MESOP THEORY – DISCUSSION : The Turkish-Kurdish Conflict in Theory & Practice

By Kendall M. Stempel – 2014, Vol. 6 No. 03 | pg. 1/3 | Student Pulse – International Journal

Like the theories that explain it, group conflict has existed since man became a social creature. Nevertheless, social scientists remain frustrated in their attempts to explain ethnic conflict in any generalizable pattern. Social political theories that detail the “why” of conflict often fail to illustrate “how” to resolve it. Regarding the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, a plethora of theories exist to try and explain it, including Social Identity Theory (and under it, Stereotyping and Prejudice Theory), Basic Human Needs Theory (and under it, Relative Deprivation Theory), Realistic Conflict Theory and Psychodynamic and Psychocultural Theories. Numerous articles have considered the “Kurdish Question” from these theoretical perspectives, yet very few have attempted to draw a connection between theory and the active practice of peacebuilding, bringing to attention the problematic gap between understanding and action.

A Brief History of the Kurdish Conflict

Generally agreed by scholars of all fields is that the “Kurdish question is the main source of political instability in Turkey today” (Ozcelik, 2006, pg. 1). As of 2009, the death toll in Turkey, related to the conflict, had reached 30,000 and the cost estimate was $6-8 billion per year (James and Ozdamar, pg. 25). The Kurdish conflict transcends borders because the ethnic Kurdish people do. The Kurdish people, who researchers believe are descended from the Medes, are primarily Sunni Muslim, however there are representative Christian and Jewish minorities as well (Ozcelik, pg.1-2). Of the 25 million Kurds today, about 14 million live in Turkey. The nations with the next largest Kurdish populations are Iran, Iraq and Syria (with around 2-3 million), but Turkey and Syria, as unfriendly neighbors, have experienced the most conflict (James/Ozdamar, pg. 24).

Dr. Mesut Yegen, a Turkish scholar and professor outlines several evolutionary stages of the conflict:

Some of these stages will be explained below in further detail relating to identity, but it is important to note that, according to Yegen, causes and effects of this conflict transcend the domestic realm, making it a relevant internationalized case to study (2006, pgs. 121-141). As James and Ozdamar put it, “internationally, Turkey’s foreign policy at both the global and regional level has been affected substantially” (2009, pg. 25).

Overview from a political perspective

From a political outlook, the “Kurdish question” is characterized as being both a foreign policy deterrent and security dilemma for the Turks. Those who have studied the issue identify (political) elements of terrorism, bleak economic stratification and human rights abuses. For example, Ozcelik mentions that internationally, the Kurdish dilemma generates tension between Turkey’s neighbors, like Syria, and has inhibited Turkey from being accepted into the EU (2006, pg. 1). One of the main impediments to their acceptance to the EU is the existence of the Kurdish terrorist organization, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) (Ozcelik, 2006, pg. 3). Scholars believe that Turkey has not yet qualified for the EU because of the fairly recent human rights abuses witnessed during the military-PKK conflict of 1984. The significance of a Human Rights narrative that was already on the rise in the early 1990s became internationally relevant during this deadly conflict and is still fresh in the minds of the Kurds and international community alike (Yegen, 2006, pg. 136). The Kurdish conflict, which started even before the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 (Ozcelik, 2006, pg. 1) can be considered a security dilemma, domestically and internationally, because it meets Shiping Tang’s “spiral model” requirements: anarchy, self-help toward security, fear and then power competition (Tang, 2011, pg. 515). Power competition is exemplified today through the PKK and Turkish military’s use of fear-mongering tactics (domestic) and by Syria’s support of this Kurdish terrorist organization (international) (Ozcelik, 2006, pg. 5).

Kurdish discontent, as W.W Isajiw states, should also be considered from a historical economic paradigm (2000, pg. 118). James and Ozdamar describe the underlying tension between Syria and Turkey as economic competition (2009, pg. 23) and Ozcelik iterates that past rapid urbanization resulted in poor and insecure living conditions for millions of Turkish Kurds (2006, pg. 5).

Overview from a psychological perspective

Scholars have more recently studied the Kurdish dilemma from the psychological perspectives of the ethnic minority group (Kurds) and ethnic majority group (Turks). Historically speaking, BHN (basic human needs) began to be stripped from the Kurds when the Ottoman Empire began to decline in 1913. Their autonomy and basic rights of language, religion and physical security were stripped from them by a non-inclusive Turkish regime that desired centralization (Yegen, 2006, pg. 122). Ozcelik claims, though, that the Turks also have a Basic Human “non-negotiable need:” security (2006, pg. 4). This BHN has been jeopardized over the years by what the Turks perceive as a lack of political loyalty on the part of the Kurdish groups (Yegen, 2006, pg. 123).

