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Turkey: A Nation Divided -- Ethnicity (Part 3)

Turkish police secure the area after an explosion near the Blue Mosque, in the Sultanahmet district of central Istanbul, in January.
Turkish police secure the area after an explosion near the Blue Mosque, in the Sultanahmet district of central Istanbul, in January.

Visiting Washington, D.C., Selahattin Demirtas, co-chairman of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish Unity of Peoples' Party (HDP), felt it difficult to clearly answer the question he was asked when opening the Kurdish Policy Research Center. "Is there a risk of a Turkish-Kurdish [armed] conflict?"

Demirtas passed. "I try to speak very carefully on this issue; making statements and assessments on this subject is very sensitive," he replied.

No "yes," no "no."

Then, in an interview with The Washington Post, Demirtas was a bit more open and even threatening: "Many Turks and Kurds could die and this could trigger a civil war."

Unofficially, the HDP is the main political arm of Turkey's banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a bloody war against the Turkish state and army for the last 32 years. Recent suicide attacks by Kurdish militants have killed hundreds of civilians in major Turkish cities, with the Turkish Army pummeling suspected PKK targets both inside Turkey and in northern Iraq.

Similarly, this has created tension between Turks and Kurds in general, including occasional attacks on shops or gatherings of either community by assailants leaving graffiti behind, blaming "the Turks" or "the Kurds" (in plural).

Recently dozens of shops owned by both Kurds or Turks were set on fire and destroyed in different cities including the central Turkish city of Kirsehir, where both communities have been living peacefully for centuries. Local authorities blamed the attacks on "provocateurs" and both Turkish and Kurdish shop owners blamed "outsiders who infiltrated our city to draw a rift between us."

Many Kurdish activists and columnists accuse past and present Turkish governments of being "racist" and "fascist," while nationalist-leaning Turkish analysts see each and every demand for improvement of ethnic rights as a "hidden attempt" of separatism and "plans for a Greater Kurdistan."

Meanwhile, bias and resentment keep spreading wider with each death on either side, regardless of whether the victim is a soldier, guerrilla, or civilian.

So, still no answer to the clear question whether there will be a civil war, an ethnic confrontation, or an all-out massacre between the Turkish majority and the Kurdish minority of an estimated 20 million people out of a total population of 78 million?

What Happened?

Until a hundred years ago, there was no big distinction between Turks and Kurds in political and social life. In the Ottoman Empire as in other Muslim states like Iran, "nation" was determined on the basis of religion and not ethnicity or language. Inside the empire, there were the nations ("millet") of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism who lived side by side, even under their own religious laws and regulations, though in distinct city districts or villages. They had to pay additional taxes on property and income ("jizye"). But they were widely free, especially compared to, say Jewish communities in France or Spain.

Turks and Kurds, however, were and still are mostly Muslims. Moreover, they were and still are of the same, Sunni, school of Islam.

So, it's not about religion or confession.

And it's not even about ethnicity and race. Yes, history tells us that in the early 11th century Turkic tribes invaded the then-Byzantine Empire and gradually took over the entire empire, including its capital, Constantinople, in 1453 that became Istanbul under Turkish rule. But history also tells us that the Turkish newcomers' numbers were less than that of the locals, who were primarily Greek, Aramaic, Armenian, or Iranian speakers.

To adapt to new rulers and their rule, most of the locals gradually and in the course of centuries changed their religion to Islam, their language to Turkish and even their names. Today, almost all anthropological studies find that more than 90 percent of the ancestors of today's Turkish population are Mediterranean or Southwest Asian like their Greek, Caucasian, Iranian and Middle Eastern neighbors. Only around 5-6 percent of the current Turkish population's genetic code is Central Asian, going back to the migrants of the post-Byzantine period.

To sum up: the vast majority of Turkish and Kurdish speakers in today's Turkey have a very similar set of genes.

