Nowadays, the Kurdish population in the Middle East comprises from 24 to 27 million people. At the same time, approximately 13 million of the Kurds live in Turkey (McDowall 3). Despite the fact that among all ethnic groups in the world the Kurdish is the biggest, it does not have its sovereign state. The situation is slowly changing, and the Kurds have a chance to establish their homeland (Caryl n.p.). In particular, at the beginning of the 21st century, the Turkey government has taken steps to recognize the Kurdish identity. Besides this, the European Union also recognized the aspirations of Kurds to establish their state. In 2004, Turkey became a candidate for the European Union. This process represented a new era for Turkish Kurds (Yildiz 3). While the Kurdish population experienced oppression under the Ataturk rule, it did not lose its aspirations for sovereignty. Moreover, the “Kurdish issue” has become one of the most debated questions in Turkey’s recent history. Thus, the research paper will analyze the Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey. In particular, the paper will be focused on the origins of the Kurds, their position in the Ottoman Empire, and reasons that prevented them from becoming a state. The research will also examine the peculiarities of Kurds in Turkey, their history of mistreatment under Ataturk’s rule, and the treatment they received from the Turkish government following Ataturk. Finally, the paper will discuss the role of Turkey in a creation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The analysis of these issues will allow concluding whether the Kurds in Turkey will be able to create their sovereign state or not.
Origins of the Kurds
Historically, the Kurds inhabited the mountain areas of the Middle East to the South of the Lake Van and Urmia (Kurdistan Regional Government n. p.), the territory known as Kurdistan. At the same time, the Kurdish population has never had its sovereign state. The earliest Kurdish dynasties that date back to the 10th century were under the rule of the Islamic nations (Meho 7). They included the dynasties of Hasanwayhids, Marwanids, Rawadids, Shaddadids, and Ayyubid (Jwaideh 14). While the dynasties were powerful and even ruled large areas, from the beginning of the 13th century, the Kurdish national life began to decline. In particular, the nationalist aspirations were suppressed by the Mongol and Turkic invasions.
In 1514, the Kurds became a part of the Ottoman and Persian Empires (Meho 8). The majority of the population and lands of Kurdistan belonged to the Ottoman Empire. However, the Kurds did not make an attempt to proclaim its sovereignty as they relied on the organizational system that included various tribes (McDowall 9). As a result of the quasi-kinship alliances that the Kurds usually formed, it was difficult to achieve a single decision. Each tribe had its leader and could enjoy autonomy in exchange for the loyalty and military allegiance to the Ottoman Empire. According to the millet system, non-Muslim ethnic groups of the Ottoman Empire, such as the Armenians, Assyrians, or Jews, could enjoy a freedom of cultural expression and had access to schools and places of worship (Brenneman 26). Besides this, the Ottoman Empire tried to unite the Kurdish tribes under the rule of the Kurdish nobles. However, the aim of the unification of tribes was not to give the Kurds autonomy but to prevent the merge of Kurds with neighboring Persian Safavid dynasty (Brenneman 26). Moreover, the Islamic identity was much stronger than the Kurdish one.
During the Ottoman rule, some of the Kurdish leaders tried to declare sovereignty. The attempts to create a state were made during the Janpulat revolt, Rozhiki uprising, Baban revolt, and by the representatives of the Yazidis tribe. However, these attempts did not have a national scale and were supported only by the individual tribes. The Ottoman rulers used the rival Kurdish tribes to limit the power of the principalities that had nationalists aspirations (Galip 46). Nonetheless, the 19th century was marked by the first attempts of the Kurds to establish its sovereignty. In particular, Sheikh Ubeydullah, who succeeded in the establishment of his influence in the Kurdish areas of Iran, Urmia, and Mahabad, mentioned that
The Kurdish nation, consisting of more than 500,000 families, is a people apart. Their religion is different and their laws and customs are distinct… The Chiefs and Rulers of Kurdistan, whether Turkish or Persian subjects, and the inhabitants of Kurdistan, one and all are united and agree that matters cannot be carried on in this way with the two Governments, and that necessarily something must be done, so that European Governments having understood the matter, shall inquire into our state. we also are a nation apart. We want our affairs to be in our own hands (Galip 50).
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Kurds still represented a part of the Islamic ummah and had a privileged position in the Ottoman Empire due to their loyalty to Islam (Brenneman 27). As a result, the Ottoman rulers often used the Kurds to fight non-Muslim, including Russians and Armenians.
