by Serhun Al
From 2013 until the general elections of June 2015, the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known as the PKK) were two parties that were seeking peace to end their thirty-year-long war. Peace between the two parties meant more than just internal rehabilitation. The end of the Kurdish conflict would also open doors for new alliances, shared interests and political development in the region as a whole. The PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan’s peace letter for Nowruz 2013, had declared building a new era where Kurds and Turkey would grow together in the entire region of Mesopotamia. Today, this paradigm has collapsed, as Turkey and the PKK are fighting again, with the conflict claiming civilian and non-civilian lives almost daily. According to a March 2016 report by International Crisis Group, around 350,000 people have been displaced, 350 security personnel and 250 civilians have been killed in the last eight months. In addition, President Erdogan announced that around 5,339 PKK militants have either been killed or arrested. These numbers have risen since March. In this new environment of war and violence, identity boundaries in Turkey are being constantly redefined and reshaped, potentially towards further polarisation and crystallisation at the hands of the two warring parties. One recent vivid example was that of 5 officials of a Kurdish soccer team, Amedspor, being hospitalised after they were beaten by an opponent team’s officials during a game in Ankara. Although the conflict has never turned into mass violence amongst civilians, many fear that this might change if the war between the PKK and Ankara cannot be stopped.
This revival of violence brought with it a renewed interest in the nature of the PKK conflict in Turkey. The conventional wisdom is that the source of the conflict is the Kurds’ historical ethnic grievances in the process of nation-building of the Republic of Turkey. Thus, the PKK is an outcome rather than the cause of this problem. While this understanding is partially true, it takes Turkish and Kurdish identities for granted, as fixed and mutually exclusive. However, it neglects how protracted violence has been transforming identity boundaries, not just within the Turkish vs. Kurdish nexus but across Kurdish and Turkish identities as well. For instance, state violence and massive human rights violations in the emergency regions of southeast Turkey during the 1990s largely transformed ‘Kurdishness’ into a highly politicised ethnicity which today forms the social base of the PKK. On the other hand, the PKK’s use of violence since the 1980s compartmentalised the Kurdish identity into several categories such as secular vs. pious, Marxist-leftist vs. traditional-tribal, and lower class vs. middle-upper class Kurds. It was no coincidence that one of the PKK’s first armed attacks was towards big tribes in the region, such as the Bucak tribe. Today, it is no coincidence, again, that the PKK youth has recently harassed upper-middle class shopping centres in Diyarbakir, a major Kurdish city in southeast Turkey. This strategic use of violence in a way is a tool for Kurdish identity-making as articulated with the PKK’s worldview. On a larger scale, the vicious cycle of violence and war between the PKK and the Turkish state forces people to reconsider where they belong, what they identify as, and to reconsider the boundaries of ‘us versus them’. Thus, while Kurdish and Turkish identities have many cultural commonalities and geographical co-existence, the latest phase of violence tends to eliminate such grey zones.
It is not necessarily the clear-cut boundaries between Turkish and Kurdish identities that perpetuate conflict but rather it is violence and conflict themselves that draw and redraw these boundaries. In times of peace, these boundaries can be blurred. In times of war, the Turkish state and the PKK both seek to eliminate these grey zones and establish strict lines of ‘us versus them’. Recent escalation of war and almost uncontrolled violence once again pushes everyone to rethink their sense of belonging. In one of my recent interviews in Diyarbakir, a male in his 50s and sympathiser of the pro-Kurdish movement mentioned that ‘when this all started, it wasn’t necessarily about ‘Kurdishness’ but rather about our dignity and honour, which were being crushed at the hands of the state. I don’t want to emphasise my ethnic identity but it is the state policies that pushed me towards ethnic attachment’. Another interviewee from the Suruc area, a border town near Kobani, stated that ‘I wouldn’t want to live with Turks if we weren’t all Muslims’. On the other hand, a Turkish nationalist who is sympathetic to the Nationalist Action Party (known as MHP) from Izmir, a Western city known for its secularist and nationalist tendencies, said: ‘Why do we spend so much money and men to keep Hakkari [a Kurdish province in the very far southeastern Turkish-Iraqi and Iranian borders]? What is its benefit for us? Nothing!’ This is an interesting statement, especially since Turkish nationalists are well-known to be against Kurdish separatism. Today, some Turks have begun to consider separating from those Kurdish areas on the Iraqi and Syrian border that have strong anti-state tendencies.
Overall, on the one hand, the Turkish state’s alleged human rights violations and attempts to narrow the political sphere of legal pro-Kurdish actors such as the Peoples’ Democratic Party in the name of the ‘survival of the state’ leads to further alienation of the Kurds who already have doubts about their loyalty to the state. On the other hand, the PKK’s new strategy of carrying out a war in urban areas of Kurdish cities and attacks in Western cities alienates those Kurds and Turks who have sympathised with the pro-Kurdish movement during the latest elections in 2015. Violence once again transforms identities and sense of belongings both in Turkish Kurdistan and throughout Turkey. Consequently, conflict and violence between the PKK and Turkey creates and crystalises Kurdish and Turkish identity boundaries, not the other way around.
Serhun Al is a post-doctoral research fellow in the department of political science and international relations at Izmir University of Economics, Turkey. His research interests include ethnicity and nationalism, social movements and security studies. His recent academic articles have appeared in journals such as Nationalities Papers, Ethnopolitics, Globalizations, and Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism. Serhun tweets @.