Turkey’s War on the Kurds
The Turkish state is deploying the word "terrorist" to mask its brutal repression of the Kurds.
The network of loudspeakers that stretches across Fethiye, a town on the southwestern coast of Turkey, is generally reserved for announcements regarding lost children, vehicles in violation of parking regulations, and funerals. On select occasions, it is used to blare football anthems.
Yesterday, one event got top billing: the funeral of twenty-five-year-old Adnan Ergen, a soldier killed over the weekend in an attack by members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the southeastern Turkish village of Dağlıca. Fifteen other soldiers also perished. A former resident of the Fethiye area, Ergen was buried in the nearby district of Seydikemer.
Prominent Turkish media outlets put the number of funeral attendees at twenty thousand. For the past two nights, caravans of cars draped in Turkish flags have careened around Fethiye in a noisy tribute to the fallen soldiers. Storefronts and buildings, already cluttered with flags, have somehow found room for more.
Adding to the atmosphere is the ever-present slogan emblazoned on a hill overlooking the town’s bay: “şehitler ölmez vatan bölünmez,” which means, “martyrs never die and the homeland will never be divided.” The rhyme is also quite conducive to repetitive chanting, and features prominently at nationalist protests.
Interestingly, some of my acquaintances here who were formerly gung-ho on the bölünmez front have now come around to the idea that homeland division is in fact possible and even desirable. Let the Kurds have the southeast, the new thinking goes, and stop costing us money and lives.
But among the problems with the we’ve-had-enough-go-back-where-you-came-from approach is that many Kurds come from here, not there, and that the just establishment of a Kurdish state obviously can’t take place via forcible expulsion.
More importantly, Turkey’s application of the “terrorist” label to the PKK — and the commonplace ascription of the label to all Kurds in the popular discourse — purposefully leaves no room for the history of the state’s transgressions against the Kurdish population.
The 1990s were particularly brutal years, as Noam Chomsky explained in a 2012 interview: “The Turkish state was carrying out a major terrorist war against the Kurdish population: tens of thousands of people killed, thousands of towns and villages destroyed, probably millions of refugees, torture, every kind of atrocity you can think of.”
Chomsky’s The New Military Humanism notes some other dubious distinctions: “1994 marked two records in Turkey, veteran Washington Post correspondent Jonathan Randal reported from the scene: it was ‘the year of the worst repression in the Kurdish provinces,’ and the year when Turkey became ‘the biggest single importer of American military hardware and thus the world’s largest arms purchaser.’”
And while outright state terror may have diminished, the obstacles to day-to-day Kurdish existence remain firmly in place. Just to name one example of the extremes to which the government is willing to go to suppress Kurdish identity: in July 2012 the district mayor and members of the municipal council in an eastern province were given jail sentences for naming a park after a Kurdish poet and philosopher. And here in Fethiye, I once witnessed a neighbor call the cops on a group of boys for listening to Kurdish music in their car.
As for Turkish-American collaboration in ostensible anti-terrorism campaigns — which not only often constitute terrorism themselves but also end up generating more terrorism in return — it’s imperative to recall that the PKK’s attacks do not occur in a vacuum. In fact, their present operations presumably have something to do with the fact that the Turkish government used this summer’s suicide bombing in the town of Suruç as a pretext to launch a war on ISIS — which people soon noticed was actually a war on the PKK.
In the aftermath of this week’s deadly assaults on Turkish soldiers and police, offices of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been attacked in various locations around the country (albeit not in Fethiye, where the debut of an office last year triggered a violent demonstration and an order from the mayor to replace the HDP sign with Turkish flags). In the southwestern city of Muğla, nationalists reportedly beat up a Kurdish man for posting a Facebook photo of himself in peshmerga attire, and forced him to kiss a statue of Atatürk.
For its part, the US government has reiterated Turkey’s right “to defend itself against terrorist attacks.” But it’s a bit more tongue-tied on the specifics. At a September 8 press briefing, a journalist questioned State Department spokesperson John Kirby about the crackdown on press freedom in Turkey, including the previous day’s assault on the Hürriyet newspaper’s Istanbul headquarters — which was encouraged by members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Here’s an excerpt from the exchange, as it appears on the State Department website:
QUESTION: Now, you said the quality of Turkey’s democracy matters to us?
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: How would you rate that quality right now?
MR KIRBY: I’m not in a position to judge it. I’d be –
QUESTION: Well, then how can you say it matters to us –
MR KIRBY: It does matter to us. It does matter to us, and –
QUESTION: if you’re not prepared to make a – well, is it poor, fair, excellent –
MR KIRBY: I’m not getting — I’m not –
QUESTION: Grade A, grade –
QUESTION: Well, but — I mean, just — why don’t you look at your previous comments and acknowledge that they have not been so positive lately?
MR KIRBY: I have said that, Elise. We’ve noted that there’s been challenges there and we note that publicly. We’re candid about that.
QUESTION: So would you say –
MR KIRBY: But I’m not going to give them a grade.
QUESTION: less than perfect? What kind of — I mean, you say that the quality matters to you.
MR KIRBY: We recognize that there are still — there are actions –
QUESTION: Well, you’ve pretty much said yourself that that’s a poor quality.
MR KIRBY: There are actions that they are taking which in our view don’t comport with their own core values as mentioned in their own constitution.
Although he may not be getting a report card this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken to Twitter to educate his citizens on the importance of avoiding provocations in the collective struggle against terrorism. Perhaps he should practice what he preaches.