The Table of Peace: The Status of Kurds in Turkey

By Lerer, Noam | Harvard International Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

The Table of Peace: The Status of Kurds in Turkey


Lerer, Noam, Harvard International Review


From the day that the guns fell silent in World War I and the Ottoman Empire collapsed into its constituent components, the question of what to do with minorities within the rump state of Turkey, particularly the Kurds, has been a burning issue. When Kemal Ataturk founded the Turkish state from the ashes of the old polyglot empire, his vision called for a unitary state in which everyone would be united in a common identity as Turks. This vision was placed by Ataturk at the core of the Turkish state and provided Turks with a sense of identity and stability that may account for a portion of its modern success. However, this philosophy of unity involved the elimination of outliers, such as religiosity and the identity of the Kurds. All Kurdish culture was banned, and no languages were allowed to be spoken or taught other than Turkish. The conflict between the militant adhesive used to hold together the Turkish state and the wish for the Kurds to preserve their own identity has wracked the nation since its founding. However, progress has been made in reconciling the Turkish state with the Kurdish people through redefining the aims of both. If this trend continues, Turkey will finally settle down to full peace and be relieved of the burdens that still hold it back from its quest to join the developed world.

The "Kurdish problem" has always been intimately related to Turkey's greater problems, such as its shaky democracy. Traditionally, the military has considered itself to be the upholder of the unified Kemalist state, which it views as critical to the survival of Turkey and more important to Turkish democracy than any given democratic election or government. The first coup d'etat by the military against the government in September 1980 was justified primarily on the basis of this "Kurdish problem." This coup occurred before the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) began a bloody revolt, though not the first to hit Turkey, for independence in 1989. The fighting was brutal, pitting a group that is considered by the Turkish government and the US State Department to be a terrorist organization against a hard-line army that imposed martial law on the region, evacuated villages, and ensured that the Turkish state would never compromise on the Kurdish issue.

A few simultaneous events have coalesced to create the most stable situation in years. Abdullah Ocalan, the head of the PKK, was captured in 1999, and his group pledged a ceasefire as a result. …

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