International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIV No. 1 (January-March 1999)


The Kurdish Issue: A Turkish Point of View
By Mumtaz Soysal


The conceptual determinants

Three facts need to be explained for a proper understanding of the prevailing Turkish point of view on the Kurdish issue.

The first is that ethnicity does not play a role in the Islamic religious culture. The concept of umma, as the brotherhood of all Muslims, excludes any consideration related to ethnic origin as a factor of social or political organisation. According to this concept, people are equal as Muslims and their ethnic origin is irrelevant in that respect.

The second deep-rooted concept influencing the Turkish view is the “millet” system used under the Ottoman Empire for the quasi-autonomous governance of non-Muslim communities. These were subject to the rules of their religion or sect under the authority of their church or religious leader, provided they accepted the ultimate sovereignty of the Sultan in matters of public order and state affairs. In today’s Turkey, the same word “millet” means “nation” in its modern sense, but in the Ottoman context, it implied certain particularities which, in many respects, differed from the modern concept of nation. For instance, individuals belonging to a religious community recognised as a “millet”, as were the members of the Greek Orthodox or Gregorian Armenian churches, formed a separate “nation” independently of the territory where they resided. This state of affairs allowed the survival and continuation of the religious identities of the non-Muslim peoples regardless of their geographic situation or their position within mixed neighbourhoods. Kurds, being a predominantly Muslim community, were not considered as a “millet” and thus remained incorporated within the umma without any distinction of ethnicity. But their societal organisation kept the characteristics of a feudal system throughout the imperial period and even after the founding of the republic.

Thirdly, the new Turkish state, ever since the Grand National Assembly met for the first time in Ankara at the beginning of the 1920-23 War of Independence, adopted the modern concept of nation as the basis of its political organisation, even before the formal declaration of the republic. A legacy of the French Revolution whose ideas had profoundly influenced the Young Turks movement., this concept of nation state was indifferent to the ethnic origins of the people as long as they shared, in the words of Ernest Joseph Renan, “the will to live together”.

Have these theoretical principles of republicanism been faithfully respected and successfully applied throughout the history of the republic? The answer can only be a “qualified yes”, the restricting factors being closely related to the history of the republic.


The heritage of the post-First World War period

The Republic of Turkey is the product of a series of dramatic events, not the consequence of just ordinary developments like the extinction of a dynasty or a constitutional change after a referendum. It was born of a struggle for liberation against Western invaders at the end of the First World War and was at the same time the product of a nationalist revolution against the last Sultan of an agonising empire. The invaders included the British, the French and Italian occupation forces taking advantage of the terms of the armistice agreement and a Greek expeditionary force that landed at Izmir on the instigation of and with the support of the British.

But more interesting for the purpose of elucidating the Kurdish issue is the evolution of the situation on the Mesopotamian front at the end of that war. There the victorious British forces, instead of respecting the armistice line and stopping at positions about twenty kilometres south of Mosul in Iraq, pushed further north to create a zone of security around the captured oil fields; they were under instructions from London where the navy had already begun to shift to the use of petrol as fuel in its battleships. This led the British to occupy most of the territory inhabited by Kurds and Turks, including some provinces of present-day Turkey. The invasion was later protested by the National Covenant, a declaration issued by the last Ottoman Parliament in 1920, a few days before its closure and the arrest of prominent members by the British occupation forces in Istanbul. The National Covenant was in fact an oath taken by the parliamentarians to restore the territorial integrity of the country by recovering the southeastern provinces occupied by the British after the armistice. Britain ignored the declaration and continued to retain those provinces.

