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National Integration and Minority Rights

February 26, 2008


As you might be aware, Kosovo recently declared its independence from Serbia; a move immediately recognized by the United States. As a result, thugs attacked the U.S. embassy in Serbia and riots broke out in northern Kosovo. The primary reason that Kosovo declared its independence is that the majority of Kosovo’s citizens are ethnic Albanians rather than Serbs. For years, they were persecuted by the Serbs and they are convinced their lives will better once they are out from under Serbian control. This break highlights a challenge that most nations face, how do you deal with minorities in such a way that their interests are protected and so that the territorial integrity of the nation can be preserved. Kenya is currently undergoing a significant internal population movement that could eventually lead to separate states. The same is happening in Sudan with southern Sudan [see my post Looking Forward to “New Sudan”] breaking away. There are also concerns that the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq might pursue independence from the rest of Iraq — an outcome U.S. policymakers see as extremely undesirable.

A politician in a town in southern Turkey, an ethnic Kurd, is trying to point the way in that part of the world as to how to integrate ethnic groups and move forward; but his efforts may be premature [“Minority Rules,” by Meline Toumani, New York Times Magazine, 17 February 2008]. Toumani points out that the politician’s course has not been easy nor the way smooth.

“Walking through the Sur district of Diyarbakir with Abdullah Demirbas was like taking an old-fashioned mayoral stroll. … Demirbas addressed most of the locals in Kurdish, his native language, but every now and then he switched to Turkish. When I asked him why, he said he has known all his constituents long enough to remember which language each speaks. Neither my question nor his answer was idle. Demirbas was in a legal ordeal when we spoke last summer because he had been using Kurdish in his capacity as the mayor of Sur, Diyarbakir’s central district, an ancient neighborhood ringed by several miles of high basalt walls. For printing a children’s book and tourist brochures in Kurdish, according to a report by the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, Demirbas was accused of misusing municipal resources. For giving a blessing in Kurdish while officiating at a wedding ceremony, he was accused of misusing his position. And for proposing that his district should employ Kurdish-speaking phone operators and print public-health pamphlets in Kurdish, he was accused (and later acquitted) of aiding a terrorist organization — the Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K. The fact that a reference to terrorism should find its way into the reported accusations against Demirbas, a 41-year-old schoolteacher-turned-politician, might seem bizarrely beside the point, given the scale of the conflict between Turks and Kurds.”

Demirbas’ plight underscores exactly how sensitive the Turk/Kurd situation remains. The wounds run deep because PKK fighting has waged for decades. This past week the Turks made a major land incursion into northern Iraq to attack PKK strongholds. They claim to have killed dozens of PKK rebels.

“The fighting between P.K.K. guerrillas and Turkish soldiers has raged in various forms for nearly 30 years and since 2004 has alternated between short-lived cease-fires and sporadic attacks. After 12 Turkish soldiers were killed in a devastating assault in October last year, the military began a series of airstrikes against P.K.K. camps in northern Iraq. These came after months of diplomatic wrangling in which Turkey criticized American and Iraqi leaders for not supporting its fight against the P.K.K., and the Bush administration begged Turkey not to destabilize the one part of Iraq that was fairly functional. This would seem to be far more serious than a dispute over the language of a children’s book. But the battle that Demirbas entered, waged entirely on paper and in courtrooms, is closely related to the violence. For the past two years, politicians all over southeastern Turkey, along with human rights advocates, journalists and other public figures, have been sued for instances of Kurdish-language usage so minor that they are often a matter of a few words: sending a greeting card with the words ‘happy new year’ in Kurdish, for example, or saying ‘my dear sisters’ in a speech at a political rally. Such lawsuits have become so common that in some cases the accused is simply fined for using the letters W, X or Q — present in the Kurdish but not the Turkish alphabet — in an official capacity. In cases involving elected politicians, like Demirbas, the language usage is sometimes considered disloyalty and can carry a prison sentence. This miniaturist culture war and the fighting in the mountains are related because they both reflect the inability of Turkish society to integrate Kurds — about 20 percent of the country’s total population and the majority in the southeast — in a way that doesn’t insist on assimilation down to the last W, X or Q. For decades, Turkish law has not allowed acknowledgment of Kurds as a distinct ethnic group; from 1983 to 1991 it was even illegal to speak Kurdish in public. Until 2002, broadcasting in Kurdish was essentially banned, and only in 2003 could parents give their children Kurdish names (except, again, for names using W, X or Q). But even these small advances suggest that while the military fight has been a stalemate, the deeper cultural conflict can, with relative ease, be resolved. Such at least is the vision of Abdullah Demirbas. His may not be the effort that makes headlines, but it is probably the one that matters most.”

