After Al-Monitor’s Mustafa Akyol opened the debate by asking, “Is there a Turkish Kurdistan?” and another contributor, Cengiz Candar, continued the conversation with “part of Turkey’s territory is Kurdistan,” it may actually be time to ask yet another question: Why is Kurdistan different from Palestine?
This is not to suggest that there is any copy-paste parallel between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Turkey’s Kurdish issue, but the obvious fact is that since Ottoman times, both Palestine and Kurdistan have defined lands without borders. Neither has ever claimed sovereignty in any time in history, nor have either's people been regarded as a nation.
Palestine is entitled to claim statehood on the land that takes its name because of a United Nations decision, the same body that recognized the foundation of the Jewish state and accepted it into the ranks of the world's countries.
Turks from all political backgrounds react strongly whenever they hear about this resemblance between Palestine and Kurdistan, because of their perception of Israel. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan defines it as a terrorist state that “knows best how to kill,” he gives voice to the feelings of the average person on Turkey’s streets. No one sees any justification for Israel’s fight against Hamas or Hezbollah, any comparison between that and Turkey’s fight against the Kurdish separatist terrorist organization, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The idea is that Israel is an artificially created state by the Jewish immigrants from all over the world in the heart of the Middle East, an occupier state.
Turks prefer not to question to how Ottoman Empire once expanded its territories, and whether it had been considered an occupying force — but surely that is how it was perceived, especially in the Arab lands.
The demise of the Ottoman Empire by the end of World War I came painfully. None of the Ottomans' dignity was preserved in their fall; rather, the empire that had once stretched from the Middle East to Europe and from North Africa to Caucasus left little in its wake but enmity and hatred. Remember in March 2003 when the Turkish parliament turned down the US request to invade Iraq through Turkey, but agreed to send Turkish troops to Northern Iraq to protect its land from a potential separatist Kurdish terrorist insurgency. The Arab League united against allowing Turkish troops inside Iraq — because the Ottomans had been an occupying force there.
Erdogan has built an unmatched popularity on the Arab street by the standards of any Turkish leader. He joins the Arabs in blaming the Young Turks for all the things that went wrong during the last breaths of the Ottoman partition and often plays the role of a history professor, bringing old wounds like the Dersim 1937 massacre into modern politicking. Nevertheless, the transition taking place in the Arab world could turn the wind against Erdogan’s skyrocketing fame and ambitions, leaving the Turks and Arabs further apart once again.
The region still does not favor an independent Kurdistan, which is a clear advantage for Turkey. But let’s not kid ourselves about the perceptions of Turkey’s Kurdish issue on the Arab street, which extends clear support to PKK violence as well as to Kurds’ right to govern themselves. In a parallel mindset, Arabs justify the Palestinians’ resorting to violence against Israel to defend their land, rights and dignity. Yet short of tagging Turkey as "as bad as Israel," Arabs in general see the Turkish state as a villain, especially when it comes to human rights and justice on the Kurdish issue. The difference could derive from the fact that they share the same religion and Sunni traditions with the Turks.
All of this, however, should not detract from the historic background to the Palestinian and Kurdish dilemmas. The issue is not whether Israel is more cruel than Turkey, but why one deserves the right to statehood, and the other not. This region is still living in the aftermath of the demise of the Ottoman Empire. And it’s debatable whether the Turkish leadership is taking the right steps by rising to the defense of Palestinians in order to bring the healing of past wounds and closure to the Kurdish issue. The sky looks gloomy for now, but time will tell.
Tulin Daloglu is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. She has written extensively for various Turkish and American publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, The Middle East Times, Foreign Policy, The Daily Star (Lebanon) and the SAIS Turkey Analyst Report. She also had a regular column at The Washington Times for almost four years.