In the early twentieth century, as the Ottoman Empire was collapsing, what took the Young Turk leaders by surprise was not that the Armenians pursued independence but that the Albanians did. The Young Turks could understand, even if they did not accept, that Christian Armenians would want to break away from the Muslim-ruled empire. But why should Albanians, most of whom were Muslims like the Turks, want to part ways?
At the height of their nationalist fervor during the first decade of the twentieth century, the Ottoman Albanians had simple political demands, including the recognition of their alphabet and education in Albanian. After coming to power in 1908, the Young Turks refused to grant even those requests. Subsequently, the Albanians led three rebellions, which the Young Turks crushed. Istanbul won, but was debilitated. When the Balkan Wars broke out in 1912–13 and pulled Turkey into a regional maelstrom, the weakened Ottoman state crumbled and the disgruntled Albanians used the opportunity to break away from Ottoman control.
Today, Turkey faces a similar complication, in the form of Kurdish nationalism. Like the Albanians, who posed a united front, the Kurds have finally come together against Ankara. And just like the Young Turks, who could not wrap their heads around Albanian nationalist demands, Turkey’s Ottoman-nostalgic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is failing to grasp what it is that the Kurds want. Perhaps most ominously, Turkey once more faces a political riptide, this time in the Middle East, brought about by the rise of Islamic State (also called ISIS) and the meltdown of Iraq and Syria.
Unless the Erdogan administration addresses Kurdish demands, it could meet a fate similar to the Ottomans after they were confronted with Albanian agitation.
For a long time, Turkey’s Kurdish community, 10 million to 12 million strong, was politically divided and subsequently failed to act as a
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