The mayor, a younger Kurdish colleague, has faced similar trials.

“Demirbas’s colleague Osman Baydemir is six years younger but has similar stories. A lawyer by profession, Baydemir is mayor of the greater Diyarbakir municipality, which encompasses Sur and 31 other districts. Baydemir faces more than 50 investigations and also risks prison for a long list of cultural offenses. … One of the most aggressive legal investigations against Baydemir concerned a series of public statements he made in Kurdish in March 2006. In a battle that month between P.K.K. militants and Turkish soldiers, 14 Kurds had been killed. Diyarbakir exploded in mass demonstrations that ultimately became violent. Baydemir begged the crowd — in Turkish — to settle down, to refuse further violence, to go home and rest. The crowd chanted P.K.K. slogans, like ‘Teeth to teeth, blood to blood, we are with you Ocalan,’ referring to Abdullah Ocaclan, the head of the P.K.K. whom Baydemir, as a lawyer, had defended after his capture in 1999. Desperate to subdue the crowd, Baydemir switched to Kurdish. ‘You claimed your identity,’ he told them. ‘With burnt hearts, you claimed your people and your pain. We are also with you. Be sure of this. But for the sake of peace, for the sake of your success, we have to listen to each other under the leadership of the party’ — the Democratic Society Party, or D.T.P., Turkey’s only legal ‘pro-Kurdish’ party. ‘We fear,’ he went on, ‘that this mobilization from now on will harm our nation and our people. From now on, we all will go back to our homes quietly.’ Sixteen people were killed in the rioting that subsequently spread across the southeast and into Istanbul. The mandate — the ordeal — of a mayor in a Kurdish town was clear: a kind of internal mediation of the highest order, the challenge of connecting to the hearts of the Kurdish population while governing according to the laws of the state.”

Minorities seldom believe their interests are being looked after unless there is a political party that specifically identifies itself with their plight. In the U.S., for example, the Democrats have largely been perceived as the party of minorities. The DTP, however, is coming under attack in Turkey.

“Nearly all of the prominent Kurdish politicians accused of language violations are members of the D.T.P. But the latest front in the party’s legal battles is not crimes against the alphabet but the status of the D.T.P. itself. On Nov. 16 [2007], Abdurrahman Yalcinkaya, chief prosecutor of the Supreme Court of Appeals, applied to the Constitutional Court to ban the D.T.P., arguing that it is merely a suit-and-tie-clad front for the P.K.K. ‘The party in question has become a base for activities which aim at the independence of the state and its indivisible unity,’ the prosecuto
r wrote in his statement.”

Despite calls from all quarters for the DTP to renounce the PKK and its insurgency, the party has failed to do so.

“D.T.P. leaders have attempted to distance themselves from the P.K.K. without directly condemning the group: in public statements, they constantly reiterate that they are against separatism, do not want to divide the Turkish state and oppose all violence.”

The roots of the DTP dilemma are found in culture not politics.

“Aysel Tugluk, a young female leader of the D.T.P. and a one-time member of Ocalan’s defense team, [… has asserted]: ‘If you force the D.T.P. to condemn the P.K.K., you deny us the possibility to take initiative in a way that could turn out to be effective.’ But she added that if Kurdish cultural demands were met, the D.T.P. would be able to condemn ‘any force that deploys violence’ and that the most important step right now would be for Kurds to be allowed to express themselves in their native language.”

Toumani reports that almost every Kurdish family in Turkey has a relative in prison or in the mountains with the PKK. That complicates the political situation and has made the troubles in Turkey linger on for decades. Toumani points out that her interest in Abdullah Demirbas, the politician with whom she began her article, was personal.

“When I asked Demirbas how he feels about the P.K.K. and the prospect of a separate state, his voice grew softer both in tone and in volume. ‘I am against separation,’ he says, ‘but it’s difficult to convince people of this. I am not working for the Kurds; I am working for all people. Democracy means that when you want something for yourself, you also want it for others.’ It was Demirbas’s interest in others that led me to seek him out. I had heard from a friend in Istanbul that the mayor of the central neighborhood of Diyarbakir had published a map of the city in Armenian. One hundred fifty years ago, Armenians and other Christians made up about half of Diyarbakir’s population, but as an ethnic Armenian myself, I was astonished that a mayor in a Turkish town had done something to acknowledge this history. Most old Armenian sites in Turkey are either abandoned altogether or labeled with signs and explanations that offer roundabout explanations without ever mentioning that a particular site was Armenian. (Even the much-lauded official renovation of an Armenian church in Van relied on the geographical term ‘Anatolian.’) In Turkey, the ‘Armenian question’ — whether the massacre of the Ottoman Armenian population during World War I was a state campaign — is at least as taboo as the Kurdish issue.”

