By Christopher de Bellaigue,
“New York Review of Books, June 24, 1999”
Imagine that you head a foreign delegation on its way to Turkey to protest to the authorities on behalf of that country’s unhappy Kurds. If you are important enough, you might be met at the Ankara airport by Hikmet Cetin, the outgoing speaker of the Turkish parliament. But Mr. Cetin himself is a Kurd, with a good command of Kurmanji, the most widely spoken Kurdish dialect, and he will defend the regime’s policies toward the Kurds. You might have better luck with some of the members of Turkey’s newly elected parliament, some 25 percent of whom will be of Kurdish origin. But many of them are rich landowners who enjoy excellent relations with the government. You might reveal your sympathies to one of Turkey’s capitalist czars—say, Halis Toprak (whose Toprakbank has been valued at $1.7 billion). But he is a Kurd who does not protest treatment of other Kurds. In the 1980s, Istanbul had a Kurdish mayor, who was supported by plenty of the city’s migrant Kurds before he was undermined by allegations of corruption.
Imagine, if you can, Slobodan Milosevic boasting about his Albanian blood. Turgut Ozal, Turkey’s reforming prime minister for much of the 1980s, made his partly Kurdish ancestry public and succeeded in changing Turkey’s law forbidding the use of Kurdish languages—although he did not lift restrictions on their being taught in schools, and it remains illegal to speak Kurdish in political speeches. Wherever you look in modern Turkish society—loyalist Turkish society—you find Kurds, and many of them show no signs of opposition to the Turkish state.
The presence of assimilated Kurds at the heart of modern Turkey is baffling to foreigners acquainted only with claims of Kurdish nationalists and their allies. The Kurds, runs this account, are Indo-Europeans who had established themselves in eastern Anatolia at least two millennia before the Central Asian Turks settled in that part of the world; their unfortunate descendants have been bullied into abandoning their identity in the harshly monocultural Turkish repub-lic established seventy-six years ago by Kemal Atatürk. In recent years, the nationalist account continues, the Kurds have been represented by Abdullah Ocalan, the fugitive leader abducted four months ago from Kenya and taken back to Turkey for trial on charges of treason—a trial widely expected to result in his execution by hanging.
With all this firmly in mind, foreigners visiting Turkey may look for a cleavage between Turk and Kurd as clean and unambiguous as that which divides Jew from Arab, Serb from Albanian. Furthermore, they may expect to find Turkey’s twelve-million-odd Kurds (roughly 19 percent of the population, according to the historian David McDowall1 ) standing firmly behind the fifteen-year insurgency conducted by Mr. Ocalan’s Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast. But neither assumption stands up to scrutiny. Many Turkish Kurds—estimates range from one half to two thirds—live outside the war zone, and a lot of these have a negligible emotional attachment to Mr. Ocalan’s insurgency—and even less regard for his authoritarian socialist ideology. In elections only a minority of Kurdish voters throw their lot in with political parties associated with the PKK. This April’s general election, when the latest of these parties, the People’s Democracy Party (HADEP), won a mere 4.25 percent of the national vote, was no exception. What is more, according to the findings of a rare inquiry into the Kurds’ political aspirations, only 13 percent of respondents inside the war zone said they favored the creation of an independent Kurdistan, until recently the proclaimed goal of the PKK.2 Clearly, the reality of the Turkish Kurds—denied by the state, misrepresented by some advocates of independence—is a good deal more complicated than it seems.
Turkey’s southeast—the unhappy provinces which have borne the brunt of the insurgency and its suppression—is naturally where most people choose to examine the evolution of this reality. In their study, Henri J. Barkey and Graham E. Fuller argue that “the PKK today is the single most important political fact of life for Kurds in the southeast.” True enough. But can the same be said for the millions of Kurds who live outside this region, whose daily lives are conditioned less by the war than by the mundane experience of normal Turkish life? As much as the southeast, it is the cities of western Turkey that are likely to define the future of Turkey’s Kurds in the coming century. For this reason, on the occasion of this year’s spring equinox—when Kurds (along with their Iranian cousins) celebrate their new year, Newroz—I visited Adana, 150 miles west of the nearest point directly affected by the uprising and some 200 miles west of the part of Turkey where Kurds make up a majority of the population.
