My friend and colleague, Dov Friedman, was nice enough to guest post while I’m convalescing from a recent injury. Enjoy.
Over the last six months, the Turkish military and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) have renewed clashes and Kurdish groups have asserted control in northern Syria. These developments reminded observers—if such a reminder was even necessary—that Turkey’s so-called “Kurdish Question” remains unresolved. Yet, exactly how the ongoing conflict is called ties intimately into the search for a solution.
Often, people in the Turkish media and in the general populace refer to the “Kürt Sorunu”—the “Kurdish Question” or, more ominously, the “Kurdish Problem.” Though seemingly used innocuously, these names shape how the issue is conceived and where responsibility for its resolution lies.
The semantics are not difficult to parse. The existence of Kurds in Turkey either poses a question—a challenge—to the Turkish state, or represents an inherent problem within it. The phrasing lumps Kurds together as an undifferentiated entity, and distances them from the Turkish Republic. It also suggests that blame for the lack of resolution rests on the Kurds themselves.
One need only speak with the average nationalist Turk to perceive the ways in which these semantic constructions shape understandings of Kurds. “They want to divide our country.” “They kill our soldiers.” These common arguments align with the idea of a “Kurdish Problem.” This perspective fixates on security and terrorism, not identity. Kurds’ opposition may stem from their different identity, but more importantly, they threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity and perpetrate violence against the state. In this understanding, they are thus a native problem within the country.
Further, consider the thoughts of a small business owner in Ankara: “I have no problem with Kurds who say ‘I am Turkish.’” Here, the focus is not on the perceived problems caused by Kurds. At issue here is the mere fact that many Kurds choose not to subsume their identities to a modern Turkish nationalist one. For nationalist Turks, then, the “question” is how—or whether—Kurds express their identity. Both constructions set Kurds apart and foist responsibility onto them for perpetuating the “problem”—or for deepening the “question.”
Meanwhile, the AK Party government’s narrative exacerbates the semantic problem by presenting liberalizations not as a restoration of civil rights, but as gifts conferred by the state. Never was this more apparent than during the fourth general congress of the AK Party, which convened the final weekend of September. In his epic speech, Prime Minister Erdoğan claimed that his party “lifted the barriers of a Kurdish mother to speak to her baby in Kurdish.” In Erdoğan’s view, the government bestowed unprecedented freedom on Turkey’s Kurds. If the AK Party deserves hosannas for this pittance of an initial step, then the Kurds become ingrates for insisting more must be done.
When reduced further, Erdoğan’s remark intimates the “Kurdish Question” perspective. Beyond the minor absurdity of suggesting that the Kurdish language ever disappeared from family life, Erdoğan blurred the line between rights and privileges. The AK Party—like so many elements in Turkish society—struggles with the depth of Kurdish identity and its commensurate baseline demands.
The current government also exacerbates the conflict with its policy approach to the PKK. Despite early—and commendable—backchannel negotiations between Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MIT) director Hakan Fidan and PKK representatives in Oslo, Erdoğan now argues the PKK must lay down their weapons before negotiation. The prime minister also uses the relationship between the predominantly Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party’s (BDP) politicians and PKK fighters for political point-scoring. The “Kurdish Problem” narrative surfaces yet again. Erdoğan ingrains the idea that nothing separates the ideas of Kurds and violence—after all, their elected politicians embrace known rebel fighters. The complexity of Kurdish politics—that many could sympathize with or admire jailed PKK head Abdullah Öcalan as a path-breaking leader while also preferring non-violence—is actively and knowingly swept aside in favor of simplistic language and politics.
Though policy proposals—grand solutions—are helpful and necessary, their efficacy at the present juncture remains in question. I suspect small-bore solutions would be much more productive steps right now, and the problem of how people semantically characterize the Kurdish issue is the necessary starting point. Politicians and journalists play a major role here. They have a platform—and a civic responsibility—to define the difficulties in neutral terms. Some—namely Radikal columnist Cengiz Çandar, among many commendable others—have admirably referred to the “Kürt Konusu”—the “Kurdish Issue.” More writers, politicians, public figures, and academics should exclusively adopt this construction if Turkey is serious about addressing the conflict.
Moreover, even as Turkey’s body politic and government have changed, relics of old regimes and old ideologies remain. In Van, two major monuments dominate the skyline: the majestic citadel and the phrase “Ne Mutlu Turkum Diyene”—“How happy is the one who says, ‘I am a Turk’"—inscribed on the mountain serving as a military outpost. In Diyarbakir, the center of Kurdish life in Turkey, the iconic basalt city wall is the second largest fortification extant after China’s Great Wall. Directly across from the wall’s main gate, a thirty foot Ataturk quote extols the sameness of everyone—Turks, Kurds, and Macedonians among them—in the nation. The continued maintenance—and prominent display—of the antiquated state ideology suggests that any surface progress on identity and nationalism continues to face institutional and structural resistance. If the government is serious about solving the conflict, it must begin slowly but steadily removing these relics of past narratives on the Kurdish issue.
Some might argue that the AK Party and Erdoğan have little choice—previous efforts to move toward a resolution were met with strong domestic opposition, and the Gülen Movement’s stronghold in the judiciary pursued Fidan expressly on account of the secretive PKK negotiations in Norway. To pursue even small changes in the discourse on Kurds and Turks would be impossible. Even if that were the case, it would hardly constitute a strong defense. Such penny-wise politics are foolish in the long run. If Erdoğan cannot effect such small changes, then he is significantly less powerful than he seems.
That is not what is happening. Instead, Erdoğan is engaged in a cynical calculus to shore up nationalist support in advance of a constitutional rewrite he hopes will create a powerful presidency—just in time, as his final term as Prime Minister comes to an end. At the same time, AK Party co-opted Numan Kurtulmuş and Süleyman Soylu—formerly of the HAS and Democrat Parties, respectively—making the party’s tent larger than ever. Erdoğan has thus accumulated more political capital and power than at any prior moment in his government’s history. A visionary leader would use that capital to change the discourse around the country’s most complex, most intractable issue. What a shame, then, that the prime minister seems to have no plan to use his newfound political capital for anything other than his personal accumulation of power.
Dov Friedman spent 2011-2012 on a fellowship as a foreign policy research associate at the SETA Foundation in Ankara, Turkey.