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Justice and the Kurds

Apart from obliterating the Ottoman Empire, World War I ended up quartering the Kurdish territory between Persia, the new states of Turkey and Iraq, and the French mandate of Syria. At the Lausanne Conference in 1922-1923, at which a revised allotment of Ottoman territory was made, the Kurds who sought recognition were ignored by the British and their allies. (The 1920 Sèvres Treaty envisaged an independent Kurdistan but was later disregarded.) In Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, who would go on to fashion by far the most successful of these entities, brought together his ethnically diverse subjects using an imaginative historiography. Having embarked on his nation-building project by emphasizing the brotherhood of Turk and Kurd, he subsequently rewrote the history books to show that all Muslim citizens of the new state shared a common Turkish ancestry—something the Kurds manifestly did not. Atatürk the secular reformer also did away with the Islamic caliphate, an institution that had bound millions of pious Kurds to its seat, Istanbul; and he decisively put down the republic’s first Kurdish uprising in 1925, which was led by a cleric named Sheyh Said, and executed forty-seven of the ringleaders.

The new republic’s national objective was expressed by Ismet Inönü, Atatürk’s prime minister: “We must turkify the inhabitants of our land at any price, and we will annihilate those who oppose the Turks or ‘le turquisme.”’ Henri Barkey and Graham Fuller, in Turkey’s Kurdish Question, argue that this ideology had far-reaching consequences: “The state,” they write, “is fundamentally responsible for the creation of the [Kurdish] problem by its fateful decision in the 1920s to create a nation-state defined as consisting of Turks alone.”

Since Atatürk’s death in 1938, many aspects of his authoritarian ideology have undergone revision—his insistence on secularism, notwithstanding recent efforts by the state to expel religion from public life, has been substantially undermined by the influence of Islamists in the nation’s administration and in its bureaucracies. But Atatürk’s conception of the unitary nation-state, a conception influenced by his admiration for the centralized and authoritarian nation-states of interwar Europe, has become petrified. This petrification, as the Turkish sociologist Mesut Yegen writes in a useful recent study, has produced a steady supply of misleading labels for what remains an ethnic conflict.4 In the 1930s, Yunus Nadi, the influential editor of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, characterized two large-scale Kurdish uprisings—among them the Sheyh Said rebellion—as the work of “bandits.”

Thirty years later, at around the time that thousands of Kurdish villages were given new, Turkish names, there was much official talk of their “underdevelopment.” In 1969, the government of Süleyman Demirel pledged “special measures for those regions especially afflicted by backwardness”—wording that anticipated the nine largely fruitless incentive plans that have been devised for the southeast over the past decade. Mr. Demirel, who is now president, has little new to say on the subject. In February of this year, he denied that Turkey had a “Kurdish problem.” As recently as 1993, a public prosecutor said, “There exists nowhere in the world a foreign race called the Kurds.” A year later, a parliamentary commission report on the southeast found it unnecessary to mention the ethnic origin of most of the region’s inhabitants.

Ranged like a monolith behind the pronouncements of presidents, prosecutors, and—most important of all—Turkey’s influential generals lies the Turkish judicial system, which is systematically expelling Kurd nationalists from society. Not surprisingly, prosecutors spend much of their energies pursuing political parties that claim to speak for the Kurds—just doing so can be counted as a criminal offense—and that provide the PKK with a vicarious electoral presence in Kurdish regions. Since 1991, the Constitutional Court has banned two such parties for links to the PKK and for other activities endangering the state.

Several members of these parties were jailed; others fled to Western Europe, where they set up the Kurdish parliament-in-exile (a thinly veiled PKK front which, by cultivating valuable links with sympathetic European politicians, does arguably more damage to the Turks than its members did inside the Ankara parliament). In February, the public prosecutor filed a suit seeking to close down HADEP, the latest of the pro-Kurdish parties. The state prosecutor hopes to prove that HADEP is an adjunct of the PKK. Osman Ozcelik, the deputy party leader, denies the existence of “organic links” with the PKK, but he says that HADEP is the natural representative of the families of PKK members who have been killed in the war. (It is rare for PKK members wounded in combat to survive.)

Reflexive anti-Kurd feeling on the part of officials has also turned the judiciary against moderate Kurdish nationalism, even if this cannot be identified with the PKK. Several constitutional provisions and laws encourage prosecutors to indict the blandest manifestations of Kurdish identity. Crimes like “disseminating separatist propaganda,” “inciting religious or ethnic enmity,” and “damaging the indivisible unity of the state” are tried before the same special, juryless State Security Courts that prosecute armed insurrection itself. In such courts, a panel of three judges—of whom one must be from the military—come down hard on people like human rights activists, lawyers, and journalists who try to defend the identity and the rights of Kurds. Such people are among the 10,000-odd prisoners currently in jail for alleged PKK-related activities, including aiding and abetting terrorism. The guerrillas themselves are rarely caught alive. Often the crimes of the prisoners consist of nothing more than a public airing of Turkey’s Kurdish question.

