The cycle of violence that has engulfed Turkey amid the resumption of the fight between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkey is increasing its toll. The wider and bloodier it gets, the more consequential it becomes.
What started as a largely contained, low-intensity warfare between the military and the PKK is increasingly having implications on the fabric of Turkish society and leaving its imprint on Turkey’s collective psyche.
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Since the breach of the ceasefire between the government and the PKK, the human cost of the fight has been obvious.
But besides this tragic loss of life, the ongoing conflict risks dishing out a sharp social and emotional shock to the country.
Two recent attacks over the past two weeks by the PKK on the military and police, which resulted in 16 and 15 deaths respectively, and the ensuing developments in its aftermath, clearly demonstrate these risks.
A mob, triggered by the far-right Nationalist Movement Party’s call to take to the streets, used these losses of life as a pretext to attack ordinary Kurds, as well as the headquarters and countrywide offices of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP).
The balance sheet of these mob attacks against the Kurds is menacing. Ordinary Kurds were attacked, and many Kurdish shops were looted and set ablaze – as have the HDP’s headquarters and branches. The anti-PKK slogans soon morphed into anti-Kurdish slogans.
These developments are worrisome. Increasing attacks against ordinary Kurds in the western part of Turkey risks the societal fragmentation of the country, which, in turn, would encourage political fragmentation and feed into the PKK’s narrative as being the sole protector of the Kurds.
In a sense, Turkish nationalists are giving a precious gift to Kurdish nationalists, some of whom desire the break-up of Turkey. Attacking the Kurds on the basis of their ethnic identity fuels feelings of alienation among Kurds with a concomitant sense of detachment from Turkey.
The governing Justice and Development Party (AK party) has been the social and political glue that has tied the Kurds to Turkey’s political mainstream over the past decade. Until the last general election, there were only two significant political forces in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast: the AK party and the Kurdish nationalists.
Turkey’s Kurds have been very Turkey-centric in their political disposition. Even their nationalist organisation, the PKK – makes more reference to iconic figures from Turkey’s left than any historical Kurdish nationalist figure.
The AK party offered a civic form of citizenship to the Kurds, buttressed by a shared history, religion, and destiny. In contrast, the Kurdish nationalists employed a nationalist terminology reminiscent of the nationalist parlance that dominated other ethno-national struggles.
Prior to the AK party, it was other conservative Islamist parties that contested the dominance of the nationalists in representing the Kurds in the political system. Yet, in the last election, nationalism saw rising currency on the political scene. Informed of regional developments, particularly those in the Kurdish region of Syria, Kurdish nationalism was at its zenith.
Likewise, hoping to reverse the tide of electoral decline, the AK party – but particularly President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – adopted an increasingly nationalist discourse. This boded ill for the Kurdish peace process.
This strategy proved particularly self-defeating for the AK party in terms of its electoral fortunes. Once the game was played on the nationalist field, the winner wasn’t hard to predict. The Kurds deserted the AK party in droves during the last election in order to join the ranks of the HDP.
Turkey-centrism of Kurds
Such a consolidation of the Kurdish political presence under the banner of a Kurdish party is novel in Turkey. In contrast to other Kurds in the region, Turkey’s Kurds have been very Turkey-centric in their political disposition. Even their nationalist organisation, the PKK, makes more references to iconic figures from Turkey’s left than any historical Kurdish nationalist figure.
Istanbul accommodates the largest Kurdish urban population in the world – three to four million Kurds.
Unlike the experience of those in Turkey, when the Kurds suffered immeasurably at the hands of the Baathist regime in Iraq, they did not seek refuge in the Arab-dominated part of Iraq. They either sought temporary refuge in the mountains of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, crossed the borders to take shelter in one of the neighbouring countries, or retreated further into the Kurdish heartland.
Such a difference in the sociopolitical reality between Turkey’s Kurds and other Kurds of the region was one of the primary factors that rendered the secessionist aspirations of the Kurdish nationalist in Turkey less plausible.
Turkey just marked the shameful anniversary of September 6-7, 1955. On those days, a mob – infuriated by the false news that the house of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, had been bombed in Thessaloniki, attacked Istanbul’s Greek community, along with other religious minorities – committing murders, setting businesses on fire, and destroying churches.
In the aftermath of this tragic event – depicted as an Istanbul pogrom – a large portion of Istanbul’s Greek community emigrated from Turkey, rendering the country less cosmopolitan and its cultural scene poorer.
The early republican period’s demographic homogenisation project and phobia of different cultures, religions, and ethnicities left Istanbul’s cemeteries much more multicultural than its living society – a clear reflection of a deep social malaise that plagued the country back then.
Over 40,000 deaths resulted from this mindless war. There is no better alternative to the peaceful settlement of the Kurdish issue than the Kurdish peace process. Though now largely in tatters, it has been the best hope to date.
Galip Dalay is senior associate fellow on Turkey and Kurdish Affairs at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, research director at Al Sharq Forum.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.