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Is There a Turkish Kurdistan?

Mustafa Akyol examines the questions, risks and consequences of Kurdish autonomy in Turkey.
Turkish-Kurdish women flash V for victory signs during a demonstration in support of Syrian Kurds, in the southeastern Turkish town of Nusaybin, near the Turkish-Syrian border, January, 26, 2013. Sitting across the table from top Turkish officials, jailed Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan wields the power to silence guns across southeastern Turkey which have killed more than 40,000 people in a three decade-old insurgency. Reviled by most Turks and held in virtual isolation since his 1999 capture, the Kur

If you follow the Turkish media, and especially focus on news related to Turkey’s southeastern neighbors, you will notice an interesting nuance: The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq is almost never referred to with its official name. Most Turks rather simply call it “Northern Iraq,” with clear intention to avoid the K word. Others who try to be more realistic speak of “the Kurdish Regional Government.” They, in other words, prefer the word “Kurdish” to “Kurdistan,” because the latter is quite toxic for most Turkish ears.

The reason for this widespread Turkish sensitivity is not hard to see: The geographic area that historically has been called “Kurdistan” is divided since World War I between four countries: Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, the last of them having the largest share. Moreover, groups among Turkey’s Kurds have launched almost two dozen rebellions against Ankara in the past 90 years. This had led successive Turkish governments — and especially the bureaucratic establishment, which was politely called “the regime” — to try to “Turkify” the region. Methods included replacing names of Kurdish locales with Turkish ones, banning the very usage of the Kurdish language, and forcing all Kurds to recite Atatürk’s famous motto: “How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk.’”

Today, however, almost all of these authoritarian practices have become history. Beginning first with the late President Turgut Özal in the early '90’s, and continuing more extensively under the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, the Turkish state acknowledged “the Kurdish reality.” Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan even publicly apologized for past “massacres” committed by Turkish forces against rebellious Kurdish tribes. He also announced, “The era of assimilation is over,” and that Kurds can be proud of their identity as equal citizens of Turkey.

Yet the acceptance of Kurds, a people, does not necessarily mean the acceptance of Kurdistan, a country — despite the fact that Erdoğan’s government has very good relations with the KRG. Because many Turks intuitively fear that if they begin to speak of the autonomous region in their south as “Iraqi Kurdistan,” then questions will arise about “Turkish Kurdistan,” and their homeland will eventually be divided along ethnic lines.

This fear — perhaps the most quintessential of all Turkish fears — is arguably understandable, given the long history of ethnic division, conflict and cleansing Turks went through during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. But history also should prove to Turks that fears cannot be soothed by denying realities. Instead of yet another ostrich policy, in other words, Turks should discuss where “Kurdistan” is and what it means for the future of Turkey.

Those Turks who have done this — a handful of liberal intellectuals — often argue that Turkey should consider “the Basque model” in Spain — or creating an autonomous “Kurdistan region” in Turkey’s southeast. Various Kurdish parties and nationalists also advocate similar models, including a Turko-Kurdish federation.

However, there are some facts on the ground which complicate these scenarios. The first one of these is that if there is really a “Turkish Kurdistan,” its borders are very unclear. While some provinces, such as Hakkari, the very southeastern edge of Turkey, are almost a hundred percent Kurdish, other southeastern provinces such as Urfa, Mardin or Elazığ are very mixed, with Kurdish, Kurdish, Arab and Zaza populations living side by side. Moreover, not all Kurds are nationalistic — as evidenced by the popularity of Erdoğan’s AKP among Kurdish voters — and some of them might prefer Turkey proper to Turkish Kurdistan.

Therefore, the creation of an “autonomous Kurdistan” inside Turkey has the risk of sparking many border disputes, ethnic tensions, and perhaps even mass exoduses.

Facts are more complicated by the fact that probably the majority of Turkey’s Kurds live today in areas outside of a would-be Turkish Kurdistan. Over the decades, many Kurds migrated to Western Turkey, for education, jobs, or security from state persecution or PKK terrorism. As a result, Istanbul is estimated to host the largest Kurdish population in Turkey, and is sometimes called “the largest Kurdish city on Earth.”

Based on such observations, some prominent Kurdish voices, such as the late Orhan Kotan, have argued that Turkey’s Kurds need not an “autonomous region,” but simply more cultural rights and freedoms, such as public education in Kurdish and the right to use the language in walks of life. (They also remind that Turkey’s southeast, the poorest part of the country, does not have the natural resources that Iraqi Kurdistan has.) I, too, agree with them, and argue that if there is a “Kurdistan” in Turkey, it is the whole country, and its capital is Istanbul. Kurds just should me made more at home in every inch of Turkey.

Yet more discussion is needed on this thorny issue between Turks and Kurds. The latter’s aspirations for identity is undisputedly right. But their aspirations for a country of their own is more complicated, contested, and also risky.

Mustafa Akyol is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse, and a columnist for two Turkish newspapers, Hürriyet Daily News and Star. His articles have also appeared in Foreign AffairsNewsweekThe New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street Journal and The Guardian. He studied political science and history at the Boğaziçi University in Istanbul, where he still lives. His book, Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty, an argument for "Muslim liberalism," was published by W.W. Norton in July 2011. The book was described by the Financial Times as “a forthright and elegant Muslim defense of freedom."

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