The Kurdish Question in Turkey: Past and Present


Ragip Duran is a prominent Turkish journalist and political activist.  A lecturer in media studies at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, he has worked for and published in dozens of outlets, including Agence France-Presse, the BBC, scores of Turkish newspapers, and the French daily Liberation.  Mr. Duran has reported from Paris, Istanbul, London, and Northern Iraq, in addition to publishing several books on media and political issues.  In 1991, he received the Journalist of the Year award from the Turkish Human Rights Association.

When asked to comment on Mr. Duran’s work, Noam Chomsky told me: “Ragip Duran is an outstanding journalist and media analyst and critic.  More than that, he is one of the remarkable group of prominent Turkish intellectuals who not only protest draconian laws and harsh repression, but constantly undertake civil disobedience in protest against them, risking and sometimes enduring harsh punishment.  There is nothing like them in the West.  They deserve our respect and admiration and support and — if we have the courage — emulation.”

 

 Like dozens of his colleagues, Mr. Duran has been persecuted for his brave journalism.  In 1998, he was sentenced to seven months’ imprisonment for publishing an article based on an interview with Kurdistan Workers’ Party leader Abdullah Ocalan.   Amnesty International condemned Mr. Duran’s incarceration, designated him a “prisoner of conscience” and demanded “his immediate and unconditional release”.  The Committee to Protect Journalists also campaigned on Mr. Duran’s behalf; their Executive Director at the time, William A. Orme, Jr., called him “one of Turkey‘s finest journalists”. 

 

 Mr. Duran was subsequently awarded the Hellman/Hammett Freedom of Expression prize by Human Rights Watch.  In 2000, he was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

 

 The following interview took place in Istanbul in May, 2006.  It is presented here in light of ongoing tensions between Kurdish guerrillas and the Turkish army in southeastern Anatolia.

 

 

 

JH: Since the Republic was proclaimed in 1923, the Turkish government has tried to create a unified ‘Turkish’ identity, refusing to officially recognize minorities.  What has this assimilationist policy meant for the Kurds?

 

RD: Correct – as you said the Kurdish issue became a Kurdish problem mainly after the creation of the Republic in 1923.  Or even between ’23 and ’25, there was a relatively good atmosphere between Turks and Kurds.  But this notion of a nation-state created a big problem for the Kurds.

 

One nation means one nation, one language, one flag.  This does not fit with Turkey because there are not only Turks and Kurds but so many other national, ethnic, religious minorities living in this country.  The heritage of the Ottoman Empire was, of course, richer than [the Republic of] Turkey, and it did not have this problem of minorities because everyone was a minority.  During that time, before 1923, if you spoke to a man on the street, he would first say he was an Ottoman.  There was this umbrella identity – everyone was a subject of the Empire – then he was a Turk, Armenian, Kurd, Greek, I don’t know what. 

 

The problem for Kurds today is the refusal of the Turkish state to officially recognize the existence of the Kurdish identity – of the Kurdish political, economic, historical or social and cultural identity.  You can’t find the word “Kurdish” in any official Turkish text – I mean laws.  There is none.  Even recently, one or two years ago, the ban on Kurdish language broadcasting was lifted.  But what was legalized was not called the “Kurdish” language, but Kirmanji and Sorani, which are dialects of Kurdish. 

 

So again, the problem, one of the main demands of the Kurds, is that they should be recognized officially, which means legally.  It should be written in the constitution that this country does not belong only to Turks, but to Turks and Kurds.  Kurds should not be called “minorities”, which is true, because there are ten to twenty million of them living in this country.  We can’t know the exact number, because on the census, it is not possible to identify as “Kurdish”.  So everyone in this country is considered “Turkish”, despite their origin.