Meanwhile the national liberation movement against the invasion of the country had begun to take root. One of its aims was to unify Turks and Kurds in the fight against the Greek army in western Anatolia by emphasising the brotherhood and solidarity of both ethnic groups. The following are excerpts from the resolutions adopted by the regional congresses of the nationalist liberation movement, as well as declarations by its leaders showing their desire to build a sincere communal coexistence after the war: “Our eastern provinces are entrusted to the honourable brotherhood of Turks and Kurds united by blood, faith and history.” 1 “Kurds and Turks, although in majority in the eastern provinces as Muslims united by the same national spirit, see their right to life threatened . . . In these provinces, Turks cannot do without Kurds and Kurds without Turks. It is impossible not to see that Turks and Kurds have shared and will share the same history, the same interests and the same way of life.” 2 “All Muslim communities are moved by mutual feelings of brotherly respect and sacrifice and by a determination to accept their ethnic differences in their respective social environments.” 3 “It was mutually agreed that the borders of the Ottoman State as declared by the National Covenant should encompass all the territory inhabited by Turks and Kurds and that it would be impossible to separate the Kurds from the Ottoman community.” 4 “The membership of this august National Assembly consists of the representatives of various Muslim communities of this country . . . We have declared our borders as borders of a nation . . . There are Kurds as well as Turks in the north of Kerkuk. We are not excluding them.” 5

These quotations are necessary to explain the shock of the Turkish delegation at the Lausanne Peace Conference after the War of Liberation when the British rejected the idea of evacuating the southeastern provinces of Anatolia inhabited by Turks and Kurds. The argument put forward by the head of the Turkishdelegation was rather sociological. Those parts of northern Mesopotamia and southeastern Anatolia were inhabited by different ethnic groups including Kurds, Turks, Turkomans, Arabs and Jews of which the Turks, Turkomans and Kurds formed an absolute majority over the rest. He gave figures based on the sound and detailed Ottoman records: 263,000 Kurds, 146,960 Turks and Turkomans, as compared to 43,210 Arabs and 31,000 non-Muslims. 6 One should not separate the Turks and the Kurds. They have lived together for centuries and have close cultural affinities. Their languages may be different, but their way of living, their group behaviour are more or less the same. The borderline proposed by the British would force the Kurds to live with the Arabs.

This reasoning was not enough to convince the British: that part of the republic’s boundaries remained the only part not drawn by the Lausanne Peace Treaty. The matter was deferred to a bilateral conference between Turkey and Great Britain. Finally, after the failure of that conference and a period of tension between the two countries, the League of Nations headed by a British Secretary General had the last word and the present borderline with Iraq was drawn by an Estonian general, dividing the Kurdish population of the region between those remaining in Turkey and those living in the south, under British mandate.

The reason why the young republic could not face an open clash with Britain to solve the matter by military action is that the army was busy quelling a reactionary rebellion by fundamentalist Kurdish groups instigated by the British and demanding that the government restore the Caliphate. This insurrection, led by Sheikh Said, was a serious threat to the very essence of the secular republic and Ankara could not take the risk of a failure by wasting its efforts in trying to solve the Mosul question. Turkey gave up pursuing that cause and had to be satisfied with the solution found at the League of Nations in return for a 10 percent share in the Iraqi oil for a period of 25 years.

This rather long introduction was necessary to illustrate the historical roots of the Kurdish issue and the absence of any trace of deep-seated ethnic discrimination against the Kurds on the part of Turkey and to emphasise the role of external factors from the very beginning. The course of events would certainly have been different if the Kurds of northern Iraq and, perhaps in that respect, of Syria had remained within the borders of the republic and if the Western powers, with Britain in the lead, had not had the intention of creating a separate Kurdish state more prone and obliged to pursue their interests in the region. This point needs to be kept in mind when analysing the present situation.


Mutual mistakes

The present situation can still not be fully understood, however, unless two basic mistakes of the Turkish Republic are indicated, as well as a corresponding responsibility on the part of the feudal lords of the Kurdish tribal society in southeastern Turkey. The republic’s first mistake was to neglect fostering self-government and socio-economic development in the region. Both Turkish and Kurdish communities have been adversely affected by this negative attitude.

