Recently, mainstream media has been saturated with news from the Middle East, most specifically from Syria. The mostly Kurdish town of Kobane, located in northern Syria, has been under siege by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) since September 16. The siege comes as part of a greater invasion campaign conducted by ISIS in an attempt to achieve territorial legitimacy.
Recently, the Turkish government has come under criticism because of its inaction and passivity regarding the siege of Kobane. Admittedly, Turkey has very recently allowed Kurdish Peshmerga from Iraq to pass through Turkey in order to aid with the resistance at Kobane; but this decision came more than a month after the beginning of the siege.
This passivity may seem bizarre given that Kobane is located very close to the border between Syria and Turkey, and considering the fact that Turkey has recently authorized military action in Syria against ISIS. Yet, Turkey’s inaction is actually symptomatic of a broader context of the long and strained relationship between the Kurdish independence movement and Turkey.
The root of the conflict stems from the fact that Turkey was founded as a nation-state whose core nationality does not necessarily correspond to all ethnic groups in the country.
The majority of the population of Kobane is Kurdish. The Kurds, not just in northern Syria but throughout the region, have been asking to have their autonomy recognized by the various local powers for decades; however all of their efforts have so far been in vain. No government wants to see an autonomous, independent Kurdistan in the region – especially not Turkey. As an old Kurdish saying goes, they have ‘no friends but the mountains.’
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been fighting the Turkish government for more than thirty years, and admittedly, they have committed some irreconcilable terrorist acts in the process. This has included suicide bombings, kidnappings, and violent clashes between PKK militants and the Turkish military. While violence cannot be condoned, however, we must also keep in mind that this kind of violence does not occur without reason.
The root of the conflict stems from the fact that Turkey was founded as a nation-state whose core nationality does not necessarily correspond to all ethnic groups in the country. According to the Turkish constitution, all citizens of Turkey are Turkish, which is understandably problematic for people of those ethnic groups who wish to maintain their independent cultural identities, including Kurds. This leads to such discriminatory acts as denying Kurds the right to access education in their native language, or even the right to entertain the idea of autonomy. The official government line in the 1980s was, “There is no such thing as Kurds, they are simply mountain Turks.”
No government wants to see an autonomous, independent Kurdistan in the region – especially not Turkey. As an old Kurdish saying goes, they have ‘no friends but the mountains.’
The nationalistic atmosphere in Turkey prevents people from having reasonable discussions about the so-called Kurdish problem. But recently, the siege of Kobane has brought to light a new form of oppression. Turkey’s stance on Kobane reeks of the ancient adage that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The same Turkey that has authorized military action in Syria against ISIS has refused to intervene simply because ISIS was attacking Kurds this time. Keep in mind, this is the same ISIS that believes it is okay to enslave Yazidis, the same ISIS that beheads journalists, and the same ISIS that murders indiscriminately. This is the sort of moral depth to which racism in Turkey will sink.
This racism is institutionalized too. Officially, all citizens of Turkey are Turkish, which translates into a suppression of all other ethnic or cultural identities. Turkish schools teach the virtues of ‘Turkishness,’ and all the good that ethnic Turkish people have done. Yet what about all the evil that was done? What about the Armenian genocide, for instance, which cannot even be mentioned in Turkey without qualifying it “so-called?” What about all the other things that might have been done, but that history lessons under the Turkish curriculum have left out?
The country’s institutional measures make it very difficult to criticize nationalism in Turkey: Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Law forbids insulting ‘Turkishness.’ According to the article, it is illegal to insult, or “denigrate” the concept of “Turkishness,” but it is acceptable to criticize it. However, the line between denigration and criticism is left very vague.
Yet what about all the evil that was done? What about the Armenian genocide, for instance, which cannot even be mentioned in Turkey without qualifying it “so-called?”
A famous example would be the case of Hrant Dink, an Armenian-Turkish journalist, who in 2006 was prosecuted and sentenced to six months in prison for essentially affirming his identity as an Armenian and a citizen of Turkey while denying being a Turk. The case was then brought to the European Court of Human Rights, and his sentence was delayed. Nevertheless, Dink was assassinated in Istanbul on January 19, 2007 in broad daylight, right in front of the offices of the newspaper he worked for.
Talking about non-Turkish identities remains taboo, and if people do talk about them, the discussions are fuelled by prejudice. For instance, when people talk about Kurdish autonomy in Turkey, one of the first counter-arguments anyone makes is that the Kurds would fail horribly if they had their own state, because they have never had their own state before. Not once do people ask themselves why the Kurds have never had a state of their own. Not once do they consider the fact that, maybe, no one ever let them have a state of their own. It is not always the most extreme nationalists who make these sorts of arguments – even the most liberal, open-minded people can end up going there.
Casually making a generalization about an ethnic minority, and denying them their rights based on this generalization is illogical. It is falling victim to circular logic. Furthermore, it is pure, unadulterated racism. What gives Turks the right to deny Kurds their right to self-identification, let alone self-determination? And if this denial has translated into decades of persecution, is it really surprising that the Kurds resort to violence, and even terrorism?
The Turkish state has, for decades, tried to protect the integrity of its borders by denying peoples of different ethnic groups their identities, and replacing them with the singularity of ‘Turkishness.’ Admittedly, it is not right to blame individuals for the situation that Turkey is in right now. It is an institutional problem, caused by an effort to create a nation-state, comprised of a single nation, out of an ethnically diverse population. The situation in Turkey now is a devastating and divisive legacy of European nationalism, and a horrible misinterpretation of the right to self-determination. Self-determination is supposed to mean that if any people, united by a common culture or language, decide to determine their own fate, then it is their right to do so. No nation has the right to declare itself superior. Yet Turkey’s racist politics with regard to Kurds are the incarnation of supremacist nationalism. This kind of nationalism is the bane of my country, as it has been for the Kurds for a long time. Seldom has this been truer than now in Kobane.
Cem Ertekin is a commentary editor at The Daily, but the views expressed here are his own. To contact him, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.