What Will a Solution to the Kurdish Question Entail?

Prof. Dr. Paul Kubicek, Political Science Oakland University / ORSAM Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies

24.10.2013 – The long-awaited democratization package unveiled by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month offers real prospects for movement on the Kurdish question in Turkey.

True, the proposals do not satisfy the maximum demands from the Kurdish side, but, as Erdoğan himself noted, this is the beginning, not the end of the process. Further reform packages, he assures us, are forthcoming. In the meantime, Kurdish groups, although understandably wary of putting too much faith in the prime minister, should be willing to work with him both to carry out these reforms and complete the withdrawal of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters to northern Iraq. This will generate momentum toward more reforms and, hopefully, a lasting settlement.

Although today’s proposals are, to re-iterate, only the beginning of the process, it would perhaps be worthwhile to envision what the endgame will entail. In particular, the questions are both whether a settlement satisfactory to both sides is politically possible and whether the process of getting to this settlement will be politically palatable.

Let’s address the last issue first. In this respect, I am referring to how a final settlement will be done, not what the content of the arrangement will be. A central question, I would suggest, is what to do with Abdullah Öcalan and the PKK. After years of demonizing Öcalan, it seems that Ankara has recognized his value as a negotiating partner. Although there are divisions between him and PKK commanders in the field, working with Öcalan offers the best chance of crafting a deal that will have legitimacy among the Kurds and ultimately “stick.” No figure in the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), at this stage, can deliver in the same way Öcalan can. While the government’s “secret” talks with Öcalan have come out of the shadows, the question arises as to how far he can and will be ultimately rehabilitated.

Parallels with Yassar Arafat and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) are appropriate here. Arafat had blood on his hands and no doubt many Israelis abhorred both him personally and the fact that the government decided to negotiate with him. However, Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s prime minister at the time, realized that the only way to reach a settlement with the Palestinians was through Arafat, who was viewed as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian side. Arafat thus went from being a terrorist to a frequent visitor to the White House and co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Sadly, the Israelis and Palestinians could not, in the end, reach a final settlement, but this, I would argue, had more to do with the Israelis’ unwillingness to make sufficient concessions than anything Arafat himself did in the 1990s during the Oslo Process.

Will Öcalan be Turkey’s Arafat? His moment, perhaps, is coming, but this may be very difficult for Turks to swallow. Öcalan is still in prison. Although he now renounces violence, there are good reasons why he is widely viewed as a terrorist. He is not going to appear, at least on camera, with Erdoğan or President Abdullah Gül, certainly not before the next round of elections. However, this is what the peace process may require. Whether Erdoğan or any Turkish leader can take these steps — which may also require pardon and release of Öcalan — remains to seen. However, this is something that the Turkish government should be thinking about — at least as something it needs to confront down the road — and preparing Turks to accept as a necessary step.

Assuming that Öcalan — or, if his participation proves impolitic — or some other Kurdish leader or group sits down with the Turkish government to hammer out a solution, what will it look like? On this front, we can say that the ball is already rolling. Broadcasting and campaigning in Kurdish have come; Kurdish education in private schools is coming; education in public schools would be a logical step forward. Indeed, it will become difficult to argue that if all citizens of Turkey are equal that only some citizens receive instruction in one’s native language at a state school. How many Kurds choose Kurdish-language medium instruction for their children — and whether, given the dominance of Turkish in the country, this would be a wise decision for a Kurdish family — are questions I will not consider here, but the fact is that education in Kurdish is a reality, something that would have been unfathomable in the 1990s. Turkish identity is also changing in remarkable ways. Turks are coming to terms with the fact that they live in a multi-cultural country. This has been a long, contested and still incomplete acknowledgement, but one that strikes at the heart of the Kemalist project to mold a monolithic Turkishness centered, above all else, on loyalty to the state and use of the Turkish language. No longer will students be required to happily profess “Ne mutlu Türküm diyene” and dedicate themselves to the Turkish existence when they themselves do not identify themselves as, at least in an ethnic sense, Turkish. Turkey will likely have to go even further, including explicit recognition of Kurdish identity in a new constitution. This will be revolutionary, and has been a sticking point in talks over a new constitution. However, if one wants a settlement to the Kurdish issue, it will have to be included.

Multiculturalism, of course, is difficult for many countries to manage, and Turkey will be no different. Turkish multiculturalism, however, will be different than the immigrant-driven multiculturalism of the United States or France. Although both countries are ethnically and religiously diverse, one cannot speak of a “black” or (at least not yet) “Mexican” region (as opposed to a neighborhood or part of town) of the United States or a “Muslim” region of France. Turkish multiculturalism, like the Spaniards with respect to Catalonia or the Canadians with respect to Quebec, will have a territorial basis. There is a “Kurdish” region of Turkey, one that Kurds — as opposed to Mexican-Americans or Algerian-French — can call their “homeland.”

The relationship of this “homeland” to the national government will of course be central to any political settlement. Decentralization, if not outright federalism, is a must. The precise form this takes, of course, will be the subject of intense negotiation and likely will be among the final components of a settlement. However, this will entail certain things. Local languages must be respected, including, as noted, the aforementioned right to education in that language. Sign streets will appear in that language as well, making the region, to a Turkish speaker from İstanbul, appear a bit foreign, just as Quebec City or Montreal looks a bit foreign to someone from Calgary or Vancouver. Moreover, local or regional governments may even want and obtain some control over what is taught in the schools. This gets to perhaps an even trickier issue than the language of instruction. For example, would students in Diyarbakır learn — or be able to take as an elective — “Kurdish” history? If so, what would “Kurdish” history look like? How would it portray Turks? These are very difficult questions, ones I have not seen broached in public discourse.

