The Uncontainable Kurds

Since the Turkish Republic was set up in 1923, no Turkish statesman has shown the necessary combination of courage and imagination to resolve the question of how the country’s ethnic Kurds, who are now estimated to number fifteen million people, should be treated. Turkey’s leaders have tried variously to isolate the Kurds, integrate them, and repress them, hoping that they might agree to live unobtrusively in a state that was set up on the premise that all its inhabitants, except for a small number of non-Muslim minorities, are Turks.

During the past twenty years, several million Kurds have moved from their homes in southeastern Turkey to towns and cities further west, many to Istanbul—some to escape the state’s pitiless treatment of Kurds, others in the hope of becoming a bit less poor. Some of these Kurds have done what the state wanted them to. They have married Turks, or they have decided not to teach their children to speak Kurmanji, the Kurdish language that is most widespread in Turkey. They have taken their place in the mainstream Turkish economy and learned to enjoy Turkish food, pop music, and soap operas. In short, they have become the Turks that the state always insisted they were.

But there is another group, perhaps as large, who have remained in the southeast and in the Kurdish neighborhoods of cities in western Turkey. These people, recalling the humiliations to which they, as Kurds, have for years been subject, or because members of their families have fought against the Turkish state, retain a strong sense of Kurdish identity that has not been weakened by the military defeat that the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) sustained in the late 1990s, when it was forced to scale down its long guerrilla war against the Turkish army; and that has survived the capture, in 1999, of the PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who is serving a life sentence on a prison island near Istanbul.

The pride of such Kurds in their identity has been sharpened by two unexpected developments. First, since the American invasion of Iraq, the Kurds of northern Iraq have established a federal region that enjoys nearly complete autonomy. It runs its own armed forces, decides how to spend its revenues, and maintains independent (if unofficial) foreign relations. This nearly sovereign Kurdistan—inhabited by more than five million people—is a source of pride to Kurdish nationalists everywhere. Second, under pressure from the European Union, a club that the Turkish government has long wanted to join, Turkey passed a series of laws, mostly between 2002 and 2004, which have increased freedom of expression and relaxed slightly the monopoly held by the official Turkish culture. Under these laws, Kurds now have the right to broadcast in Kurdish and to set up private Kurdish-language schools. They are able to articulate their grievances more bluntly and they are physically safer. Following the passage of anti-torture legislation, reports of torture in police stations and jails have dropped markedly.

In …

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