ometimes people ask us, “Are you Turkish?” And when we say, “No, I am Kurdish, but I am from Turkey”, they ask “What difference does it make? Aren’t they the same? Do they speak different languages?” and other similar questions. This confusion has its roots in the period following the First World War, when the great powers deprived the Kurds of their status, dividing them among colonial states who sought to assimilate them and deny their separate existence.
Kurds who resisted this denial and the accompanying oppression and massacres were labelled as “separatists”, “terrorists”, and “bandits”.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which emerged in response to this state oppression, has also been labelled as a “terrorist organisation”. Now Turkey is attempting to extend this criminalisation to Kurdish organisations in Syria – the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the People’s and Women’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ), and even the multi-ethnic Syrian Defence Forces (SDF). These are all labelled as extensions of the PKK in Syria, while the Peoples’ Democratic Party – the third largest party in the Turkish Parliament – the Turkish government also labels as the political arm of the PKK in Turkey. By including the PKK on their terrorist lists, the EU and the USA have given Turkey a trump card with which to justify their attacks on the Kurds, and both the EU and USA remain silent in the face of these attacks for fear of offending Turkey’s sensitivities. Political parties in Turkey are hesitant to stand side by side with the HDP because they fear that President Erdoğan will mis-represent their position.
The historical differences between the Kurds and the Turks could fill books, but I will try, here to touch on some points that can help throw light on the development of the present situation and the difficulties facing the Kurds today.
In origin, the Kurds and the Turks have nothing in common. The Kurds have lived in Mesopotamia throughout history. They come from an ancient culture that pioneered agriculture and the domestication of animals. They speak Kurdish, a language belonging to the Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family.
The Turks however, originated in Central Asia, from where they migrated about a thousand years ago due to famine. Some came to Mesopotamia and Anatolia, where they encountered the Kurds. The language they speak belongs to the Ural-Altaic language family, which is completely different from Kurdish.
When the Turks came to Mesopotamia and Anatolia, they fought with the local peoples, but as they settled into the area, they also sought methods of reconciliation. They accepted Islam and attempted to form alliances over religious brotherhood. It was thanks to an alliance they made with the Kurds against the Byzantines in the Battle of Manzikert, in 1071, that they succeeded in entering Anatolia. Later, in the Çaldıran war between the Ottomans and the Iranian Safavid state in 1514, they were again able to achieve victory thanks to an alliance with the Kurdish principalities. This was based on a notion of “Sunni Islamic brotherhood”, and the victory gave the Ottomans access to the east.
The Kurdish principalities preserved their autonomous structures under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire. However, in the final period of the Empire, excessive taxation and army recruitment led many of the principalities to revolt. These revolts were bloodily supressed.
After its defeat in the First World War, the Ottoman Empire signed the Armistice of Mudros, accepting the loss of almost all its land except Istanbul and its surroundings. However, the Kurds organised at a local level against France in Syria and against Britain in Iraq, and continued to resist occupation.
Mustafa Kemal – the future first president of Turkey – was not originally part of the Erzurum Congress, which is considered an important first step in the creation of the Turkish Republic. However, two Kurdish delegates resigned their places to make room for him and his friend, and Mustafa Kemal was then elected President of the Congress. While Mustafa Kemal was sentenced to death by the Ottoman courts, he embarked on the War of Independence in alliance with the Kurds, who had already started to resist. He promised that they would establish a joint state of Kurds and Turks, and the Kurds entered into the alliance as if they were fighting their own war of liberation. Mustafa Kemal asked Kurdish representatives to attend the Turkish Grand National Assembly, established on 23 April 1920, wearing their national clothes. But three years later, with the successful conclusion of the War of Independence and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, everything that constituted Kurdishness was denied. This time when the Kurdish representatives came to parliament in their national clothes it was enough to get them executed.
