Reconciliation studies addresses the significance of localizing reconciliation based on the social and political cultures of societies experiencing conflict. Both the concept and process of reconciliation deal with multi-layered themes: forgiveness, remorse, empathy, healing, closure, and dehumanization, among others. These themes do not have fixed meanings, are highly contextual, and can be assigned different meanings by people from different cultures. Social psychology and theology provide frameworks to ponder all these themes, with the understanding these themes can differ according to the case in question.
In Turkey, main opposition Republican Peoples’ Party (CHP) leader and presidential candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu called for helalleşme in November 2021. Kilicdaroglu lost to incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the second round of presidential elections in May. While helalleşme is a local term relevant to forgiveness and reconciliation, Kılıçdaroğlu cited it in the context of conflict. In his speech, he underlined the state’s responsibility for victimizing Kurds, Armenians, Alevis, and Greeks and added, “it is time for helalleşme“. This speech, as well as Kılıçdaroğlu’s subsequent visits to different victim groups, instigated a discussion regarding confronting the past. This was not the first time a political leader explicitly referred to the local term helalleşme in the context of political violence, although it was surprising for the leader of the secular CHP to use a term with Islamic connotations. Previously, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan also vowed to confront the wrongdoing of previous governments using this term. In 2023, he used it in the context of the recent devastating earthquake in southeastern Turkey.
The discussions surrounding these developments show that there is a need to discuss the term helalleşme in the political context. Its meaning remains blurry and civil society actors have serious concerns about the concept from a human rights perspective. This analysis aims to contribute to these discussions through a discussion that will clarify some of the conceptual confusion. To do so, it will interpret the Turkish term helalleşme through a reconciliation lens by using the recent call for helalleşme by Kılıçdaroğlu as a case.
Why Kilicdaroglu’s Call for HelalLeşme Matters
Kılıçdaroğlu’s call for helalleşme caught people’s attention for three reasons: the religious connotations of the word; the debate over whether this was a genuine call or an empty electoral promise; and the question of what helalleşme means in the context of conflict in Turkey—confrontation or reconciliation through forgiveness. To better understand these issues, it is worth looking at the verb helalleşmek itself. Its dictionary meaning is ‘to write off each other’s debts.’ However, its application is rather vague when it used in the context of conflict. One interpretation is based on its Islamic root, whereby helalleşme means forgiving as rightfully due: one side of the conflict forfeits its right and the other is forgiven through an amnesty or compensation. It is also interpreted as making amends, shaking hands, and forgiving one another.
The religious meaning of helalleşmek is perceived positively and negatively by different observers. A positive reading would argue that a localized term like this one has more potential to resonate with the public. It could create connections between people’s experiences of forgiveness in daily life and forgiveness in the context of conflict, particularly for those not familiar with the jargon of reconciliation and transitional justice. In her discussion of the actors of helalleşme, Fahrioğlu stresses that informal dispute resolution practices are part of Kurdish culture and that those who are considered wise persons often use Islamic references to mediate micro-conflicts on the ground. Moreover, as Yıldız explains, both Turks and Kurds use the concept of helalleşme in their lives—whether they are familiar with its Islamic interpretation or not.
Critics of the concept argue that helalleşme was not welcomed in the context of the Christian minority groups. Yayloyan argues that, for Armenians, helalleşme has an elusive connotation and is seen to be a concept unaccompanied by tangible efforts—echoing Erdoğan’s announcement of helalleşme in 2013.
The second reason that Kılıçdaroğlu’s call for helalleşme received public attention is related to previous failed attempts—including those Yayloyan discussed in the Armenian context. The AKP government initiated many initiatives related to minority rights referred to as ‘openings,’ including the “Roma Opening”, “Alevi Opening”, “Armenian Opening”, and “Kurdish Opening”. Although the AKP government attempted several reforms during its EU candidacy process, it is now safe to say that these projects barely achieved their mandates and did not amend minority groups’ conditions in Turkey. In light of these previous unsuccessful projects and the negative reputation of political parties, the sincerity of Kılıçdaroğlu’s call was questioned.
The third reason for public discussion, which this analysis will emphasize, relates to the application/perception of helalleşme in the context of conflict. Experts, including columnists, practitioners, and researchers, attempted to understand the context for Kılıçdaroğlu’s use of the term helalleşme – did he mean reconciliation, confrontation, or transitional justice? There was also confusion regarding these terms. In Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech itself, the content of helalleşme was unclear. Was he using helalleşme to refer to a concept otherwise known as transitional justice, given that he referred separately to the rule of law in the same speech? In another pre-election speech,, Kılıçdaroğlu stressed that “helalleşme is making peace, at the same time”.
