Q: Professor Heper, in your view, what constitutes the root cause of the Kurdish problem in Turkey?
A: The bulk of the literature on the Kurdish issue in Turkey starts with the assumption that the root of the problem is that the Turkish state has attempted to “assimilate” the Kurds. The present paradigm suggests that the Kurds then resorted to rebellion, and that the state suppressed those rebellions so that it could continue to assimilate the Kurds.
Those working with that paradigm argue that the state denied the existence of Kurdish ethnicity, and that it has tried to render so called “errant Turks” into genuine Turks. In my book, I point out that the state in fact did not deny the existence of ethnic Kurds. What the state did, was that it refrained from an open recognition of the reality of Kurdish ethnicity – notably during periods of “troubles”, that is when there was rebellion in the Kurdish areas, specifically in the 1920s and 1930s. It was hoped that such a policy would prevent Kurds from stressing their secondary identity, which would have made it difficult for them to live with the primary identity of being Turks in a generic sense.
After all, why would the rulers of a country in which, for centuries, peoples of different faiths and ethnic origins had been able to live in relative harmony, decide one day to assimilate one of these peoples, particularly the one, which, compared to some others displayed fewer differences?
Q: Of course, to that one may retort that there is a difference between the experience of the Ottoman Empire and that of the Turkish republic. In the literature, it is usually assumed that the Turkish republican endeavor represents a radical departure from the ethnic tolerance that characterized the Ottoman period, and critics of the republic hold that it is based on narrow nationalism. But you do not seem to see any basic discontinuity between the Ottoman and republican periods?
A: It is worth noting that when a Turkish nationalism began to evolve at the start of the twentieth century, leading Turkish intellectuals did not act as proponents of views that would render the Turks hostile towards the different, of either ethnic or religious variety. There was no resort to exclusivist nationalism; indeed a longing for common Ottoman citizenship lingered on. The Young Turks, for instance, placed their emphasis on egalitarianism; their Turkism, which developed as a corollary to Ottomanism, stood for solidarity, it did not favor any Turkish ethnicity at the expense of the other elements of the empire. The universalization of the Turkish language, a policy which the republic was to pursue more radically, was seen as necessary for enabling the non-Turks to participate in and make contributions to the social, economic and political life of the country.
In the view of the Ottomans, Anatolia was made up of “Kurd and Turk”. Educated Kurds were favored for state employment at all levels. In the late nineteenth century, the Kurds were given priority for being integrated with the Turks. That did not change with the advent of the republic. Indeed, it was the same things that had triggered the Kurdish uprisings in the late Ottoman era as it was to do in the early days of the republic: the causes were non-ethnic; the uprisings were caused by the threat that the “alarming increase in Western penetration” posed to Islam and traditional society. There were also complaints about socio-economic conditions and a reaction to the centralizing policies of the Ottoman state. History repeated itself in the 1920s.
The republican leadership did not depart from Ottoman tradition; they did not try to make the Kurds into Turks. From the very beginning, the word “Turk” was not used as an adjective; it remained a generic name denoting the primary identity of all those peoples who shared a common culture and/or thought of themselves as citizens of Turkey. The founder of the republic, Kemal Atatürk, wished to unite the Turks and the Kurds on a common platform of “contemporary civilization”. It was thus a civic nationalism.
However, Atatürk had toyed with the idea of granting the Kurds autonomy in the Southeast area; he and the rest of the leadership changed their mind when they realized that the Kurds did not live in separate enclaves, but were spread out in many parts of the country. And although they spoke of “contemporary civilization”, the founders were well aware of the fact that Islam continued to constitute an important dimension of the value systems and attitudes of not only the Kurds, but also of the Turks.
Consequently, despite the fact that Turkey had constitutionally adopted civic nationalism, in practice that nationalism was for a long time supplemented by cultural nationalism. That approach obviously did work against the non-Muslim citizens of Turkey, but not against the Kurds. Thus, the acculturation that had been going on between Kurds and Turks for many centuries continued. That shared history meant that the concepts of assimilation as well as accommodation were alien for the Turkish state; an adequate degree of cultural homogeneity was presumed to exist among the Muslim citizens of the state. The state thus considered the Kurds as well as other Muslim communities of non-Turkish ethnic origin as “first class citizens”; in the view of the state, the granting of group rights to the Kurds would have amounted to discrimination against a cross-section of the population who were not “minorities”, and who were, in contrast, an integral part of the mainstream population.
Indeed, since 2004, when the state began limited TV broadcasting in Kurdish, as well in some other ethnic languages, an uneasiness has arisen among several ethnic groups in Turkey; the latter registered their opposition to such broadcasting by arguing this would be tantamount to the state viewing them as “second class citizens”.
Q: It is then erroneous to describe the Kurdish question as being about ethnicity?
A: Since the assimilation of the Kurds has not been the official policy of the republican state the first round of “troubles” – the uprisings in the 1920s and the 1930s – was basically attributed to Islamic factors and to foreign complicity. The second round, which started with the uprising of the PKK in the 1980s, was attributed to radical leftism. Consequently, the measures adopted by the state in order to deal with the “troubles” have also been non-ethnic. In “normal times”, the state has had no trouble granting the Kurds the right of cultural expression, because it has not denied the ethnic identity of its Kurdish citizens. However, during times of trouble, a policy of non-recognition, if not denial, was adopted as a way of preventing the ethnic identity of the Kurds replacing a primary identity of Turkishness in the generic sense. All along, at least at its higher echelons, the state displayed a sympathetic, if not a compassionate attitude towards the Kurds, even in the heat of “troubles”. Indeed, even during the periods of “troubles” no generalized and lingering hostility developed between the Kurds and the Turks.
Q: But are there not signs that indicate that the harmony between Turks and Kurds is in jeopardy? I have in mind for instance the incidents that took place in the province of Balikesir in early October, when violence broke out between Kurdish and Turkish inhabitants. That incident resulted in a flurry of commentaries in the media that Turkey risks going through things similar to what happened in the Balkans in the 1990s.
A: I find such comments extremely exaggerated. That is in the nature of the media, to dramatize events beyond proportion. I have no worries whatsoever about the future of the ethnic harmony in Turkey. Turks and Kurds have lived together for centuries; indeed how are we supposed to separate the two? That is impossible. Incidents like the one in Balikesir have occurred before, and each time, after emotions have run high, the incident has been quickly forgotten. The same will happen this time.