Carnations are seen placed on the ground during a protest against explosions at a peace march in Turkey, October 10, 2015.
Carnations are seen placed on the ground during a protest against explosions at a peace march in Turkey, October 10, 2015. At least 30 people were killed when twin explosions hit a rally of hundreds of pro-Kurdish and leftist activists outside Ankara's main train station.
Osman Orsal / Reuters

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 had helped organize in Ankara.

A rally against recent Kurdish militant attacks on Turkish security forces in Istanbul, Turkey, September 20, 2015.
Women wave flags during a rally against recent Kurdish militant attacks on Turkish security forces in Istanbul, Turkey, September 20, 2015.
Murad Sezer / Reuters

The PKK, a group whose own increasingly post-national rhetoric has been undermined by the behavior of its affiliates, certainly bears responsibility for the renewed fighting as well. And one should not make the mistake of conflating the organization’s goals with those of some monolithic Kurdish community. Still, it is striking to see the government use the language of tolerance and inclusion to dismiss those who in a democratic or violent capacity are explicitly championing Kurdish political aspirations. If anything, the AKP today is even more emphatic in highlighting Turkish-Kurdish brotherhood than it was when the party was actually trying to make peace with the Kurds several years ago.

In late September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP organized a large “anti-terror” rally in which Erdogan took the lead in presenting Turks and Kurds—“all those who rally around our flag”—as united in their struggle against a small and unrepresentative group of armed extremists. It is a rhetorical approach that he has perfected over the years, making claims in past rallies such as “We in this country, Turks and Kurds, Laz, Circassians, Georgians, Abkhaz, Roma, and Bosnians will be united, but we will never give in to terror.”

Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoglu, for his part, has put a historical spin on Erdogan’s argument, emphasizing the long tradition of Turks and Kurds joining together for a common cause. Writing Kurds into two foundational moments in Turkish nationalist history, Davutoglu has claimed that Turks and Kurds fought together under Alparslan in the eleventh-century Turkish Seljuk invasion of Byzantine Anatolia, just as they did in the twentieth century during the Turkish War of Independence.

In their efforts to challenge Turkey’s nationalist history, many serious scholars have indeed focused on Ottoman tolerance and the multicultural character of Turkey’s war for independence.
Pro-government newspaper columnists have gone to even greater lengths to ground such claims in a new version of Turkish history, one that not only emphasizes brotherhood but blames malevolent foreign powers for its disruption. In the pro-government paper Yeni Safak, for example, one writer wrote, “Yesterday, the crusaders fought against us, the Turkish and Kurdish Muslims living on this land. Today, for the same reason, they are attacking Turkey.” Two pages later, in a piece titled “We Are Turks, We Are Kurds, Together We Are Turkey,” another writer discussed the powerful, millennia-long civilization that emerged when Turks, Kurds, and even Armenians were united under the Ottoman Empire’s magnanimous rule. Until, of course, the Ottomans were “brought to their knees” during World War I.

In their efforts to challenge Turkey’s nationalist history, many serious scholars have indeed focused on Ottoman tolerance and the multicultural character of Turkey’s war for independence. Yet most would be quick to highlight what the government’s narrative omits. The brotherhood part may be true, but not the simple, often xenophobic explanation of why the brotherhood disappeared. Rather than blaming foreign intrigue, most historians would point to the role of nationalism and the twentieth-century Turkish state’s efforts to forcibly assimilate minorities over the past century.

Yet Turkey’s new rhetoric of multicultural nationalism has a partial answer for this claim as well, drawing explicitly on the experience of non-Kurdish minorities. Today, acknowledging the presence of groups like the Albanians and Circassians—Muslim immigrant groups whose descendants are often proud Turkish nationalists—has become a prelude to asking why these groups assimilated whereas Kurds did not. Since these groups have not demanded linguistic rights or political autonomy, much less resorted to violence, they, like model minorities elsewhere, can serve as a reference point for asking what’s wrong with the Kurds. In the words of Binghamton University’s Güllistan Yarkın, the question inevitably becomes “Why do the Kurds, unlike Turkey’s Laz, Circassians, Pomaks, Arabs, Gypsies, and other ethnic groups, rebel against the state and constantly cause problems?”

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a rally against recent Kurdish militant attacks on Turkish security forces in Istanbul, Turkey, September 20, 2015.
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan makes a speech during a rally against recent Kurdish militant attacks on Turkish security forces in Istanbul, Turkey, September 20, 2015.
/Murad Sezer / Reuters
Indeed, many of these groups faced the same restrictions as Kurds have over the past century—restrictions on using their language or even acknowledging their identity. And in fact the Turkish government denied their existence for the same reason it denied that of the Kurds, in order to force them assimilate as Turks. Turkish citizens were long discouraged from discussing, when not forbidden to discuss, their unique geographical or cultural origins, and in time many lost familiarity with the languages their ancestors had spoken. Ironically, it was only when these efforts had succeeded in assimilating non-Kurdish groups that the government could switch tacks.

