920) Thoughts On The State And Kurdish Identity In Turkey


 Baskin ORAN


The Adoption of Assimilation Policy by the Turkish State and its Reasons


    Simply put, it is possible to mention two major categories of State policies of group identities: assimilation and integration.

    What is aimed in assimilation is the homogenization of the society by the State, through an elimination of cultural, religious, ethnic, linguistic etc. divergencies. If, in a given society this kind of diversification is high, and particularly if the prosperity is low, then it's not unusual that this policy resorts to force. In such situations, the oneness of the State can be achieved to a certain while, yet it's usually very difficult to create and keep the desired unity for long. This is so because unity, even in a marriage, is something that can only be voluntary and cannot be forced upon.

    In integration, however, the purpose is to create a unity among diversities. If we use an analogy, where assimilation is a "grinder", integration is a "salad bowl" in which all the ingredients of the salad mix (sub-cultures) keep their distinct characteristics while the main taste stems from the dressing (the upper-culture).

    The Turkish Republic, since its very foundation in 1923, has opted for the first alternative. Hence, in what follows next, I shall offer my thoughts about the underlying reasons for this choice, both in relation to the internal and the external issues.

1) The Internal Context: The Legacy of the Ottoman Empire

    a) The impact of the "Millet System":

    Turkish Republic is an extension of the Ottoman Empire, the core concept of which was the Millet System. At the very heart of this concept lay religion. Every religion (and, in the case of the Christians, every confession) was considered a different "millet"[1]. Accordingly, all Muslims, regardless of their other differences, belonged to the same "Muslim Nation" (umma). Therefore, Kurds were never considered any different than Turks despite their diverse ethnic, linguistic etc. features.

    When the Republic was founded, this legacy of the Millet System fit very well in the nationalist policy of the State that did not allow multiple identities.

    b) The Young Turk tradition:

    In the second decade of the 20th Century the Young Turks (Ýttihat ve Terakki Fýrkasý, The Party of Union and Progress) dominated the political scene in the Empire. Their Turkefication policies were of course extremely closed to any other cultural identity than Turkish. Mustafa Kemal and other administrators of the Republic all came from this school and applied the principals of this powerful heritage.

    c) The anticipation of the Ottoman disintegration:

    The Ottoman Empire went through a rapid fragmentation since 19th Century to the point of a total collapse following the World War. Indeed, the Empire which once expanded over three continents was reduced to a small nation-state squeezed into the Anatolian peninsula. As the Republic inherited almost the same mosaic of peoples, the anticipation of the same phenomenon always terrified both the Turkish people and elite. The fear of loosing the precious peninsula too contributed a lot to the intolerance with regard to other cultural identities than Turkish.



d) The Kurdish uprisings: 

    The above-mentioned anticipation was transformed into a sheer paranoia when the Kurdish underground organization Azadi (1923) started in 1925 a serious uprising, merely sixteen months after the advent of the Republic. Only in 1938 was the State able to put off the fire of the uprisings that followed.

2) The External Context: The Fascist Atmosphere of the Inter-war Years

    The Turkish Republic was founded and developed Kemalism as its nationalist ideology during the inter-war years. This period, during which the Kemalists fought the Kurdish uprisings,  was above all characterized by Italian, German, eastern European and Balkan integral nationalisms the slogans of which found one to one echo in Kemalism: Ein Folk: The Turkish Nation,  Ein Reich: The Turkish State,  Ein Partei: People's Republican Party founded by M. Kemal, the Ein Führer.

    Very much like the Millet System mentioned above, this international atmosphere fit very well with Turkish nationalism which was formulated by the Kemalist elites, students of French Jacobinism themselves to begin with.

    In conclusion, all these internal and external issues contributed to the strong assimilation tendencies in the Turkish Republic. Now I shall turn the discussion to the reasons of the failure of this assimilation policy.