The contrast between Adana and provinces like Diyarbakir and Batman, which have been devastated by war, could hardly be more striking. In comparison to the stagnant economy of the southeast, the fast-growing agricultural trading center of Adana is quite rich and confident. In Sakip Sabanci, the local billionaire who paid for the splendid new mosque that dominates the center of the provincial capital, also called Adana, the province has a tycoon on excellent terms with Ankara’s civilian and military establishment. Plenty of Adana’s inhabitants are Turkish right-wingers who hate Kurdish nationalism. They helped to return to office Alparslan Turkesh, long Turkey’s preeminent neofascist, during his lengthy parliamentary career. In last month’s general election, the party Turkesh founded, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), picked up almost a quarter of the vote in Adana. Many more inhabitants of the province—up to a third, according to some estimates—are ethnic Arabs who have no interest in Kurdish nationalism. But, in common with other places further west, Adana’s already delicate ethnic constitution has been further complicated by a sizable Kurdish diaspora.
Of Adana’s 300,000-odd Kurds, as many as 150,000 migrated west before Mr. Ocalan launched his rebellion back in 1984. They were either forcibly resettled by the state or drawn away from the southeast by the poor economic prospects there and the promise of prosperity elsewhere. Many now have secure jobs in Adana. In last month’s local elections, which were held on the same day, April 18, as the general election, some mainstream Turkish political parties opposed to the very idea of Kurdish political or cultural autonomy fielded Kurdish candidates. In a coffeehouse in a working-class district, I talked with Kurds who said they were accepted as part of local society—they were “clean Kurds,” joked their Turkish and Arab friends. Yes, they speak Kurmanji—or, less commonly, Zaza, a second Kurdish dialect—with their wives, but their children often feel more at home in Turkish. These Kurds say they would not object if their children married Turks. Many have done so themselves. And their presence in cities across western Turkey puts in doubt the claims of those who say Turkey is inevitably divided into two nations.
But these Kurds do not wholly represent Adana’s Kurdish diaspora. A second group, in many ways distinct from the first, was forced to leave the southeast more precipitously. Between 1987 and 1996, Turkey’s security forces cleared out at least 2,500 Kurdish villages whose inhabitants they accused of providing logistic support to the PKK—or who simply refused to join a loyalist, government-sponsored militia. The Turkish army displaced up to two million people in a process of deportation and persecution that caused great hardship; it was barely visible on television and got little international attention. Many of the refugees were resettled by the Turks in Diyarbakir and other towns in the southeast. Some 150,000 of the refugees came to Adana. If you engage in conversation with a boy who shines shoes there, his Turkish will probably have a Kurdish accent; his father, in the unlikely event that he has a job at all, will probably be employed in poorly paid seasonal work, like cotton-picking. Such Kurds, driven from their homes and ill suited to urban life, despise the Turkish state. In the recent election, 46,000 of them voted for HADEP.
On March 21, the day of Newroz, I took a tour with a Kurdish driver of the suburban Adana neighborhoods that are largely inhabited by poor Kurds. To them, Newroz means more than the arrival of spring, and its very celebration challenges the official ideology, which holds that Kurds and Turks share the same cultural heritage. Ever since the 1982 Newroz celebrations, when a Kurdish youth immolated himself to protest Turkey’s “occupation” of “northern Kurdistan,” the Kurdish new year has been invested with a highly contentious political significance. Nowadays, it brings the war much closer to places, like Adana, which are far from the front line.
That much became evident the moment my guide and I reached Anadolu Mahallesi, one of Adana’s suburbs with a Kurdish majority; it was blocked by riot police in body armor. Police helicopters circled over our heads. In front of us, a large crowd of youthful Kurds, their festive halay dance long abandoned, chanted pro-PKK slogans. By the time we reached Yeni Bey, another Kurdish neighborhood, the streets had been cleared by police who had set off tear-gas canisters; there were piles of charred tires where minutes before hundreds of demonstrators had engaged in running battles with police. According to Adana’s chief of police, eight policemen were injured during these and other clashes, and only seventeen arrests were made. But Mustafa Cinkilic, who heads the Adana branch of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), a pro-Kurdish organization that counsels the victims of police torture, says that nearly one hundred people were arrested, nine of them German journalists in possession of PKK propaganda. From what I saw that day, the HRF’s estimate was more convincing.
Adana is not alone in illustrating the insurgency’s influence on places outside its geographical scope. Had I chosen to observe Newroz in the Kurdish suburbs of such cities as Izmir, Istanbul, or Mersin, I would have seen similar scenes. According to the Istanbul branch of the Human Rights Association (HRA), another pro-Kurdish organization, and a good source of information on Turkey’s persistently bad human rights record, the Istanbul police made more than 1,700 arrests during the Newroz celebrations, which were attended by some of the city’s more than 1.5 million Kurds. More than two hundred people sustained injuries, of whom eleven were shot by police. An HRA report claims that, across the nation, the police detained more than eight thousand people during the Newroz celebrations—all but a few dozen were later released. Some three thousand arrests are said to have taken place in Diyarbakir, the symbolic epicenter of the rebellion and obvious capital of a putative Kurdistan. But there were almost as many arrests outside the war zone as there were within it.
