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Kurds in Turkey: The Big Change

A book fair was underway while I was in Diyarbakir. At the first stand I visited, wedged between Turkish translations of War and Peace and For Whom the Bell Tolls, I found a selection of books with titles like History of Kurdistan and Turkey’s Kurdish Problem. No such books could possibly have been sold here during the 1990s, when the very word “Kurdistan” was taboo and the term “Kurdish problem” was taken to refer to an illegal form of separatism.

Before, we were afraid to speak out,” a Kurdish writer named Lutfi Baski told me at the fair. “The government was insisting that there were no Kurds, that there was no Kurdish language or culture. They arrested us and closed our organizations. Now, so much has changed, especially in the last few months. Our problems haven’t been solved, not at all, but at least we can talk about them honestly. It’s a huge difference.”

Later that day, I walked past city hall and saw a large banner advertising a conference that was being held inside. Its subject was “The European Union Accession Process and the Kurdish Problem.” When I walked into the packed hall, a local politician was delivering a passionate harangue.

For so many years, the Turkish state called us criminals, saying that it was not possible to have dialogue with us and that we had to be crushed,” he told the rapt crowd. “This is the repeated tragedy that created the Kurdish problem. The only reason Kurds were forced to begin armed struggle was the way the Turkish state has treated Kurds at every stage in the history of this country.”

These would have been highly dangerous words a couple of years ago. Even now, police agents monitor and videotape conferences like this one. Their presence, however, did nothing to intimidate the speakers in Diyarbakir. “They watch us just like before, but they can’t do anything to us anymore,” one man told me. “This is a democracy now. We’re becoming European. The state can’t touch us.”

The next morning, I visited the mayor of Diyarbakir, thirty-four-year-old Osman Baydemir, who since his election last year has become a leading spokesman for the rising generation of Kurds in Turkey. He told me that although the emergence of a quasi-independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq has thrilled most people here, they are not eager to join it. Instead, he said, they want to remain citizens of Turkey—assuming that Turkey changes its attitude toward them.

Nearly all of the Kurds I met told me the same thing. The prospect of remaining part of a large country that is associated with Europe, and has Istanbul among its many attractions, appeals to them more than the abstract satisfaction of living under a Kurdish flag in an isolated, landlocked Mesopotamian “entity.”

Revolutionary steps are now being taken within the framework of democracy,” Mayor Baydemir said. “But in a country where change comes slowly, we need an outside influence to push us along. The prospect of getting into the EU gives us that external pressure. It’s why more has changed for us in the last few years than in the entire period since the founding of the Turkish Republic. It’s also our main hope for the future. This problem can only be solved peacefully, but who can make Turks and Kurds realize that? Only the EU.”

On October 3, after a frantic series of last-minute maneuvers, leaders of the twenty-five European Union countries agreed to begin formal membership negotiations with Turkey. These talks could last for a decade or more, and the final outcome is far from guaranteed. Some European leaders, including Angela Merkel, the new German chancellor, and the French interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, oppose Turkish membership. A host of issues, from terrorism in Europe to the status of Cyprus, could erupt to block Turkey. Yet in the Kurdish region, people are behaving as if they are already under Europe’s protection.

The prospect of EU membership, which has given Kurds this new confidence, is reshaping Turkish political life. Old barriers to free expression have fallen, and everyone realizes that the remaining ones must also fall if Turkey is to join the EU. As more Turks step forward to challenge longstanding taboos, however, guardians of the old order are mounting a counter-offensive. Their most visible weapon is legal harassment. A prosecutor in one district of Istanbul has indicted the novelist Orhan Pamuk for telling a Swiss newspaper earlier this year that “thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands.” The publisher Ragip Zarakolu is facing criminal charges against three works in his catalog. One is said to insult the memory of Ataturk, founder of the modern Turkish state. Another describes brutality suffered by Armenians during the last years of Ottoman rule. A third is accused of using “derogatory language” to describe Turkey’s policies in the Kurdish region.

Prosecutions like these embarrass and undermine the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which is strongly backing the EU project. They are part of a campaign by nationalist defenders of the old order to block Turkey’s progress toward the EU. This group of nationalists, which Turks call “deep state,” includes many local prosecutors, and also has powerful supporters in the army and bureaucracy. They fear the scrutiny of their operations and the strict limits on military power that EU membership would entail. To upset relations with the EU, they prosecute freethinkers in ways calculated to make Turkey look un-European. Government leaders believe that during the years ahead, they must not only try to bring their country into line with Europe, but also suppress forces within Turkey that seek to block their country’s transformation.

