Kurdish problem runs generations deep
To outsiders, Turkey often appears to be a mature, open society where tourists of all stripes can enjoy nightclubs and stunning Islamic history and architecture all at once. For almost a decade under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turks’ salaries rocked, highways were laid out across hundreds of kilometres and gleaming apartments allowed millions of poor to move out of dingy housing at little or no cost. Ten years ago international news reports acclaimed the AKP’S economic nous and political success as a model for Muslim and developing countries around the world.
Yet, beneath the surface, Turkish society remains deeply insecure. Let’s put to one side Turks’ blanket refusal to talk openly about the crimes against a million Armenians a century ago. Forget the fact that the lifeblood of Turkey’s historical identity — its once-vigorous Greek, Jewish and Armenian communities — has been wiped from the face of modern life while the general population looked on at (and sometimes partook in) violent pogroms. Let us instead focus on a major issue of concern right now: Turkish society’s attitude towards Kurds.
Until last year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his political powerhouse AKP worked to bring about peace with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) even as society in general remained suspicious.
So, when it became clear the AKP risked losing political power in elections last June, a vote that resulted in a hung parliament, it was easy for the government to kill peace talks and use the idea of Kurdish separatism as a scapegoat for its own failures. The consequences of this included seeing the Turkish population largely ignore the attack that killed 32 activists in Suruç in July 2015, the massacre of more than 100 peace protesters in Ankara in October and military operations in south-east towns that have killed more than 200 civilians.
Erdogan’s ploy to regain popular support was clear: For a period of months leading up to last June’s parliamentary elections a groundswell of support and genuine interest emerged for the Kurdish-rooted Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). It positioned itself as an alternative to the AKP. It presented heartfelt manifestos addressing gender and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual rights, environmental issues and workers’ rights. But the government’s return to war with Kurdish separatists following the Suruç attack resulted in two damaging effects for the HDP and society at large.
First, in the decades-long war with the Kurds, the state understands that majority of Turks habitually side with Ankara, regardless of who is in charge. There remains a huge sense of mistrust among millions of Turks towards Kurds and their ultimate intentions — even among liberals — which led to many abandoning the HDP.
Second, threatening and virulent rhetoric spouted by leading AKP figures and its various media backers forced the HDP to align with the embattled Kurdish population, meaning that instead of being able to continue its campaign for minority and environmental rights, it turned defensive and inward towards its core Kurdish base.
This meant that by the time snap parliamentary elections came around in November, the HDP was, in the eyes of the majority of Turks, little more than a political tool for Kurdish rebels assassinating soldiers in the south-east.
As a consequence, today Turks broadly stand with the government against the Kurdish population in a war neither side can hope to win using guns. As such, without a countrywide consensus that recognises Kurds as equals who make up an essential component of the country’s national identity, governments present and future will use that fear of the Kurds as a way to win votes.
Turkey’s political leaders are chiefly responsible for the growing animosity towards Kurds but it is Turkish society through its sons and daughters that will, if undeterred, carry on the resentment long after Erdogan and his backers have left the political stage.
Forty years of conflict have illustrated that Turkey’s Kurdish problem runs generations deep. The best chance for peace with its Kurdish community lies in looking in the mirror. The alternative is decades more war.