It was unfortunate that the impact of the Sheikh Said rebellion prevented the application of the principle of regional autonomy proclaimed by the first constitutional legislation of the Grand National Assembly regime during the War of Liberation. In fact, the Basic Organisation Law of 1921 had foreseen the creation of locally elected provincial councils which would be given considerable power in matters of education, health, economy, agriculture, public works ad social welfare. The central government would retain only the responsibility for foreign policy, international trade, judicial affairs and matters related to more than one province. This clause of the 1921 Basic Law never became political reality and was instead replaced by a highly centralised administrative approach whose basic concern was to maintain security and public order at the expense of economic regional development.

The second mistake is much more important in terms of Turkish-Kurdish coexistence within the boundaries of a republican nation state: failure to provide the citizens with the essential instrument of social communication, that is, a sound knowledge of the national language. The thesis defended by the Turkish delegation at the Lausanne Peace Conference was that by historical and socio-cultural necessity, the Turks and the Kurds shared the same geography. But the rational consequence of this would have been to equip the less numerous part of the population with the necessary linguistic tool to communicate with the more numerous, while at the same time granting it the full liberty to maintain and develop its own language and culture. This “cultural equation” would have implied that both sides accepted the principle of an obligatory national education in Turkish and recognised the need to grant individual cultural freedoms to the members of different ethnic communities within the nation.

After the Turkish-speaking people, citizens of Kurdish ethnic origin are the largest group about one sixth of the population. The application of such an equation to them would not have given rise to separatist tendencies. The obvious reason is that there is no single language that can be called Kurdish: there are several dialects as different from one another as distinct languages to the extent that none can qualify as a lingua franca. Indeed, the Turkish language has become the lingua franca for Kurdish groups speaking various “languages” such as Kurmanci, Gorani, Sorani and Zaza, but this only serves men and women who go to school or men who do their military service.

The main factor that led to the persistence of separatist tendencies throughout the republican era was the various governments’ failure to implement intensive programmes of national education in the region. Other negative factors, such as economic underdevelopment and harsh imposition of security measures were of a secondary nature until the outburst of violence following the military coup in 1980.

Before analysing those more recent events, mention must be made of the Kurdish feudal lords’ responsibility in not asking the government in Ankara to make efforts to implement serious programmes of national education in the region. These lords preferred to keep the feudal structure intact for obvious reasons and benefited from it to maintain their positions in the ranks of various political parties even after the passage to multi-party democracy. Perhaps this too is one of the failures of the republic: not to have been able to change this social structure and fully eliminate the remnants of the Kurdish feudal order.


Kurdish terrorism

Democratic systems are normally considered the best channels of solution for ethnic claims, provided those advocating these solutions respect the basic principles of the constitutional order in the country concerned. The Turkish constitutional system does not allow for the formation and functioning of separatist political parties: but it is equally true that not all voluntary associations and political parties acted in this respect in accordance with the basic constitutional principles. Although they were formed with a declared goal of protecting the rights of the citizens of Kurdish origin, the undeclared intention of their founders was to promote separatism. Such abuses were heavily punished, especially at times of military intervention. The armed forces have always been strongly committed to the preservation of the country’s territorial integrity and were deeply influenced by the memory of the Sheik Said uprising and its dire consequences.

One must also admit that the harsh treatment of separatist terrorists in southeastern prisons during the authoritarian regime of 1980-83 played an important part in transforming sporadic subversive activities into a full-scale and ruthlessly violent terrorism. An underground and so-called Marxist movement under the name of Workers Party of Kurdistan (PKK) succeeded in exploiting the inevitable Kurdish reaction by recruiting its members from among simple people and training them as terrorists.

It should be noted in this respect that the treatment of Kurdish terrorists by the Western media and by foreign or international political organisations has been most unfair to Turkey almost to the point of denying its right to fight and repress PKK terrorism. They have insisted on calling this full-fledged terrorist movement a “party”. These circles’ concern for human rights has concentrated mainly on monitoring allegations of violations on the part of the authorities and have tended to ignore the hideous crimes committed by the terrorists. The West also failed to notice that drug-trafficking constituted the main source of financing such activities.


