The Dilemma of National Identity in Turkey

Renewed tension between the government and ethnic Kurds reflects a country struggling to define itself.

By Sabrina M. Peterson
Staff Editor
February 6, 2012

In late December 2011, the Turkish military’s air strikes targeting militants from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist group, accidentally killed 35 young cigarette smugglers. Immediately, tensions between Ankara and much of Turkey’s Kurdish population escalated, with Kurdish citizens protesting in Turkish cities such as Istanbul and Diyarbakır.

Although the Turkish government has intermittently combated PKK militants over the last two decades, the December air strikes near the Turkey-Iraq border are part of the Turkish government’s renewed campaign to suppress PKK activity in rural and urban areas. The reignited conflict has led to civilian deaths and discord between the government and Turkey’s Kurds.

Turkey’s Kurdish dilemma is rooted in the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, which made a distinctly “Turkish” ethnicity a cornerstone of the new state’s culture. Although Kurds had coexisted with other groups in the multiethnic Ottoman Empire, after 1923 they found their Kurdish identity subsumed by the state’s promotion of a single ethnicity in which everyone was a Turk. For much of the twentieth century, Turkey’s Kurds have fought for official recognition of their ethnic identity, some degree of cultural autonomy, and the right to use the Kurdish language in media and education. The PKK, which came to represent the struggle of Turkey’s Kurds, has fought for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey’s southeastern region, and its violent insurgency tactics have led to numerous clashes with the Turkish government.

Much of the renewed violence of the PKK in the past few months is the result of a decline in the group’s appeal among Turkey’s Kurdish population. Since the announcement of Prime Minister Recep Erdoğan’s Kurdish Initiative in 2009, Turkey’s Kurds have come to enjoy some cultural and linguistic rights that just years ago had been denied. Although the scale of Erdoğan’s vision for Kurdish-rights reform have been curtailed due to political opposition, the Kurdish Initiative, now called the National Unity Project, has still played a role in taking some of the wind out of the PKK’s sails.

Moreover, Turkey is currently in the process of redrafting its outdated 1982 constitution with the goal of broadening the conception of Turkish identity to include more ethnic diversity. This new constitution, which should be completed by the end of 2012, will likely deprive the PKK of its rallying point. While the redrafting may initially lead to more violence, as militants strive to reassert the PKK, over the long term it will be a significant step in showing Turkey’s Kurds that they no longer need to rely on the PKK to effect change.

While Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party seem committed to rectifying Kurdish grievances, they have faced opposition that has hindered their efforts and reduced optimism. Backlash to Erdoğan’s Kurdish reforms has led to an increase in Kurdish sympathy for PKK militants, which, in turn, has emboldened them.

Underlying the opposition to reform is the fact that many political parties in Turkey regard cultural concessions to the Kurds as part of a slippery slope that will lead eventually to Kurdish demands for secession. The powerful military shares this view. This deep-rooted suspicion of Kurdish aspirations, along with the narrow conception of Turkish citizenship that is deeply entrenched in Turkish state culture, provides considerable obstacles for the resolution of the issue of Kurdish identity, and subsequently the cessation of PKK violence.

As Turkey moves forward redrafting its constitution, the idea of an ethnically homogenous nation-state must be reconsidered to reflect Turkey’s realities. Many of the founding principles of modern Turkey have changed in the past few decades. For example, although Turkey was founded with a strong secular character, the Islamist political movement currently in power has recently questioned this conception of a nonreligious state. The traditional Turkish meaning of ethnicity should similarly be re-conceptualized to encompass the heterogeneous ethnic reality. Only this will begin to redress the Kurdish situation in Turkey and put an end to violence between the PKK and the government.

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