Some Kurds who were ready to collaborate were taken as delegates to the 1923 Lausanne Conference. They stated that, “As representatives of Kurds we declare that we want to live together with the Turks within the borders of Turkey”, allowing the Republic of Turkey to be officially recognised in the international arena. The Lausanne Treaty recognised the minority rights of non-Muslim religious groups, but there was no recognition of ethnic minorities such as the Kurds, who make up around a quarter of the country’s population.
The constitution of the new Turkish Republic, adopted in 1924, denied the possibility of anything being done in the name of Kurds or Kurdistan, and those who opposed this were subjected to terrible massacres. There were uprisings in many parts of Kurdistan against the policies of denial and assimilation, but they were all violently suppressed, and their leaders executed. Demographic changes were forced through via compulsory resettlement laws, and school textbooks and curriculums were based on Turkification.
In the Dersim Massacre of 1937-38, nearly a hundred thousand civilians were killed, and Turkey even resorted to using chemical weapons. This was the beginning of a dark period for Northern (Turkish) Kurdistan. The Kurdish mountains were painted with slogans such as “Happy is the one who says I am a Turk”, “A Turk is worth the world”. Children who only spoke Kurdish were forced to attend schools in Turkish, the only medium of education allowed. The national anthem, based on Turkish nationalism, was read in schools on Mondays and Fridays, and every morning students recited a racist oath that began “I am a Turk! I’m right! I am hard working! Let my existence be a gift to the Turkish existence…” Although almost 99% of the Kurdish population could not speak Turkish, they were forbidden to speak Kurdish in state buildings, and could be fined per word spoken. Kurdish music, theatre, cinema, and books were all banned, with heavy penalties for violation. And this list could be extended.
Kurdish majority areas were deliberately left underdeveloped economically, and Kurds who emigrated to the west of Turkey were assimilated into Turkish culture. Some academics were co-opted by the state to put forward the absurd thesis that the Kurds were actually of Turkish origin and had moved away from civilization because they lived in mountainous areas and were separated from other Turks. Kurdish intellectuals who argued that Kurds are a distinct people with their own languages and cultures were kept in prison for years and tried as traitors.
The national liberation wars that followed the Second World War, and the student movements that spread all over the world in the late 1960s and early 1970s, also affected Kurdish students studying in Turkey. The radical students created many different factions, and one of these was the PKK. Most of its pioneer cadres, including its leader Abdullah Öcalan, were Kurdish or Turkish youth studying at the best universities in western Turkey. While some factions restricted themselves to a legal struggle for certain social rights, the PKK started preparations for guerrilla warfare. They argued that there was no possibility of democratic struggle in an environment where everything done in the name of Kurds and Kurdistan was forbidden, and that, against a fascist regime, only armed struggle had any chance of success.
On 12 September 1980, with many revolutionary factions in both Kurdistan and the rest of Turkey putting the Turkish regime under pressure to change, Turkey suffered a military coup. The Turkish state, which already had a fascist character regarding the Kurds, begun to institutionalise an even deeper fascism. Hundreds of thousands of people were thrown into prisons and subjected to horrific torture, and many young people were executed. Pioneering cadres of the PKK lost their lives resisting, especially in Diyarbakır prison. Some leading cadres, including Öcalan, managed to go abroad and reorganise themselves to start the guerrilla war, which began on 15 August 1984.
The Turkish state used all sorts of illegal tactics against the guerrillas but could not prevent their struggle from growing and spreading. In the 1990s, state forces burned down around five thousand villages, and caused four million people to be forcibly displaced. To create fear, seventeen thousand civilians were killed by state paramilitaries. Turkey was convicted in the European Court of Human Rights after state forces in Şırnak made villagers eat human faeces. Political parties based on the peaceful and democratic solution of the Kurdish problem were closed down, and their deputies were killed, imprisoned, or forced to live in exile.