Reasons for the Failure of the State's Assimilation Policies towards the Kurds


    One must admit that the Turkish State has been quite successful in nation building. In a country where the non-Muslim element did not exceed three per cent, the Muslim Bosniacs, Pomaks, Albanians, Cretans, Circassians, Abhaz, Tatars, Georgians,  Laz... etc. were successfully united under the generic name and common cultural identity of Turkish Nation ("Türk Milleti"). This, perhaps, is easily understandable for at least two reasons. Firstly, all these peoples were Muslims, and the non-Muslims in Turkey were less than three per cent of the whole population. Secondly,  all these peoples were Balkanic or Transcaucasian immigrants. One must draw one's attention to the fact that immigrants in a country, in contradistinction with autochtonous peoples, are rather inclined to get adapted to this country than to assert their own nationalism.

    This success of Kemalist nationalism had one important exception: The Kurds, an autochtonous people. Today, the failure of  Kemalism's nation building process with regard to at least a sizable portion of the Kurds, seems obvious. I shall posit the following reasons for this failure:

1) Historical Reasons:

    a) The concept of "nation-state" relies on the assumption that State and nation are identical. This understanding, however, falls short of capturing the reality in the Middle-East where practically all States are multi-national and all peoples are trans-frontier.

    b) Assimilation policy in Turkey did not only effect the Kurds, but also made the Turks blind to the issue. There has never been until 1990's a public opinion favorable to the plea of the Kurds because "the Turk on the street"     didn't realize there was Kurds in Turkey, let alone a Kurdish problem. It's only after the PKK ("Kurdistan Workers' Party") started its terrorist activities in 1984 that they ever heard about it all. 

    c) Kurdish nationality is too deeply rooted and strong to be assimilated. The first Kurdish "nationalist" newspaper Kurdistan[2] came out in 1898, that is only three years after the publication of Meþveret, the Young Turks' newspaper. Furthermore, along with the Meþrutiyet (Second Constitution-1908) various Kurdish associations and publications who stressed Kurdish cultural characteristics (language, epics, myths, etc.) flourished. After the Mütareke (Armistice of 1918) there were others claiming independence. As was stated earlier, the very secret revolutionary organization (Azadi) who started the 1925 uprising[3], was founded before the Republic was declared and Kurdish rebellions were not to be overcome until 1938. Consequently, the memories and bitterness of such a deep rooted and intensive nationalist activity were transferred from generation to generation and continually kept the Kurdish consciousness above a certain level.

2) Structural Reasons:

    a)  The concept of  "common fatherland"  heavily relies on national economic activity. We don't call "fatherland" a place where trade (and, with it, all that eventually make "common national sentiment": common language, common customs, etc.) doesn't go. "Common national sentiment" can only get developed in those areas included in the "national economic market". Eastern Anatolia, a region where the Kurdish population is concentrated, was included in this latter concept  only recently because the impact of Turkish industrialization arrived there very late mainly as the result of a very mountainous topography and a tough climate.  On the other hand, Kurdish nationalism flourished there very early. Had it been the other way around, i.e., had the common economic market included this part of the peninsula before Kurdish nationalism were born, assimilation might have had a chance.

    b) Even in countries which seem to enjoy much more prosperity and a strong national unity, we observe the appearance of nationalist movements in cases where economic disparities juxtapose confessional, religious, ethnic etc. differences. Eastern Anatolia has been continuously disadvantageous ever since the world trade routes changed (16th Century).

    Today, in an atmosphere of globalization, communication and transportation increased the channels with Eastern Anatolia. However, what traveled through these channels were not economic development but only information. So that, the Kurds' relative depreciation has further increased through comparisons with the Turkish west. Hence, their "conscience of being neglected"  has also increased up to an intolerable level.

    c)  Modernization without development creates social mobility, which in turn, creates new demands. Institutional inability to meet these demands collapses the system. This is exactly the situation in Turkey today. The system denies or rejects the new demands (broadcasting in Kurdish, for instance), and insists on assimilation as if it were still possible.

    d) Deeply rooted Kurdish nationality, ill defined industrialization, urbanization, and education eventually lead to the one and only outcome: The rise of the Kurdish intellectuals. Needless to say, in underdeveloped countries, intellectuals lead, and even create, nationalism.