This summer, for example, Akin Birdal, the non-Kurdish head of the HRA, will begin serving ten months of a combined two-year sentence he received for referring, in speeches, to a “Kurdish identity,” and “a resolution of the Kurdish problem.” Early this year, the pacifist, pro-Kurdish Democratic Mass Party (DKP) was banned by the Constitutional Court for activities injurious to the “indivisible unity” of the state—an allusion to the importance attached in the party’s manifesto to solving the “Kurdish problem.” Turkey’s state prosecutor is no less severe about even the mildest activity on behalf of Kurds in the provinces; last November, he ordered the entire leadership of the tiny Freedom and Action Party in the province of Elazig to resign because some Kurdish songs had been sung at a party meeting attended by seven people. This, too, qualified as a violation of Turkish law. HRA newsletters and the Turkish human rights report released annually by the US State Department make clear the extent to which people in Turkey are muzzled by the judicial process. Whether the offenders are journalists “inciting hatred and enmity” or playwrights “insulting the military,” the target of Turkish prosecutors remains the same: the exercise of free speech when it comes to any claims on behalf of Kurds.

Judicial zeal has an enthusiastic and sometimes brutal ally in a police force drawn largely from nationalist and conservative circles. At the end of April, lawyers representing Mr. Ocalan were allegedly beaten up by police when they attended a hearing in connection with a separate case that had been brought against him before his arrest. According to the 1998 State Department human rights report, plainclothes antiterror police “often abused detainees and employed torture during incommunicado detention and interrogation.” Last year, an unusually frank judicial inquiry found that such policemen had made up the core of “an execution squad” within the state security system—a squad, many Turks suspect, that had a lot to do with the “disappearance” between 1990 and 1996 of between 2,500 and 5,000 mostly southeastern Kurds.

Plainclothes police are present in large numbers wherever there are Kurds—I was tailed for three days during my stay in Adana—but they are hated and feared the most in the southeast. A Turkish journalist explained to me why he broke off relations with Kurdish lawyer friends working in the war zone. “The last time I went to see them,” he said, “they were taken in and beaten up by the police. It’s better for them if we do not talk at all.” In this setting of official intransigence and unofficial terror, it is clear that the Turkish government has refused to distinguish a Kurd from a guerrilla. Continuing failure to do so, of course, has one main beneficiary: the PKK.

It is difficult otherwise to explain the enduring emotional pull exerted on Kurds of the southeast and elsewhere by a despotic leader whose godless socialism runs contrary to the religiosity and ties of fealty that characterize Kurdish society. In this regard, Sheyh Said, who blended nationalism with religious nostalgia, represented Turkey’s Kurds far better than did Mr. Ocalan, who first organized the PKK as a revolutionary movement in 1978 and launched its guerrilla campaign in 1984.

Ocalan, who was born in 1948, comes from the cotton-rich southeastern region of Gaziantep, near the Syrian border. He became drawn to a nationalist brand of Marxism when he studied at Ankara University; his PKK emerged among the groups of left-wing ideologues whose civil war against rightist groups in the late 1970s prompted the most recent of Turkey’s three “corrective” military coups against the civilian government in 1980. Now, fifteen years after he began his violent struggle, basing himself in Syria and Lebanon, few Kurds have much clue to what his organization stands for. The hammer and sickle has disappeared from the PKK flag, but the current talk among Mr. Ocalan’s acolytes of “democratic” socialism is unconvincing. It is belied by the PKK’s record of killing and terrorizing Kurds who cooperate with the regime or want more moderate solutions and call only for recognition of Kurdish cultural and civil rights. The original PKK objective of an independent Kurdistan now seems to have been superseded by proposals of a political settlement within existing borders. No one thinks, however, that the dead PKK militants—more than 20,000 to date, according to President Demirel—gave their lives in order to obtain local tax-raising powers or the right to have Kurdish literature electives in Turkish universities. (It is estimated that since the war began, the combined dead from both sides, and from the civilian population, exceeds 30,000 people.) The PKK itself is bitterly divided between its Europe-based political operatives, who want the organization to improve its political image, and its field commanders, who favor an intensification of the military conflict. The more one talks with Turkish Kurds, whether in the southeast or outside it, the clearer it seems that they are unsure of the PKK’s objectives and its methods.

The state’s refusal to listen to moderate Kurds has obliged many instinctive moderates to turn to the most strident voice of all, that of Mr. Ocalan. The ban on the DKP, which rejects violence, is the latest manifestation of the Turks’ self-delusional refusal to allow the emergence of alternatives to the PKK. Such an attitude inevitably lumps the defenders of minority rights together with the guerrillas themselves; the Turkish government is thus prevented by its own policies and rhetoric from accommodating the demands of anyone who claims to speak for Kurds. The same attitude is responsible for the official ban on the use of Kurdish in schools and on Kurdish language courses (whether public or private) and Kurdish-language broadcasting. Mr. Ocalan, who has little to gain from the emergence of new Kurdish spokesmen, was before his arrest an en-thusiastic accomplice of this state-sponsored polarization. He accused rivals of being stooges of the state and, in the case of the DKP, he even sent his goons to attack its members. For a Kurd who refused to be a Turk, there was no alternative to Mr. Ocalan.

  1. 4

    Mesut Yegen, Devlet Soyleminde Kurt Sorunu (The Kurdish Problem in the Lexicon of the State) (Istanbul: Iletisim Yayinlari, 1999).

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