A century of oppression: The Kurds and the Turkish state

By John Tully

April 20, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — In recent weeks, the autocratic Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has moved to ban the pro-Kurdish left-wing People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and jailed the 14th member of the party’s 56-strong parliamentary caucus. Erdogan’s attack is the latest iteration of repressive, and at times genocidal, anti-Kurdish policies that go back to the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923. The banning of the HDP will mark the transition of Turkey to outright dictatorship.

Not coincidentally, Turkey has also just quit the Istanbul Convention on violence against women — this, as the writer Elif Shafak warns “in a country where three women are killed daily and femicide is a huge crisis." The HDP’s strong pro-feminism contrasts starkly with Erdogan’s crude misogynism.

HDP MP Mr Omer Faruk Gergerlioglu was stripped of his parliamentary immunity on March 17 and given a one-year prison sentence for a social media post he made five years ago. The party’s imprisoned co-leaders, Leyla Guven and Selahattin Demirtas, are facing decades behind bars—Demirtas up to 132 years.

The indictment against the HDP MPs alleges support for terrorism — a catch-all charge applied at the whim of Erdogan’s ruling party, the Law and Development Party (AKP), to any opponent of his corrupt and repressive government and enforced by his creatures in the judiciary.

Hopes of reform dashed

Earlier hopes that Erdogan was a liberalising reformer have been dashed. Under pressure from the European Union at a time when Turkey wanted EU membership, Erdogan had lifted restrictions on the Kurdish language and in 2013 opened peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Now, he has thrown all of that into reverse; the price of EU membership being too steep.

The HDP ban and withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention cap a wave of terror that began in 2016 when elements of the Turkish military staged an abortive coup, allegedly in concert with followers of Erdogan’s former ally, the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. The HDP unequivocally opposed the coup, but this did not save it from Erdogan’s confected wrath.

In effect, the coup was Erdogan’s Reichstag Fire moment, giving him the pretext to repress his real and imagined enemies, particularly the Kurds, despite the HDP’s unequivocal opposition to the conspirators. There have been vast purges of the civil service, schools and universities, and Islamist functionaries have replaced secular officials and academics. Simultaneously, there has been an enormous increase in government funding for religious education — 68% in 2018 alone — as Erdogan seeks to overturn the original secular character of the Republic and usher in clerical fascism.

The repression has raged most fiercely in the majority Kurdish districts of southeast Anatolia, centered on the city of Diyarbakir. The military and police have attacked Kurdish towns and villages, including with artillery and jet fighters. 

Since 2016, the government has arrested 20,000 HDP members and jailed 10,000 of them. It has dissolved about 48 local government administrations headed by the HDP and installed pliant Islamist stooges against the wishes of the population. Hundreds of the HDP’s militants, including the party’s former co-chair Guven, have staged hunger strikes to back demands for the release of imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan and a resumption of the peace negotiations that Erdogan broke off in 2015.

In March 2018, Erdogan launched the Orwellian sounding “Operation Olive Branch”, an illegal invasion of the majority Kurdish districts of northern Syria, which the Kurds call Rojava. The Turkish military, acting in concert with Syrian jihadis, has been guilty of serious war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the ethnic cleansing of Kurds and Assyrians from towns such as Afrin and along a so-called cordon sanitaire along the border. Many of those who drove the Kurds and Assyrians from their homes in Rojava were recycled ISIS fighters.

Earlier, while the Syrian Kurds and their allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces were fighting to liberate their homeland from the genocidal barbarians of Islamic State, Erdogan and his cronies were acting in concert with the jihadis, providing them with hospitals and selling oil for them on the international market. Erdogan was appalled and furious when the Kurdish fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG) and Women's Protection Units (YPJ) lifted the siege of Kobane, put ISIS to flight, to defeat it at Raqqa.

Although he pays lip service to democracy when it suits him, Erdogan is an instinctive and ideological autocrat with a visceral hatred of the Kurds. He is also the quintessential sexist who insists that women are not equal to men; that their sole role is housewifery; that women who work outside the home are “half persons” supposedly denying their femininity; and that Turkish Muslims who practice birth control and family planning are denying the divine will. Erdogan also fears that the Kurds, who have higher birth rates, might one day outnumber Turks.