3) Ideological and Political Reasons

    a) Secularism was a fundamental principle of the new nation-to-be. Thus, the first act of the Republic was the abolishment of the Khalifate. The Khalifate, however, symbolized the only link between Turks and Kurds, the Islam. Braking up op this tie meant, in an atmosphere of persistent emphasis on the Turkish element, further strengthening of the sense of discrimination among the Kurds.

    b) The leading policy of the Republic vis-a-vis the Kurds, such as the one represented by Field Marshal Fevzi Çakmak, was based on the strategy of preventing Kurdish nationalism through keeping the Kurds isolated. This policy was rigidly in action until the 1950s. Therefore, assimilation was applied by a handful of civil administrators, military personnel and  teachers only. 

    c) The upper-identity that the Republic  wanted to impose upon the Kurds could have reached the province via industrialization only. But in these conditions it did not. On the contrary, the province came to the large cities of the west after the 1950's via domestic migration for economic and education purposes. Indeed, be it developed or underdeveloped, everywhere big cities had been the cradle of nationalism. Turkey was no exception to the rule as the contemporary Kurdish nationalist elites flourished among the university youth in major cities like  Istanbul and Ankara.

    d) The Ottoman Empire, like all other big empires, was based on the respect to various identities (Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Jewish, Kurdish, Laz, etc). The Empire gathered all these diverse lower-identities under the (upper) identity of  "Ottomanism", which was identical to none of these. The Turkish Republic inevitable inherited this rich variety of lower-identities and yet the upper-identity it imposed eliminated all others but one: Turkish. The term "Nation of Turkey" ("Türkiye Milleti") used by Mustafa Kemal during the War of Independence was never to be heard again after the date of the declaration of the Republic (Oct. 29th, 1923) as it was definitely replaced by that of "Turkish Nation" ("Türk Milleti")[4]. This led, at least one of the lower-identity groups, namely the Kurds who fought alongside with the Turks[5], feel left out  after the var.

    e) The most important issue to be considered when discussing assimilation is the word meaning attributed to "Turk". The term carried three different, and yet intertwined, meanings in Turkey: Firstly, it referred to the citizenship. All the citizens of Turkey were called Turks. Secondly, within an international atmosphere of nazism and fascism, the term soon gained a connotation of ethnicity well related with racism. This second usage of the word was to prevent the integration of the Kurds into the third meaning of the term, the most important one, that of nation. 

    When the Kurdish nationalism found a friendly international audience in the ethnic nationalist context of the 1990s, the chance of assimilation was finally nil.


Cultural Autonomy, the Turkish State, and the Kurds


    Why is cultural autonomy so important -in different ways- to the Kurds and to the State? In other words, why do the Kurds want to have a different cultural identity and why is the Turkish state so reluctant do concede it?

    The answer to the first question is easy: Societal identity, needless to mention, has enormous importance for the individual. Particularly, not being able, because of State pressure, to use one's mother-tongue that one learns since birth can be seen as a hindrance par excellence that alienate the individual  from the society. Furthermore, one of the important underlying factors of the group's rebellion should be understood as this socio-cultural alienation.

    As to the second question, the answer is also easy: As we already discussed under "The legacy of the Empire", in an atmosphere that made assimilation impossible at least as far as Kurds are concerned, the Turkish State is afraid of this:

    "If I recognize the Kurdish identity by conceding cultural autonomy,  our country will go to pieces because afterwards they will ask for independence too".

    To this, the best remark perhaps is made by the renown novelist Yaþar Kemal (who calls himself "The most Kurdish of all the Turks and the most Turkish of all the Kurds"):

    "If we don't give them cultural autonomy, won't they ask for independence?"

    Actually, the fear of the Turkish State is not that silly. Until now all nationalisms started as cultural nationalisms and stopped only at the last station, i.e., independence.

    But what about today? In the era of globalization where the nation-state begins to "wither away" under the influence of "bourgeois internationalism", will the Kurdish nationalism in Turkey today go as far the "last station" or will it get off at an earlier station called cultural autonomy?

