Brief History of the Kurdish Struggle in Turkey

Newroz celebration in Hakkari 2012

Numbering between 35-40 million worldwide, the Kurds are often referred to as the 'largest stateless people in the world'. And this is possibly true. The internationally recognised right of self-determination is denied, almost exclusively, to the Kurdish people.

All peoples and regions have some sort of right to self-determination even if imperfect: the Kosovans, the Palestinians, the Welsh, the Catalans, the Irish and every other nation or ethnic group.

In the North of Ireland after a long painful struggle the British army left and a peaceful and political resolution of the conflict was brought to a small population of less the 2 million.

The Kurdish people number some 35-40 million and still they are denied a state, federation or autonomy of their own. They are still denied basic human and political rights with their political representatives jailed, criminalised and suppressed. 

After the First World War and the break up of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish people were denied self-determination first promised to all the peoples of the Middle East under the Woodrow Wilson Principles and then under the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which allowed for a Kurdish state to emerge.

The Kemalists under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk took over power from the Ottoman Sultans and called on the support of the Kurds as Muslims to defeat the 'foreign Christians,' the Armenians, Greeks and other ‘invaders’. After the Kemalists’ victory there would be no thanks for the Kurds. Mustafa Kemal and the Kemalists renegotiated the Peace Treaty of 1920 signed at Sevres. With some trickery in relation to the Kurds they signed a new peace treaty at Lausanne in 1923, now excluding any possibility for the Kurds to have any form of self-determination. For instead of unity based on religion the Kemalists now promoted another identity above all else, Turkishness.

So, in just a couple of years, the Kurds went from being the closest ‘brother’ of the Turks to being lower than a dog not worthy of a name. It is summed up nicely by two quotes 3 years apart. The first is when the Kemalists needed the Kurds to give birth to their new Turkish state:

"As a result of a thousand years of common religion, common history and common geography Turks and Kurds are connected both materially and spiritually. Today they are facing common enemies and common dangers. They can avoid these common dangers only by common effort. Therefore we can definitely say that it is a religious and political obligation for both nations to love each other. A Turk who does not love a Kurd is not a Turk and a Kurd who does not love a Turk is not a Kurd." Ziya Gokalp, Kurdish Ideologue of Turkishness, June 5 1922.

The second quote is from only 3 years later, when they had achieved their military victory with the help of Kurds. The betrayal at this time is summed up well in the story of a Kurdish parliamentarian, Hasan Hayri, which you can read here. But this next quote is from Ismet Inonu who negotiated the Lausanne Treaty with Mustafa Kemal.

"We are frankly Nationalist... and Nationalism is our only factor of cohesion. Before the Turkish majority other elements have no kind of influence. At any price, we must Turkify the inhabitants of our land, and we will annihilate those who oppose Turks or 'le turquisme'." Ismet Inonu, Prime Minister of Turkey, May 4 1925.

Chilling words. And annihilate is what they did. Of course the Kurdish people did not accept that they had to suddenly abandon their language, centuries of tradition and culture and began rebelling. One of the first was the Sheikh Said uprising or Serhildan in 1925.

Below are the prophetic words of the then British ambassador to Turkey, who wrote of the Turkish suppression of the Kurdish uprising.

"The few remaining rebel centres appear to have been captured. The extreme severity of the Turkish measures of repression may have temporarily broken the spirit of rebellion, but will probably produce a good deal of future hostility to Turkish rule on the part of the remaining Turkish Kurds, and this may eventually complicate the situation on the Iraq border." Mr Lindsay, April 22nd 1925 - British public record office.

The leaders of the Sheikh Said uprising, including Sheikh Said, were all hanged in public on gallows in Diyarbakir. This is from the summing up of the verdict by the Turkish judge.

"You have all acted on behalf of one cause -the establishment of an independent Kurdistan... Everyone should know that the government of the young Republic will not tolerate reactionary agitation or any kind of other accursed activities and that its firm measures will leave no place for this sort of rebellious movement. The poor people of this region, who have for centuries been exploited and oppressed by sheikhs, aghas (village chiefs), and begs, will be liberated from your evil agitation and, guided by our Republic that promises them progress and happiness, they will henceforth live in prosperity and happiness. You shall pay with your lives, by hanging from the gallows of justice… send away the convicts" Mazhar Mufit Kansu, judge of Diyarbakir Independence Tribunal.

So here we have the beginning of the criminalisation of Kurds and the Kurdish liberation movement in Turkey. 

Protest in Cizre

Of course there were other Serhildans or uprisings, 28 in all, including the major uprisings of Ararat and Dersim, which again were brutally, and I mean brutally suppressed. Kurdish villagers were slaughtered on mass and systematically.

Ihsan Sabri Çaglayangil, a one-time Turkish Foreign Minister and the police commissioner of Dersim in 1938, said in 1986:

"They had taken refuge in caves. The army used poisonous gas, through the cave openings, and poisoned them like rats… Young and old, they killed the Kurds of Dersim."

