Why the anti-Kurdish narrative endures in Turkey

Turks across the spectrum find themselves on the same page as Erdogan, much as they may dislike that reality.
Sunday 18/02/2018
A woman reacts as Turkish anti-riot police officers arrest her during a demonstration in Istanbul called by the Peoples’ Democratic Party to protest against Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Syria, on January 21. (AFP)
Long-held aversion. A woman reacts as Turkish anti-riot police officers arrest her during a demonstration in Istanbul called by the Peoples’ Democratic Party to protest against Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Syria, on January 21. (AFP)

Few would disagree that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is one of the most divisive figures in modern Turkey. He has taken a wrecking ball to the country’s parliament, judiciary and media — cornerstones of Turkey’s democratic underpinnings. He has sought feuds with several European countries and angered progressive and pro-European elements of Turkish society. All the while, he commands the respect of tens of millions of Turks.

Despite the deep schism over support for Erdogan, most Turks — both pro- and anti-government sections of the population — support Ankara’s wars on the Kurds.

When the Kurdish residents of Kobane faced annihilation at the hands of Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists in October 2015, few Turks seemed to care that Ankara responded in the way it did. Initially, it refused to allow Kurdish fighters to transfer from northern Iraq through Turkey to fight the extremists. When more than 500,000 civilians were made homeless by military operations in the predominantly Kurdish south-east region two years ago, Turkish media didn’t seem to see much reason to comment.

These Kurds, lest we forget, are the very people responsible for defeating ISIS in Raqqa and across much of northern Syria and Iraq. The Kurds helped end a dreadful series of suicide attacks by the extremist group, which killed hundreds of Turkish civilians in Ankara and Istanbul in 2015 and 2016.

Many Turks, curiously, hate and distrust the Kurds even though the Kurds have established a high degree of stability and security to war-torn neighbours Syria and Iraq.

The beer-guzzling Istanbul liberals’ silence over the Kurds seems hypocritical. For a decade, they decried Erdogan in street protests and from artisanal cafes but they fall silent when it comes to the issue of bombing Kurdish civilians in Turkey or Syria.

To be sure, militant Kurds have been responsible for assassinations and targeting of Turkish security and police officers in recent years. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is recognised as a terrorist organisation by the European Union and the United States, as well as by Ankara.

Wars that pit the Turkish state against perceived threats to the country have always been popular among mainstream Turks. Take, for example, the rise of the Kurdish-rooted Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Its 2015 entry into parliament led to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) losing its long-established majority.

The HDP’s success rattled Erdogan. He fabricated a war on Kurdish dissidents, despite having embarked on a peace process with the PKK just two years previously.

Why did Erdogan’s ruse work?

What explains the Turks’ aversion to the Kurds?

The reason lies in the historical context of the Turkish state’s founding a century ago. Amid the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, a nationalist movement flourished. As it tried to secure support and territory for a new Turkish state, the nationalist movement silenced elements that didn’t fit the idea of a mainstream Turkish identity. Armenians, Christians and Kurds — all living within the borders of the new Turkish state — didn’t fit that national identity. Millions were killed as a result.

Why does a century-old ideology dominate public consciousness in Turkey? While the country’s political and physical landscape has changed dramatically under the AKP, its state structures have not. Turkey’s education system, the foundation of any society, remains outdated. Its schoolchildren are denied basic facts about the wrongs committed by Turkey.

In this context, it is unsurprising that most Turks are unconcerned that Ankara’s bizarrely named Operation Olive Branch against the Kurds in Afrin is destabilising some of the best-functioning and most peaceful territories in the region. The Kurds have fronted the successful battles of today, those against extremist groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra and against Syria’s barbaric Bashar Assad regime.

Yet this holds little water for most Turks, blinded as they are by a historical narrative that has more basis in fiction than fact. Turks across the spectrum of society and political thinking fear that the Kurds want to carve up Turkey. So they find themselves on the same page as Erdogan, much as they may dislike that reality.

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