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Natural Disasters?: Turkey v. Kurdish Persecution


Image Credit / Scientific American


A month ago the world news was lit in flames as a 7.8-scale earthquake overtook southeastern Turkey and northern Syria. For weeks the daily news was oversaturated with devastating videos of children being pulled out of the rubble. Starting from one earthquake, the aftermath spread ruin across a vast area. As of today, the death toll has surpassed over 50,000 since the first earthquake. The earthquake was another natural disaster – a sob story in which people send donations, thoughts and prayers. Countries of the Global North, running the news outlets, are convinced of the homogeneity of the “Middle East”, treating them as a perpetual black hole of instability. generally treat the “Middle East” as a homogenous region of pain and daily suffering. Whatever reaction people expressed was directed towards Turkey, which is regarded as more “stable” and “civilised” compared to Syria by popular perception. The Turkish government, unaffected by sanctions and possessing leverage, was thus able to organise several donation campaigns for their country, at least at first glance. Meanwhile, Syria suffering under sanctions and receiving no foreign aid could only hope to sustain itself on the sympathy and charity of local groups such as the White Helmets.


Geopolitical nuance seemed to be missing from the mainstream media reportage of the earthquake. Most major news outlets honed in on victims and capitalised on the shock factor of people suffering from a tragedy. When political factors leading to humanitarian ruin are not discussed, history is bound to repeat itself. In the modern world, natural disasters aren’t completely “natural”. Earthquakes, among other tremors of nature, can be mitigated through policy and advanced planning. While they cannot be predicted, what is crucial to note is the geography of the earthquake-affected region. So-called southeastern Turkey is prone to earthquakes as it lies on the intersection of three of the tectonic plates that make up the Earth’s crust: the Anatolian, Arabian, and African plates. Considering this basic geology is common knowledge, the earthquake was in reality foreseeable. Yet, buildings were razed to the ground in one blow – almost no infrastructure in an area with unstable geological activity. Why? That should be the real question.


Turkish Politics and Human Rights


Image Credit / Council on Foreign Relations


For far too long, Turkey has avoided scrutiny by Western governments with power. Turkey, even before its inception as a country after World War I, has oppressed non-Turk native ethnic groups like Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Pontic Greeks, Yazidis, Christians and so on. Through collective effort, Armenians have received sufficient recognition of their genocide and deportation from the land called Turkey today. Other groups continue languishing without recognition. Currently, the most brutal attacks are directed towards Kurds. Exactly in southeastern Turkey, considered Kurdistan – one of the most impoverished areas of the country – is where the earthquake hit.


By no means can Turkey be considered the only oppressor of the Kurds – Kurdistan is a region spanning over Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – all countries have their own story of the Kurdish genocide. Despite this, Turkey is considered to be the most hegemonic and powerful out of the four. By collaborating with the European Union and anti-immigrant policies, Turkey has received some soft power. Turkish power is seldom questioned on the world stage. The current ruling party, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi), is led by the well-known Recep Tayyip Ergodan. They rose to power in 2002 with the promise of democratic reforms after years of military tutelage. Unfortunately, the party crumbled over time after Erdogan came to rule.


Ergogan has been described as Neo-Ottomanism, an ideology promoting renewed Turkish political engagement in the former territories of its predecessor state, the Ottoman Empire. The tactics employed are similar to many other fascists of the third world: mindless brainwashing, ethnonationalism, and a majoritarian state coupled with a crippling economy, capitalism suffocating the poor, and inaccessibility of basic necessities. Under regimes like Turkey, humanitarian aid is a bygone issue in the first place. For minorities, it is double to triple times worse.


PR For the State



Image Credit / Wallpaper Flare


Turkey primarily is concerned with expansion over neighbouring countries and crony capitalism. Whenever Turkey makes world news, one of the two comes up. Even the earthquake can be tied to the two issues. First, the area agonised by the earthquake was dominated by Kurds. Second, the Turkish government makes sure the architecture of the buildings in the area is as weak as possible. Next, when the earthquake hits, they create a media spectacle out of it. Turkey is hurt! Turkey’s heart is broken! Turkey, Turkey, Turkey.