 

So, the Kurdish problem is mainly a political problem, a legal problem.  Of course there is a economic, historical, social dimension also.  But Kurds, if they are claiming their own identity, are called “terrorists”, “separatist” or in any case are second-class citizens in this country.  For instance – and this is not only for Kurds – but in this country we do not have a governor, a general, a high-ranking official who is not “Turkish.”  And not only Turkish, but Muslim – and not Alevite, but Sunni…

 

The Kurdish problem is also a geographic problem, because the southeast of Anatolia [where most Kurds in Turkey reside] is the most backward part of the country, economically speaking, and this backwardness is the result of policy.  Turkey is not a poor country.  You may be shocked – the streets of Istanbul look like a fairly typical, European city.  But when you travel to Van, or travel between Van and Diyarbakir, you will see some areas which are nothing like what you’re seeing here.  This backwardness and poverty has been explicitly fostered by the Republican government since 1923.  The thinking has been that if Kurds became educated, trained and wealthy, they will present a much bigger danger for the nation state, because they will divide the country.  This is the view of Ankara.

 

So, it is hard to be a Kurd in this country.  I should also say Kurds are not [only] living in Turkey.  As you know, they are in three other Middle Eastern countries – Iran, Iraq and Syria.  But the Kurds of Turkey are in a special situation.  The largest Kurdish population is based in Turkey.  Turkey in comparison to Iran, Iraq and Syria is the most democratic country.  There are problems in Turkish democracy, but compared to Iran, Iraq and Syria, Turkey is the most democratic.  Economically speaking, it is also the strongest country, aside from Iran‘s oil wealth, that’s something else.  In relations with the Western world, Turkey is much closer politically to the US and Europe, in comparison to its neighbors.

 

But the problem is the way Ankara is treating the Kurds in Turkey.  Kurds here have the least political rights.  In Iran, Iraq, and Syria, there is no Kurdish problem, because Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus recognize the Kurdish reality.  In these countries, areas are referred to as “Kurdistan“; the term is used in the official media every day.  If you say “Kurdistan” in Turkey, you will be accused of separatism.  It’s just the name of an area; it’s really bizarre.  If you say “Miami“, should you be accused of separatism?  In the official media [in Turkey], the word “Kurdistan” is used every day, [in reference to the] “Kurdistan Democratic Party”, or “Patriotic Union of Kurdistan”, Jalal Talabani’s party – that’s okay.  But in reference to Turkey, no – Kurdish areas here are the ‘east’ or ‘southeast’ of Anatolia or Turkey.

 

So, personally speaking, I know from my Kurdish friends, the Kurds of Turkey do not feel as equal citizens of this state.  They have their official citizen ID, but they do not feel that they belong completely because the army of this state is oppressing Kurds, because the cultural institutions are denying Kurdish culture, the legal institutions of this country are punishing Kurdish people because of their thoughts. 

 

I think the correct position is to allow the Kurds to do what they want to do.  If they want to live with Turks, okay, that’s their problem.  If they want to leave Turkey and create their own state, their own autonomous region, it’s again up to them.  It’s not up to me, as a Turk, to decide the future or destiny of the Kurds.  But unfortunately, in this country, because Kurds are not officially recognized, nobody asks the Kurds what they want to do.

 

So, I mean, to answer your question in one sentence, I will repeat, it is psychologically, politically, socially difficult to be a Kurd in this country, in this city.  You have to hide your own identity,  because nationalist, pro-state, non-tolerant people can very easily accuse you of dividing the country, of killing women and children, accuse you of being an agent of Westerners – the EU, Americans – or even Northern Iraqis, things like that.

 

 

The most recent Kurdish uprising in Turkey began in 1984 and ended in 1999.  What were the causes and consequences of this conflict?

 

Correct – the ninth president of the Republic, Suleiman Demirel, said that was the twenty-seventh Kurdish uprising since 1925.  It began in 1925 with the Sheik Said uprising, and there have been minor and major uprisings since then, between 1925 and 1999.

