The war between the military and Kurdish insurgents is really a conflict over what it means to be a citizen of Turkey. That’s why there’s no end in sight to the bloodshed.
- By Steven A. CookSteven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the author of the upcoming book Thwarted Dreams: Violence and Authoritarianism in the New Middle East.
The war between the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is back, and it seems more ferocious than ever. Over the past six months, an estimated 500 civilians have been killed in fighting between Turkish security forces and the Kurdish insurgent group. In February and March, PKK suicide bombers struck at the heart of Turkey’s capital, killing a total of 67 people within steps of the prime ministry and in Ankara’s bustling Kizilay neighborhood. All the while, the Turkish military has laid siege to the towns of Cizre and Nusaybin, PKK strongholds in the southeast, razing apartment blocks and sending desperate civilians fleeing.
The intensification of fighting in the 30-year-old conflict may be explained by failed negotiations, electoral politics, the fragmentation of Syria, inter-Kurdish politics, and sheer stupidity. But the war, and the broader questions concerning the place for Kurds in Turkish society, was inevitable. That’s because this war is about competing notions of identity — a conflict between Turkishness and Kurdishness that could very well extend the bloodshed for 30 more years.
Turkey is never included among those states that observers often refer to as “artificial,” like Iraq, Syria, or Jordan, which were forged in the aftermath of World War I. It is, according to conventional accounts of the Middle East, “real,” like Egypt and Iran. But while Turkey may not owe its existence to colonial administrators in Paris and London, it was very much the product of someone’s imagination: Mustafa Kemal, known universally as Ataturk, or Father Turk. He forged an ethno-national state out of a piece of a multi-ethnic and multicultural empire where one had never existed.
For this state-building project to succeed, it was necessarily suffused with myths about Turkishness as an ethnic marker, the linkage between Turks and the land, and what it meant to be a Turk. Nothing captures this idea better than the student oath that Turkish children recited at the beginning of every school day for 80 years:
I am a Turk, honest and hardworking. My principle is to protect the younger, to respect the elder, to love my homeland and my nation more than myself. My ideal is to rise, to progress. O Great Atatürk! On the path that you have paved, I swear to walk incessantly toward the aims that you have set. My existence shall be dedicated to the Turkish existence. How happy is the one who says, I am a Turk!
The government abolished the practice in 2013 — likely for its reverence to Ataturk, about whom the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is decidedly ambivalent — but the fetishization of Turkishness continues, from the myths that Turks were the original inhabitants of Anatolia to the prickly nationalism of Turkey’s political class.
Ataturk and his collaborators also sought to reorient the values and allegiances of the citizens of the new republic. Instead of a Muslim community loyal to a political religious establishment that derived its authority and legitimacy from Islam, the people of Anatolia were to be Turks devoted to a nation and state in which the political class sought its legitimacy from its Turkishness and its adherence to progressive ideals and science.
Ataturk was stunningly successful, thus sealing his fate as one of the most important figures of the early 20th century. But “Turkish” identity and the set of ideas that he and his colleagues worked to embed in the minds of Turks — known as Kemalism — were never hegemonic. If they were, there would be no reason for the ubiquitous displays of Ataturk’s greatness and wisdom in the form of busts, posters, and epigrams in every town square, post office, and official building throughout the country.
Ataturk’s ideals have been embraced by many citizens of Turkey, but they risk writing two important groups out of the narrative of Turkey’s history: the traditionally religious, and the Kurds. For the break from the Ottoman Empire and the consolidation of the new Turkish Republic to be successful, Ataturk had to disestablish Islam. He took the historic step in 1924 of abolishing the Ottoman caliphate; he eliminated the office of the Sheikh al-Islam, a powerful position whose incumbent played an important role in education and religious affairs; and shut down the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Pious Foundations and religious schools. Sufi brotherhoods, known as tariqa, were outlawed, and their lodges closed. In 1928, Article 2 of the 1924 constitution, which identified Islam as the religion of the state, was deleted. Ataturk’s project of secularization ironically placed the state at the center of religion, from where it policed the public arena proscribing certain religious activities and beliefs while prescribing others.
