President Abdullah Gül’s Diyarbakır Trip Begs the Question: “What is Wrong with Turks and Kurds?” (or “Why Did We Eat This Thing?”)


January 1, 2011

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Citizens’ reaction to President Abdullah Gül’s Diyarbakır visit and the images that the trip conveyed were quite positive. The President frequently underlined the importance of Turkish as the official and national language of Turkey while underlining how Kurdish and other languages are Turkey’s cultural riches. Kurdish politicians concurred.

All of that was nice and pleasant. But if Diyarbakır and the southeast can convey such positive scenes – if we can sit down and discuss our problems in a civilized manner – then we need to ask ourselves this question: What was wrong with Turks and Kurds for the last 26 years that we lost nearly 40,000 citizens – military personnel, police officers, government functionaries, militants, and civilians? Or, as it says in a Turkish joke, “why did we eat this thing?”

The crux of the matter is this: Violence is not solving the Kurdish question. Neither PKK’s attacks nor internal security operations by the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) have ended the problem for the last 26 years. TAF is not going to finish off the PKK nor is PKK going to secure autonomy or independence for the Kurds.

How is the Kurdish question going to be solved, then?

One’s solution for the Kurdish question depends on how one defines its source: If you believe that the Kurdish question springs from the profound poverty in Eastern Turkey (as I do), then we’ll continue to discuss these matters until the eastern portion of the country reaches socioeconomic parity with the rest.

Or maybe you’re one of those who think (as I do) that at the root of the Kurdish question lies the Turkish state’s imposition of an identity and ideology to its citizens – above and beyond the necessities of civic education. In that case, we will continue to argue over the Kurdish question until the day we redefine state-citizen relations in Turkey and start treating the citizen as a human being who has a right to lead her life as she deems fit – rather than an object whose ideas, clothes, and speech is determined by the state.

Or maybe you’re among those who think (as I do) that at the core of the Kurdish question lies Kurds’ reaction to the “there are no Kurds; only Turks” idea that came out in the early days of the Republic; an idea that was amplified by the military regime of 1980-83. Accordingly, we’re going to have to wait and suffer until Turkey finds a way to integrate Kurdish identity to Turkish identity (or, as Kurdish parties like to call it “Türkiyeli“person from the country of Turkey”).

But if you’re sick and tired of waiting (I am), there is a way to normalize – even solve – Turkey’s Kurdish question. It’s going to happen by being realistic.

So let’s be realistic: since 1984, the PKK’s “struggle” has brought nothing but blood, death, and tears to Kurds. Let’s be realistic: the Turkish state’s exclusive reliance on security forces has delivered blood, death, and tears to the entire country. Let’s be realistic: just as violence won’t solve the Kurdish question, neither will a childish shouting match in the form of “you said this, you did this.”

Realism means that, at a time when the PKK refuses to disband itself – and threatens to resume violence – the idea of regional autonomy is simply impractical. At any rate, if we’re realistic, we’ll see that Ankara has to delegate authority and responsibility to local governments, not only in the east and southeast, but throughout the country. And we can see that this need is borne out of pragmatic considerations rather than political calculations – if we’re realistic.

Being realistic is to lift the language restrictions in daily life, commerce, and education in the east and southeast – where life is already bilingual – without changing the official language. Of course, realism is to work out how we’re going teach languages other than Turkish and Kurdish to our children so that they can compete in a world that is globalizing rapidly and mercilessly.

To be realistic means understanding that so many people in Turkey do not see Kurdish demands as a desire to live as equal citizens but as PKK’s machinations to accomplish its political goals. But realism also necessitates the government and political parties listening to Kurdish proposals rather than dismissing them. Kurdish politicians won’t listen if they get yelled at: they can hear the message only if they’re calmly told why some of their demands (especially about autonomy) are misguided.

In the final analysis, if we use our wits and senses, we’ll accept that this thing that we’ve been eating for 26 years doesn’t taste so good. If we’re realistic.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğ

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