The origins of Turkey’s current Kurdish distress lie less in the emergence of the PKK than in a deep well of Middle Eastern history. The past shared by Turkey’s Kurds and their twelve-million-odd cousins in contiguous parts of Iran, Iraq, and Syria has been shaped by their history of, and susceptibility to, foreign domination—which Jonathan Randal, in a sympathetic recent study, partly attributes to “an entrenched penchant for treachery in their own ranks.”3 Although Kurdistan was only formally divided between the Istanbul-based Ottomans and the Persian Safavids in 1639, Kurdish clan chieftains had much earlier adopted a self-debasing form of Realpolitik, throwing in their lot with the prevailing power. As subjects of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over the Levant, the Maghreb, and the Balkans before declining and then collapsing after World War I, Kurdish emirs enjoyed considerable autonomy—as long as they paid their taxes and provided fighting men for Ottoman campaigns. Nevertheless, the Kurds could be truculent subjects. In the nineteenth century, Kurdish potentates rebelled no fewer than fifty times.
Apart from obliterating the Ottoman Empire, World War I ended up quartering the Kurdish territory between Persia, the new states of Turkey and Iraq, and the French mandate of Syria. At the Lausanne Conference in 1922-1923, at which a revised allotment of Ottoman territory was made, the Kurds who sought recognition were ignored by the British and their allies. (The 1920 Sèvres Treaty envisaged an independent Kurdistan but was later disregarded.) In Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, who would go on to fashion by far the most successful of these entities, brought together his ethnically diverse subjects using an imaginative historiography. Having embarked on his nation-building project by emphasizing the brotherhood of Turk and Kurd, he subsequently rewrote the history books to show that all Muslim citizens of the new state shared a common Turkish ancestry—something the Kurds manifestly did not. Atatürk the secular reformer also did away with the Islamic caliphate, an institution that had bound millions of pious Kurds to its seat, Istanbul; and he decisively put down the republic’s first Kurdish uprising in 1925, which was led by a cleric named Sheyh Said, and executed forty-seven of the ringleaders.
The new republic’s national objective was expressed by Ismet Inönü, Atatürk’s prime minister: “We must turkify the inhabitants of our land at any price, and we will annihilate those who oppose the Turks or ‘le turquisme.'” Henri Barkey and Graham Fuller, in Turkey’s Kurdish Question, argue that this ideology had far-reaching consequences: “The state,” they write, “is fundamentally responsible for the creation of the [Kurdish] problem by its fateful decision in the 1920s to create a nation-state defined as consisting of Turks alone.”
Since Atatürk’s death in 1938, many aspects of his authoritarian ideology have undergone revision—his insistence on secularism, notwithstanding recent efforts by the state to expel religion from public life, has been substantially undermined by the influence of Islamists in the nation’s administration and in its bureaucracies. But Atatürk’s conception of the unitary nation-state, a conception influenced by his admiration for the centralized and authoritarian nation-states of interwar Europe, has become petrified. This petrification, as the Turkish sociologist Mesut Yegen writes in a useful recent study, has produced a steady supply of misleading labels for what remains an ethnic conflict.4 In the 1930s, Yunus Nadi, the influential editor of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, characterized two large-scale Kurdish uprisings—among them the Sheyh Said rebellion—as the work of “bandits.”
Thirty years later, at around the time that thousands of Kurdish villages were given new, Turkish names, there was much official talk of their “underdevelopment.” In 1969, the government of Süleyman Demirel pledged “special measures for those regions especially afflicted by backwardness”—wording that anticipated the nine largely fruitless incentive plans that have been devised for the southeast over the past decade. Mr. Demirel, who is now president, has little new to say on the subject. In February of this year, he denied that Turkey had a “Kurdish problem.” As recently as 1993, a public prosecutor said, “There exists nowhere in the world a foreign race called the Kurds.” A year later, a parliamentary commission report on the southeast found it unnecessary to mention the ethnic origin of most of the region’s inhabitants.
Ranged like a monolith behind the pronouncements of presidents, prosecutors, and—most important of all—Turkey’s influential generals lies the Turkish judicial system, which is systematically expelling Kurd nationalists from society. Not surprisingly, prosecutors spend much of their energies pursuing political parties that claim to speak for the Kurds—just doing so can be counted as a criminal offense—and that provide the PKK with a vicarious electoral presence in Kurdish regions. Since 1991, the Constitutional Court has banned two such parties for links to the PKK and for other activities endangering the state.
