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

Andrea Karlsson

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)


This dissertation examines the public interventions, rhetoric, and actions of liberal intellectuals in Turkey between the early 1990s
and 2012 regarding the rights of Kurdish and Islamic actors and restrictions on discussing the Armenian Genocide of 1915. The
analysis 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 the
state and to dominant publics. The interviews conducted with individual liberal intellectuals demonstrate the broader narratives of
Turkey’s past and future that structured their historical orientation and their choice of action and platforms. The liberal
intellectuals’ narrative and how they construed the central sociopolitical dynamics illuminate why they endorsed the Islamic
governmental party AKP. Concerning the Kurdish conflict, the liberal intellectuals tried to create spaces beyond both Turkish and
Kurdish nationalism while promoting the claim that the Kurdish issue should be solved within the framework of Turkish
citizenship. Regarding the Armenian Genocide, the liberal intellectuals took significant steps to establish the genocide as a Turkish
cultural trauma in order to rewrite the foundational narrative of Turkey. For the liberal intellectuals these themes were part of
common broader objectives: to open up the space for free deliberation, to advance meanings not conforming to state ideology, and
to enable new public formations. Although most of these actions did not occur with an explicit reference to human rights, the
activities of the discursive community of liberal intellectuals are analyzed as a form of human rights claiming, based on the political
theory of Claude Lefort who construes human rights as the generative principle of democracy and places political action and
contestation of power at the center of the definition of human rights. Using concepts and perspectives from the disciplines of
history, cultural sociology, and political theory, a way to study human rights claiming in concrete empirical contexts is developed
that is not limited to the explicit language of human rights. The term ‘infrastructure of human rights claiming’ is proposed to
denote the variety of institutions that enable rights and identity claims to be made. The critique of the Turkish political structure
and its historical roots, the rendering visible of suppressed cultural identities and historic events, and the active participation of
citizens in the discussion of all three themes were for the discursive community of liberal intellectuals ways to challenge the rights
of the state and upend official state ideology and are thus human rights claims.
Six central tensions are discussed that run through
the liberal intellectuals’ engagement and how these can be generalized as intrinsic ambiguities in the politics of human rights
claiming. Normalization was a central term in the liberals’ rhetoric and was also a process they contributed to. While the
overcoming of nationalism was a primary objective they also sought to reformulate the nation. They tried to advance the rights of
others but were simultaneously critical of identity politics. They wavered between basing their actions on the principle of rights
and a pragmatic approach to advance their agenda. The fostering of pluralism was a principal concern but they were also wary of
engaging with actors they perceived as non-democratic. The liberals saw themselves as mediators between different communities
but also sought to advance their own political vision. I conclude that the public sphere can be construed as a central site as well as
object of the politics of human rights. The dissertation is intended as a contribution to both Human Rights Studies and to
interdisciplinary Turkish Studies.
Translated title of the contributionLiberala intellektuella och mänskliga rättigheter i den turkiska offentligheten
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • History
  • Halldenius, Lena, Supervisor
  • Raudvere, Catharina, Supervisor
Place of PublicationLund
ISBN (Print)978-91-88473-42-4
Publication statusPublished - 2017 May 29

Bibliographical note

Defence details
Date: 2017-09-15
Time: 10:15
Place: C126, LUX, Helgonavägen 3, Lund
External reviewer(s)
Name: Levin, Paul
Title: PhD
Affiliation: Stockholms universitet

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Humanities

Free keywords

  • Turkey; intellectuals; human rights; rights claiming; rights claims; liberal; AKP; secularism; Armenian Genocide; Kurdish conflict; cultural trauma; nationalism; Claude Lefort; democracy; discursive community; nationalism


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