 

There have been some historical studies published on this, some of them coming directly from the PKK [Kurdistan Worker's Party, which led the uprising] – activist publications – some from Turkish, Kurdish, French or American historians.  This last uprising is interesting for many reasons.  First of all, it was the longest one, lasting fifteen years.  No other uprising lasted that long… 

 

I will try not to side with hierarchy, but one of the most important things, for a ‘backward’ society, like the Kurds, was that for the first time, women fought in this uprising, on the battlefields, in the mountains.  So it was a great emancipation of women in Kurdish society, which is a major sociological change.  Unfortunately, this liberation was not complete, because although women escaped from the pressure of their families, they have came under a different dictatorship, an undemocratic Party dictatorship…

 

The recent uprising also changed many things in Turkish cultural life.  For the first time, many Turks, who had never been to the eastern part of [Anatolia], who perhaps had Kurdish friends in school or the army, were able to learn that there are ten to twenty million different people – non-Turks – in this country.  It also drew attention from the outside world, mainly Europeans, and had great influences on Turkish social, even media life.  For instance, in the last ten years, so many soap operas about Kurds have been on TV – in a very reactionary, conservative way – but, Turks now know there are Kurds in this country.  The uprising introduced into Turkish social and cultural life the Kurdish reality.

 

When I have to say something about the results, well, the Kurds lost the fight for many reasons.  Politically speaking, they were not able to make a good alliance.  The PKK (mainly) was mostly isolated in its fight against the Turkish anti-democratic state.  Even the Turkish leftists were under the influence of the official ideology that denied the Kurdish reality, and were not very helpful…[the PKK] made many mistakes, were unable to make a good balance between political and armed struggle, or make use of alliances with foreign allies in Iraq, Syria, Iran or the EU.

 

And of course, the Turkish state was very harsh.  The repression against Kurds was very harsh.  The Turkish army made no distinctions between armed guerrillas and innocent peasants.  So they also called innocent peasants “PKK militants”, because they had been unjustly oppressed.

 

I interviewed twice [PKK leader Abdullah] Ocalan, and in the first interview, in 1991, he told me, “The Turkish army is my best ally.”  Because whenever they raided villages, many people would go to join the PKK, because the Turkish army was so oppressive.

 

Looking from Ankara‘s side, they were unable to understand that this is a political problem.  They only perceive the Kurdish problem as a security problem, so it can be solved by military means.  They do not speak of the historical, social, political and cultural dimensions of the problem.  Since 1925, military means have been unsuccessful, after eighty years, we have the Kurdish problem.  Only peaceful, political means can solve the problem.  And the solution, I repeat, is the official and social recognition of the Kurdish reality and identity.

 

There have been some initiatives from the state, but they were quickly covered by the Turkish army.  The raison d’etre of the Turkish army is more or less the PKK – they need always a controllable PKK, to show that the Turkish army is necessary and important for Turkish society.

 

 

During the most recent conflict, between two and three million Kurds were left homeless by the Turkish army.  What has become of these refugees, and what, if anything, is the Turkish state doing to assist them?

 

That’s a very tragic aspect of the Kurdish problem, and class status influenced what happened to people…When the poorest people, living in very small hamlets, were expelled, they could only go to the nearest village.  Wealthier people could go to Diyarbakir or Istanbul, and the very richest went to Germany, or France

 

What’s happened in Diyarbakir recently is more or less a result of this brutal, forced exodus.  These people are now far from their home village, so of course they aren’t happy.  Most want to go back, but unfortunately, their villages were often burned or destroyed.  They have been going to tribunals, first in Turkey and then to the European one in Salzbourg, asking for their rights, because they have the right to return to their home towns.  Of course, the Turkish state is refusing to give money to these people for the reconstruction of their villages, because if they offered material help, it would be understood as an admission of responsibility for the destruction, which of course is the reality.  It was the Turkish army. 