Several members of these parties were jailed; others fled to Western Europe, where they set up the Kurdish parliament-in-exile (a thinly veiled PKK front which, by cultivating valuable links with sympathetic European politicians, does arguably more damage to the Turks than its members did inside the Ankara parliament). In February, the public prosecutor filed a suit seeking to close down HADEP, the latest of the pro-Kurdish parties. The state prosecutor hopes to prove that HADEP is an adjunct of the PKK. Osman Ozcelik, the deputy party leader, denies the existence of “organic links” with the PKK, but he says that HADEP is the natural representative of the families of PKK members who have been killed in the war. (It is rare for PKK members wounded in combat to survive.)
Reflexive anti-Kurd feeling on the part of officials has also turned the judiciary against moderate Kurdish nationalism, even if this cannot be identified with the PKK. Several constitutional provisions and laws encourage prosecutors to indict the blandest manifestations of Kurdish identity. Crimes like “disseminating separatist propaganda,” “inciting religious or ethnic enmity,” and “damaging the indivisible unity of the state” are tried before the same special, juryless State Security Courts that prosecute armed insurrection itself. In such courts, a panel of three judges—of whom one must be from the military—come down hard on people like human rights activists, lawyers, and journalists who try to defend the identity and the rights of Kurds. Such people are among the 10,000-odd prisoners currently in jail for alleged PKK-related activities, including aiding and abetting terrorism. The guerrillas themselves are rarely caught alive. Often the crimes of the prisoners consist of nothing more than a public airing of Turkey’s Kurdish question.
This summer, for example, Akin Birdal, the non-Kurdish head of the HRA, will begin serving ten months of a combined two-year sentence he received for referring, in speeches, to a “Kurdish identity,” and “a resolution of the Kurdish problem.” Early this year, the pacifist, pro-Kurdish Democratic Mass Party (DKP) was banned by the Constitutional Court for activities injurious to the “indivisible unity” of the state—an allusion to the importance attached in the party’s manifesto to solving the “Kurdish problem.” Turkey’s state prosecutor is no less severe about even the mildest activity on behalf of Kurds in the provinces; last November, he ordered the entire leadership of the tiny Freedom and Action Party in the province of Elazig to resign because some Kurdish songs had been sung at a party meeting attended by seven people. This, too, qualified as a violation of Turkish law. HRA newsletters and the Turkish human rights report released annually by the US State Department make clear the extent to which people in Turkey are muzzled by the judicial process. Whether the offenders are journalists “inciting hatred and enmity” or playwrights “insulting the military,” the target of Turkish prosecutors remains the same: the exercise of free speech when it comes to any claims on behalf of Kurds.
Judicial zeal has an enthusiastic and sometimes brutal ally in a police force drawn largely from nationalist and conservative circles. At the end of April, lawyers representing Mr. Ocalan were allegedly beaten up by police when they attended a hearing in connection with a separate case that had been brought against him before his arrest. According to the 1998 State Department human rights report, plainclothes antiterror police “often abused detainees and employed torture during incommunicado detention and interrogation.” Last year, an unusually frank judicial inquiry found that such policemen had made up the core of “an execution squad” within the state security system—a squad, many Turks suspect, that had a lot to do with the “disappearance” between 1990 and 1996 of between 2,500 and 5,000 mostly southeastern Kurds.
Plainclothes police are present in large numbers wherever there are Kurds—I was tailed for three days during my stay in Adana—but they are hated and feared the most in the southeast. A Turkish journalist explained to me why he broke off relations with Kurdish lawyer friends working in the war zone. “The last time I went to see them,” he said, “they were taken in and beaten up by the police. It’s better for them if we do not talk at all.” In this setting of official intransigence and unofficial terror, it is clear that the Turkish government has refused to distinguish a Kurd from a guerrilla. Continuing failure to do so, of course, has one main beneficiary: the PKK.
It is difficult otherwise to explain the enduring emotional pull exerted on Kurds of the southeast and elsewhere by a despotic leader whose godless socialism runs contrary to the religiosity and ties of fealty that characterize Kurdish society. In this regard, Sheyh Said, who blended nationalism with religious nostalgia, represented Turkey’s Kurds far better than did Mr. Ocalan, who first organized the PKK as a revolutionary movement in 1978 and launched its guerrilla campaign in 1984.