Similarly to other nations that were a part of the Ottoman Empire, after te World War I the Kurds got an opportunity to gain independence. However, they did not manage to create their state due to the number of factors. In particular, the Kurds did not have a single leader ready to lead the nation to its independence. Besides this, the international community prohibited the Kurds from the establishment of their nation. The discovery of oil in one of the Kurdish provinces made the countries, including Turkey, establish its influence over the Kurds (Meho 9).
As a result, during the Ottoman rule, the Kurdish national identity experienced its decay. It was determined by a number of reasons. For instance, the illiterate Kurdish population was primarily motivated by person economic interests associated with various tribes rather than a single identity. Islamic, tribal, and Ottoman identities took precedence. The tribal leaders used the concept of Kurdish tribes to promote their interests. Moreover, the existing intertribal rivalry undermined the possibility of the establishment of a single leading institution that could promote the Kurdish identity. The Kurdish nationalism during the Ottoman rule also did not have enough support from the middle class. Traditionally, the middle class and the Kurds that had an opportunity to get education associated themselves with Muslim Ottomans and expressed their loyalty to the sultan-caliph. Finally, the Kurdish activist who shared the nationalist ideas did not have a clear vision of their state. While some of the Kurds underlined the necessity to establish an independent state, the majority supported the idea of the remaining the part of the Ottoman Empire. Due to the mentioned above reasons, the Kurdish population was not able to proclaim its sovereignty.
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The Kurdish Geopolitics in Turkey
Kurdistan was a rich-oil region. The presence of the natural resources gave the region geostrategic importance. The international community tried to get access to oil and natural gas leading to the creation of obstacles on the way to the establishment of Kurdish identity. In particular, after World War I, the Kurdish territories were divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and the Soviet Union (Mills 2).
Oil reserves discovered in the Kurdish regions are situated in the southern part of the Kurdish Region of Iraq and northern parts of Turkey, mainly Taurus Mountains (Mills 15). At the same time, there is a great variety of the energy sources, which include gas, gas-condensate, light and heavy oil (Mills 15). While the majority of the reserves of oil are located in the areas of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, the northern parts are rich in gas. Despite the fact that gas represents lower value than oil, it is still strategic for Turkey in terms of domestic power generation and exports.
During the recent decades, the Kurdish hydrocarbon resources impose serious political implications for Kurds and other countries (Mills 1). For instance, the petroleum provinces of Kurdistan represent a potential source of oil and gas for Turkey and the member-states of the European Union. The importance of the alternative source of energy grows with the escalation of the relations with Russia. At the same time, oil-rich regions prevent the Kurds from establishing its independence, as the international community, mainly Turkey, will lose access to energy sources.
At the same time, since the beginning of the 21st century, there is a tendency of movement of the Kurdish population from the rural undeveloped regions to the major urban agglomerations (Saenz, et al. 489). The majority of the Kurds migrate to Istanbul region, Ankara, Adana, and Izmir. There is also a massive movement of the Kurds from the Eastern parts of Turkey to the Western and Southern regions (Saenz, et al.489). For instance, in 1965, the share of the Kurdish population in the Western and Southern provinces of Turkey was 1 and 5 percent respectively. In 2008, the figures increased to 11 and 15 percent of the Kurds living in the Western and Southern parts (Saenz, et al.489). The migration tendencies were mainly determined by the necessity to move to the high fertility regions of the country, as well as declining mortality rate within the Kurdish population. At the same time, the prevailing majority of the Kurds still live in the East. Approximately 60 percent of the Kurdish population is situated in the Eastern parts of Turkey.
Another distinguishing feature of the Kurdish location in Turkey is the concentration of the population in the rural areas. In general, about 66 percent of the Kurds live in the bigger cities. There is also an unequal concentration of rural and urban Kurdish population within the different regions of Turkey. In particular, while approximately 97 percent of Kurds live in the urban regions in the Western Turkey, in the Eastern parts of the country only 47 percent of Kurd live in the cities. The relocation of the Kurdish population was determined by a number of factors. For example, the massive evacuations of villages took place in the middle of the 1980s and late 1990s due to the armed conflicts between the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Turkish military forces (Saenz, et al. 489).
Thus, the presence of natural resources played a key role in the prevention of the establishment of the Kurdish independence. After World War I, the oil and gas-rich regions of Kurdistan were divided between the countries in order to gain easier access to it. At the same time, during the last decades, the location of the Kurdish population in Turkey begins to change. More people move from mountainous rural areas to the big cities. This tendency can facilitate the nationalist movements due to the opportunities the activists can get in the major cities. At the same time, the majority of the Kurds in Turkey still live in their historical regions.