 

But even during the conflict, the Turkish army always claimed that it was the PKK destroying the villages, because the people refused to collaborate with them.  Of course, there are cases like that, but only three or five.  Among three million people, perhaps, we don’t know, 100,000 were displaced by the PKK, which was also a violent organization, but not as violent as the Turkish state, because they didn’t have the means to be as violent…From time to time, for propaganda aims, [the Turkish army says] ‘here, peasants are wrecking their village’, shown on the TV, but when we study it in detail, we understand these are not real peasants, but what we call ‘Village Guards’, which are pro-state militia – Kurdish – but fighting the PKK.

 

The refugees are now living in very poor conditions on the outskirts of Istanbul, Adana and other major cities, in shantytowns.

 

From 1999 until 2004, the situation in the southeast appeared relatively quiet to the outside observer.  What was happening during that time in terms of the Kurdish movement, and Turkish military activity?

 

Correct, there are many reasons for this relative calm.  First of all, as you know, in 1999, Ocalan was arrested and there was a unilateral ceasefire from the PKK.  This diminished to almost zero the number of clashes in the area.  The PKK took all of its activists, mostly to Northern Iraq, but also Syria and Iran.  When you don’t have fighters, there will be no clashes.

 

The period also coincides with European Union harmonization reforms by the Turkish government, which bring, on paper at least, freedom and democracy, including rights for Kurds, such as the right to broadcast in their mother tongue, an end to capital punishment, and so on.  That was a relatively good period for Turkey in general, and Kurds in particular.  Shops were re-opening, trade was picking up – because there is no industry in the area, most revenue comes from trade between people.

 

There’s also the AKP, the governing party.  The Prime Minister went at least twice to the area and made very good speeches recognizing the Kurdish problem.  People who are in power were not accepting that there was a political problem, but only a terrorist or separatist problem.  [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan] had enough courage to say that there was a political problem, and admitted that the state had made some mistakes over there…  So these were good signs in terms of solutions to the Kurdish problem, peaceful and political solutions.  But at least three tendencies became problems.

 

First of all, Turkey, under pressure from the military and far-right nationalistic parties, fell out of the European track, instead of enforcing the implementation of harmonization reforms.  This is not only the fault of the Turkish government – the Europeans were not welcoming Turkey very much.

 

The second tendency is the crescendo of nationalism in this country – anti-Greek, anti-Armenian, anti-EU and of course anti-Kurdish nationalism that was growing larger and larger.  Kurds became very disappointed about what was going on – the Prime Minister was promising so many things, good things, but doing nothing.  The Semdinli case, when those who were attacked by the Turkish army were accused by the Turkish media.  So there’s been a very high degree of disappointment – and this is behind what’s happening in Diyarbakir, with all the young boys and girls going to the streets and throwing stones at the police or gendarmerie, rioting, and so on.  They’ve had enough – no future, education, hope, and this is the only way they can show their political disappointment.

 

In June 2004, Kongra-Gel, an organization considered synonymous with the PKK, called off its ceasefire and resumed armed hostilities with the Turkish government.  Who is Kongra-Gel, what are its goals, and what is the political context of its emergence?

 

They’re [the PKK] trying to form a legal party.  They’ve changed their name three or four times, and this is mainly for political and legal reasons.  Kongra-Gel was established after Ocalan was arrested [in 1999].  They have changed policy, saying there will be no more [armed insurrection], that they don’t want to divide the country, that Kurds and Turks should live together in a peaceful way.  Also, the PKK has been listed as a terrorist organization by the USA, EU and so on, and by changing their name, they would like to show that they are also politically changing.

 

Which was, unfortunately, not the case every time.  First of all, it’s very easy to tell, using the internet and their own publications, that the high-level staff in all of these organizations has been the same.  But they want to show that they are changing politically…instead of being a small militant group, PKK, they would like to be a more popular organization, and it is not only make-up, it shows they are actually changing…

 

The situation in the southeast has heated up in the last few months.  Turkey recently increased its troop presence by thirty thousand, allegedly as part of ‘ongoing anti-terrorist efforts’.  How would you respond to that, and how would you characterize the situation now?