Faced with annihilation, the Kurds appealed to the outside world for help. But it fell on deaf ears, like it is now. Below is part of a letter allegedly written by the Dersim leader Seyid Riza to the English government. (Some attribute the letter to Nuri Dersimi, also a Kurdish leader of the time.)

"For years the Turkish government has attempted to assimilate the Kurdish people and with this objective has been oppressing them, forbidding them to read newspapers and publications in the Kurdish language, persecuting those who speak their mother tongue, organising forced and systematic migrations from the fertile lands of Kurdistan to the uncultivated lands of Anatolia, where these migrants perished in large numbers... Three million Kurds live in their country and ask only to live in peace and freedom while keeping their race, language, traditions, culture and civilisation... Through my voice they ask your excellency to let the Kurdish people benefit from the high moral influence of your government and bring an end to this cruel injustice." Seyid Riza of Dersim. July 30 1937.

Not long after that Seyid Riza was also hanging from the gallows. Another terrorist!

It was, "Happy is he who calls himself a Turk," one of the phrases attributed to Ataturk that reinforced the message. Certainly it was only misery for anyone who called him or herself a Kurd.

Village clearances and forced deportations were the order of the day.

Turkey banned the Kurdish language and any expression of Kurdish identity or culture. This was a serious, planned and determined effort to annihilate the Kurdish identity in Turkey. The East/Orient Reform Law (Şark Islahat Planı) passed in 1925 was the first of many laws and plans to assimilate the Kurds. According to these laws there was no such thing as a Kurd, only 'Mountain Turks,' by which the Kurds were now known. A whole raft of racist stereotypes and discrimination targeted the Kurds. Just like as in Ireland when the English stereotyped and made racist jokes about the 'thick or drunken Irish,' the same was true of the Kurds in Turkey. Racism that has a deep resonance still in Turkey today finds its roots in this time. Many Kurds became eager to be 'Turkish' to escape this cruelty; according to surveys roughly 12 million people say they are Kurdish, that means more than 1/3 of Kurds have been assimilated and now say they are Turkish.

But Kurdish survived in the villages and hamlets in the mountains and plains of Kurdistan. With time the Kurds in Turkey were influenced by events in Iraqi Kurdistan where Mullah Mustafa Barzani was leading the Kurdish revolt. This had an impact on the Kurds in Turkey and reinforced their self-awareness as Kurds.

Rising Kurdish awareness was met in 1971 by a military coup d’état and savage repression again with martial law being enforced in Kurdish towns and cities. Many Kurdish activists were arrested, tortured and dragged through the courts for having fanciful ideas about their Kurdish origins. Ismail Besikci, a Turkish sociologist was imprisoned at this time for fifteen years for daring to suggest the Kurdish origins of the 'Mountain Turks'.

These repressive measures increased in the run-up to the 1980 military coup and after, leading inevitably to many more Kurds gaining consciousness organising and radicalising, with many also being forced into exile to escape persecution. These years also saw the emergence of the ‘29th Kurdish Serhildan’ in Turkey with the forming of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, PKK, (Partiya Karkerin Kurdistan), led by a Kurdish student named Abdullah Ocalan from Urfa.

Inspired by national liberation movements in Africa and the Middle East, by the Cuban Revolution and 1968, Ocalan and others realised the futility of trying to campaign or lobby for Kurdish rights within Turkey. After all, to do so was seen as 'terrorism' or 'separatism' and so they began to build a guerrilla army that would confront, militarily, the Turkish authorities and demand Kurdish rights.

The PKK soon became popular with the Kurds of Turkey especially, but also the Kurds of Iraq, Iran and Syria. With membership growing from all parts of Kurdistan, they began the Kurdish armed struggle for freedom on 15th August 1984, with the ‘first bullet’ attack against the Turkish army.

It is the armed and political struggle of the PKK that has taken the Kurdish people in Turkey from being 'Mountain Turks' to the proud position they find themselves in today. The Kurdish Question, far from being solved by annihilation and assimilation, is now at the top of the international agenda.

The Kurdish Freedom Struggle has come a long way and has evolved to become the most progressive movement in the Middle East, but the Turkish state's mentality remains the same. The Turkish state and government is insisting on a military solution, annihilation and the terrorisation of the Kurdish people. This mentality has brought nothing but destruction in the past.

As the Turkish army continues to brutally suppress Kurdish cities, it is time for the international community to speak out. Enough is enough.

International mechanisms need to become involved so that the process for a political settlement to the Kurdish Question restarts, with all the relevant political representatives, primarily the Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan included. Whether this is a mediating force (NGO or state), a monitoring committee or a third-party to mediate between the Turkish government and Kurdish movement is a secondary matter. What is clear is that it is now the only way for a peaceful-political solution to the Kurdish Question.

Article by Mark Campbell. Originally posted on Kurdish Question 2016


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  • Rosa Gilbert
    commented 2017-06-27 11:31:02 +0100