Erdogan and his family are deeply corrupt and he fears that losing power will lead to his prosecution and jailing. While living standards drastically decline in a crisis-stricken economy, and two out of every three children live in poverty, the tyrant lives the life of a caliph in a 1100-room palace on the outskirts of Ankara. Built at a cost to taxpayers of about US$686 million, this monstrosity costs almost $700,000 in heating bills each winter. At a time when the number of Turkish billionaires has risen, total wealth has decreased, and the poorest 10% of the population own only 2.1% of it.

It is unclear what the future holds. On the one hand, Erdogan is faced with a mounting economic crisis and rising disgust over the regime’s corruption and brutality. On the other hand, many poor rural Turks have been indoctrinated since birth with the government’s bigoted anti-Kurdish ideology and its appeal to religious obscurantism. Cynically making political capital from poverty, the AKP has tied access to food relief and loans to support for the government, and posed as a good Muslim benefactor for dispensing zakat or alms for the poor.

The HDP opposes everything Erdogan stands for. It is a pro-feminist, pro-ecology, left-wing party and although pro-Kurdish, it is multi-ethnic and seeks to embrace progressive Turks. It is an associate member of the Party of European Socialists, a consultative member of the Socialist International, and a full member of the Progressive Alliance. 

Formed in 2012, the HDP is now the third largest party in Turkey. In the 2018 elections, despite vicious repression, official chicanery, a virtual government monopoly of the media, and rigged ballots, it secured 11.7% of the vote and won 56 out of 600 parliamentary seats. The party has continued to reach out to the Turkish population and, although the success of this should not be overestimated, its growth has spooked Erdogan because it threatens to undermine the chauvinist anti-Kurdish consensus that has existed since the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923.

One hundred years of resistance

One thing is clear. Despite a century of persecution since the creation of the Turkish Republic, the 15-20 million-strong Kurdish minority will never agree to be “Turkified”, and many Kurds have developed a high level of political sophistication. Many, too, have never given up the dream of an independent Kurdish state, and millions support the PKK.

The tragedy of the Kurds is that their awakening as a people and demand for self-determination coincided with the decline of the old Ottoman Empire and the rise of virulent, ethnically hegemonic Turkish nationalism. The tragedy has been compounded by the indifference of the outside world, and the alliance of the Western Powers with the Turkish Republic.

For centuries, the Ottoman Empire had practised what was at best a rough form of multiculturalism — exemplified by the decision to grant sanctuary to the Sephardic Jews after their expulsion from Catholic Spain in 1492. Although the population was mainly Muslim, large Jewish and Christian minorities were tolerated as “peoples of the book”. By the 1890s, however, with the empire in terminal decline, Turkish ethnic nationalism was taking root and the Young Turks began to favour the creation of an ethnically homogeneous Turkish state in Anatolia and the Ottoman European districts. One model for the modernizers was the centralized French state, which sought to assimilate its large non-French populations.

World War I saw the increasingly ruthless Young Turks organize the genocide of the empire’s Christian Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian populations; the aim being the creation of an ethnically and religiously homogeneous state. This genocide was followed up in 1923 by the mass population transfer of Muslims and Christians between Greece and Turkey. The Young Turks’ grand design had been that non-Turks could make up no more than 5% of any town or district, and that they should become good Turks.

Defeated by the Western Allies, the Ottoman rulers had no choice but to accept the carve-up of the empire along the artificial lines decided by Britain and France in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement. They were, however, determined to hang on to the “core” regions in Anatolia and Europe and fought a war of independence to secure them against foreign intervention.

The Turkish government declined to ratify the Treaty of Sèvres, signed with the victorious Allies in 1920, which provided for the creation of a Kurdish state in eastern Anatolia. When, in 1923, the final peace settlement with the Allies was ratified at Lausanne, all mention of Kurdish independence or autonomy had been dropped. The Lausanne Treaty made no reference to the Kurds, but did stipulate the right to language and cultural rights for non-Turkish subjects of the new Republic.

The language clauses proved to be a dead letter. The Allies looked the other way when Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the dictatorial Turkish ruler and former Ottoman general, banned the use of the Kurdish language, along with Kurdish place and given names and Kurdish customs. Continuing the genocidal program of the Young Turks, Ataturk was determined to create a linguistic and culturally homogeneous Turkish state.

