Turkey’s Coup Attempt is a Forewarning to Kurds

By Geoff Moore

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the potential for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), and the Kurds in the east of the country, to find a path towards de-escalation of the long conflict. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), founded in 1978 and designated by many countries as a terrorist organization, has used guerilla tactics to fight against the state since 1984.[1] By 2011, “Turkey was the “it country” of the region, widely cited as proof that a synthesis of Islam and democracy is possible.”[2] Indeed, my own thesis was optimistically based on the idea that Turkish-Kurdish power sharing had become possible in Turkey, due to the ceasefire called by PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 2013, as well as some initiatives of the government.[3]

My optimism was crushed in late 2014 when the battle for the Syrian town of Kobani precipitated an end to the ceasefire. PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurds fought against the Islamic State for control of this town near the Turkish border, which reignited Turkey’s fears of Kurdish separatism within its own borders.[4] Accusations of Turkey supporting IS against Syrian Kurds led to riots and protests in southeastern Turkey in which 37 people were killed.[5] It is the PKK however, that was accused of violating the ceasefire, when in July 2015 two soldiers were killed in retaliation for Turkish strikes against the PKK in northern Iraq.[6]

Turkish Nationhood
Few analysts take the issue as far back as the Ottoman millet system (a pragmatic form of governing via religious power distributions), and most oversimplify the conflict as one between a secular Turkish state and Kurdish terrorists. The millet system has historically informed the concepts of Ottoman and Turkish nationhood and citizenship, defining what it means to be a member of the majority and minority groups in the formerly Ottoman regions. In many ways, nationalism in the Balkans and Turkey developed in response to one another as the Ottoman Empire slowly died.

The Balkan countries, being mainly Christian, could define themselves in a way that Turkey’s Kurds could not. Turks and Kurds are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim, and the religious basis of the millet system meant that they were loosely associated in the same millet. The trouble with the word millet, however, is that it can be translated either as “nation” or “religious community.”[7] In the modern era of the nation-state, one can see how this became problematic. Sener Akturk wrote in 2009 that the legacy of the Ottoman millet “has been kept in place by the Republic of Turkey as the definition of the modern nation” because of its religiously unifying characteristic which “suppresses any ethnic distinctions” within religions.[8] Turkish nationalism, defined by both the Muslim millet and by its secular nature, is proof that minority groups could define themselves in ways that were not solely religious, i.e. ethnically, linguistically, or regionally.

Father of the Turks
Mustafa Kemal, known as Atatürk, founded the Turkish state. Turkish nationalism and state institutions have so thoroughly been embodied by Atatürk’s secularist vision that the phrase “Kemalism” is used to describe the ideology.[9] An Economist article from 2000 argued that “Turkey clings to the idea of a know-it-all state. The constitution not only defines the country as “loyal to the nationalism of Ataturk”, but also attempts to keep it that way forever, by expressly forbidding any change to the clauses containing that definition.”[10]

In the wake of the failed coup against the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, we have been (rightly) reminded by many news organizations of the frequent coup attempts in Turkey’s recent past. Historically, the military has acted as the guarantor of Turkey’s democracy, or more accurately, of Atatürk’s vision of Turkey’s democracy. Although it now appears that the latest coup was orchestrated by a faction within the military, one could reasonably assume (for all of the reasons in this Foreign Policy piece) that they were acting in the defense of Atatürk’s vision of Turkey. The President has become increasingly authoritarian over time, and his consolidation of power and control of Turkish media (including the imprisonment of journalists) run fundamentally counter to Atatürk’s desire “to make Turkey into a modern, dynamic European country.”[11]

Yet, the defeat of this weekend’s coup suggests that Erdogan has taken control of that narrative and will continue to define Turkey not through the legacy of Atatürk, but through his own autocratic control of the state. The great irony is that he will use Atatürk’s image to help legitimize the “cleansing” of the very institution that propelled Atatürk into a position of power one century ago.[1]

Elliott Ackerman writes that Erdogan “views himself as the father of a new Turkish identity, one aligned more closely with its Ottoman past, its Islamic heritage.”[12]

What does all of this have to do with the Kurds?
The history of Kurdish nationalism is roughly as old as the Turkish state itself. Though simple, the idea that anyone in Turkey could call themselves a ‘Turk’ has the subtle implication that everyone in Turkey should call themselves a Turk. Kurds knew intuitively that this amounted to state-imposed nationalism. Once Kurds were denied a state by the failure of the Treaty of Sèvres, the “Kurdish problem” truly began. The story of nearly a century of clashes between Kurds and the Turkish state belongs elsewhere, but suffice it to say that neither side is blameless. Yet, what is worrisome now is that a repeat of past atrocities (including forced evacuations and the destruction of Kurdish villages[13]) could begin anew as Erdogan redefines the essence of the state.