It is difficult to gauge exactly what the political leader meant. The debate over this matter remains open. However, one point of certainty in the discussion is that Kilicdaroglu’s audiences were the victims of different atrocities. Thus, there is a need to discuss how helalleşme can be understood in conflict contexts and to what extent the concept can contribute to peacebuilding. Helalleşme is traditionally used for micro-conflicts. Its application to macro-conflicts is slightly new. Its meaning is open to interpretation by relevant actors. Thus, making sense of the term is an ongoing and open process.
Considering these shortcomings, I argue that helalleşme in political settings should be conceptually framed, rather than defined. It might not be productive to define the concept of helalleşme and thereby make it fixed—rather than allowing it to be a dynamic concept based on local people’s opinions. Martin Leiner elaborates that societies need to find their own methods to live together by re-establishing better, or at least “normal,” relationships. Reconciliation is a long process, but the confusion around it is partially due to the limited engagement with reconciliation and transitional justice in the Kurdish conflict. This gap indicates a need for a conceptual discussion.
Helalleşme as One Initiative in a Multi-layered Reconciliation Process
I understand helalleşme through the field of reconciliation by considering its relevance to forgiveness and making amends. To do this, I apply du Toit’s three typologies for understanding reconciliation as a holistic framework: 1) the forgiving embrace; 2) the rule of law; and 3) valuing political differences. Perceiving reconciliation as a holistic and long-lasting process, I categorize helalleşme as a local term relevant to the forgiving embrace. In du Toit’s theory, the forgiving embrace is one category with which to understand reconciliation that contains cultural and theological aspects. Its goal is social reconstruction and, eventually, rebuilding a moral community. Since helalleşme is a ritual grounded in a religion that Turks and Kurds apply throughout their lives, it can be a suitable way to foster forgiveness and healing. It is a common concept with which both conflicted sides are familiar and which might encourage people to rebuild a shared moral community. Indeed, Turks and Kurds’ shared culture and history can be the resources for working for reconciliation in the context of the Kurdish conflict.
When the concept of helalleşme is framed as cultural and theological reconciliation, political and legal aspects of reconciliation cannot and should not be excluded. The initial uneasy reaction of victims and human rights organizations to the call for helalleşme was because it does not incorporate aspects of political reconciliation and the rule of law.
The history of the AKP government’s alleged reconciliatory initiatives made this particularly salient. After analyzing all the AKP’s such attempts, including the Dersim Apology, the JİTEM trials, and openings/amendments, Bakıner proposed the term “majoritarian conservatism” to describe “promoting uncritical and conservative-nationalist interpretations of the past that have popular appeal to ensure ongoing political support and boost a particular conception of collective belonging, while enforcing silence on some or all critical historiographies that might challenge this hegemonic memory and identity project.” Endorsing Bakıner, it is unsurprising that these initiatives, which were allegedly set up to deal with the past, ultimately failed and disappointed victims and minority groups in Turkey.
I argue that a holistic approach to reconciliation requires all three categorizations of du Toit’s approach, which links these three typologies: the forgiving embrace, the rule of law and the valuing of political differences. These three typologies are interdependent according to du Toit’s conceptual framework. Given that du Toit built this framework based on his knowledge and experience of the South African reconciliation process, his argument is particularly relevant to Turkey. The forgiving embrace in which cultural and religious resources for reconciliation are held—hereby helalleşme—is not enough without legal accountability and a new, pluralistic, democratic state and society. This interdependent link is always missing when political leaders, whether from the opposition or ruling party, cite helalleşme. In fact, building a moral community requires the opening of the public space that has been destroyed or shrunk by political violence against marginalized groups like Kurds, Alevis and Armenians in Turkey. In this context, cultural and religious forms of reconciliation can play a significant role as a component of overall social reconstuction.
Prospects for a Reconciliation Process with Social Reconstruction and Legal Accountability in Turkey
Cultural and theological pillars of reconciliation are as necessary for reconciliation as the rule of law and political reconciliation. A local practice like helalleşme can be a starting point for figuring out how Turkey might rebuild a moral community through forgiveness and empathy. In post-conflict societies, community-based practices are used in transitional justice and reconciliation processes. Local practices promise greater legitimacy and ownership while the previous apparatus can be deconstructed. In Sierra Leone, the practice based on the ritual of Fambul Tok filled a vital gap in restorative justice alongside the country’s truth commission. There is undoubtedly a long way to go to shape helalleşme as a concrete project in the context of reconciliation. As Bor argues, victims and civil society actors should have a pioneering role in driving such a process and the power to shape practices. As Alıcı argues, Turkey must discover its concepts and methods by asking victims what they demand and need rather than applying imported or instant methods. Helalleşme can have more positive meaning in a reconciliation process amidst the conflict if the political actors in Turkey take the risk of politics in the sense of Schaap’s interpretation: to embrace and accept contested politics and open the public sphere for the oppressed and marginalized segments of society, and to find a way to do this opening without alienating people from their culture.
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