Ted Gurr asserts in his idea of Relative Deprivation (RD) that there is a “perceived discrepancy between ‘value expectations’ (VE) (resources to which one feels entitled) and ‘value capabilities’ (VC) (resources one feels capable of acquiring and keeping)” (Ozcelik, 2006, pg. 5). By using Gurr’s RD perspective, Sezai Ozcelik points out that we can better understand the dissatisfaction of the Turkish-Kurds who have witnessed an increase of poverty in the south in accordance with an increase of economic development in the west (2006, pg.5).Yet, underlying all of these causal factors are the basic ideas of identity and perceptions of reality.

“Identity” and “Reality Perception” in the Context of Ethnic Conflict

A three pronged model for understanding “ethnicity”

In order to have a “full understanding of the broader nature of the phenomenon of ethnicity,” Wsevolod Isajiw claims that we must study ethnic identity outside of the paradigms that limit our objective viewpoint. Such paradigms include the idea that ethnic conflict is a “pre-modern” notion and that the majority group affiliated is “non-ethnic” (2000, pg. 105). Scholars Marsella and Yegen claim, though, that in order to fully conceptualize “ethnicity” properly, we must look at the cultural context and historical period respectively, both of which are constructions that define, not paradigms that restrict understanding.

Before we can study the phenomenon, Anthony Marsella of the University of Hawaii contends that we must fully understand the terms we are studying. He says that “culture is shared learning behavior and meanings…for purposes of individual and collective adjustment and adaption” (Marsella, 2005, pg. 657). From this article, culture is defined as a broad spectrum and inescapable context from which to live and learn. Although not entirely static, “culture” is, in my own understanding, a noun. From this term we can begin to define ethnicity. Isajiw describes ethnicity as a fluid and ever-changing “social phenomenon” (2000, pg. 106). In other words, ethnicity is determined by racial roots and is an adjective. Both Isajiw and Yegen then consider nationalism as part of this identity model. Yegen articulates nationalism as being a devotion to one’s national culture and the desire for autonomy (2006, pg. 121). Isajiw writes of nationalism as a criterion for understanding ethnic identity (2000, pg. 106). In both articles, the scholars agree that nationalism is always changing and, as I see it, claim that it is neither a noun nor adjective, but is a choice.

Identity theories and criticisms

Academics and social scientists present many different versions of identity analysis and, more currently, criticisms that these theories are inapplicable to resolving conflict. The Social Identity Theory (SIT) is one of the foremost theories applied to group, and more specifically, ethnic conflicts. SIT assumes that all humans desire a favorable social identity and form this identity based on in-group or out-group membership (Brown, 2000, pg. 747). Stereotyping and categorization is fundamental to SIT as they maintain group and self-esteem (Cuhadar and Dayton, 2000, pg. 274) and directly related to these is prejudice, “an antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization” (2000, pg. 277). Social Identity Theory, thus, explains that intergroup conflict is a result of intragroup constructed discrimination (Isajiw, 2000, pg. 110); however, Isajiw proceeds to argue that SIT does not account for broader factors outside of the in/out-groups (2000, pg. 110). For example, Yegen explains that discrimination towards the Kurds by the Turks was not a result of mere group differences but was an active movement by the Turks to exclude and change the Kurds to conform to the standards of their in-group (Yegen, 2006, pg. 122).

According to Brown, SIT has made only four significant contributions to the understanding of ethnic conflict, one of which – understanding stereotyping and prejudice – was mentioned above. Applicable to the Kurdish question is what he identifies as the SIT’s link between identity and discontent (Brown, 2000, pg. 749). A sub-theory of SIT composed by Gurr, Relative Deprivation Theory (RDT) proposes that when a group does not receive what it believes it deserves, the group becomes dissatisfied. Collective action follows (Brown, 2000, pg. 749). Yegen, while outlining the effects of Turkish nationalism on Kurds, brings to light several examples of RDT. For example, the 1924 Constitution for the Republic stated that Turkey is “not a multi-national state. The state does not recognize any nation other than the Turks” (Yegen, 2006, pg. 126). The Kurds were stripped of any legal or cultural rights and their language was forbidden. Yegen notes that collective action in the form of revolts soon followed this deprivation of, what the Kurds believed to be, their inherent rights (2006, pg. 127).