Ocalan, who was born in 1948, comes from the cotton-rich southeastern region of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border. He became drawn to a nationalist brand of Marxism when he studied at Ankara University; his PKK emerged among the groups of left-wing ideologues whose civil war against rightist groups in the late 1970s prompted the most recent of Turkey’s three “corrective” military coups against the civilian government in 1980. Now, fifteen years after he began his violent struggle, basing himself in Syria and Lebanon, few Kurds have much clue to what his organization stands for. The hammer and sickle has disappeared from the PKK flag, but the current talk among Mr. Ocalan’s acolytes of “democratic” socialism is unconvincing. It is belied by the PKK’s record of killing and terrorizing Kurds who cooperate with the regime or want more moderate solutions and call only for recognition of Kurdish cultural and civil rights. The original PKK objective of an independent Kurdistan now seems to have been superseded by proposals of a political settlement within existing borders. No one thinks, however, that the dead PKK militants—more than 20,000 to date, according to President Demirel—gave their lives in order to obtain local tax-raising powers or the right to have Kurdish literature electives in Turkish universities. (It is estimated that since the war began, the combined dead from both sides, and from the civilian population, exceeds 30,000 people.) The PKK itself is bitterly divided between its Europe-based political operatives, who want the organization to improve its political image, and its field commanders, who favor an intensification of the military conflict. The more one talks with Turkish Kurds, whether in the southeast or outside it, the clearer it seems that they are unsure of the PKK’s objectives and its methods.
The state’s refusal to listen to moderate Kurds has obliged many instinctive moderates to turn to the most strident voice of all, that of Mr. Ocalan. The ban on the DKP, which rejects violence, is the latest manifestation of the Turks’ self-delusional refusal to allow the emergence of alternatives to the PKK. Such an attitude inevitably lumps the defenders of minority rights together with the guerrillas themselves; the Turkish government is thus prevented by its own policies and rhetoric from accommodating the demands of anyone who claims to speak for Kurds. The same attitude is responsible for the official ban on the use of Kurdish in schools and on Kurdish language courses (whether public or private) and Kurdish-language broadcasting. Mr. Ocalan, who has little to gain from the emergence of new Kurdish spokesmen, was before his arrest an en-thusiastic accomplice of this state-sponsored polarization. He accused rivals of being stooges of the state and, in the case of the DKP, he even sent his goons to attack its members. For a Kurd who refused to be a Turk, there was no alternative to Mr. Ocalan.
All this helps to explain why most Kurds were appalled when the PKK leader was captured in Kenya and repatriated to Turkey—where his trial on the capital charges of treason and separatism is expected to start before the end of May. Grief turned to rage when footage showing the PKK leader trussed up in front of a Turkish flag was replayed ad nauseam on television; Turkish journalists called their captured foe “baby-killer” and nationalist Turks generally wallowed in self-congratulation. Young Kurdish nationalists expressed their rage in violent demonstrations, many of them outside the war zone. The best-publicized took place in Germany and other parts of the Kurds’ European diaspora; but according to the HRA, between February 16 and March 1, 137 vehicles, private businesses, and state-run enterprises inside Turkey were attacked by Kurdish arsonists. In mid-March, thirteen people were killed when Kurdish nationalists set fire to a busy Istanbul shopping center. The government responded by initiating a campaign against suspect Kurds in general, and HADEP in particular, evidently determined to prevent the party from carrying on an effective election campaign.
Between February 16 and March 1, more than 650 HADEP officeholders (including party leaders not already in jail) were arrested, a pattern repeated until election day itself, on April 18. The account given by Veli Haydar Gulec, HADEP’s candidate for mayor of Istanbul, is not untypical. He says that he was detained by police six times during the two months that elapsed between Mr. Ocalan’s arrest and the election. On each occasion he was held in custody for several days and then released uncharged—thus depriving him, he says, of more than a month’s campaigning. In the southeast, candidates claimed they had been intimidated and sometimes tortured by police who demanded they withdraw from the elections; in one instance, police prevented a HADEP mayoral candidate from entering the southeastern town he was contesting. A Western diplomat visiting the southeast recalled an unexpected round of applause he received on entering a HADEP office there: “When I asked why they were clapping for me, they said I was responsible for their being let into the building that morning. Apparently, the police hadn’t allowed them in for weeks.”
What are the Kurds’ claims to nationhood? A Kurdish Atatürk would, it is true, have his work cut out to fashion from his people a functioning unity. The deepest fault lines run, unsurprisingly, along the borders of the four states in which most Kurds now live. Back in the middle 1970s, thousands of Turkish Kurds were galvanized into joining a military revolt of Iraqi Kurds against Baghdad, a revolt that ended disastrously when Iran and the US abruptly withdrew their support for the venture and the Kurds were punished severely by Saddam Hussein’s army. In 1988, Turkish Kurds provided moral and material support for their cross-border cousins after Saddam brutally suppressed a second revolt. They did so again in 1991 after the Gulf War, when Iraqi forces reacted to yet another abortive, Washington-activated uprising by pursuing a million-odd Iraqi Kurdish refugees into Turkey. Relations between nationalists on either side of the border have since cooled, largely because of an unexpectedly divisive consequence of that insurrection: Kurdish self-rule in northern Iraq.
