What is a Turk?
The answer should be obvious. A Turk is, well . . . a Turk.
Then what is a Kurd?
At the beginning of the school day school children in Turkey recite a pledge,
similar in some ways to the American pledge of allegiance to the flag.
Türküm, doğruyum, çalışkanım,
I am Turk, I am honest, I am hard working
It goes on to extol certain virtues and to hail Ataturk, pledging to follow his path, and it ends with his words:
How happy for the one who says 'I am a Turk'!
Ne mutlu Türküm diyene!
The pledge is inspiring but it can produce a certain dissonance in the classrooms of the few Armenian and Greek schools that are left and also in the schools with a predominantly Kurdish population.
Ataturk had a vision of a strong united Turkey with all citizens following one path. In the end this led to a policy of assimilation of the Kurdish people and other ethnic minorities. And this produced tremendous conflict and the shedding of much blood.
Today the Turkish Republic has a strong and popular Premier, perhaps soon to be President. He has tried to make some accommodations to the demands of the Kurds for their cultural and linguistic rights. But in a sense it has been like the march of the Janissaries - two steps forward and one step back. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a politician sensitive to the pressures both from those who wish for a peaceful settlement of the Kurdish conflict, but also from those of the nationalists who would protect the Turkishness of the nation at all costs. In the course of this he has tangled himself up with his pronouncements on assimilation and genocide.
In 2009 he spoke out against the Chinese attempts to force the ethnic Turkic Uighurs to assimilate. He called the nearly 200 deaths of Uighurs in riots in Urumqi the result of genocide. He went further out on the thin ice when later that year he justified the visit of Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan widely believed responsible for genocide in Dafur: He made the startling statement: “It is not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide.” This would hardly be a comfort to the Kurds in Iraq who had suffered the hideous atrocities of Saddam Hussein. Nor would it settle the minds of those who remember the Dersim massacre, for which Erdoğan has given an apology, nor for that matter the Armenians who still claim that they suffered genocide at the hands of the Ottoman government.
Feb 27, 2011 in Dusselorf Erdoğan told a Turkish crowd "Yes, integrate yourselves into German society but don't assimilate yourselves. No one has the right to deprive us of our culture and our identity." Clearly, in Erdoğan’s mind, assimilation is a bad thing. But what then was the suppression of the Kurdish language and culture in Turkey, where till recently the playing ,of a Kurdish song could bring the wrath of the police down on one’s head?
Like the Janissaries, the Turkish government has made some progress in the area of the recognition of minority rights. Like Janissaries, it has retreated, most notably in the suppression of the freedom of the press and of certain political representatives of the Kurdish people that create anxiety in Ankara.
Turkey is at a cross-roads. There are a number of possible outcomes. If one recognizes that every citizen of Turkey is in that sense a Turk but that some belong to ethnic groups that have another national identity, then the experience of several other countries could be helpful.
Canada and Belgium have multiple national ethnicities within one federal framework.
The British citizens of the United Kingdom include English, Welsh, and Scots, each with their own cultural and linguistic heritage. (I will not touch the question of Northern Ireland).
The USA is made up of American citizens that come from many different national backgrounds. Though they may celebrate their origins, they do not claim separate national identities except possibly in the case of a few remnants of the Native American nations.
The Russian Federation is made up of a group of 21 republics with certain constitutional rights to self-government. They coincide for the most part with ethnic groups which maintain their own cultures and languages.
The fact is that there are several possible models for Turkey to consider if it decides on a long-term constitutional solution to the “Kurdish Question”. Turkey is a society rich in diversity of all sorts. Recognition of that diversity could be a strength rather than the cause of endless civil war and political conflict.