Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Turkey Can’t Have it Both Ways

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (R) receives UN-Arab League peace envoy for Syria Lakhdar Brahimi in Istanbul 13 October 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Mustafa Oztartan)
Published Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Despite claiming to be a democratic model for the Islamic world – and being held up by the US as the exemplary Israel-friendly Muslim state which the “Arab Winter” countries should emulate – Turkey has a bleak history with its ethnic minorities.

In the 20th century it committed massacres against the Armenians, killing a million people, and the Assyrians, whose civilization had survived for more than two thousand years in Mardin, Kilis, Nuseybin and Antep. They were expelled or murdered, and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee to Syria and Lebanon. There are still elderly Assyrians living in Canada today who can give credible eyewitness accounts of the horrors inflicted on the areas of southern Turkey they used to inhabit.

Today, it is the Kurdish Question which most continues to irk extreme Turkish nationalists. Constituting between 20 and 25 percent of the population of Turkey, the Kurds are too numerous to be treated as an alien minority and eliminated as the Armenians and Assyrians were. But “democratic” Turkey’s attitude towards them, especially in the east of the country, differs little from “democratic” Israel’s attitude to the Palestinians in the 1948 areas and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The Erdogan government’s neglect of the Kurdish Question has two principal causes.

The first is historic. The ruling authorities in Ankara, of whatever stripe, have treated the Kurds with high-handedness and a sense of racial superiority ever since the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. This was the case in secularist Kemalist days (Ataturk insisted the Kurds did not exist, but were “Mountain Turks”) and it remained so under the generals, and after the rise of today’s “Islamic centrists” who treat Kurdish activism as terrorism which threatens national security, and respond to it with military crackdowns.

The second reason for neglecting the Kurdish Question is that it weakens Turkey’s prestige while the country is trying to lead the region towards a “moderate peace” in line with US global policy. In Erdogan’s view, this is not the time for the Kurds to be stirring – not that he or any Turkish leader before him ever thought there was a right time for the Kurds to stir.

As the Turkish government sees it, any voice or activity that diverts attention away from Syria must be stifled, because breaking Syria’s back is the key to assuming leadership of the region. Ankara has been active in broader international media and diplomatic efforts to suppress or forestall problems elsewhere in the world that could reduce the focus on Syria, interceding with a variety of other governments to that ends (for example, urging Israel to temporarily ease its repression and persecution of the Palestinians, or trying to reconcile North and South Sudan).

With Syria taking up most of the Ankara government’s time, it was bound to portray any domestic troubles inside Turkey, especially relating to the Kurds, as being linked to Syria. But that is a myth.

The fact is that there is an organic link between Turkey’s treatment of its Kurds, and its ability to continue serving as a model of an Islamic democracy with a rising economy. It is the Kurdish time-bomb that threatens Turkey’s future. The Syrian factor can be controlled merely by ceasing to interfere in Syrian affairs.
The areas of Syria adjoining Turkey gained much from the rapprochement between the two countries in recent years. But now they have been economically paralysed, and turned into a gathering-ground for fighters from around the world, including extremist groups like al-Qaeda and others, exploited by Turkish Islamist extremists. More than 100,000 gunmen have crossed into Syria, while concentrations of Syrian refugees have built up in the border areas.

The Kurdish Question has been a fact of life for over a century in Turkey, as in the other states of the region between which the Kurds are distributed. The Turkish government cannot continue ignoring the domestic ethnic and sectarian factors at play within its own territory, and act as though the Turkish Republic is a mono-sectarian and mono-ethnic country.

Yet until today, under a false cloak of democracy, repression has the upper hand in Turkey. The Turkish army invades Kurdish districts, blows up houses and kills hundreds of people, and conquers adjoining border areas in Iraq and Syria – with barely a passing mention made by the international media, whose ethics prompt them only to espouse those causes that serve neo-liberal hegemony.

In Istanbul, journalists, writers, and dissidents are arrested for writing articles about the Kurds or Armenians. Even Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk fled the country after an article on the massacres of Armenians. One publisher was jailed for two years for printing a translated book that referred to the slaughter of Kurds in the 1990s with the blessing of the Clinton administration. Every Turk – Kurdish or otherwise – who is aware of what is happening in the Kurdish areas advises you to watch the films of the Kurdish director Yilmaz Gunay, who is exiled in Europe.

They depict daily sufferings in southeastern Turkey similar to those experienced by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

A self-professed champion of the Palestinian cause cannot also be Israel’s chief ally in the region, and an avowed supporter of the “Arab Spring” ought to treat people fairly within its own borders and allow them to exercise their rights and liberties. The Kurdish people are a nation with an ancient civilization, language and culture, and a right to freedom and self-determination.

Kamal Dib is a Lebanese-Canadian author and economist.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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