An overall solution

The Republic of Turkey is a unitary state. At present, it is definitely and practically impossible to transform it into a federal structure on a territorial basis. Such an exercise may have been theoretically envisageable at the end of the War of Liberation, but today it is too late, given that the people of ethnic Kurdish origin are now more numerous in other parts of the country than in the southeast. Therefore, the solution should not be sought in terms of a political reorganisation on an ethnic basis for that region alone.

The key to a solution is a more general democratic reform. There is a strong and widely shared belief that administrative decentralisation of central government services would not be enough. The transfer of some administrative powers directly to elected local government units is considered an essential step to improve the political system of the country. This would certainly affect the southeast in a positive way and, because of its general nature, would not provoke as much reaction from the advocates of a strictly unitary system.

As to the improvement of the human rights situation in the region, it must be remembered that the deterioration in this situation is a consequence of the repressive measures against terrorism and not the result of discriminatory racist policies against an ethnic group. Therefore, the elimination of the separatist violence will definitely be the main factor contributing to a rapid improvement in this matter. However, it goes without saying that much depends in essence on overall progress in the respect and protection of human rights throughout the country.

In the field of cultural rights, the solution resides in applying the liberal theory of individual rights to what some might consider to be a collective cultural situation. In this respect, it is worth remembering that Article 9 of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms states that “the right to freedom of religion, conscience and thought” can be exercised “either alone or in community with others”. Such a voluntary collectivisation can also be applied to other cultural rights. Individuals may then come together privately and voluntarily for the collective enhancement of their individual cultural rights.

A simple example may illustrate this point. The right to speak one’s mother tongue and to write, publish or broadcast in that language may be exercised in collaboration with other individuals in the press or the media through books and periodicals or private radio and television stations. But granting these freedoms should not preclude the public duty of the state to provide national education in the national language for its citizens and the right of the citizens to ask for it. This is a better solution than “imposing” collective communal or ethnic rights upon individuals in the name of a fictive and usually ill-defined notion of “cultural identity”, likely to create more conflicts than it solves. In the words of Jean-François Bayart in his L’Illusion indentitaire, 7 “such conflicts draw their murderous strength from supposing that a pretended ’cultural identity’ should necessarily lead to a ’political identity’, as illusory in reality as the first”. National education can and should only be given in the national language. While it would not make them lose their ties with their immediate environment, to think and proceed otherwise would mean depriving a large sector of the population of the possibility of enjoying the benefits of a wider and multi-faceted cultural milieu.

Finally, the principles of a democratic and secular republic based on the respect of human rights and social justice, without any racial or ethnic discrimination, should be applied in considering this complex political issue. This necessitates relentless determination. Suggestions contrary to these principles may be counter-productive by causing the nation to lose confidence in the validity of its republican values.

Mumtaz Soysal is a Member of the Turkish Parliament and Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Ankara.



Note 1. Circular of the Erzurum branch of Association for the Defence of the Rights of the Eastern Provinces, 30 May 1919. Back

Note 2. Congress Report of the Erzurum branch of the Association for the Defence of the Rights of the Eastern Provinces, 17 June 1919. Back

Note 3. Article 1, Statute of the Association for the Defence of the Rights of Anatolia and Thrace. Back

Note 4. Records of the Amasya Encounter between Mustafa Kemal Pasha, leader of the nationalist movement, and Salih Pasha, representative of the Ottoman government in Istanbul, 22 October 1919. Back

Note 5. Speech by Mustafa Kemal Pasha, 1 May 1920. Back

Note 6. Proceedings of the Lausanne Peace Conference, session of 23 January 1923. Back

Note 7. (Paris: Editions Fayard, 1998). Back