In 1991, under US, British, and French auspices, northern Iraq was, in effect, segregated from the rest of the country. It is now dominated by two squabbling Kurdish leaders: Massoud Barzani, the area’s preeminent clan chieftain, and Jalal Talabani, a former ally who has ties to Iran. (Mr. Barzani’s relations with Saddam Hussein are now unclear, but there is no longer any open pact between them.) Their administrative incompetence, military frailty, and intermittent civil war have presented the PKK with important opportunities in the region. Since 1991, Mr. Ocalan’s militants have been launching attacks into Turkey from their camps in northern Iraq and recruiting Iraqi Kurds as well. Mr. Barzani and Mr. Talabani, who were last year cajoled by the US into signing a peace deal in Washington, know that their own continuing power, such as it is, depends not only on US sponsorship but also on the good will of the Turkish authorities, who are terrified that Kurdish autonomy will prove contagious. For this reason the two Iraqi Kurdish leaders solemnly pledged in their peace agreement to “deny sanctuary to the PKK throughout the Iraqi Kurdistan region.” Furthermore, in return for arms and other privileges, Barzani’s men cooperate with the Turkish forces that launch frequent—and illegal—raids on PKK depots and camps in northern Iraq. (As recently as mid-May, Iraq protested the latest of these operations, which was said to have involved 15,000 Turkish troops.)
So much, then, for pan-Kurdish unity. But even if some regional upheaval were unexpectedly to eradicate the national borders that separate Kurd from fellow Kurd, other factors would still create difficulties for the formation of a greater Kurdistan. The first is religion. Although a majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, some Iranian Kurds are Shi’ite, and as many as 30 percent of Turkey’s Kurds are Alevis—adherents to an easygoing version of Shi’ism. A second question concerns language. Kurds communicate in a variety of tongues, some mutually unintelligible, and many prefer to speak their host languages, whether Turkish, Arabic, or Persian.
Turkish nationalists like to point out that Ocalan is more at home speaking Turkish than his native Kurmanji. Michael M. Gunter (whose four books on the Kurds lack the erudition of Barkey and Fuller’s study) tells us that Mr. Talabani speaks better Arabic than Sorani—the branch of Kurmanji spoken by Kurds near the Iranian border, and by most Iranian Kurds.5 Linguistic incompatibility engenders mutual suspicion among different groups of Kurds; “We might rally for the benefit of foreigners,” a Kurdish academic told me, “but, left to our own devices, we immediately start to differentiate between Kurmanjis, Zazas, and Soranis.”
In Turkey itself, the Kurds are divided on religious grounds. For many pious Sunni Kurds, pan-Islamism overrides concepts of nationhood, binding them far more closely to their non-Kurdish coreligionists than to the PKK. Such Islamist Kurds have not been impressed by recent PKK professions of benevolent agnosticism, and tend to vote for mass-appeal Islamist parties, such as the Virtue Party, over parties like HADEP. “The PKK claims to have an indulgent attitude towards religion,” an Islamist in Diyarbakir told me last year, “but many Kurds fear that Ocalan will do as Atatürk did: enlist the help of pious subjects in building his new nation, only to repress them once he has consolidated his power.” Traditional rivalries between Sunni and Alevi Kurds present another obstacle to the emergence of a Kurdish national identity. When Kurdish nationalists proudly recall their impressively long list of rebellions against the Turkish state, they rarely mention that Alevi and Sunni Kurds opposed one another in two of the most important of them in 1925 and 1937-1938.
Turkish governments, moreover, have done their best to exploit the divisions among them. In the mid-1990s, for example, evidence came to light that the security forces had encouraged a violent Kurdish Islamist organization, Hizbollah, to murder PKK members and sympathizers. It is often said that the government has failed to introduce land reforms in the southeast because it can use the present feudal order for its own purposes. Wooed assiduously by Ankara and ideologically inimical to the socialist PKK—which gets most of its support from the disaffected urban refugees inside the war zone—Kurdish landlords tend to side with Ankara. Such loyalty does not go unrewarded.