Today, many people are increasingly proud of their family’s heritage, be it an ancestor who emigrated from the Caucasus a century ago or great-grandparents who grew up speaking Greek on Crete before the first World War. But this heritage is now understood as part of their Turkish identity, much as immigrant origins are a fundamental part of being American for many in the United States. In a sense, denying that minorities existed actually succeeded in making many of them go away. Or at least succeeded in recasting their identity in a more acceptable form. And as a result, the government can now wield these examples of successful assimilation against Kurds who want to preserve more of their cultural identity in everyday life than this model of assimilation allows.

Throughout Turkish history, these two approaches—denying diversity to ensure assimilation and recognizing diversity to demand assimilation—have always been closely linked. Many of the men who founded the Turkish state in the 1920s were themselves recent immigrants from the Balkans or the Caucasus. And many of their early statements on Turkish identity acknowledge the diversity they themselves were part of. As the sociologist Mesut Yegen observed, shortly before the Republic’s founding Ataturk himself declared:

The various Muslim elements living in the country... are genuine brothers who would respect each other’s ethnic, local, and moral norms… If one thing is certain, it is this: Kurds, Turks, Laz, Circassians, all these Muslim elements living within national borders have shared interests.

Quickly, though, an insistence on brotherhood and shared interests turned into an insistence on shared identity. The first Turkish constitution captured this moment of transition well, declaring that “The people of Turkey regardless of their religion and race would, in terms of citizenship, be called Turkish.” In time, it became clear that the non-Muslim people, such as Greeks and Armenians, would remain second-class citizens, whereas Muslim people like the Kurds would be called Turkish whether they wanted to be or not.

Turkish leaders realized that constructing a nation paradoxically required them to deny there was any construction to be done. The promise of the constitution, then, was that everyone who was willing to do their part, play along and embrace their Turkish identity without ever admitting the hardship this might entail, would be accepted as a citizen in good standing. And so for decades, nationalists who refused to admit that anyone actually was Kurdish were still quick to point to individuals everyone knew were Kurdish who had been quite successful in modern Turkish society. Turgut Ozal, Turkey’s president from 1989 to 1993, was half Kurdish, and the Kurdish pop star Ibrahim Tatlises, who rose to fame in the 1970s, remain perhaps the most popular examples. But there are, indeed, countless others, including high-ranking military officials, who have taken the state up on its promise of equal treatment for all those willing to quietly assimilate.

But the historical question elided by the government’s current rhetoric remains: Why did some groups and individuals ultimately accept the identity offered them whereas others refused? From the beginning, Muslims seeking refuge after fleeing lost Ottoman territories in the Balkans—Albanians, Bosnians, and Pomaks from Bulgaria—were by nature of their circumstances more susceptible to the state’s efforts to assimilate them. Even in the late nineteenth century, the Ottoman government made a point of geographically dispersing such immigrants and enforcing strict settlement quotes to help ensure that they would be absorbed by their new Turkish neighbors. In spite of this, the state sometimes faced resistance from these minorities as well. Circassians, who fled Russian advances in the Caucasus, even briefly sought to form their own independent state in Western Anatolia during the chaos that followed World War One. Yet these were marginal efforts, and participants were quickly defeated and dispersed by the Turkish state.

To move forward, the government will have to replace a whitewashed history that extolls examples of successful assimilation with one that deals more openly with the violence and repression that assimilation has entailed.

The Kurds, by contrast, were a much larger population, were not fleeing their home territories, and were located in a region that had been free of centralized state control before the twentieth century. When the new Turkish state sought to impose its authority, identity, and secular ideology in the 1920s and 1930s, it provoked a degree of resistance in Eastern Anatolia that was absent elsewhere. When the state violently crushed this resistance, suppressing armed rebellions with the help of planes and possibly poison gas, then executing or exiling the leaders, it entrenched a vicious and enduring cycle of violence and resistance. In time, the state came to view Kurds as inherently rebellions. Laws that officially prohibited the use of any non-Turkish language or the expression of any non-Turkish identity, were enforced with particular severity against the Kurds. Many Kurds, in turn, came to associate the Turkish state, and even Turkishness itself, with the violent repression they had suffered. The government’s current rhetoric falls short when it acknowledges the existence of Kurds but not the degree of violence they suffered.

Rhetoric and ideology, of course, are far from the only factor driving the recent return to fighting. Issues such as the role of the Kurdish language in official education still remain divisive. But political factors, and a powerful legacy of suspicion and hostility, played a much greater role in undermining negotiations between the government and the PKK. Both sides feared, not unjustifiably, that the other was taking advantage of the negotiations to improve its position for the next round of fighting. The PKK worried the government was using the group’s partial withdrawal to build new military bases, and the government accused the PKK of stockpiling weapons and planting explosives on roads around the region. But in breaking off negotiations, Erdogan, eager to consolidate his political power, was also well aware of how politically poisonous compromising with the PKK could be. Turkish voters are all too well aware of the PKK’s own brutal record, and many harshly condemned Erdogan for even beginning negotiations with the group in the first place.

Abandoning the myth of a homogenous Turkish nation was a necessary step toward peace. But the government’s clever co-opting of multiculturalism reveals why it won’t be a sufficient one. To move forward, the government will have to replace a whitewashed history that extolls examples of successful assimilation with one that deals more openly with the violence and repression that assimilation has entailed. This version of history need not forgive the PKK for its sins. But by putting them in historical context, it can help Turkish voters see the compromises necessary to make peace as acts of reconciliation rather than as concessions to terrorism.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now