Justice and the Kurds

Imagine that you head a foreign delegation on its way to Turkey to protest to the authorities on behalf of that country’s unhappy Kurds. If you are important enough, you might be met at the Ankara airport by Hikmet Cetin, the outgoing speaker of the Turkish parliament. But Mr. Cetin himself is a Kurd, with a good command of Kurmanji, the most widely spoken Kurdish dialect, and he will defend the regime’s policies toward the Kurds. You might have better luck with some of the members of Turkey’s newly elected parliament, some 25 percent of whom will be of Kurdish origin. But many of them are rich landowners who enjoy excellent relations with the government. You might reveal your sympathies to one of Turkey’s capitalist czars—say, Halis Toprak (whose Toprakbank has been valued at $1.7 billion). But he is a Kurd who does not protest treatment of other Kurds. In the 1980s, Istanbul had a Kurdish mayor, who was supported by plenty of the city’s migrant Kurds before he was undermined by allegations of corruption.

Imagine, if you can, Slobodan Milosevic boasting about his Albanian blood. Turgut Ozal, Turkey’s reforming prime minister for much of the 1980s, made his partly Kurdish ancestry public and succeeded in changing Turkey’s law forbidding the use of Kurdish languages—although he did not lift restrictions on their being taught in schools, and it remains illegal to speak Kurdish in political speeches. Wherever you look in modern Turkish society—loyalist Turkish society—you find Kurds, and many of them show no signs of opposition to the Turkish state.

The presence of assimilated Kurds at the heart of modern Turkey is baffling to foreigners acquainted only with claims of Kurdish nationalists and their allies. The Kurds, runs this account, are Indo-Europeans who had established themselves in eastern Anatolia at least two millennia before the Central Asian Turks settled in that part of the world; their unfortunate descendants have been bullied into abandoning their identity in the harshly monocultural Turkish repub-lic established seventy-six years ago by Kemal Atatürk. In recent years, the nationalist account continues, the Kurds have been represented by Abdullah Ocalan, the fugitive leader abducted four months ago from Kenya and taken back to Turkey for trial on charges of treason—a trial widely expected to result in his execution by hanging.

With all this firmly in mind, foreigners visiting Turkey may look for a cleavage between Turk and Kurd as clean and unambiguous as that which divides Jew from Arab, Serb from Albanian. Furthermore, they may expect to find Turkey’s twelve-million-odd Kurds (roughly 19 percent of the population, according to the historian David McDowall ) standing firmly behind the fifteen-year insurgency conducted by Mr. Ocalan’s Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast. But neither assumption stands up to scrutiny. Many Turkish Kurds—estimates range from one half to two thirds—live outside the war zone, and a lot of these have …

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