When Turkey’s name is parroted by mainstream media continuously, the demographics of the area can be ignored. Kurdish organisers and activists consider southeastern Turkey Kurdistan. Among the toxins of the rubble, there is a racial bias. Turkey is a safe haven, a land of refuge for all Turks. When the ruling class of the country is hurt, the government rushes to the rescue; when it’s the minorities, suddenly the rescue packages are going missing.


Tourists in Turkey are notorious for glamorising the country. Those compelling study abroad videos, the glorious architecture of Istanbul, and the adorable pictures of stray cats have us besotted. The glamour of Turkey is a mirage, a tissue of lies which conceals its fascist ambitions. Turkey is no haven of peace, au contraire, it meticulously carries out military operations in the Kurdish regions. A few days ago, during Nowruz, pro-Turkish fighters shot a Kurdish family in Syria celebrating. Even a devastating earthquake which brought with it suffering and despair could not crush anti-Kurdish sentiment.


Records of Political Violence


Mere days after the initial earthquake, Turkey shelled a Kurdish-majority town, Tel Rifat, in the north of Syria, with the sole intention of murdering the innocent. In addition to the aforementioned, the Turkish military regularly targets Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) bases in Iraq. In 2018, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan spoke of a formal operation against Kurds in Iraq. In January 2019, the Turkish government claimed that separatist Kurdish militants tied to the PKK conducted an attack on a Turkish army base in northern Iraq. To the detriment of the Kurdish population, the United States and its allies declared PKK a terrorist organisation in 1997.


In recent years, Turkish policy has oscillated from peaceful rapprochement to hard-edged repression of the Kurdish voice at home. Thousands of activists and numerous former lawmakers — including Selahattin Demirtas (the country’s most popular Kurdish politician) remain behind bars on scantily evidenced terror charges. As of 2017, Al-Monitor, a Middle Eastern newspaper, reports that more than 80 Kurdish-run municipalities had been seized by the state for purportedly acting in concert with the PKK. These municipalities were placed under the rule of unelected government trustees. Beyond shutdowns on civil rights, Kurds have been weakened systemically. The Turkish Statistical Institute estimates nine Kurdish provinces of Turkey are among the poorest. Poor economic conditions are the root of the lack of education and employment of the Kurdish population. A whopping 46% of the Kurdish population has not completed primary education, as found by research on Kurdish populations. Frequently, they are labelled as “non-progressive” by the majority. Kurdistan was already experiencing heartache, and the earthquake was like salt in the wound.


Image Credit / Foreign Policy


Brief History of Kurds in Turkey


Unending contempt for Kurds is routine for the Turks. While the AKP and Erdogan have intensified the repression, Kurds have resisted the Ottoman Empire for over a century. An independent Kurdish nationalist movement emerged in the 1830s in response to Tanzimat Reforms, taken to preserve the declining Ottoman Empire. Like other Turkish minorities, Kurds were subjected to Turkification policies under early nationalist regimes. A unique Kurdish ethnic identity was discouraged or officially prohibited by the Turkish state until the 1990s, which included banning Kurdish publications, radio and television programmes, and Kurdish-language devotional activities, as well as various forms of political and economic repression. After decades of repression, the Kurdish separatist movement was revived in the 1970s. The PKK emerged in 1978, and swiftly all other views were marginalised, alienating large segments of the Kurdish population. On account of violent acts committed by the PKK against the Turkish military and security forces, support for Kurdish rights was framed as a form of criminal sympathy.