The Kurds rose in revolt, but the uprising was drowned in blood. In scenes reminiscent of the Armenian genocide, Kurdish villages were razed, crops and livestock destroyed, and whole populations massacred or deported. Once again, according to the Young Turks’ 5% rule, Kurds were to comprise small and manageable minorities in all towns and districts. In 1934, the Turkish government passed a Resettlement Law, which sought to break up non-Turkish populations. Thereafter, periodic uprisings such as at Dersim in 1937-38[1] were stamped out with such appalling brutality against civilians that some Turkish officers refused to continue to serve. Turkish scholars have described the massacres and deportations as genocide. Vast swathes of countryside, already devastated by the Armenian genocide with the concomitant elimination of entrepreneurs and skilled artisans, fell into long-term economic and social regression.

Large sections of eastern Anatolia remained off-limits to foreigners until 1965, and the very existence of the Kurdish people was denied: they were “Mountain Turks” earmarked for forced assimilation. Mention of the Armenian genocide was made a crime, along with “insulting Turkishness”, and a falsified version of history was taught in schools — the unthinkable corollary would be if the German state criminalised mention of the Holocaust.

The PKK insurgency and democratic confederalism

The most recent revolt has been the guerrilla insurgency of the PKK, which was launched in 1984 with the aim of creating an independent Kurdish state. Despite ceasefires between 1999-2004, and 2013-15, the war has caused some 40,000 deaths and led to widespread devastation. Some 2 million Kurds were driven from their homes and the civilian suffering has been horrendous. Predictably, the Turkish government has prevailed upon its allies, including the United States, Australia, the EU and Britain to proscribe the PKK as a terrorist organisation.

In the past, the West’s slavish devotion to Turkish interests was explicable in part by Turkey’s role as a frontline NATO state, and while this is still the case up to a point despite the fall of the Soviet Union, it is clear that the imperialists are happy for Turkey to crush any prospect of a genuinely independent Kurdish state that might threaten their strategic and economic interests.

The PKK has proven to be a remarkably resilient and disciplined force capable of resisting the powerful Turkish military, which is armed to the teeth with high-tech weaponry, much of it supplied by Turkey’s NATO allies. Nevertheless, the war has reached a stalemate; it is unlikely that the current Turkish offensive will be successful, but neither will the PKK defeat the Turkish military. The stalemate has caused the PKK leadership to re-examine its original aims and ideology. The PKK has twice declared ceasefires and sought to negotiate. Indeed, Erdogan negotiated with Ocalan, before calling talks off in 2015.

Formed in 1978 as a Marxist-Leninist party, the PKK aimed to create an independent Kurdish state. This has proved chimerical. The Turkish state has been implacably opposed to ceding even an inch of territory; has been able to secure the support of the big powers in labelling the PKK as terrorist; and has, at times, received support from the corrupt Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq. Moreover, most of the Turkish population has backed the war, indoctrinated by Kemalist ideology that sees Turkey’s boundaries as fixed and immutable, and Turkey as a state exclusively for Turks. At the same time, the government has used the perceived threat of the Kurdish ‘other’ to cement its control over the Turkish population. This has been as true of the Kemalist military and the secular Republican People’s Party as it is of the Islamist AKP.

Since his capture 22 years ago, however, Ocalan has read widely outside of the orthodox Marxist-Leninist canon, most notably works by Benedict Anderson on “imagined communities”, and by Murray Bookchin on libertarian socialism. Under his influence, the PKK has abandoned its aim of the creation of a separate Kurdish state in favour of the demand for autonomy, and advocates what he calls “democratic confederalism” in place of statist solutions.

Orthodox Marxist-Leninist theory has insisted on the right of peoples to self-determination (although in practice, in its degenerate Stalinist iteration, it trampled all over it for raisons d’état). Arguing against Marxists who regarded all nationalism as reactionary diversions from the internationalist struggle, Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin insisted there were two types of nationalism — that of the oppressor and the oppressed — and that it was the duty of Marxists to support the struggles for self-determination of Ireland and other oppressed nations. So far, so good, but as poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe famously wrote: “All theory is grey, my friend. But forever green is the tree of life.” The theory ran the risk of becoming a dogmatic prescription rather than a guide to action. Whereas application of the theory to, say, Vietnam, is straightforward, not even Ireland was plain sailing with its large pro-British majority in the country’s northeast. In the case of the territories of the former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, the problems of competing nationalisms continue to this day.

