Ece Temelkuran on Flirting with Stereotypes

Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?

The Kurdish stereotype in the minds of Turkish people would be a perfect example of how stereotyping might affect the public debate. "The brutal, backward, primitive, hostile Kurdish" in the minds of ordinary Turkish has been the strongest card in the hands of Turkish political authority in the game of building a nationalist Turkish state. It has been so since the establishment of the republic. The cliché has been repeatedly imposed on Turkish collective mind not only through nation building discourses but also through nationalist mainstream media. Especially after the Kurdish armed movement PKK came to the scene in 1980's, dehumanization of the Kurdish has been used to oppress the demands of equality and political representation of the Kurdish people. As an individual I remember very well that through my childhood during the news hours every night we were watching "the hunted" bodies of the "jackals" lying dead on the ground. They were "hunted" in their "holes". My generation who grew up in the dark days of the military coup happened in 1980, were forced to see the Kurdish as not only the enemy of the state but also sneaky animals. Well at least, we were better than the previous generation who genuinely believed that the Kurdish people had tails. My mother once told me that they were made to believe this outrageous lie so much so that when she saw a Kurdish woman for the first time she was checking her back to find out how she manages to hide her tail. Disgusting as it is.

How this stereotyping affected the public debate is another question. Two years ago, the Turkish government, almost all of a sudden and completely in an unprecedented way, declared a new policy towards Kurdish community. "The Kurdish opening" as it was called, meant to give the rights of political representation of the Kurdish people and bring along some fresh air of freedom. As I wrote those days in my column, it was very dangerous to do it without getting the Turkish psyche first. It was not hard at all to foresee what was to come: The riot of the stereotype! The Turkish public reacted to the "Kurdish opening" by saying that that would "spoil the jackals". After thirty years of depicting the Kurdish as the "traitors, jackals, animals, terrorists" all of a sudden the political authority asked them to see them not only as human beings but as their equals as well. That was too much to take all at once and the Turkish public regressed to their very fundamental self-protective instincts. So the long waited political project of freedom and equality for Kurds was let down by the government who would not dare to lose votes. After the fail of the project the rhetoric that reigns the public debate on the Kurdish issue at the moment is much more primitive than it was before the "Kurdish opening". This, I think, was the perfect example showing the strength of stereotype.

Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?

I can not tell much about the Chinese but for a Brazilian, as I know it from my personal experience in Brazil, the European is not really relevant to their daily life. They are living in another planet where the main attraction point is the US. To explain the constant political turmoil in Latin American countries they say "We are too close to the USA and too distant from god". As for the Nigerian I have a story to tell. Last August, I was following the Arab Spring in Tunisia. Meanwhile Libya was happening. So I took a trip to the Tunisia-Libya border where there were many refugee camps. Most of the camps were inhabited by the Libyans who ran away from the war. But there was one particular camp where there were no Libyans but only the Black Africans from many countries in Africa. Meanwhile Somalia was going through a crisis and the international media was busy with Somalis more than any other African countries, which actually were having their own crisis that were not less than Somalia's. Well, one should now that there is always a market for human crisis in the planet and one is always more "cool" than the others to be followed by international media. It was Somalia then. And even without Angelina Jolie or George Clooney supporting the cause. So in this camp known as the Shusha Camp, in South Tunisia 2 miles away from the Libya border, I met Nigerian refugees who happened to be there, in the middle of the desert for six months. They were extremely pissed off because the Somalis were the "trendy refugees" and that nobody was giving a damn about the Nigerians. So in their eyes Europeans were the "guys who determines the ratings the human crisis" and therefore deciding who is going to live and who won't. Just like in the film "Hotel Rwanda". Not a pretty mirror image for the Europeans, ah?