Joost Jongerden wrote the following in 2001, a little over one year before Erdogan came to power as Prime Minister:

“Ever since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, determined efforts have been made to realise a nation-state with a single ethnic identity…Although, according to the founders of the Republic of Turkey, a Turkish ethnic nationalist ideology had to become the fabric of society, the irony is that this ideology is at the same time the main source of political conflict and violence … The expression of other identities, both ethnic and religious, are considered by the state as a threat to internal security and to the indivisibility of the country.”[14]

The coup has exposed a rift within the military, and it is not much of a leap to assume that the PKK can smell blood in the water. However, it would be wise for all Kurdish groups to follow the lead of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and clearly denounce the coup specifically and violence generally. The HDP is a pro-Kurdish party which joined parliament last year after gaining 13 percent of the vote in the June election.[15] The party joined Erdogan’s AKP and the two other major parties in jointly denouncing the coup attempt.[16] Despite this show of unity, there were reports on the day after the coup that three HDP offices across southern Turkey had been attacked.[17]

Soner Cagaptay wrote this weekend that Erdogan’s “opponents will find it is increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to oppose him democratically. Some will choose to become violent, moving toward radical groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).” While the HDP does all it can to engage in a democratic process, it seems unlikely that the PKK will suddenly swing in that direction. As recently as July 9th, Turkish jets were bombing PKK targets in both Turkey and northern Iraq.[18]

As the dust has settled, Erdogan has focused his energy on a “purge of soldiers and judiciary officials allegedly connected” to the attempted overthrow.[19] Arrests will only go so far. Erdogan will need to show that his military – the military of a NATO country – remains a solid institution. Once he has his house in order, he will be a much more dangerous individual. The easiest way to unify a divided group is to find a common enemy. The Kurds fit the bill, and, unfortunately, it would require very few rhetorical or policy changes to ratchet up the bombing. Hell, he’s already talking about cleansing his own military. What will he say about the perceived existential threat of the Kurds? As an undergraduate I was wrong about peace. Now, I hope that I am wrong about violence.

[1] Jongerden, Joost. “Resettlement and Reconstruction of Identity: The Case of the Kurds in Turkey.” The Global Review of Ethnopolitics Vol. 1, no. 1, (Sept 2001), 80.

[2] https://www.thenation.com/article/what-its-like-to-live-through-turkeys-descent-into-authoritarianism/

[3] Arsu, Sebnem. “Jailed Leader of the Kurds Offers a Truce With Turkey.” The New York Times, sec. Europe, March 21, 2013. ; https://www.thenation.com/article/what-its-like-to-live-through-turkeys-descent-into-authoritarianism/

[4] http://blog.crisisgroup.org/europe-central-asia/2015/08/11/a-new-cycle-begins-in-turkey-pkk-conflict/

[5] http://www.dailysabah.com/opinion/2014/10/18/anatomy-of-protests-against-the-invasion-of-kobani

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/26/turkey-peace-process-kurds-splinters-car-bomb-kills-soldiers

[7] Karavaltchev & Pavlov. “How Just was the Ottoman Millet System” (2011), 22. ; Payton, James R. Jr. “Ottoman Millet, Religious Nationalism, and Civil Society: Focus on Kosovo.” Religion in Eastern Europe, Vol. XXVI, No. 1 Feb (2006), 12. ; Braude and Lewis. Christians and Jews in the Ottoman Empire (1982), 12.

[8] Akturk, Sener. “Persistence of the Islamic Millet as an Ottoman Legacy: Mono-Religious and Anti-Ethnic Definition of Turkish Nationhood.” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 45, No. 6, (2009): 893–909.

[9] Akturk (2009).

[10] “Ataturk’s Long Shadow.” The Economist. 10 June 2000. Pg. 4 Retrieved from: Economist archive.

[11] “Ataturk’s Long Shadow.” The Economist. 10 June 2000. Pg. 3.

[12] http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/ataturk-versus-erdogan-turkeys-long-struggle

[13] Jongerden, Joost. “Resettlement and Reconstruction of Identity: The Case of the Kurds in Turkey.” The Global Review of Ethnopolitics Vol. 1, no. 1, (Sept 2001), pg. 80-86.

[14] Jongerden, Joost. “Resettlement and Reconstruction of Identity: The Case of the Kurds in Turkey.” The Global Review of Ethnopolitics Vol. 1, no. 1, (Sept 2001), 81.

[15] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/turkey-hdp-party_n_7537648

[16] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/wires/reuters/article-3693508/In-rare-unity-Turkeys-four-parties-condemn-coup.html

[17] http://sendika10.org/2016/07/malatya-osmaniye-ve-iskenderunda-hdp-binalarina-saldiri/

[18] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-turkey-security-syria-idUSKCN0YX05I

[19] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/turkey-government-launches-purge-attempted-coup-160716162415421.html

Image from: http://www.presstv.ir/Detail/2016/07/16/475372/Turkey-Erdogan-coup-uprising-istanbul

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