Kurdish FAQ

Article published on Dec. 24, 2009
Article published on Dec. 24, 2009

With the dissolution of Turkey’s only Kurdish political party earlier this month, some might wonder what exactly is going on with the dysfunctional Turkish-Kurdish relationship and whether or not they can find a guide explaining it in simple terms.

Earlier this month the constitutional court dissolved Turkey’s only Kurdish political party ; the Democratic Society Party (DTP) is now the fifth Kurdish party shut down for being insufficiently pro-Turkish, much like how one might toss out a salad for failing to be a pizza.

As images of Kurdish suffering remain one of Turkey’s top exports --along with textiles, automotives and images of women in headscarves-- the Turkish-Kurdish relationship has been the subject of much international condemnation. But countless hours of debate haven’t been able to explain the complex dynamic between two peoples equally convinced each one is the victim (though bad press has made it harder to win any human rights awards).

In fact, both Turks and Kurds share enough in common to ensure the issues won’t be solved anytime soon. For those just learning about our common dysfunctions, there is a useful Turkish-Kurdish primer.

Who are the Kurds?

Depending on who you ask, the Kurds are either unappreciated victims or violent ingrates. Statistically, they comprise about 20 percent of Turkey’s population, making them the largest minority after women (51 percent), EU-supporters (45 percent), and people named Mehmet (25 percent).

Gone unnoticed for much of Turkish history, the Kurds came to national attention in the early ‘80s when the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) brought about greater national identity and a separatist war in the southeast, a region considered by most Turks too unpleasant to live in by anyone but Kurds.

Do Turks really hate Kurds?

Turks and Kurds get along just fine as long as nobody acts too Kurdish (see : African-Americans in America, also immigrants in Europe, also any minority in any country).

Somewhere along the line, “being a Turk” became more than just an ethnicity but an active embrace of republican ideals. Few can tell if a Kurd embodies the founding Western ideals of the republic (unless they are wearing a top hat or something), but a rejection of Turkishness registers in many as a rejection of Turkey itself.

has Kurdish separatism panned out ?

Depending on whether one feels wars of independence should end with independence, the PKK has either failed or likes to take its time (both common outcomes in the Middle East). After secessionist combat reached its peak in the early ‘90s and the 1999 arrest of founding leader Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK shifted priority from independence to greater autonomy.

Still, the twenty-five year conflict resulted in nearly 40,000 deaths and a wave of terrorism that has had the PKK branded a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, the EU and many thousands of Facebook groups.

How to make your own anti-PKK Facebook group:

Step 1. Express displeasure in words mild enough to pass Facebook’s language policy

(“Curse” and “Damn” will work ; there are already more groups named “Damn PKK” than actual PKK members)

Step 2. Spice it up with an arbitrarily large membership goal

(Dream big : “I can find 40,000,000 to curse the PKK ! ” already boasts 51,000 members)

Step 3. Repeat until the PKK surrenders

What the secessionist war did accomplish though, was taking the Kurds out of the sidelines and bringing them to both domestic and international attention.

Has international attention helped ?

Admittedly, while the PKK engaged in terrorism and a guerilla war, Turkey was busy trying to win the hearts and minds of the Kurds by pretty much acting like a Bond villain. Besides decades of attempted assimilation restricting Kurdish language and politics, the military adopted the “torture” and “razing entire Kurdish villages” approach to insurgency-busting.

The rationale being everybody loves fireworks. Flickr-darkly_seen.

The distinction between a terrorist and a freedom-fighter is hazy and really boils down to the perceived level of human rights in the host country ; terrorists blow up democratic buildings, rebels shoot up oppressive marketplaces. And so Turkey found itself on the other end of international opinion, like when Nelson Mandela’s lawyer visited Turkey this April and likened Ocalan to Mandela.

With many Turks convinced international popular support rests with the Kurds, the West has managed to find an equilibrium where they offend Turks with lack of public support and Kurds with lack of governmental support.

Has there been any progress ?

