There was a time when the Turkish government famously insisted that Kurds simply didn’t exist; they, like everyone else in Turkey, were Turks. Until Turkish society abandoned this nationalist myth and accepted its multicultural reality, many believed, Turkey’s bloody war with Kurdish separatists would persist. Today, however, the Turkish government has managed to incorporate cultural diversity into its propaganda, not only to justify a war against Kurdish guerillas but also to discredit democratically elected advocates for Kurdish rights. In other words, acknowledging Turkey’s diversity will not bring peace unless the government also goes further in acknowledging the toll of a century spent trying to suppress it.
Since the 1990s, many scholars, often at great personal risk, promoted a post-nationalist Turkish history that emphasized the country’s multicultural character. In this version, there were not only Kurds but also less-prominent minorities such as Albanians, Bosnians, Circassians, and many others who came to Anatolia as refugees in the final years of the Ottoman Empire and together built the modern Turkish state. Where nationalists feared that unearthing ethnic diversity could tear their country apart, scholars insisted that accepting it would make Turkey stronger and more democratic.
Today, though, in the hands of government leaders, newspaper columnists, and ordinary citizens, Turkey’s multicultural identity serves as an improved form of propaganda for many of the same oppressive policies once justified by the traditional nationalist history. This summer, negotiations between the government and the PKK definitively collapsed, leading to renewed fighting in southeastern Turkey. Military operations are once again taking a heavy toll on civilians, marked by high-profile acts of brutality. Until recently, prosecutors could charge those using Kurdish in political campaigns for supporting terrorism; today they level the same charge on other, equally specious grounds. In advance of the country’s November 1 elections, the AKP even went as far as to blame the predominantly Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) for a suicide attack on a peace rally that the HDP itself
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