    I'll try to answer this one million dollar question by developing four criteria barely touched upon by a very distinguished student of nationalism, the late Ernest Gellner at a lecture he gave in Ankara in December 1993.

    In his lecture, Professor Gellner had modestly answered my question on the future of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey by saying that he didn't "know much about Kurdish nationalism" but could nevertheless "say a few things in general" on the circumstances of success of nationalist movements, after which he mentioned these four criteria: numerical strength, density, historical continuity, and motivation.

1) Numerical Strength of the Ethnic Group:

    The size of the ethnic group is important in its strife for independence. Today, there are many member of the UN with a population of a few hundred thousand only. Turkish citizens of Kurdish descent are estimated at 12 million. This number no doubt enables the Kurds to set up an independent country  of their own. Therefore, this  criterion is fully met. I put a (+)  sign.

2) Concentration of the Ethnic Group in a Particular Region:

    If a nationalist movement of an ethnic group is concentrated in a particular region of a country, its chances to reach independence are greater. Today, it is strongly estimated that some sixty per cent of the Kurds live in western Turkey, well away from their home region in the east and the southwest.

    Given the great disparity in the prosperity level between the two parts, these people can hardly be expected to go back after one generation. In Ýstanbul alone there are two million Kurds. Therefore I don't think this  criterion  is met and I put a (-) sign.

3) Historical Continuity of the Movement:

    There is a perfect continuity in the Kurdish nationalist ideology and movement in Turkey. Themes like cultural autonomy and the like put forward by the Kurds today are to be found in Jin[6], published in 1918-19. Except for the relatively brief period of 1938-1959 there is practically no break in the nationalist movement. I think this criterion is fully met and I put here a (+) sign.

4) Motivation towards Independence:

    Are the Kurds fully motivated to set up an independent Kurdish state of their own or do they find it somehow more suitable to their interests to stay in Turkey?

    Unlike the other three, this criterium is subjective, therefore much more important than the others, so I would like to study it in more detail.

    a) Geopolitical position of the future "Independent State":

    If the piece of land to be independent takes place along the border line instead of in the middle of the country, and if it enjoys objective conditions for survival, its chances of getting independent are greater.

    Presumably, the best alternative for the "independenet Kurdish State" appears to be southeastern Turkey, along the Syrian and Iraqi frontier. From this point of view, this criterion deserves a (+) sign. But the fact that it'll be landlocked and surrounded by at least four surely hostile countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey), with no natural resources to rely on, and most probably shaken by tribal and other rivalry will not positively motivate the Kurds. I think it's realistic to equally put here a (-) sign  also . Therefore, this criterion is only partly met.

    b) Possibility to  Follow an Irredentist Policy:   

    If the future independent state has a chance to follow an irredentist policy after independence, nationalist Kurds will be more motivated to support independence. Irredentism refers to a policy  adopted by a State to include the people of its own etnicity who live close by its borders. In this particular case this is Pan Kurdism.

    On the one hand, Kurds do live in three neighboring countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria) and it should also be noted that following the Gulf War an embryonic Kurdish State was established in Northern Iraq under the name of "Safe Haven".

    On the other hand however, the Kurds of Turkey are far different than those in other countries in terms of development, democracy, social class, leadership, and language. Moreover, the sense of unity has always been weak historically among the Kurds. Hence, this criterion is only partly met (between + and -).

    c) International conjuncture:

    The atmosphere of the international arena should be suitable for the birth of such a State in such a delicate part of the world. From this point of view, we can list at least three points:

    First, after the disintegration of the Soviet Bloc many independent states mushroomed. This climate seems appropriate for a Kurdistan to be erected. However, the opposite may also be true because of the chaotic picture created by these new states.

    Second, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe  is putting strong emphasis on the issues of human rights, minority rights, and local cultures. What's more, it's the age of "ethnic nationalisms". On the other hand, Western countries are not after fostering independence at the cost of disintegrating existing states; they only push for the execution of cultural rights.

