BELFAST – When you stroll down the streets of this city, you see how painful and enduring an ethnic conflict can be. Despite the recent peace process, which brought an end to the decades-old war between Catholics and Protestants, the bitterness is still very much alive. There are “peace walls” in around 80 different spots of Belfast, which divide the neighbors who abhor each other simply for who each other are. In order to avoid the stones thrown off the walls, some houses are protected with barbed wires.
Much can be read from the murals on the walls. In a Protestant neighborhood, these eye-catching paintings tell how horrible the Catholics, and even Catholicism itself, is. “There will be no peace in Ireland,” Oliver Cromwell reportedly once said, “until the Catholic Church is crushed.” What is shivering is that this historical quote from the 17th century is very much relevant to our day in the minds of the radical Protestants of North Ireland.
Turkishess vs Kurdishness?
The mood is not too different on the other side of the wall. Catholic neighborhoods are full of murals that denounce “British imperialism” or plates that honor their brethren who were killed by British bullets. My taxi driver, whose Catholicism is as unmistakable as his strong Ulster accent, tells me how “those Protestant killers” tormented his community for decades.
Sometimes people, especially secularists, interpret the case of Northern Ireland as a “religious conflict” — a relic from the pre-Enlightenment age where religion mattered too much. But actually it is a secular conflict in which the apparently religious identity is in fact an ethnic one. A famous joke summarizes it all: Somebody in North Ireland responds to a survey question about religious affiliation by declaring himself an atheist. “Would that be a Protestant atheist,” comes the insistent reply, “or a Catholic atheist?” It is really ethnicity that divides here, not theology.
Much more needs to be said about North Ireland, to be sure, but I will just focus on what is relevant for Turkey. The drama in the former case points to a very important lesson: Ethnic conflict can well arise in a modern and wealthy nation. This is crucial, because for decades, the Turkish intelligentsia, especially the political left, argued that the problem in Turkey’s Southeast was that the region was not modernized and developed enough. The terrorism of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, they argued, was a result of the pre-modern “feudal” social structure of the Kurdish populace.
But the truth was quite the opposite. In fact the PKK was, and still is, a very “modern” organization. It is actually a revolt against not just the Turkish state, but also the Kurdish tradition. The recent news story on CNN International by reporter Arwa Damon, which has caused great uproar in the Turkish media saying it whitewashes the PKK, is actually right on the mark: This terrorist group is also a “progressive” one, which claims to “liberate women” and transform the society. Yet, of course, while it is “liberating” women from the male-dominated Kurdish culture, it is turning them into apparatchiks of a rigid ideology. Traditional obedience out; modern servitude in.
Which brings us to a sobering fact: Modernity is not always a good thing. All totalitarians, from Hitler to Stalin, were modernizers. So even are most radical Islamists: They use modern means to achieve a modern political program. And, of course, all nationalists are a part of modernity. Nationalism is actually a product of modernity itself. Until the 19th century, the most important identity for most people, was religion. In Turkish lands, for example, the question “Who are you?” would be given a common answer: “Thank God, I am a Muslim.” With modernity came Turkishness and Kurdishness, and the conflict between them.
No Easy Way Out
What this means is that Turkey will not be able to solve its Kurdish question by simply modernizing itself. Better infrastructure or “education” in the Southeast are good goals in themselves, but they will not resolve the ethnic problem. The PKK was founded by university graduates who became more ethnically conscious precisely thanks to that education. While their fathers were calling themselves “Muslims” first, they started to call themselves “Kurds” and “revolutionaries.”
This also means that the Kurdish question will be the most fatal one for Turkey in the next few decades. The secularist-Islamic divide, the other main axis in this country, will be softened by the advancement of modernity: Conservative Muslims are actually becoming more and more like the secularists in the way they live. (Even their ways of corruption are becoming very similar.) But the ethnic consciousness in society is rising in a very dangerous way. After every act of terrorism by the PKK, Kurdish neighborhoods in big cities become targets of rage. Thank God nothing horrible has happened yet. But it might, and the PKK is deliberately provoking it.
In the past, right-wing hotheads in Turkish streets could be rallied only against the “infidels” — which could include the unorthodox Alevis too. But now, Kurds are becoming the main targets. For that they are not fellow Muslims anymore; they are a distinct ethnic group.
The only way out of this dilemma can be to retain the good aspects of tradition, such as the sense of Muslim fraternity, while embracing the good aspects of modernity, such as liberal democracy. Whether Turkey will be able to that is the million-dollar question.