The Kurdish Relationship with Turkey
The Kurds under the rule of Turkey experienced mistreatment. The repressions of the Kurdish population date back to the Ataturk and establishment of the Turkish Republic. In 1923, the Treaty of Lausanne recognized the creation of a new Turkish state, which included the regions of Kurdistan (Labor and Whitman 1). The international community did not mention the Kurds in the Treaty and did not give the ethnic group any rights. While the protection of the minority rights was given to the non-Muslim population of Turkey, the Kurds were ignored.
According to the scholars, the Ataturk regime was responsible for the worsening of the relations between the Kurds and the Turks (Mango 1). In particular, while Turkey consisted of various ethnic groups, Ataturk insisted that there was a single ethnic group of the Turks. This policy not only was unsuccessful but it also resulted in the escalation of the relations between the Kurds and Turkey and led to the oppression of the Kurdish population. While during the War of Independent, Mustafa Kemal underlined the necessity to recognize the multiethnic character of the Muslim population of Turkey, after 1923 the situation changed (Mango 22). Mustafa Kemal refused from the idea of granting individual Muslim identities self-rule and concentrated on the creating of the powerful Turkey.
During 1925-1939, the Kurds organized a number of revolts and uprisings (Laber and Whitman 2). Among the biggest, there were the rebellions of Kockiri, Sheikh Said Rebellion, Dersim, and Ararat rebellions (White 62). As a result of the uprisings, the Turkish government feared that the Kurds could increase their nationalist movement and even reunite with the Kurds in the other countries. To prevent the occurrence of the Kurdish state, the Turkish government introduced severe reforms that included the suppression and assimilation of the ethnic group (Whitman 2). The government prohibited the usage of the Kurdish language, music, and names. People could not go to the Kurdish schools or get into associations. Moreover, the people were sent to prison even for recognizing themselves as the Kurds. In 1937-1938, approximately 15,000 of the Kurds were killed and thousands of people were forced to go into exile. Moreover, one of the policies of the establishment of the Turkish identity included massive relocations of the population. These resettlements often had disastrous effects for the local population.
After the coup of 1960, the Turkish government established the State Planning Organization that had to control the Kurdish nationalism (Mincheva 53). In order to address the separatists movements of the Kurds within Turkey, the government introduced the migration policies aimed at the ethnic mixing of the population. However, the State Planning Organization did not succeed in its policies. In the 1970s, the nationalist aspirations of the Kurds resulted in the Kurdish-Turkey conflict. After the coup of 1980, the thousands of the Kurdish activists were sent to prisons or forced to leave the country. As a result, the nationalist aspirations of the population were suppressed. However, in 1984, the Kurdistan Workers Party began its activities on the Turkish southeastern border. The party declared guerrilla warfare and pursued the ideas of the independent Kurdistan (Whitman 2). The activities of the party resulted in the Turkish recognition of the existence of the Kurds minority groups in their country. However, from 1984, the Turkish government also had to fight the PKK representatives. As a result of the skirmishes, the population had to move from the southeast of Turkey to its western parts and even other countries (“Still Critical” 5). More than 3,000 Kurdish villages were destroyed leaving almost 380,000 of people without homes (“Still Critical” 6).
Thus, despite the fact that the Kurdish nationalist ideas were suppressed for a long time and the international community did not recognize the existence of Kurdistan, the Kurds in Turkey experienced the national awakening since the 1970s. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party not only survived the oppressions of the Turkey government but also launched its attacks against the oppressors.
Kurdistan Workers’ Party and Its Role in Turkey
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The Kurdistan Workers’ Party originated from a group established by the students of Ankara University in 1974 (The University of Utah 172). However, it reached its full power in 1984 when it became a military group that fought for the Kurds’ nationalism. The organization integrated violence into the Kurdish political movement. According to the founders of the organization, “Kurdish peasantry and the working class were continuously exploited by Kurdish feudals and comprador bourgeoisie, whose collaboration with Turkish ruling classes facilitated and perpetuated Turkish colonial rule of Kurdistan” (The University of Utah 173). As a result, the “Kurdish issue” was defined in two ways. First, the PKK underlined the necessity of the ethnonationality awakening. In particular, the Kurdish people had to get their independence and achieve national rights. Second, the PKK strengthened that the new state should be built on the democratic principles. For instance, the revolution should be aimed at fighting the existing inequality in the Kurdish society and establishment of the democratic principles. The role of Turkey was to provide the establishment of the Kurdish states, as it was a homeland for the biggest Kurds community.
During 1978-1980s, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party concentrated on the propaganda activities to expand the party infrastructure (The University of Utah 174). The PKK expanded its goals and used the violent terror campaigns to limit the Turkish influence in southeastern Anatolia.