    Third, globalization has brought the "Age of Nationalism" to the beginning of an end. Just as nation-states replaced feudal order when European bourgeoisies needed to erect national frontiers to protect their economic interests against other bourgeoisies, the very same classes of the very same Western countries are now tearing down the very same frontiers to enlarge the "national market" to the size of nothing less than the globe. In this  holocaust, one single culture, the capitalist culture of the West is influencing with an ever greater speed and vigor the whole world in the direction of "international (to read: materialistic) values". Material wealth, more than ever, is everything. In this "Age of  Globalization", concepts like "national pride" are fast becoming less important than blue jean brands. In such a cultural atmosphere, a new land of economic and other struggles is bound to  embellish the dreams of men less and less.

    Therefore, I don't think this criterion is met and I put a (-) here.

    Now let us come to the last point of "Motivation": Expectation. But as minuses and pluses above are about equal, this point is so important that I rather classify it as a fifth criterion instead of a sub-division of Motivation.



5) Expectation:

    In a world of "globalization" where materialistic values of the West conquer every corner of the globe making material expectations rise like a rocket, where would the Kurds of Turkey expect to live a better life, in an independent Kurdish state, or in Turkey?

    If the Kurds are no longer held from enjoying in Turkey the material and cultural life they aspire, there are strong chances that they would not go as far as independence.

    There are several reasons why they might do so: They've been living and intermarrying with the Turks for five centuries. They might have scruples about  the new independent Kurdish state because the Kurds have a feudal tradition of fighting each other, because the PKK (nationalist Kurdish organization using terror as the main means to reach independence) is equally ruthless to the fellow Kurds and also because the new state landlocked by hostile neighbors will have very little natural resources to live on .

    But, on the other hand, if this people give up all hope to reach in Turkey the material and cultural life they aspire, this "new hope" might as well be very attractive for them despite all future difficulties. If both material and cultural expectancies are not met at the same time, then  the "new hope" will  grow ever bigger in the hearts and minds of this people. In other  words, Republic of Turkey will have to provide the Kurds both with "bread" and "freedom".

    A last question to settle: What if the Kurds use this "freedom" (cultural rights) to go as far as independence?

    All the solutions so far displayed by the Republic of Turkey to "settle the Eastern [Kurdish] question" have been based on not recognizing the Kurds as Kurds and the results of such a policy are only too obvious: Thirty thousand dead from both sides since 1984, to say the least.

    Just about everything has been tried until now but the respect to the cultural identity of the Kurdish citizens.

    In a world where even forceful marriages do not last, this is the only thing that hasn't been tried yet for the cohabitation of Turks and Kurds, the only thing remaining in Pandora's box.

[1] "Millet" which then meant "religious community", is used for "nation" now.

[2] For a complete collection (transcription) of this first Kurdish newspaper see Mehmet Emin Bozarslan (ed. and translator), Kurdistan, İlk Kürd Gazetesi (1898-1902), 2 Cilt, Uppsala, Deng Yayınevi, Kasım 1991, 580s. + Faksimile.

[3] The Sheik Said Uprising of 1925 was so called because the secular and modern nationalist Azadi leaders who came from the ranks of the Ottoman Army and of the Hamidiye Regiments (irregular Kurdish troops organized by Abdülhamit II to combat Armenian nationalism) knew they could influence Kurdish people only through a religious leader, hence Sheik Said.

[4] See my Atatürk Milliyetçiliği -resmî ideoloji dışı bir inceleme (Kemalist Nationalism, a non-official interpretation), 3rd ed., Ankara, Bilgi Publ., April 1993, p.208.

[5] This was because of two common denominators: Anticipation of the Armenian vengeance, and the will "to liberate the Khalifate".

 [6] For the transcription of this most important periodical of Kurdish nationalism see Mehmet Emin Bozarslan (Ed. and translator into Turkish), Jîn (Kovare Kurdî Tirkî), 1918-1919, 5 Volume, Uppsala, Weşanxana Deng, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988.


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