Of all the incentives used to bind Kurds to the Turkish state, few can rival the insidiousness of the village guard system. Started by Ozal more than ten years ago, the scheme rewards Kurds prepared to defend their villages against the PKK with around $100 a month and a Kalashnikov. The money often bypasses the guards themselves, and goes straight into the pockets of their clan chieftains. The Kalashnikovs frequently get used for settling blood feuds and land disputes, or simply for a spot of brigandage. The system, which has armed more than 60,000 Kurds, will be extremely difficult to dismantle. Furthermore, it can only reinforce the hostility between nationalists and loyalists within Kurdish society. As Barkey and Fuller point out: “The seeds for internecine Kurdish fighting may have been sown.”
4. Barkey and Fuller have written by far the most serious and convincing study of Turkey’s Kurdish question to date, although—with its cautious foreword by a former US ambassador to Turkey—it bears a semiofficial stamp. The authors pay not nearly enough attention to the Kurds of western Turkey, but they make an evident effort to be fair, and they disdain the sensationalism and emotional advocacy that color other books on the subject. They present a meticulously documented critique of Turkish repression and short-sightedness but also show in detail that the PKK has been thuggish and nasty, particularly in its attacks on Kurds who have disagreed with it. Barkey and Fuller clearly believe that the Kurdish problem should be solved within Turkey’s existing borders, not by a new Kurdish state. But they are likely to be disappointed. The middle-class Turks who do much to form public opinion—the people whose yearnings for peace should bring pressure on the state to accommodate moderate Kurdish demands—remain mystifyingly quiet.
From a foreigner’s perspective, this is very odd. The Kurdish war accounts for more than 10 percent of Turkey’s public spending, and keeps a large part of the country in often desperate poverty. It has poisoned Turkey’s relations with one neighbor, Iran, whom the Turks accuse of harboring PKK militants, and last winter nearly brought about a war with another neighbor, Syria, whom the Turks forced into expelling Mr. Ocalan. Turkey’s human rights record, which is at its most dismal in the southeast, has helped to ruin whatever small chances the Turks had of joining the European Union. Still, the middle class keeps its head down. Why?
First, the war is not the national trauma it was as recently as four years ago. A large deployment of troops to the war zone has drastically reduced the PKK’s effectiveness, and Turkish casualties have declined. The government burns down fewer villages and there are fewer unsolved murders. The PKK, for its part, has largely abandoned the slaughter of village guards, civil servants, and other “collaborators.” Clashes between the Turks and the PKK, a Turkish general told me in 1997, have reached “acceptable levels.” Nor do urban Turks feel threatened by a popular explosion of the kind that some Kurds have predicted should Mr. Ocalan be hanged. This is partly because the PKK, for sound public relations reasons, has never really carried out its much repeated threats to export the war to western Turkey. The trial and execution of Mr. Ocalan might well cause a break between the PKK’s Turkey-based militants and its more cautious Europe-based politicians, and, along with it, an increase in rogue attacks on Turkish civilians. However, Turkey’s security forces are too numerous, too professional, and too ruthless to allow a Kurdish intifada. And, as has been seen, the Kurds of Istanbul, Izmir, and Adana are too assimilated, too scared, or too divided to try one.
The second explanation for the apparent apathy of many Turks is the grip still exerted by Turkey’s official ideology on public discussion of the Kurds. At school Turks grow up in an atmosphere of nationalist dogma; then they live out their adult lives without encountering true freedom of expression. With a few honorable exceptions, coverage of the war on television and in mainstream newspapers is worse than bad, and prominent journalists are abject in surrendering their independence to the meddling of politicians and opinionated generals. It is therefore hardly surprising, for example, that a middle-class Turkish mother, living comfortably in a western Turkish city, would happily accept that the war is won and the PKK finished. She is not likely to question the assumptions she has relied on since childhood. To be on the safe side, of course, a word in a carefully chosen ear will exempt her son from military service in the war zone. Otherwise, she will typically have little or no contact with the migrant Kurds in their suburban ghettos, and will prefer non-Kurds as domestic servants. As for the southeast, to which she has never been, and has not the slightest intention of going, the words for it are Bambaska bir dunya. Another world.
According to some PKK supporters, public opinion is less likely to spur the state into making concessions to the Kurds than is the prodding of outsiders—preferably the US. Washington, it is true, is nowadays the only Western friend whose opinion Turkey takes seriously. Unfortunately for Kurdish nationalists, the US has shown little inclination to apply serious diplomatic pressure on their behalf. On the contrary, it continued to supply arms to Turkey during the worst expulsions of Kurds from the villages in the southeast during the early 1990s. Rather than endanger its strategic alliance with Turkey, the US keeps the PKK on its blacklist of terrorist groups, and—so runs a widely credited theory—even helped to deliver Mr. Ocalan into the Turks’ lap. Save for a few obdurate congressmen, who sometimes try to block sales of military equipment, the Turks’ American friends are not going to make a fuss about Turkish repression, even if the Turks defy everyone who offers them advice on the subject and hang Mr. Ocalan.