Last year the U.S. Congress almost caused an international uproar by passing a declaration condemning the Turkish massacre of Armenians at a time when Turkish support for efforts in Iraq remain important. Eventually, that episode will also need to be reconciled, but it remains a sore point in Turkish politics and history. Demirbas provided Toumani with a historical tour of his district.

“Tucked among a cluster of alleyways in his district, several ancient structures remind visitors of the Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Jews and other groups who once populated a neighborhood that is still known locally as the infidel quarter. Demirbas calls it the ‘Armenian quarter,’ at least while talking to me, and has drafted a proposal to undertake a major renovation of the area and its monuments. ‘So many civilizations lived in the Sur district over millennia,’ he says. ‘Kurds, Arabs, Armenians, Chaldeans, Assyrians, Nestorians, Jews, Turks, Hanafi, Shafi’i, Alevi, Yezidi, traces of Sabihi’ — occasionally he lengthens his list by repeating groups he has already named — ‘all these different beliefs coexisted in the Sur district of Diyarbakir. The more we lose this multicultural side of ourselves, the more we become one another’s enemies.’ Listening to him, I felt sure that he meant it, but also sure that he knew he was undermining the nationalist foundations of the Turkish Republic. At first, I wondered if he was using Diyarbakir’s other ethnicities to somehow soften the blow of his support of Kurdish cultural rights. But supporting the Armenian issue would hardly win him friends in Turkey, at least not friends with power.”

The “nationalist” fervor that countries need to provoke is one that makes all its people proud to be citizens, regardless of their ethnic heritage. It is an art that seems to be losing ground among politicians around the globe. People are generally proud of a country that takes ethical positions, provides for the young, the destitute and the disabled, and works to promote a better standard of living for all of its citizens. That’s a real challenge for large countries with multiple ethnicities. Toumani asserts that Demirbas’ call for multi-ethnic tolerance is an attempt to curry favor with the European Union.

“The European Union has been consistently supportive of Kurdish cultural rights, and Demirbas’s case has held the attention of E.U. observers since 2006, when he traveled to Strasbourg to talk about using multiple languages in municipal affairs. For presenting a paper, ‘Municipal Services and Local Governments in Light of Multilingualism,’ Demirbas was sued by the Turkish minister of the interior on the grounds of ‘making propaganda to promote the aims of the terrorist organization P.K.K.’ … Unfortunately, European support of minority rights in Turkey has its own hazards: for many Turks, it brings to mind the period when European nations sought to undermine the Ottoman empire’s strength by pitting different ethnic groups against one another and against the Ottomans. The eventual collapse of the empire and the trauma of dismemberment were in many ways the foundation for Turkish nationalism, as Mustafa Kemal Ataturk sought to empower his new nation with a strong Turkish identity.”

Most “old world” countries have long and vivid memories. It is sometimes difficult for a nation as young as the United States to understand how deeply history and culture affect everything that takes place in a country that enjoys an ancient and glorious history. Turkey is such a nation and even wounds a century old are recent wounds when compared to the rest of its history. Demirbas’ sensibilities about appealing to an even deeper sense of pride and nationalism that is associated with Turkey’s history is probably a good one, but he must realize that his efforts will take years to bear the fruit he desires to harvest.

“Even some of the most sympathetic analysts of the Kurdish problem believe that Demirbas and Baydemir have been needlessly provocative in their initiatives. One analyst with a major human rights organization said that the mayors should know better than to work blatantly outside of the system. ‘The Kurdish people are suffering because their leaders are not realistic about what Turkey can accept right now,’ she said. This refrain is repeated by people on all sides of the problem. And perhaps Turkey is not ready for major change, but you wonder how it will ever become so. Demirbas and Baydemir, and to a lesser extent their colleagues all over the southeast, have chosen to forge new fiefs in what may ultimately prove to be a self-destructive campaign, heavily dependent on a European support whose usefulness is itself questionable.”

Toumani concludes her article noting that the DTP lost support during the last elections because it wasn’t as effective at bringing economic benefits to the area as other more mainstream parties. The Kurds who voted for other parties (that is, for economics rather than ethnicity) might have been looking across the border to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The economic boon there, which has also helped the economic situation in Turkey, has done more for improving the lot of Kurds than all the fighting that preceded it. Like Demirbas, they see a better way forward, but unlike him, they think it is economic not cultural. The two visions are not necessarily incompatible; nor are they incompatible with a unified and prosperous Turkey. The fighting has to stop, however, and emotions cooled before the path to prosperity can been seen as the fog of war clears.

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