‘There is no such thing as a Turkish race’, said Mr. Aktay, a professor and member of the governing AKP. He was speaking on a university panel, and his remark angered some students so much that they left the room. Aktay said it after explaining the problematic connotation of the word ‘Türklük’, meaning Turkishness, and stating: ‘It’s said Turks come from Central-Asia. Is this really the case? Take a look: how many of our grandfathers really came from there?’, and concluding that the Turkish race doesn’t exist.
Aktay is right. Race is a myth. Turks genetically don’t differ enough from Chinese, Ethiopians, Americans, Norwegians, Kurds or any other people to designate them as a different race. Human beings are just human beings.
Which doesn’t mean that Turks don’t exist. But the identity is not based on DNA, but on elements like shared culture, language, myths and history. Atatürk constructed the Turkish identity. The myth of the people coming from Central-Asia and settling in Anatolia, helped a lot to unify a people that was not unified at all up until the foundation of the Republic in 1923.
I often ask people in Turkey where their ancestors came from. I get the most diverse answers. People who call themselves Turks have roots in what we nowadays call for example Egypt, Syria, Bulgaria, Albania, Georgia, Greece, Armenia, well, you name a country in the wider region and Turks have roots there. After the First World War and after Turkey’s war of independence, new borders were drawn and it was decided that from now on, Turks would live on these lands. So the country was called ‘Turkey’, immediately ruling out other identities.
A very big group of non-Turks and non-Muslims – the Armenians – were massacred by that time already. For the other group that didn’t fit the desired picture of a Sunni Muslim Turk (Greeks) a deal was made with Greece: a population exchange. Ethnic cleansing, we would say today. From then on, the ‘Turks’ were among each other.
One huge group didn’t fit the picture: the Kurds, with their own language, own culture, own history. Did you know Kurdish tribes were independent when they were part of the Ottoman Empire, and that they didn’t pay taxes and didn’t send their sons to the Ottoman army? That’s why it was such a big deal for them to fight in the Ottoman army in the First World War and along with the Turkish nationalists during the War of Independence. They – religious as they were – thought they were fighting, on a basis of equality, for the keeping of the Caliphat and that they would have a full place in the new country they were fighting for.
That they never got their rightful place and were suppressed and denied from the minute the Republic of Turkey was established, eventually lead to the construction of the ‘Kurdishness’ we know today. No longer a mostly social and cultural group, but a politicized identity. The creation of it was boosted during the last few decades, after the foundation of the PKK (35 years ago last week) and the start, in 1984, of its violent campaign against the state. Before that, there was Kurdish resistance, but it was lead by intellectuals and never a mass movement. Now it is.
With all the institutions the Kurdish movement has built in the last couple of decades, many things a nation needs to call itself a nation were developed.
There is a growing awareness of their own identity and history. With national heroes like Sheikh Said (who lead a mainly religiously motivated uprising in 1925 but is considered a nationalist in the Kurdish movement) and Sayyid Riza (who lead the resistance against the Dersim massacres in the nineteen thirties, but is considered a rebel leader in the Kurdish movement) and Abdullah Öcalan, PKK founder and leader.
The Kurds have their own national holidays and commemorations (like Newroz, like the day Öcalan was captured in 1999, like the commemoration of the Roboski massacre of 28 December 2011). There is an ever-reviving culture and language, a solid political organization, Kurds have their own newspapers and TV channels (banned with help from the EU, that persists in relating anything connected to Kurdish activism with terrorism) and with armed forces to defend themselves.
The ingredients that Atatürk and his successors used to turn Turks into a nation don’t mean much to many Kurds. Turkish holidays and commemorations often remind them of their own position in Turkish society. The Turkish language, so meticulously purified and constructed by Atatürk, was imposed upon Kurds at the expense of their own language. The Turkish army has relentlessly massacred Kurds, Turkish media ignored and incriminated them, Turkish leaders are responsible for policies that were designed to wipe Kurds out.
The construction of the Turkish nation, of the Turk itself, thus helped create what it aimed to destroy: a strong Kurdish identity. With everything but their own nation.
Tribes and clans
Yes, I hear you say, but the Kurds are very diverse, aren’t they, and far from united? With several languages, with tribes and clans, with different loyalties to several leaders? True, but that is no argument against creating a Kurdish state. On the contrary: having a country helps tremendously to finalize the process of nation building. It’s not because the Kurds are diverse that they don’t have a nation, it’s because they don’t have a nation that they are so diverse. Just like the Turks were, before 1923. But in reverse order: the Turks started their nation building after securing a country, the Kurds started with building a nation.
The ultimate climax of nation building – an independent Kurdistan – is not within reach, despite the existence of Iraqi Kurdistan and the developments in Rojava, Syrian Kurdistan. Bigger powers are in the way. But the least the Kurds in Turkey deserve is a federal state structure, in which they can govern themselves. Decide their own public holidays, teach their children their own history in their own language, celebrate and commemorate without fear of violence by the Turkish police, and implement democratic structures in their own parliament.
By the way: I would advice the autonomous government to introduce a different time zone. The Turkey time zone just doesnt fit in winter: it’s light when people sleep, dark at 4pm.
And yes, I hear you again. So many people have told me that an autonomous Kurdistan within Turkey’s borders would not be a free and democratic place. The PKK and the associations and politics stemming from the same roots would control it, and wouldn’t allow any opposition.
Maybe that fear is based on how Atatürk built his nation. Turks usually excuse Atatürk for his violent methods to silence opposition by stating that the struggle demanded such methods. Kurds excuse the harsh methods the PKK used to stifle opposition with the same argument. For the Turks it was normal that the armed forces and their leader took control of the nation once it was established after an intense war in which many lives were lost. For Kurds it is just as logical that the PKK, and related organisations like the DTK and KCK, will have a say in how the autonomous region is ruled. Who else but the liberators would do it?
Let’s only hope that the PKK has more faith in its people and allows full democracy faster than the Turkish army, which kept a firm grip on Turkey for almost a century.