Kurds are not targeted by the security forces because of their ethnicity per se. Many Kurds who align themselves closely with the Turkish state have been elected to parliament or hold high political office. However, any attempt to assert political or cultural rights based on Kurdish identity is looked upon as treason and as a threat to the very foundations of the Turkish state. Such individuals are severely punished for attempting to assert Kurdish rights. Political targeting has generated a sense of grievance among a hefty portion of the Kurds. Kurds may be a labelled minority but they represent over 18% of Turkey ( around 63 million people) as per data by Human Rights Watch. Kurds are well-organised and have constructed successful resistance movements. The “Kurdish-Turkish” conflict is not an insignificant one.


The demands of the Kurds are clear-cut and simple. Ranging from freedom of cultural expression to state-sanctioned autonomy to an independent state, demands vary from group to group. They are united in one radical fight, though, fighting against state power, freedom, and human rights. In Turkey, the Kurdish movement has three state objectives:


1) To achieve a resolution of the Kurdish issue:

2)To democratise Turkey.

3)To establish a decentralised political system formulated as Democratic Confederalism by Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).


Time to stop feeding into the mass media’s shiny propaganda about Turkey and listening to people on the ground combatting authoritarian terror. The Kurds are central to humanity’s well-being not just in Turkey, but the surrounding region. Turkish nationalism and ignorance of human welfare must be stopped.



Image Credit / Progressive International


References

  1. ANF News Desk. “Kurdish Cities Are among the Poorest in Turkey.” ANF News, 10 Oct. 2017, https://anfenglishmobile.com/news/kurdish-cities-are-among-the-poorest-in-turkey-22604.

  2. Bivins, Alyssa. “The Kurdish Movement’s Disparate Goals and the Collapse of the Peace Process with Turkey.” MERIP, 19 Aug. 2020, https://merip.org/2020/08/the-kurdish-movements-disparate-goals-and-the-collapse-of-the-peace-process-with-turkey/.

  3. Centre for Preventive Action. “Conflict Between Turkey and Armed Kurdish Groups.” Global Conflict Tracker, 6 Jan. 2023, https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/conflict-between-turkey-and-armed-kurdish-groups.

  4. Deeb, Sarah El. “After Quake, War-Hit Syrians Struggle to Get Aid, Rebuild.” Associated Press, 12 Feb. 2023, https://apnews.com/article/politics-2023-turkey-syria-earthquake-government-middle-east-158dcf25076304ade53fffe876929d5f.

  5. Hatay, By Laura Bicker in. “Turkey Earthquake: Deadly New Tremor Traps People under Rubble.” BBC News, 20 Feb. 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-64711228.

  6. Hoffman, Max. “The State of the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict.” Center for American Progress, 12 Aug. 2019, https://www.americanprogress.org/article/state-turkish-kurdish-conflict/.

  7. Human Rights Watch. “Human Rights Watch: Ocalan Trial Monitor.” Human Rights Watch, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/legacy/backgrounder/eca/turkey/kurd.htm.

  8. Jazeera, Al. “Death Toll Climbs above 50,000 after Turkey, Syria Earthquakes.” Al Jazeera, 25 Feb. 2023, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/2/25/death-toll-climbs-above-50000-after-turkey-syria-earthquakes.

  9. Jenkins, Jenny. “Turkey-Syria Earthquakes: A Seismologist Explains What Has Happened.” PreventionWeb, 7 Feb. 2023, https://www.preventionweb.net/news/turkey-syria-earthquakes-seismologist-explains-what-has-happened.

  10. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. “‘Birth of the Turkish Republic.’” New Zealand History, 13 Jan. 2016, https://’Birth of the Turkish Republic’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/ottoman-empire/birth-of-turkey, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 13-Jan-2016.

  11. Minority Rights Group International. “Kurds.” Minority Rights Group, 19 June 2015, https://minorityrights.org/minorities/kurds-2/.

  12. Zaman, Amberin. “No Respite for Kurds as Turkey’s Security Forces Ramp up Repression.” Al-Monitor: Independent, Trusted Coverage of the Middle East, 29 June 2022, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2022/06/no-respite-kurds-turkeys-security-forces-ramp-repression.

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