In the former Ottoman territories — inhabited by a myriad of different ethnic and religious groups, often living cheek by jowl in the same town or village — the problem was compounded by the emergence of states and boundaries artificially created by the victorious western imperialists in the aftermath of World War I.

Lenin was indubitably correct to insist on the distinction between the nationalism of the oppressed and the oppressor, but in practice the difference could be difficult to discern in regions of mixed ethnicity. Moreover, the nationalism of an oppressed people can mutate into the nationalism of an oppressor, as is the case with the Jewish people in Israel/Palestine today. In any case, as Anderson and other writers have demonstrated, nationalism is itself a relatively recent phenomenon and attempts to “read back” its existence into history to justify a contemporary nationalism are inventions.

Turkish nationalism — and that of the Baathists in Syria and Iraq — is virulently reactionary and repressive, even genocidal, and the Kurds have every right to oppose it, even by force of arms. The problem is that. in part because of social engineering — deportations, resettlement of Turks, forced assimilation, etc — by the Turkish state, the Kurds are spread far outside their heartlands in southeast Anatolia. Outside of Turkey, in Iraq, Syria, and Iran, the Kurdish population is often inextricably intermingled with a bewildering plurality of other ethnic and religious groups, including Turkmen, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians, Ajam (Persians), Circassians, Chechens, Shabaks, Yazidi Kurds and Roma.

Confronted with a similar situation 100 years ago, in the multinational Austro-Hungarian Empire, the “Austro-Marxists” advocated replacing the dual monarchy with a democratic federation of the peoples. In light of subsequent horrors, including mass deportations, forced assimilation, internecine wars and ethnic cleansing, we may ask if their ideas were so wrong.

These were the problems Ocalan wrestled with in his cell in the prison on Imrali island in the Sea of Marmara. His solution is democratic confederalism, based on direct democracy, mutual respect for ethnic and religious difference, equality for women in all spheres, and respect for the Earth that gives life to all.

Ocalan today is revered as a leader by millions of Kurds, and his ideas have spread far beyond the PKK. The Rojava Kurds have attempted, even during war against ISIS and Turkey, to put his ideas into practice, notably in the case of the all-female YPJ (although it should be stressed that the PKK has always favoured equality for women in both theory and practice) and in a system of democratic councils. The same is true of the HDP, which is implacably feminist and multicultural.

No friends but the mountains?

The Great Powers have always looked the other way when the various post-Ottoman states, including Turkey, have viciously repressed the Kurds and other peoples. The phrase that “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains” may be hackneyed, but it is all too true. Just a few years after promising the Kurds their own state at Sèvres, British leader Winston Churchill was demanding they be bombed and gassed. At the end of World War II, the Soviet Union abandoned the Mahabad Republic, which they had sponsored in the Kurdish regions of Iran, leaving the people to suffer cruel repression. The Republic’s elected President, Qadhi Muhammad, was publicly hanged. The United States, too, incited the Kurds in Iraq to revolt against Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, only to abandon them. Most recently, under Donald Trump, the US rubber-stamped Erdogan’s illegal invasion of Rojava — this after the Kurds had sacrificed their blood to rid the world of ISIS.

It should be clear that the Left has an internationalist duty to support the Kurds, but painful to admit, all too many western socialists and Marxists have been indifferent or even hostile to the Kurdish people’s long struggle for justice. With honourable exceptions, this has also been the case with the Turkish left.

It would be wrong, though, to see the Kurds merely as victims. They have resisted their oppressors, sometimes by armed struggle, at other times by peaceful mass mobilisation. It is the duty of all progressive people, and especially of socialists, to stand by them, because the Great Powers will not break from the pattern of using and abusing the Kurds. Their struggle is also an inspiration, pointing the way forward for western socialists. This is the context in which we should view the current struggle of the HDP against Erdogan’s fascist dictatorship.


[1] In 2011, Erdogan admitted the Dersim massacres and apologised for them. The apology may have been sincere, but he also pointed the finger at his Republican People’s Party opponents, who were in power at the time of the massacres. It is also likely that he hoped to undercut support for the PKK.