[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News, with readers’ comments]
Let me give you a rule of thumb about Turkey: If you want to focus on the deadliest conflict in this country, forget the tension between the conservatives and the secularists. Dismiss the culture war between those who define themselves “Muslim first” and “Kemalist first.” For all those “central” issues are trivia when compared to the most lethal trouble in this country: the Kurdish question.
That is the case, for, despite all the political tension and the cultural brouhaha, the Islam versus hyper-secularism confrontation in Turkey is a peaceful one, fought via elections, civil society, and the media. But the confrontation between the Turkish state and the Kurds, who make some 15 percent of the population, is a very bloody one. More than two dozen Kurdish rebellions took place in the past eight decades, most of which were suppressed brutally. The latest rebellion, the one led by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, a terrorist group, has claimed more than 40,000 lives. This is a death toll, which is at least ten times more than that of the war between the IRA and the British government.
The closed ‘opening’
The worse news is that the conflict doesn’t seem to come to an end, as most of us hoped in the past few years. The conflict rather escalated once more in the past few weeks, with attacks either by Turkish security forces on the Kurdish guerillas or by the latter on Turkish targets, including the convoy of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. About 42 are reported dead in these incidents, including several policemen. The latest victims are 12 guerillas of the PKK, which were mourned in southeastern Turkey as fallen heroes. In the rest of the country, though, they are vilified as ruthless terrorists who deserved to be killed.
And that amazing gap between perceptions is the core of the problem: The Kurds, especially the more nationalist ones who sympathize with PKK, and the rest of Turkey are living totally separate worlds. The nationalist Kurds see themselves as an oppressed people who deserve the broadest cultural autonomy and some form of self-rule. They want something like the regional government Iraqi Kurdistan, in which PKK guerillas will become legitimate security forces. The majority of Turks, however, see these demands as outrageous attempts to “divide” Turkey. Having been “educated” by an 80-year-old official dogma that every citizen of Turkey is a Turk, they just can’t understand why anybody would have a passion for any ethnic identity unless they are “traitors.”
Meanwhile, the problem on the Kurdish side is not just ethnic nationalism, but also the totalitarian ideology and the brutal methods of the PKK. Its jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, enjoys an intense cult of personality, and anybody who disagrees with his dictates can be “punished” with humiliation, torture and assassinations. The PKK is using the language of freedom, but theirs is not individual freedom but “people’s freedom,” which will give them the right to dominate.
Within this hopeless conundrum, the “democratic opening” that the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government announced some three years ago was a breath of fresh air. Most of us hoped that AKP would be able to solve the problem by granting more rights to the Kurds and disarming the PKK by offering some form of amnesty. Erdoğan indeed took a few steps in that direction, but the reaction he received from the Turkish majority was so overwhelming that he soon backed off. More recently, he even argued that, thanks to the steps he has taken, “there is no more a Kurdish question,” which was obviously more wishful thinking than factual analysis.
Is compassion enough?
Mesut Yeğen, an academic and an expert on the Kurdish issue, has some important observations on this matter. In an interview he gave to daily Star the other day, Yeğen said the Kurdish policy of the Turkish Republic has for long been based on two pillars: Forced assimilation into Turkishness, and oppression. He added that the AKP tried a different paradigm, by replacing “oppression” with “compassion,” and replacing “assimilation” with some form of “recognition.”
But this recognition, Yeğen adds, was too limited when compared to Kurdish demands. The PKK and its base do not want to be recognized as citizens who happen to be Kurdish, but as a “national community” within Turkey. Implications are education in the Kurdish language, regional autonomy, and “acceptance of the PKK as a political body.”
In the near future, Turks first need to understand these demands, and then discuss whether they are acceptable. They should also be told bluntly that if they find them unacceptable, then they might have to send more of their sons to the eastern front to fight a never-ending “war on terrorism.”
Here is the only good news: In the previous years, the AKP has been all too alone in its efforts to bring an “opening” to the Kurdish issue. Now the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, which is in an effort to redefine itself as a social democratic party, is saying things on this issue that sound considerably liberal. If the CHP sticks with that line after the elections, then the new Turkish parliament could be a good place to take bolder steps to end the war with the PKK. Otherwise, you can be sure that the eastern front will go less and less quiet.