Brown describes several problems with SIT, one of which he calls “the effects of intergroup similarity.” Social Identity Theory asserts that similar groups should be logically inclined to emphasize intergroup differences, yet studies show that some groups show more interaction (Brown, 2000, pg. 757). If the theory held true, the Kurds and the Syrians, both of whom desire some sort of autonomy or control from Turkey would accentuate differences between their groups, yet they have united against Turkey. SIT, in this case, does not explain out-groups uniting against an in-group. Another problem with SIT, according to Brown, is the inability for theorists to make any sort of prediction concerning the actions of the low-status group because the theory is too one-dimensional (2000, pg. 758).

Other theories that group conflict scholars have used are the Basic Human Needs theory and Psychodynamic Theory. The Basic Human Needs theory emphasizes identity and security as two of the most important needs, along with belongingness, and Ozcelik theorizes that the oppression of the Kurdish language and culture, as stated before, is “the main reason for conflict in Turkey;” however, universalizing human needs between various groups is virtually impossible (2006, pg. 4). BHN theory also does not provide any form of solution to conflict.

The Psychodynamic Theory emphasizes, of course, the cognitive functions of the human brain, focusing more on individual (within a group) conflict dynamics rather than the group as a functioning whole. According to Linda Smircich’s psychodynamics, culture is a “manifestation… of the mind’s unconscious operation,” (1983, pg. 11) and she claims that, in order to understand interpersonal dynamics, we must analyze social underpinnings in a much deeper and objective sense (1983, pg. 15). James Krantz, a leading scholar on “organizational change,” brings to light what I believe to be very relevant insight on the psychodynamics of change, a phenomenon that most, if not all, ethnic groups experience. He says that “periods of change in organizations put great strain on the ability of their members to contain their anxieties” (Krantz, 2001, pg. 1). He emphasizes that substantial change and loss of the familiar leads to the “paranoid-schizoid mode.” This mode is notable for its members’ reversion to “primitive defenses,” such as denial, violence and projective identification, all caused by the undeniable anxiety of identity confusion (2001, pg. 4) Ozcelik reinforces this idea, asserting that when groups’ psychological borders (which protect ethnic uniqueness and autonomy) are threatened, they will resort to violence rather than live in anxiety (2006, pg. 7). For example, the Kurds, though never fully assimilated into the Ottoman Empire, were integrated into society and allowed to retain their cultural identity; however, from the time of Ottoman downfall to present day, their cultural autonomy has been threatened by the Turks’ political reform/centralization programs. These nationalist reforms stimulated and disseminated Kurdish anxiety (Yegen, 2006, pg. 127). Though this theory provides great insight to the unconscious actions of individuals and groups within conflict, it is not beneficial in explaining motives and it does not provide a solution for post-change conflict.

Perception theories and criticisms

Many scholars believe that group perception of reality is greatly dependent on identity. Krantz claims that destructive and rapid change for a group results in a confused identity for the minority while the majority retains a static identity. This, he says, results in the changing group’s “primitive” reality perception, characterized by fantasies of omnipotent control and paranoid blaming. Yegen speaking more specifically, states that Turkish nationalist identity, as defined earlier, has shaped how the Turks have perceived the Kurdish question over the years, virtually disabling them from understanding the conflict as an ethnic question (Yegen, 2006, pg. 119). In a broader sense, I believe that Yegen is claiming that ethnic conflicts are usually perceived in the context of the historical paradigm in which the in-group or outsiders are restricted. Perception theories included here are the Realistic Group Conflict Theory and Psychocultural Theory.

Realistic Group Conflict theory emphasizes competition over material resources as being the primary origin of group conflict (Cuhadar and Dayton, 2011, pg. 280). Isajiw cites the work of M. Sherif who made many contributions to this theory. Sherif claimed that “it is the objective fact of this type of competition that creates hostile perceptions and biases of one group against another” (Isajiw, 2000, pg. 110). For instance, competition for control of the Euphrates River has led to Syrian support of the terrorist PKK organization. This, in turn, created a very distrustful perception of Syria and, of course, expanded the Kurdish dilemma from a domestic problem to an international one (Ozcelik, 2000, pg. 6).

When applied to the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, however, Realistic Group Conflict theory does not fit. Critics of the Realistic Group Conflict theory claim that it does not explain why inter-group conflict occurs when there is not material competition (Cuhadar and Dayton, 2011, pg. 280). According to James and Ozdamar, the Kurds desire autonomy, rights, and a unified identity – all of which are non-material objectives. Isajiw also notes that this theory does not account for intergroup perceptions which were formed before group competition or before intergroup bias (2000, pg. 110).