Kemalism has also alienated Kurds, whose own identities are wrapped up in separate mythologies about language, land, and ethnicity, all of which the official narrative of the Turkish Republic denied. For some time, the official lexicon of the Turkish state did not even include “Kurds,” who were instead referred to as “mountain Turks.” Many Kurds are well integrated into Turkish political, social, economic, and cultural life – for instance, Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek is a Kurd. That there are people like Simsek in government is laudable, but there remains tension between what it means to be a Turk and what it means to be a Kurd.
The most obvious manifestation of this has been the war between the PKK and the Turkish state, which began in 1984. The PKK is an ethnic-based terrorist organization, whose leader Abdullah Ocalan’s reverence for Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Josef Stalin initially gave the conflict a kind of Cold War gloss. At its base, however, the fight is a struggle between two nationalisms, and the identities linked to them.
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, it encouraged Turks to explore their religious identities more freely. Much has been made of the AKP’s deviation from Kemalist norms and the pious sensibility that the party and its leaders have sought to instill. The AKP’s effort to transform Turkish society was met with opposition among many secular-minded Turks and a fair amount of consternation in the West, though some governments, including President Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him, regarded Turkey as a “model” for the Arab Middle East.
The AKP’s de-emphasis on “Turkishness,” as the country’s republican elite defined it, opened the possibility of a more inclusive society. In the AKP’s worldview, the common “Muslimness” — for lack of a better term — of Turks and Kurds would diminish the struggle between the two groups’ seemingly irreconcilable nationalisms. This is in part why religious Kurds have proven reliable supporters of the AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
This worldview, and the AKP’s electoral successes, afforded Erdogan a unique opportunity to resolve Turkey’s Kurdish question. And for a while, success seemed within his grasp: His government undertook a number of reforms that ostensibly loosened restrictions on Kurdish cultural and educational rights, and in 2005 pledged to invest $12 billion in the predominantly Kurdish southeast — though Erdogan claims that Ankara actually invested double that amount.
In late 2008 and early 2009, Ankara and the Turkish press were abuzz about what Turks were calling the “Kurdish opening.” These efforts were intended to make an end run around the PKK, instilling Kurds with a stake in society and thereby diminishing the appeal of Kurdish nationalism. But the hard realities of Turkish nationalism derailed the much-discussed outreach even before — and when that failed, Erdogan sought an accommodation directly with Ocalan and the PKK, which produced a halting dialogue that came to a bloody end in July 2015.
Turks and Kurds blame each other for this wretched outcome, which has placed both groups under siege in their cities and towns. There is indeed much blame to go around: Erdogan, who saw the electoral advantages in the violence once it broke out; the PKK leadership, which could not countenance the idea that Turkey’s legal Kurdish-based political group, the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), might surpass them in influence and importance; and the members of PKK’s youth wing who assassinated two police officers last summer as they slept, sparking the current wave of violence, all deserve a part of it.
But whatever the proximate reasons for the war’s return, it will continue to be fueled by this clash of identities. Although Erdogan and the AKP articulated a vision that appealed to many Turks and many Kurds, it failed to transform Turkish society and resolve the conflict between Turkishness and Kurdishness. Erdogan, motivated by his own craven desire for power and political necessity, has now tacked to his nationalist right, closing off the possibility of reconciliation. In January, he declared that the PKK is “no different than daesh,” the Arabic derogatory term for the Islamic State, and assured Turks that a resolution would come only “after our security forces have entirely liquidated terrorists in the region.”
In his famous 1993 essay, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Samuel Huntington referred to Turkey as “torn.” It is, but contrary to Huntington’s argument, the state of affairs is not related to what he identified as the contradictions between official secularism and forces advocating “Islamic revival,” or the West’s refusal to accept Turkey, but rather the conflict between Turkish and Kurdish identity. Erdogan came to power determined to raze Ataturk’s legacies, among them the conflict between Turks and Kurds — but in a stunning irony, he has presided over the conflict’s intensification.
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