts is developedthat is not limited to the explicit language of human rights. The term ‘infrastructure of human rights claiming’ is proposed todenote the variety of institutions that enable rights and identity claims to be made. The critique of the Turkish political structureand its historical roots, the rendering visible of suppressed cultural identities and historic events, and the active participation ofcitizens in the discussion of all three themes were for the discursive community of liberal intellectuals ways to challenge the rightsof the state and upend official state ideology and are thus human rights claims.Six central tensions are discussed that run throughthe liberal intellectuals’ engagement and how these can be generalized as intrinsic ambiguities in the politics of human rightsclaiming. Normalization was a central term in the liberals’ rhetoric and was also a process they contributed to. While theovercoming of nationalism was a primary objective they also sought to reformulate the nation. They tried to advance the rights ofothers but were simultaneously critical of identity politics. They wavered between basing their actions on the principle of rightsand a pragmatic approach to advance their agenda. The fostering of pluralism was a principal concern but they were also wary ofengaging with actors they perceived as non-democratic. The liberals saw themselves as mediators between different communitiesbut also sought to advance their own political vision. I conclude that the public sphere can be construed as a central site as well asobject of the politics of human rights. The dissertation is intended as a contribution to both Human Rights Studies and tointerdisciplinary Turkish Studies.

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