PKK leader, Öcalan, was captured on 15 February 1999 by an international conspiracy, and brought to Turkey, where he was put in a one-man island prison. Öcalan has repeatedly declared unilateral ceasefires and repeatedly stated that he is ready to solve the Kurdish problem through dialogue and political methods if there is an interlocutor. He has constantly called for solutions through his lawyers, and he even decided to withdraw all his armed forces over Turkey’s borders in order to facilitate a peaceful solution.
The European Union included the PKK in their list of terrorist organisations in 2002, at a time when the PKK was not engaged in any military activity within Turkish borders and was seeking a peaceful solution through dialogue. Turkey treated this listing as an opportunity to continue to approach the Kurdish problem through military methods, ignoring the conditions for a political solution.
Meanwhile, the Council of the European Union had accepted Turkey as a candidate country for the EU at their Helsinki convention in 1999, and in 2005 they began negotiations. The Kurds supported this in the expectation that steps would be taken towards the solution of the Kurdish problem, thanks to the reforms needed to be carried out during the accession process. In the beginning, some ostensible reforms were made, but there was never a sincere approach shown towards solving the Kurdish question. During the peace process carried out between 2013 and 2015, the Kurdish side worked hard towards a political solution, but the Turkish state was only interested in the PKK’s destruction.
When the Kurds in Syria stopped the DAESH terrorist organisation in Kobanê and then defeated them, this caused a deep fear in Turkey.
Sympathy for the Kurds rose all over the world, and possibilities emerged of Kurds gaining political status. This fear took Turkey captive and shaped its entire Syria policy. They cooperated with Russia, albeit at the cost of ruining relations with their western allies; and they invaded Syrian territory. They first entered Syria in the region between Kobanê and Afrîn, so as to prevent the unification of the autonomous Kurdish cantons. In 2018, they occupied Afrîn, and in 2019, took Serê Kaniyê (Ras-ul-Ayn) and Girê Spî (Tel Abyad). In all of these places they are committing crimes against humanity.
In Turkey, the June 2015 general election proved to be a turning point, when the HDP’s 13.2% vote share took them past the 10% threshold for the first time, enabling them to enter parliament with 80 deputies and so deprive Erdoğan of a majority. Erdoğan’s refusal to accept these results, and his official ending of the so called ‘peace process’, began a terrible period of war.
Many Kurdish cities – especially Cizre, Nusaybin, Şırnak, and Sur – were almost completely destroyed, hundreds of people were massacred, and hundreds of thousands of Kurds were forced to leave their homes.
In 2016, under the emergency rule brought in on the pretext of the aborted ‘coup’, the government removed the immunity of the HDP’s elected parliamentarians and co-chairs. This violated national and international laws, and allowed the MPs to be put in prison based on a political decision. Erdoğan dismissed the HDP’s elected mayors on fabricated grounds and appointed civil servants as ‘trustees’ in their place. And he repeated this with the mayors elected in the local elections held in 2019. Despite binding rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, Selahattin Demirtaş, former co-chair of the HDP, and thousands of politicians in a similar situation, are held as hostages in Turkey’s prisons. Now the very existence of the HDP is threatened by a court case that would close the party down and ban 451 leading members from politics for five years.
When you type the word “Kurdistan” into Google, 5,890,000 results appear. However, whenever parliamentarians use the word “Kurdistan” in the Turkish parliament, their microphones are turned off, their speeches are terminated, and they are fined and forbidden from attending the general assembly for a set period. When they speak Kurdish on the podium, it is recorded in the official minutes as “an incomprehensible language”.
As I said at the beginning, it is not possible to do justice to the situation in a single article, but I hope that the account above will enable non-Kurds to put themselves in Kurdish shoes for a moment and to understand us a little better: that it can help explain the reasons for Kurdish resistance, and why, for some, this has meant armed struggle.
If the international arena was ruled by the values of humanity and guided by democracy and the rule of law, and not by self-interest, then the ‘international community’ would have to take a very strong stance against the fascist practices of the Turkish state.
Fayik Yağızay is the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Representative to the European Institutions in Strasbourg.