Two Different Languages

But yes, sure, the language. Turkish and Kurdish are two different, though very connected languages. Turkish arrived in Anatolia 1,000 years ago with the migration of Turkic tribes. It originates from Central Asia and is a branch of the Altaic language group, like Turkmen, Uzbek, Kazakh, or Mongolian. But well before Turkish, languages of three different groups, Indo-European, an old Anatolian, and Semitic groups were spoken in eastern Anatolia, such as Hittite, Urartian, Greek, Armenian, Median, Pahlavi, as well as Aramaic.

Kurdish is one of the descendants of Western Iranian languages.

Contemporary Turkish and Kurdish/Iranian Persian have heavily influenced each other in the course of the last 10 centuries.

The Last 90 Years

Most probably, something went wrong after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and since the founding of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.

Emerging from the ruins of the empire that had lost much of its lands as a result of World War I, Ataturk's young republic tried to define itself as a new, modern, Western-oriented nation-state. Following its heavy defeat in the war, the young republican regime needed a strongly confident nation looking ahead as a member of the Western community.

Doing so, it fell into the trap of the extreme, even occasionally racist, and simply false imagination of the "pure Turkishness" of the new nation -- ethnically, linguistically, and historically. "A Turk equals the whole world" was the early Turkish government's slogan and "Turkish culture and language is the origin of all the world's languages and civilizations."

Not only was learning Kurdish banned, but even reading Kurdish books could be punished, as was identifying yourself as a Kurd with Kurdish as your mother tongue.

Soon, though, that euphoria of the first years left room for a state ideology of a "Turkish identity based on Turkish citizenship only" -- and not race, language, or religion. But many laws and especially practices of the past remained intact. And it was apparently too late. Many members of ethnic, linguistic, or religious minorities rejected identifying themselves as "Turks," even if that was just supposed to mean citizenship.

Add to all that the imbalance between the western, quite developed part of Turkey and the more backward, eastern provinces of the country that were the original geography of Turkey's Kurdish community, bordering Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

And add to that the repressive military coups that came time and again to power in Turkey, interrupting the country's civilian governance and bringing "order" to the occasional "chaos of democracy," using methods such as banning political freedoms, state terror, and torture.

This was the ideal moment for the PKK, a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organization that combined far-left ideology with Kurdish nationalism. Founded in 1984, it started a war against the Turkish state and army, hitting and retreating to northern Iraq and provoking harsh attacks by the Turkish Army.

In the last 10-20 years, some practices were relaxed. You can now buy songs and books in Kurdish and there are newspapers and even a government-owned Kurdish TV channel. But for many Kurdish militias and activists the Turkish government's plans to "solve the Kurdish issue" are not honest and too slow. Some even believe they have achieved these "little steps" only because of actions publicly condemned as "terrorist attacks."

The PKK is branded a "terrorist organization" by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. But that is not the issue, at least not a key to open the door for peace and reconciliation before it's too late.

Call it a "struggle," as does the PKK, or a "war on terror," as does the Turkish government and army. Since the war started 32 years ago, it became a "de facto civil war" that expanded to western regions of the country through attacks on military and civilian targets and killed about 40,000-45,000 people and cost billions of dollars.

Forget about "they started first, we are just responding to them." Forget about "NATO's strongest army" that is fighting PKK, forget about Turkey's majority and minority, and forget about PKK's hope of support from the Kurdish hinterland and militias in northern Iraq and Syria.

The question is whether both parties genuinely believe that they can emerge victorious from this vicious circle of violence, destruction, and national divide. And if they genuinely believe they can reach a solution alone and without the other side of the conflict.

About This Blog

Turkey Notebook is a blog written by Abbas Djavadi, regional director of programming at RFE/RL and a longtime Turkey specialist. The blog presents Djavadi’s personal take on events and is designed for Turkey-watchers and all who want to get the most relevant news, views, issues, and insights on the country that you might not find in the daily news stream. Also check out Turkey Notebook on Facebook or Twitter.