Counter to Realistic Group Conflict theory, Psychocultural Theory asserts that motive develops after change of perception. This relatively new theory, born out of Psychodynamic theory, “gives a central role to culturally rooted social and psychological processes which produce dispositions-shared images, perceptions of the external world, and motives for individual and group behavior” (Ross, 1995, pg. 525). As mentioned before in the three-pronged model for understanding identity, culture is of utmost importance. Ross claims that people of the same culture give the same meaning to certain experiences or objects. “Because identity is a function of one’s relations with others, a change in relationships is a source of intense threat and anxiety,” he says (Ross, 1995, pg. 529). He goes on to explain that, when forced to change in a fundamental way, the aforementioned perceptions develop into new interpretations of the world due to anxiety (Ross, 1995, pg. 525). The new interpretations take on extreme social and political connotations and now act as a motive guides (Ross, 1995, pg. 529).

Conflict Solution Theories and Criticisms

Realistic group conflict theory and others like it, such as Rational Choice Theory, hinder understanding of the Kurdish conflict because they define the conflict on purely material, never intangible, terms (James and Ozdamar, 2009, pg. 27). Marc Ross identifies problems in using these interest-based theories to concoct solutions to ethnic conflict: first, they do not explain how groups define important interests and second, they do not explain why ethnic conflicts become more intense or violent, proportionally, to the so-called interests they seek (Ross, 1995, pg. 524). Ross theorizes then that a psychocultural approach to ethnic conflicts must be used to form peaceful resolution. He proposes that first each involved group must come to accept the other group’s perception of the conflict. Next, the parties must endeavor to lessen the prominence of the fears, mistrust and anger that they feel in order to begin a dialogue (Ross, 1995, pg. 534). Ross suggests that this is possible with the help of an objective third-party (1995, pg. 535). Some critique third party intervention because the party usually consists of elites who have, as Isajiw puts it, a very narrow framework for understanding both sides of the conflict (2000, pg. 109). Where this has indeed been the case, Track II diplomacy has been attempted.

Though not perfect, Cuhadar and Dayton attempt to provide a much needed link between theory and practice of peace-making with their revised Track II diplomacy model. Their model consists of 5 steps: find and apply “optimal contact conditions,” provide repetitive contact and dialogue, make a mindful choice between behavioral and cognitive change, generate friendship, and work solely with the in-group to change their perception of the out-group (2011, pgs. 284-186). Their model falls short, as they well know, mainly due to contact.

The Social Contact Theory, a theory that underlies many conflict solution models, “focuses on the process of interaction between the conflicting parties themselves,” says Isajiw. He clarifies that only under “favorable” conditions is contact beneficiary and that under any other circumstances, contact may be detrimental. For example, in many ethnic conflicts, deeply rooted threats to the basic human needs of identity and security provide strong psychological barriers that keep conflicting groups from dialoguing about the needs that separate them (Ross, 1995, pg. 5). The Contact Theory is an ideal, but in terms of Turkey, Syria and the Kurdish conflict, one that may never be met. Due to Syria’s support of the PKK and refusal to banish its leader from Syria in 1996 (which caused international strife), Turkey suspended all contact with the Kurds, including the moderate groups (James and Ozdamar, 2009, pg. 26). James and Ozdamar also conclude that the Contact Theory is not applicable to this conflict because policymakers and elites with politicized attitudes are the forerunners of the dialogue, eliminating a Kurdish voice and deeming the problem purely a security issue, rather than an ethnic one.

Though this ethnic conflict has, indeed, birthed a security dilemma between Turkey and Syria, the source of the problem is still ethnicity and thus, James and Ozdamar claim that the solution must revolve around ethnic identity (James and Ozdamar, 2009, pg. 31). They thus outline a “philosophical approach” to understanding the conflict and modeling a solution: “systemism.” They spell out a foreign policy model that is systemic, meaning that it considers both “micro” factors like Turkish elite preferences and Kurdish desire for ethnic autonomy, but also looks at “macro” variables, such as Syria’s territorial ambition (James and Ozdamar, 2009, pg. 34). By doing this, they very importantly acknowledge that this domestic ethnic conflict has become internationalized. James and Ozdamar also explain very well the dynamic and fluid dependence that Kurdish ethnicity, Turkish nationalist identity and Syrian foreign policy have on each other. This “system-oriented approach,” they say, explains and “provides a firm foundation for a variety of methodological approaches (2009, pg. 34),” providing the first steps toward a theoretical group conflict model that bridges the gap between understanding of ethnic conflict and conflict resolution.


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