Behind Turkey's Kurdish Problem

  • Share
  • Read Later
STR / AFP / Getty

Turkish protestors in Istanbul demonstrate against Kurdish rebels.

For as long as I can remember, I have been taught — in school, on TV, by taxi drivers — that Turkey has "red lines" that cannot be crossed, sacrosanct rules dictating foreign policy that have been passed down through generations as if written in stone. At their anxious heart, these rules are the legacy of the 1920s, when — following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire — Europeans were trying to carve up the country. But a ragtag bunch of Turkish volunteers, poorly armed, famously surviving on a slice of stale bread a day, rallied under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to fight a war of independence. Against tremendous odds, they won, and from their struggle, modern Turkey was born. But the paranoia of having almost been conquered runs strong — gut-wrenchingly strong, summed up in the popular saying "A Turk has no friend but the Turks." The world, if you ask a Turk, is out to get us, and our challenge is to remain steadfast against enemies real and imagined. Hence the red lines on everything from vigilant secularism to Kurdish autonomy.

And since 2003, we have watched one of those red lines draw perilously closer, as a semi-autonomous Kurdish statelet emerged from the wreckage of Iraq, right on our doorstep. The Iraqi Kurds have their own flag, their own language, and a parliament. Kurds from the diaspora have come to staff universities, developing a national language, literature and music. Their political leaders are working to consolidate their gains by laying claim to the oil-rich northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. Nation-building is in progress. From the outside, it looks like, well, a Kurdistan.

And a Kurdistan is a major red line for Turkey. Even the word is taboo. The fear — according to conventional wisdom — is that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan will encourage Turkey's own Kurds to secede, and take with them chunks of the territory so painstakingly saved by Ataturk from European dismemberment. To understand the depth of this fear, it is worth noting that we are often told that the Turkish flag is bright red to forever remind us of the blood that was shed to create this country. Nationalism, and its attendant paranoia, runs deep.

But a policy built on fear simply engenders more fear. For many decades, Turkey even denied the existence of the Kurds. They were Turkish mountain people, ran one official line, called Kurds because their shoes made the sound "Kart, Kurt" while walking in the snow. Kurds could become prominent businessmen, even Prime Minister, but their ethnicity could never be mentioned. Several Kurdish uprisings were violently stamped out, and southeastern Turkey, home to a majority Kurdish population, was left to stagnate. The emergence of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in the '80s made the area a no-go war zone. Today, its inhabitants, the majority of whom identify themselves as Turkish citizens, are substantially poorer, less educated and more unemployed than any other part of the country. To travel from cosmopolitan Istanbul (chosen as Hippest City of the Year by the trendy design magazine Wallpaper) to Diyarbakir, regional capital of southeast Turkey, is to go from the industrialized West to the Third World. Gleaming skyscrapers give way to mud shacks and shantytowns in just two hours of flying.

For more than two decades, Turkey has viewed the Kurdish question simply as one of fighting the terrorism of the PKK. And because other countries have occasionally backed the PKK, many Turks say, this proves that nobody wants to see a strong Turkey emerge as a regional superpower. Even if that were true, the fact remains that Turkey is home to 17 million Kurds, many of whom don't support the PKK, but whose grievances have become an international problem.

Ankara now has two choices: guns — which have never managed to eliminate Kurdish rebellion — or else a bold new policy designed to address Kurdish grievances, encourage economic growth in the region and move forward. Not just a token law allowing one hour of Kurdish language TV and radio broadcast a day (as was passed three years ago). Real, comprehensive reform. With a majority of the population behind him (47% of the vote) and a small group of Kurdish MPs in parliament for the first time in a decade, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan — who has spoken of the need for strong action against the PKK to be accompanied by a political solution to the Kurdish issue — could theoretically break new ground. But to do so would pit him against the military, which sees itself as the custodian of Ataturk's achievement and is used to calling the shots on the Kurdish issue. And the generals' wrath can certainly be fearsome. But for the rest of us, tackling the political dimension of the issue might just mean one less torturous "red line" to hand down to our children. And that would open up a whole lot of unimagined new space.