 

In the last two or three months, PKK activists have been very active in the border areas, and there have been clashes with the Turkish army.  So this is more or less classic.  After Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, the area becomes very militarized.  This time, the PKK is also unhappy, because there has been no progress on Ankara‘s side in terms of solving the problem.  They also need to show that they are always on the field, and so they began their attacks, and Ankara is responding to that.

 

But, there’s a new element, since ’86 or ’87, when the Saddam regime was in Iraq, Ankara and Baghdad signed some a convention called Hot Pursuit, so the Turkish army was able to go inside Iraqi territory in the fight against the PKK.  Which is not the case now, because there is an autonomous administration in Northern Iraq, headed by Massoud Barzani, in the American-backed Iraqi state.  So the Turkish army won’t be allowed to go inside Iraqi territory like it used to.

 

Ankara is calling this a routine operation to defend our borders, our territory, but it was written in the Turkish press that there are 250,000 soldiers in the area.  Again, it shows the summer will be hot in the area, and that Ankara is insisting on a violent solution.  Ankara has been using a military solution since 1925, and it has been unable to defeat the Kurdish struggle. 

 

So the newest thing is that Turkey was always friendly with the Kurds in Iraq, because they were trying to provoke them against the PKK.  There is a very famous saying in the Middle East: ‘you should love the Kurds of your neighbor, and beat your own Kurds.’  So the relationship between Baghdad, Tehran, Damascus and Ankara is like that…

 

Now the situation has changed.  I don’t think the Turkish army, without the permission of the USA, will enter, and as you know, Ankara was always accusing America of not fighting the PKK, saying, ‘what is the difference between PKK and al-Qaeda?’…So there’s a problem between Washington and Ankara about what to do about the PKK.  Of course, America’s only ally in the area are Kurds, and they do not want to hurt their relationship…so we will see what happens…I don’t think the Turkish army will be able to go into Iraq like in the past.

 

In your opinion, what’s the minimum requirement to end the conflict in the southeast?

 

There has to be official recognition of the Kurdish identity.  Kurds are asking to have their identity recognized in the constitution, and also for the majority of Turks to accept the Kurdish identity…they should understand that the existence of more than one ethnic group in the country is not a source of division, on the contrary, it is a source of richness…but Kurds are considered a danger to the Turkish state in the minds of the upper classes.  This mentality has to be changed.  Kurds are our brothers, just like Greeks and Armenians. 

 

The Kurdish issue in Turkey has attracted some significant international attention.  For example, Amnesty International organized a letter-writing campaign for the release of Leyla Zana, and has monitored the situation in the southeast closely.  What impact has been the impact of this solidarity work, and what can American activists concerned with the plight of the Kurds do to help?

 

I think like, in any other fight for freedom and democracy, international solidarity is important.  Not material, but moral support for people who are fighting against rightist governments.  It makes you feel like you aren’t alone, it gives you more motivation…  Against neoliberal globalization, there is also the globalization of the fight for democracy, the fight for freedom.

 

To take some individual cases, so many people who have been persecuted by the Turkish state or army were able to find refuge in some European countries…I think American activists have also done much.  For instance, Noam Chomsky, and the Committee to Protect Journalists and Helsinki Watch, both based I think in New York, have done very correct, very good jobs protecting journalists, many journalists have been killed [in the southeast] and in Istanbul.  And Human Rights Watch, by publishing reports to let world public opinion know what is happening here.  Information is important, publishing well done reports where the Turkish government is obliged to reply, [is important].

 

I do not have any advice to any foreign activist, because they know better than me their own situation.  But I think spreading the news, the information, and just as you have done, not only to be satisfied reading or writing abroad, but to come here and see on the field what is the Kurdish problem, what is the freedom problem, what is the democracy problem, is something I think is really important.  So, just to finish, I will say ‘welcome’.

 

 

 

Jake Hess, a graduate student at Brown University, welcomes feedback at JakeRHess(at)gmail.com

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