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How Can the Troubled Relation Between Turks and Kurds Be Explained?

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Kenneth Cortez

Professor Everita Silina

Global Governance

March 17, 2016

How can the troubled relation between Turks and Kurds be explained?

        For the last six months, well over 100 Kurdish civilians were killed in Southeast Turkey according to Human Rights Watch. Those killings were caused by security operations lead by the Turkish military against Kurdish terrorists (or rebels, depending on the perspective). On January 15, 2016, a petition was signed by more than 1200 Turkish scholars. This petition was a call for peace, specifically a call for the Turkish military to stop operations against Kurdish rebels in the southeast of the country. Twenty seven of those academics were arrested, and the rest are under investigation for participating in “terrorist propaganda” (The Guardian). On March 15, Chris Stephenson, a British professor of Computer Sciences from Cambridge University, was arrested in Istanbul for distributing “terrorist propaganda” when in fact he was distributing invitations to a Kurdish New Year celebration. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, said some hours before the arrest of the British scholar that the nation needs to extend its fight against terror, to include those who provide intellectual support for terrorists. They can include politicians, academics, writers, journalists and even heads of civil society groups. A natural question to arise from these problems would be: why is the Turkish government attacking Kurds and their supporters? However, a constructivist approach would better clarify these problems. Seeing these attacks as a process (construction) can help understand them better. A more interesting question would be: how can the troubled relation between Turks and Kurds be explained? Turkish and Kurdish identity, values and interests in a context of social relations can explain the attacks between them. Turkish identity and interests helped to shape the nationalist identity of Kurds. Finally, the Turkish government wants to eliminate the Kurdish identity and set of ideas, in order to make them disappear from political conversation.

        A quick explanation of why constructivism was chosen for this essay is necessary as a starting point. Then, an analysis of the identity of Turks and Kurds is important to understand how social interaction influenced both of these identities. Finally an analysis of the interests of both groups also will shine some light about the influence of social interaction in the troubled relation between Turks and Kurds. The use of the words “Kurds” and “Kurdish” refers to Kurds living in Turkey.

        Why the constructivist approach? As Alexander Wendt said: “It is through reciprocal interaction . . .  that we create and . . . we define our identities and interests” (Wendt 406). The analysis of identities is very important for this essay, but just to talk about identities and see them as predefined structures, as some rationalists’ theorists believe, would be insufficient to try to explain the “Kurdish problem.” For constructivism, identities are not defined by nature, but they are defined by a process of social interaction. This is important because the troubled relation between Turks and Kurds is not something recent; it is a historic relation that has almost a century of conflicts. In other words, it has decades of social interaction. Also, Turks’ interests are essential to understand the Kurdish issue. Interests are given and stable for rationalists, but that does not fully explain the less than stable interests of Turkey’s governments regarding the Kurdish problem. The Turkish government tried to deny and assimilate the Kurds (and other minorities), for example by calling them “Turks from the mountains.” Years later, the Turkish government tried to recognize and validate many of their rights. But lately, they are trying to erase Kurds as a politically entity (Updegraff 119). A constructivist explanation of interests is better suited for this change of heart. Interests are socially constituted and subject to social change; “identities and interests must be fully explained” (Schimmelfennig 210). A constructivist approach would better clarify why Turkey sometimes seems to be beside Kurds and sometimes against them. On the basis of these assumptions it could be said that a focus on identities and interests under social interactions would better explain the troubled relation between Turks and Kurds.

         As Kerem Öktem relates in his book Angry Nation: Turkey Since 1989, Turkish identity has changed from the Ottoman Empire times. Its identity has been fairly stable, but not given or predefined as some rationalists like to think. The Ottoman Empire identity differed from the Kemalist time’s identity, which also varies from Erdoğan’s era. So, what did influence the main changes in Turk’s identity and values? The main change from Ottoman to secular values came at the hands of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the 1920’s and 1930’s. In an effort to follow a modernization process, Atatürk shaped the Turkish identity as LAHASÜMÜT (Laik, Hanefi, Sünni, Müslüman, Türk) (Öktem 6). The identity and values have not changed that much under Erdogan’s climb to power, despite the fact that at the beginning he wanted a more Muslim orientated Turkey but ultimately declined these intentions for apparent fear of a military coup (Filkins 7). As it can be seen, Turkey’s modern secular identity was not given or natural. It was the result of a long process of social interaction (with Western nations and values, politicians and leaders desires, military coups, etc.).

        Kurds have tried to maintain their ethnic identity (culture, language, territory, etc.) for decades, despite the efforts from the Turkish government to silence it (Natali xvii). The fact that they have their own language and culture does not mean that they have always had a predefined identity. That is a matter of centuries of interaction with other cultures previous to the foundation of the Turkish nation. This episode of history is not relevant to this essay. What matters is how the identity of Kurds was shaped by the discourse and policies of the state elite (modern Turkey) and political space. Also, the Kurdish identity is different depending of its interaction with Turkey, Iraq, Syria or Iran (Natali xviii). What really seems to have shaped the modern Kurdish identity is their social interaction with the identity and interests of Turks. Turkey’s Western and secular identity, and their interest to belong to the European way of life has influenced tremendously (probably even created) the nationalist identity of Kurds.

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