Regionally-focused political parties — think the Parti Quebecois (PQ) or the Scottish National Party (SNP) — also seem inevitable. Both the PQ and SNP, however, have endorsed something that is anathema, unspeakable for most Turks: separation. Separatism is, at present, illegal in Turkey, still a unitary state. Even if Turkey adopted a federal system, it could still prohibit separatism, which, I would note, was ruled illegal in the United States after the Civil War. However, one can argue in favor of separatism in the United States, as some in my native state of Texas do. This may seem ignorant or silly (or, in the Texas case, an example of cowboy-machismo), and Texas has no right or authority to separate from the Union, but an individual is free to endorse this policy and presumably, if enough people agreed, the laws could change to allow Texas to become its own country.

Turkey is not at this stage yet and I am not, just to be clear, endorsing Kurdish separatism. However, the question is whether an individual should have the right to endorse this as policy and even, perhaps, campaign and lobby in its favor, or should such a person be accused of sowing divisions in the country and jailed for advocating such a position? Turkey has, clearly, chosen the latter position, imprisoning thousands of people for speech deemed counter to state interests and banning various organizations that advocate separatism. This remains a veritable sword of Damocles hanging over the BDP, with obvious repercussions for Turkish democracy. The classic liberal position, of course, is for the former, putting the rights of individual above that of the state. This is not to suggest that one has a right to arm oneself and attack the government for a separatist cause. Such actions would be harmful to others and not deserving of protection. Speech, by itself, with some exceptions (e.g. libel) is, however, worthy of protection, even if what an individual says may seem disagreeable or repugnant. If most, for example, would agree that a Kurd has the right to have an opinion in favor of separatism, it would be logical, and necessary under a democratic society, to allow him to express this view as well.

Of course, this would be a revolutionary step for Turkey, one that places the rights of an individual above that of the heretofore all-powerful state. Indeed, speech of this nature could even threaten the existence of the state as we know it. However, as noted, such speech is not only allowed in liberal democracies, but governments — the Canadians with respect to the Quebecois and the British with respect to the Scots — have allowed not only political activism for separation but referendums, giving the population the choice to secede or not. The Quebecois have twice voted — narrowly –to remain in Canada, and next year we shall see what the Scots think. Prime Minister David Cameron, however, is willing to allow this vote, putting the rights and interests of the Scottish people above that of the British state itself.

To return to Turkey, the point is that a final settlement of the Kurdish question demands liberalization of the public sphere. Previously banned groups will have to be given space, and they may endorse views that run counter to state interests. Individuals will be able to speak their minds. The lines of prohibition will be drawn not at speech or organization but at action, in particular violence. While it is proper for the state to prohibit violent actions or take action against those that engage in violence, as long as Kurds (or any Turkish citizens) advocate for peaceful change, their voices should be allowed to compete in what classic liberals would call the “free marketplace of ideas.”

My own sense is that Turkey — as a unified country — can prevail in that marketplace against Kurdish separatism. Turkey has a growing economy, and the Kurdish regions of the Southeast benefit from redistributive policies. A Turkish Kurdistan would be landlocked and poor. It might be a tough sell to foreign investors. It could have insufficient defense forces to protect itself from rapacious neighbors. Its non-Kurdish citizens might leave. Its extrication from Turkey — where precisely would the borders be? — could be difficult. Scots, for example, recognize the costs and difficulties of separation, which is why, if I had to place a wager, I would bet the Scots opt to stay in the United Kingdom.

However, they, like Kurds in Turkey, need to feel that they are truly part of the country and have their culture respected and valued. Just as the Kurdish question cannot be solved by military means — a point virtually all in Turkey accept — Kurds cannot also be bought off with easy promises of economic development. This is a cultural and political issue that goes to the heart of Turkish state and what it means to be a citizen of Turkey — Türkiyeli, if you will, as opposed to Türk. Kurds and Turks are both Türkiyeli. While each are different, they also share much in common. Their common heritage includes, to be sure, a difficult past and present, but both sides would benefit if they could work to overcome that and forge a future together. This future, however, has to rest on a different basis than the past. Metaphorically speaking, Turkey has to become bigger, giving room to Kurds (and other minority groups, for that matter). Kurds cannot be second-class citizens. They need greater capacity for self-expression and self-government. Both their collective identity and individual rights need to be respected, but in turn they should be expected to respect democratic processes and be willing to work with their Turkish compatriots for the betterment of the country. Maybe, perhaps, such an idea could be incorporated into a new ögrenci andı (student oath).

The end of the process of settling the Kurdish question, at least as I have portrayed it here in a type of “thought experiment,” may be troubling to many Turks. I realize this, just as I realize that it runs counter to the founding vision of the republic. In that sense, some nationalist critics of the democratization package are absolutely correct. However, Turkey cannot sit still. Times have changed and what once may have worked no longer does so. Whether or not something akin to the settlement I have envisioned here is adopted in time for the hundredth anniversary of the republic in 2023 is at best uncertain, although one can be hopeful that leaders on both sides seize the current opportunity and progress quickly. If so, however, this solution should be interpreted not as effort to bury or destroy neither the republic nor Atatürk’s legacy but instead as a new compact for a new, democratic, 21st century Turkey.