Last month’s general election produced a parliament whose nationalist and conservative preponderance further reduces the likelihood of Turkish flexibility on the Kurdish issue. Although, at the time of writing, a new government has yet to be formed, the new parliament is not likely to shy from ratifying the death sentence which Mr. Ocalan is expected to receive. Furthermore, the two election winners, Bulent Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party (which took 22 percent of the vote) and Devlet Bahceli’s MHP (which got 18 percent), benefited directly from the Kurdish war. Support for Mr. Ecevit picked up because he was prime minister when Mr. Ocalan was arrested. As for the MHP, its supporters have won favorable publicity by turning out for the funerals of Turkish soldiers killed by the PKK. Indeed, the MHP had its most dramatic successes in provinces that have lost the most young men to the war.
Down in the southeast, Kurdish nationalists voted in memory of their dead, too. Although the party was a long way from winning the 10 percent share of the vote needed if it were to secure representation in the national parliament, voters in local elections swept HADEP to power in seven provincial seats across the southeast, including Diyarbakir. Now, the administration of some of the biggest towns in the southeast is in the hands of Kurdish nationalists who sympathize with the PKK. When we take account of the gains made elsewhere by the MHP—and a disastrous showing by Turkey’s only social-democratic party—the trend toward increasing polarization seems clear.
When Bernard Lewis wrote The Emergence of Modern Turkey in 1961, his magisterial account of the evolution of a degenerate empire into a dynamic nation-state hardly mentioned the question of the Kurds. A modern update, taking as its subject the intervening thirty-eight years, might usefully present the rise of Kurdish nationalism as illustrative of the failure of the Atatürk state to modernize both its institutions and its guiding ideology. Some of the often-heard solutions for Turkey’s Kurdish problem—autonomy, cultural rights, “dialogue”—sound plausible by themselves, but they miss the point, unhelpfully separating the Kurdish question from other, related, distortions in Turkish life. In one of their best passages, Barkey and Fuller talk of a “need to reformulate the very concept of the Turkish state as perceived by its citizens.” Unfortunately, they leave this point hanging; but it is the key to the Kurdish question. Kurdish nationalists, it is important to remember, are not the only Turkish citizens regarded by the current regime as its enemies. Islamists (whose relentless suppression recalls the state’s pursuit of the Kurds), leftists, pious women wearing headscarves, defenders of human rights—all are caught in a thicket of anachronistic laws that, when applied by hard-line judges, damage the civil life of what is still one of the more democratic countries in the Muslim world. Not just the Kurds but all Turkish citizens would benefit from the abolition of the laws and constitutional provisions that prevent them from saying, writing, and wearing what they want—all in the name of the “national interest.”
Improving Turkey’s democracy and encouraging plurality of expression would not, as many Turks fear, mean jettisoning the unitary principle of Atatürk’s ideology, but modernizing it. It would not entail accepting Ocalan as the spokesman of the Kurds—he represents Turkey’s Kurds no better than the state itself. Indeed, one advantage of voluntary democratization is that it requires no interlocutor. In the 1920s and 1930s, Atatürk’s refusal to recognize and truly accommodate the heterodox composition of his citizenry won Turkey valuable time to consolidate a modern state, but it only temporarily homogenized its people. For Turkey to perpetuate that approach can only be self-destructive now.
- David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (London: I.B. Tauris, 1996).
- Turkiye Odalar Birligi, Dogu Sorunu: Teshisler ve Tespitler (Turkish Union of Chambers of Commerce and Industry, The Eastern Question: Diagnosis and Findings)(Ankara: TOBB, 1995).
- Jonathan C. Randal, After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness: My Encounters with Kurdistan (Westview, 1998), p. 12.
- Mesut Yegen, Devlet Soyleminde Kurt Sorunu (The Kurdish Problem in the Lexicon of the State) (Istanbul: Iletisim Yayinlari, 1999).
- The Kurds in Turkey (Westview, 1990), The Kurds of Iraq (St. Martin’s, 1992), The Kurds and the Future of Turkey (St. Martin’s, 1997), The Kurdish Predicamen in Iraq (St. Martin’s, 1999).
CHRISTOPHER DE BELLAIGUE has worked in India for India Today and in Turkey for The Economist. He is currently writing a novel.