The PKK played a determinant role in the awakening of the Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. It has transformed from an organization defending the importance of the communist revolution in Turkey to fighting for the independence of Kurdistan. The Party used sabotages and riots to undermine the position of the Turkish government. The PKK also fought against the Turkish organizations and radical Islamists among the Kurds. The violence that the party used to achieve its goals was justified by the necessity to defend the Kurdish population from the Turkish oppression. At the end of the 1990s, the organization increased its violent activities. In order to destabilize the Turkish government, it began the attacks against the military institutions and vital infrastructures. The attacks of the PKK were also launched against the Turkish representations in Europe (McDowall 443). To gain the support of the population, the party refused from the attacks against the civilians and concentrated on the governmental and military targets (McDowall 443).
The importance of the PKK is also represented by the fact that despite its origination and location in Turkey, the party has a regional influence. In particular, the activities of the party expand to the regions inhabited by the Kurds (Bilgin and Sarihan 20). For instance, the armed operations of PKK are mainly based in Turkey, but they also take place in Northern Iraq and Syria. Moreover, the latest attacks in Turkey could be traced back to Syrian collaborators. Thus, the party represents the interest of the Kurdish population in general, not only the Kurds that live in Turkey. The Party still remains active nowadays. Its activities have become even more radical, and in March 2016, the organization tried to overthrow Turkey government (Akkoc n. p.).
At the same time, some of the scholars argue the role of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in the Kurdish nationalism (Radu 89). Despite the fact that the PKK proclaimed the liberation of Kurdistan, the organization is not the representation of nationalism in a commonly understood sense. First, since the establishment of the Party, the Turks have always been its members. Second, during the 1980s, the Kurdish population of Turkey did not express the support of the ideology of PKK. Thus, there was a division in the opinion on the independent Kurdistan between the Kurdish population and members of the PKK. Moreover, sometimes the relations between the Kurds and PKK were hostile. Nevertheless, the PKK have become the only political Kurdish political party in Turkey. The ideology of PKK went beyond the tribal and religious influence. With the initial proclamation of war against the Kurdish landowners and tribe leaders, the Party took a different direction in the politics. It united the Kurds on a much more ethnic nationalist level than on a tribal or religious one.
Thus, established as a left-wing party, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party aimed at the national awakening of the Kurds and establishment of independent Kurdistan. Due to its radical violent measures, the Party was defined as one of the deadliest terrorist networks against Turkey (Landmine Monitor Report 757). At the same time, the PKK succeeded in achieving its aim of the mobilization of the population and promotion of the national identity.
The Kurds represent one of the biggest ethnicities in the world. However, the ethnic group never had its country. The Kurds claim their right to a large region known as Kurdistan and share a common language, religion, culture, and history. The oil-rich regions of Kurdistan were divided between the countries of the Middle East after World War I. This division deprived the Kurds an opportunity to gain its sovereignty and introduced the control of the other nations over the Kurdish regions. However, there are nationalists tendencies within the Kurdish population. The first attempts to create its state date back to the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, due to the lack of leadership and a single vision on the Kurdish independence the attempts did not succeed. Later under the rule of Turkey, the Kurds experienced repressions and had limited opportunities to proclaim its sovereignty. For a long time, the international community opposed the creation of the Kurdish state as it could destabilize the region of the Middle East even more.
The situation for Turkish Kurds has changed at the beginning of the 21st century. When Turkey expressed its aspirations to join the European Union, it had to address the “Kurdish issue” and provide the ethnic minority with the rights. The Kurds in Turley also can see the actions of their counterparts in Iraq and Syria, who already have succeeded in establishing de facto states without the permission of the international community. In Iraq, the Kurds not only managed to create their state but also survived the international isolation and boycotts. In Syria, the Kurds not only established its political party but also fought against ISIS. These tendencies are promising for the Turkish Kurds as they underline that even without the recognized independence, the ethnic group can control its affairs. The Turkish Kurds have a long history of nationalism that dates back to the Ottoman Empire and that have not been destroyed by the Ataturk government. Thus, with the support of the international community, mainly the European Union, the Kurds will be able to establish its state. Moreover, they will be able to conduct their affairs while being separated from Turkey. Despite the fact that Turkey did not want to recognize the Kurds for a long time, the ethnic group succeeded in the introduction of a well-organized political structure. It already has its representatives in the Turkish parliament. The activities of the PKK have strengthened the nationalist identity of the Kurds. As a result, the Turkish Kurds already demand its autonomy within Turkey.