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The Next Big Thing: Turkish Separatism

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] For years and years, the Turkish state and media complained about the “separatism” of Kurdish nationalists. But now it seems that even some Turks themselves are joining the club. An interesting sign was a recent piece by Ertuğrul Özkök, a columnist for the mainstream daily Hürriyet, where he was also the editor-in-chief until recently. As a prominent name among “white” (Westernized and upper-class) Turks, Mr. Özkök posed a critical question: “Do we have to live together?” Referring to another likeminded piece in Cumhuriyet, the arch-Kemalist daily, Özkök argued that it was perhaps time to think whether Turks and Kurds should go their own ways. A dangerous idea Özkök’s piece sparked controversy in the media, with more criticism than praise, but it was revealing just the tip of an iceberg. As one can see clearly on the internet, there is a growing ethno-nationalism within the Turkish majority. Being fed up with not just the quarter-century-long terrorism and guerilla warfare of the PKK, but also the ever-expanding political demands of the Kurds, some Turks started to dream of a “Kurden-rein” (Kurd-free) Turkey. For my part, I am strongly against that dream — not because that I sanctify any national border, but that I know that such a partition among ethnic lines would be disastrous. There are two main reasons. First, in Turkey there is no clear internal border that would define a would-be independent Kurdistan (Unlike Kosovo, which was a well-defined autonomous region in Serbia). So, in the case of a partition, Kurds will inevitably want as much land as they can get, whereas Turks would be willing to leave as little as possible. Hence there will be conflict. The even greater problem is that most Kurds in Turkey now live outside of a would-be independent Kurdistan. Millions of them have migrated to Western cities, making Istanbul the largest Kurdish city on earth. An ethnic separation in such a mixed population will lead to mass exoduses, and, most probably, ethnic clashes. In other words, if an independent Kurdistan is ever carved out of Turkey, it won’t be like the 1991 secession of Slovenia from Yugoslavia, which happened with just a few dozen casualties. It will be, God forbid, something like the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan, during which almost a million people died. The ethnic tension we have seen this week in two separate towns should be sobering enough. That’s why, I think, no sane person should neither ask for the partition of Turkey, nor pave the way to it. But who said nationalism, especially ethno-nationalism, goes hand in hand with sanity? On the Kurdish side, we have a fervor that is characteristic to all late nationalisms. Some Kurds passionately believe that their salvation will come only through an independent nation-state. (Whereas it will probably bring them only poverty and slavery under the dictatorial rule of what is today the PKK. Nation-states, as we Turks have also seen, are ruthless leviathans unless tamed with liberal democracy.) Yet still, most Kurds in Turkey seem to be content with full cultural freedom, some form of regional autonomy, and a settlement with the PKK. But then comes the problem on the other side: Most Turks are not willing to accept any of these. The hatred to the PKK is understandable, and is actually the smaller problem. The bigger one is that most Turks have been brainwashed to believe that; a) there is either no such things as Kurds, b) if there is any, then they have to assimilate into the “Turkish nation.” A Kurd-free Turkey? For those who realize that this assimilation project has failed indefinitely, there are two options. The first one is pluralism, which is to accept “a nation of Turkey,” with various identities. The second one is Turkish ethno-nationalism, which is to seek a Kurd-free country. This second trend fuels Turkish separatism, which is likely to grow. Staunch Kemalists will be its foremost champions, for their highest value is the “preservation of Atatürk’s Republic,” which has no place for any non-Turkish identity. The pluralist trend, for which my heart goes, has two assets. The first are the secular liberals, who are inspired by EU norms and even post-modern thoughts. They are fine, but they are also quite marginal. (The last time they found a political party, they received less than one percent of the votes.) The other group that is sympathetic to pluralism is the Muslim conservatives who make up almost half of the country. They are not bleeding heart liberals, but they have a good frame of reference in the Ottoman Empire, in which the Kurds had all the freedoms they now yearn for. That’s why that I keep exploring themes from the Ottoman era. I don’t seek “reestablishing the Ottoman Caliphate,” or some other utopia. I just know that the tree of democracy only grows on a soil nourished by history and tradition. NOTE: In his latest article, fellow columnist C. Cem Oğuz referred to my “We need a deal, not war, with the PKK,” piece. I appreciate his courtesy and indeed mostly agree with the refinement he brought to my argument by pointing to risks. If only all inter-columnist exchanges were like this.
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