The European Union has been one of the most effective peacemaking institutions of the modern era. It eased transitions from dictatorship to democracy in Spain, Portugal, and Greece. More recently, it helped manage the peaceable breakup of the Soviet empire. Now, although torn by internal problems, the EU is the main factor drawing Turkey toward democracy, and perhaps even toward resolving the seemingly intractable Kurdish problem.

Kerim Yildiz, executive director of the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project, writes in a new book, The Kurds in Turkey, that the EU accession process “opens unprecedented political space to press for human rights and to draw attention to the need for political dialogue between Turkey and the Kurds.” If this process actually leads Turkey into the EU, Yildiz predicts, Kurds will greatly benefit: “Full EU membership will impose checks on the behaviour of the Turkish state, and could ultimately provide the Kurds with some of the tools necessary to protect their political and legal status within Turkey.”

This process will not proceed smoothly. The forces of “deep state,” and the natural fear of change that accompanies any political transition of this magnitude, have led some Turks to oppose their country’s entry into the EU. Still, most of them—63 percent, according to a recent poll—are in favor. They realize that what the EU wants for them is also what they themselves want. That includes ending a festering conflict that has taken tens of thousands of lives, devastated a generation of Kurds, and blackened Turkey’s name in the world.


Since the 1991 Gulf War, and with new momentum after the recent invasion of Iraq, Kurds in northern Iraq have been building a state of their own, something unique in Kurdish history. Officially it is part of Iraq, but it makes its own laws, maintains its own army, and is as close to being a nation as is possible without formal independence. The traditional heartland of the region known as Kurdistan, however, is in Turkey. Slightly more than half of the estimated 26 million Kurds live here, making up about 20 percent of Turkey’s population. Apart from them, there are some five million Kurds in northern Iraq, another five million in Iran, 1.7 million in Syria, and smaller numbers in nearby countries.

The Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 after the rebellion led by Mustafa Kemal, the World War I hero who later became known as Ataturk, or “father of the Turks.” He forced European powers to give up their plan to divide the Turkish homeland among themselves, but Turks still resent the attempt. Memory of it feeds a defiant Turkish nationalism that is today far more visceral and authentic than the attachments most Europeans feel for their countries. Some Turks still believe that foreign powers are secretly hoping, or even actively plotting, to divide their nation. They interpret any attempt to assert ethnic or religious identity as a step toward separatism that must be mercilessly crushed, and view Kurdish nationalists as enemies of the state. The Kurds, for their part, remember that in the years after World War I, Turks prevented them from carving their own state out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire.

In 1938, when Atatürk died, it was forbidden to speak of Kurds, and in towns the authorities could fine people who spoke Kurdish in public,” writes Andrew Mango, one of Ataturk’s biographers, in his new book, The Turks Today. “The assimilation of linguistic minorities was official policy.”

Yet Kurdish militants have launched two dozen rebellions against the Turkish Republic since the most famous one, in 1925, led to the hanging of rebel leaders in Diyarbakir. They have never stopped demanding that Kurds be recognized as a distinct people and guaranteed political, cultural, and linguistic rights that are abhorrent to Turks who fear the rise of separatism.

The most recent revolt, and perhaps the broadest-based, was led by a group of hard-core Marxists who called themselves the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. They launched their first attack on Turkish soldiers in 1984, and by the early 1990s had built a formidable guerrilla army. President Turgut Ozal, who was partly Kurdish, made indirect contact with them in search of a truce, but he died in 1993 before succeeding. A few years later Prime Minister Tansu Ciller suggested that Turkey’s Kurds be given rights like those enjoyed by Basques in Spain, but military commanders quickly persuaded her to drop the idea. Instead she went to the opposite extreme, giving the army full power to fight the PKK as it saw fit.

The war in southeastern Turkey during the 1980s and 1990s was a very dirty one. Both sides routinely used tactics that amounted to terrorism. The army, seeking to dry up the PKK’s support network, forcibly evacuated and burnedas many as three thousand villages and hamlets. Thousands of Kurds were arrested and tortured. Government-backed death squads killed hundreds who were suspected of aiding or sympathizing with the PKK.

The PKK waged a savage campaign. Militants made a special point of killing schoolteachers, whom they considered agents of the Turkish state, and also news dealers who sold Turkish papers. They destroyed hundreds of public buildings, including many schools and clinics. Their leader, Abdullah Ocalan (pronounced OH-ja-lan), turned the PKK into a personality cult and fiercely repressed dissent. He founded the PKK with twenty-two comrades, and during the years that followed he denounced twelve of them as traitors and had seven murdered. The United States and the European Union have placed the PKK on their lists of terrorist organizations.

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