The Turkey of today is very different than the Turkey of a generation ago, even different from the Turkey of two years ago when the DTP was first taken to court.

Some high points :

Kurdish language restrictions were lifted in 2003, paving the way for Kurdish classes (private ones though, not public) and Kurdish broadcasts (public ones though, not private). This year’s “Kurdish initiative” was a concentrated effort by the government to establish dialogue, and whether the motivations were genuine or ulterior, it was the first time Kurds’concerns and demands were addressed. Until its dissolution, the DTP wielded a level of relevance none of its predecessors had (and will wield again, as the MPs will resume parliamentary duties under a different party name as is standard practice amongst Turkey’s banned parties). The DTP closure was met with immediate condemnation from many corners of the intellectual sphere, from liberal writers to the more nationalistic journalists.

As Turkey’s citizens get worldlier, “one nation over all” gives way to expectations of a more inclusive, pluralistic state ; one where people of all creeds can live together without violence, content with the simpler, easy-going intolerance of the more developed world. Either that, or some people haven gotten tired of fighting and international Pariah-Dom. Still, most Turks see these liberal steps, and the minority who supports them, as dangerously naïve at best or dangerously treacherous at worst.

So Turkish hardliners are the ones preventing a solution ?

Both Turkish and Kurdish hardliners are preventing a solution ; Joost Lagendijk argues in daily Hurriyet Daily News & ; ; Economic Review, “The struggle to solve the Kurdish problem is not a fight between Turks… and Kurds. It is a tough battle between Turks and Kurds who are willing to find a political compromise… and Turks and Kurds who are not interested in finding a solution. ”

Nationalism plays a great role in the minds of many Turks and Kurds, as Ahmet Altan writes in daily Taraf, “Ask a Kurdish youth and there is nothing more important than being Kurdish. Ask a Turkish youth and there is nothing more important than being Turkish. ” Engin Ardic of daily Sabah takes it up a notch by identifying the pro-war bloc as “Turkish fascists and Kurdish fascists” (astute, though fascists traditionally have better uniforms) and accuses the former of being too proud to accept anything but total victory and the latter of not wanting to give up their lucrative heroin trade.

other reasons for this impasse include (but are not limited to) :


As mentioned before, with both sides convinced each are the victims, Turks by terrorism and Kurds by oppressive marginalization, it is difficult to get either side to take the first step towards peace or, at the very least, to stop hitting each other.


When the first reaction to everything from party closures to football matches is nationalistic violence from both sides, it becomes harder and harder to pass it off as “horseplay. ”

Victory, not peace

For most of Turkish history, and still in today’s history books, Turks learned that peace came through victory : you conquered, you silenced… strife only existed if you weren’t victorious enough.

Many Turks were enraged this October when eight jubilant PKK members surrendered to Turkish authorities as the first step towards reconciliation ; the PKK militant’s smiles and victory signs felt more like a Turkish defeat than mutual peace.

Sacred institutions

Just as Turks revere Ataturk for liberating them from oppressors and Kemalism for creating a Turkish national identity, and hold both above criticism, Kurds can argue that if it weren’t for Ocalan and the PKK, nobody would have heard of the Kurds let alone be discussing peace with them.

With such high esteem, it is difficult for any Kurdish organization to gain support amongst its own people by discrediting the PKK. Meanwhile, the same Kurdish organizations are unable to gain legitimacy amongst Turks unless they distance themselves from the PKK (hence the DTP closure).

Nor will Turks accept any involvement by Ocalan in the peace process, while Ocalan himself refuses to be rendered irrelevant, directing people from his prison cell and supporting or dismissing the peace process as he wishes, effectively showing both Turks and Kurds who is still in charge.

So until either a Kurdish leader arrives that can be non-violent enough to appease Turks and strong-willed enough to supersede Ocalan in Kurdish minds, or until Turks accept Ocalan and the PKK as part of the peace process, Turkey will remain mired in this catch-22.

Either that, or both sides can learn a little humility and settle on a compromise where neither side is victorious, but both are at peace.