Turkey Haunted by Its Ghosts


November 12, 2015
Source: New York Times

By Roger Cohen

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — “We don’t want Turkey to become Syria or Diyarbakir to become Aleppo.”

Those were the words of Tahir Elci, the president of the Diyarbakir Bar Association when I spoke to him after the recent Turkish election here in this troubled city of strong Kurdish national sentiment. On the night of the vote tires smoldered and the tear-gas-heavy air stung. In the center of the old city, rubble and walls pockmarked with bullet holes attest to the violence as police confront restive Kurds.

Elci was detained last month for a day and a half after saying in a television interview that the Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K., was not a “terrorist organization” but “an armed political organization which has large local support.” An indictment has been brought against him that seeks a prison sentence of more than seven years. The P.K.K. is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the European Union and the United States.

“For a few words about the P.K.K., in which I said some of its operations were terrorist but it was not itself a terrorist organization, there is a lynching campaign against me,” Elci told me. “Yet there is no strategy among the Turkish security forces against the Islamic State, no real mobilization. If ISIS were treated like the P.K.K., it would be very different.” As G-20 leaders prepare to gather in Turkey next week, the fissures in the fabric of a polarized society are more marked than at any time in the dozen years that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has held power. His initial push, as prime minister, to oversee an era of neo-Ottoman opening both to Turkey’s neighbors and to minorities within the country, has collapsed in violence.

In the place of dialogue with historic enemies of the unitary Turkish state forged in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk has come the increasingly authoritarian assertion of a new brand of Sunni religious nationalism, the replacement for Ataturk’s secular nationalism. Erdogan, the representative of Turkey’s religious conservatives, had sought to portray Ataturk’s fiercely secular state as a “parenthesis”; instead he has come to re-enact many of the characteristics of that state, not least its veneration of one man.

Turkey is not about to become Syria — indeed it has shown remarkable generosity and resilience in absorbing more than two million Syrian refugees — but some of the same actors are present, including the Kurds and ISIS. So, too, is violence.

The Kurdish question has boiled up again in acute form. Kurdish militias loyal to the imprisoned P.K.K. leader, Abdullah Ocalan, have taken control of a wide area of northern Syria that they call Rojava, defeating Islamic State. Kurdish pesh merga forces are fighting side by side with the United States against ISIS in Iraq. Young Kurds here in the Diyarbakir area have tried to set up autonomous areas within cities, only to be crushed. All Kurds at some level want the state denied them when the Ottoman Empire broke up. They may settle for autonomy but a dream persists. “I want autonomy, non-assimilation, the ability to use our language in our daily lives, and recognition of Kurdish as an official second language in Kurdish-majority areas,” Elci said.

The emergence of Kurds as America’s Iraqi and Syrian allies against ISIS has complicated the critical Turkish-American relationship. President Obama probably needs Erdogan more than Erdogan needs him, a fact that limits American leverage. Still, renewed Turkish-Kurdish negotiation and real Turkish commitment against ISIS are paramount American interests. The impression with Erdogan has been: better a Sunni Islamist fanatic than a Kurd.

Turkey is at a crossroads. The modern state was born through military prowess and a ferocious act of will. Ataturk forged a Westernized nation state from the many-shaded ruins of the Ottoman Empire. His creation involved an attempt to excise other peoples and identities — be they Kurdish, Armenian, Greek or Alevi — in the name of the new nation.

But Ottoman diversity, the fruit of many centuries, could not be subsumed into Turkish nationhood overnight. Turkey remains haunted by its ghosts.

The reverberations from Turkey’s troubled birth and the years preceding it persist. The 1915 Armenian genocide remains unacknowledged by Turkey even though Germany’s president, in this centennial year, spoke of German complicity. Joachim Gauck said: “We Germans collectively still have to come to terms with the past, namely when it comes to shared responsibility and perhaps even complicity in the genocide of the Armenians.” It is for Turkey to answer how Germany could be complicit in a crime that did not exist.

Just how sensitive these issues remain was evident in the electoral campaign. Among the slogans of the A.K.P., as Erdogan’s Justice and Development party is known, was: “One Nation. One Flag. One State.” The insistence on oneness reflected a reality of fracture. Settling the Armenian dispute and reaching a negotiated settlement with the Kurds must be central Turkish goals before the centennial in 2023 of Ataturk’s state.