Turkey's identity dilemma

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — Leaving the airport in Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, one of the first things that you see is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s legendary phrase engraved on mountain slopes in bold, white letters: “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk.”

For a population that has long struggled to preserve a cultural, if not national, Kurdish identity in the face of a determined effort to eradicate it, the irony is clear enough.

Now, for the first time in its 80-plus years of existence, the Turkish state seems to be addressing the fate of its sizable Kurdish community, delivering perhaps the biggest blow yet to the idea of a monolithic nation state.

In a televised announcement in early August, the government declared that it would expand the rights and freedoms of the country’s Kurds. The statement followed similar, less specific comments earlier this year by President Abdullah Gul, who spoke of a "historic opportunity," and by the army chief, Ilker Basbug, who characterized the Kurdish problem as a test of Turkey's modernization.

Reports in Hurriyet and other Turkish media suggest that the plan could include a general amnesty for Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters; enhanced political, economic, language and educational rights; and the reinstatement of banned Kurdish names in towns and villages in the southeast.

Skeptics have been quick to point out that this new resolve to end the conflict was prompted to pre-empt a “road map” that the jailed PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, announced via his lawyers on Aug. 15 — exactly 25 years to the date that the guerillas first took up arms. Ever since his capture in 1999, the 61-year-old has said that the PKK is ready to disarm if Turkey is prepared to negotiate — calls which have received little attention until now.

After a quarter of a century of fighting, over 40,000 mostly Kurdish deaths and the capture of Ocalan in 1999, the Turkish government and military establishment have little to show for their efforts. The PKK attracts as many recruits today as it did 20 years ago.

“Everything is related to the concept of belonging. The Constitution tells us that everyone in Turkey must be recognized as a Turk. The official language is Turkish. But that is not the truth,” said Adnan Bilen, news director of Diyarbakir-based Gun TV. “The Kurds in Turkey don’t feel like they are accepted or that they belong to a state that denies them such rights.”

In the past few years, however, Turkey has softened its hard line on the Kurds and made gestures towards a more diplomatic approach — a move that has received wide support from the European Union as it considers a bid by Turkey to join the 27-member bloc.

One of the most publicized moves was the opening earlier this year of TRT-6, a 24-hour television channel broadcasting in the once-banned Kurdish language.

Progress is also being made in Ankara. In a remarkable speech in parliament earlier this month, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke of the common pain of Turkish and Kurdish mothers who had lost sons in the conflict — a huge step forward in a society polarized by the losses it has faced.

Great effort has also been made to build consensus for the still vague plan among politicians and civic leaders. In perhaps the boldest move yet, Erdogan — who has long shunned the Democratic Society (DTP) for being the PKK’s political front — met its leader, Ahmet Turk, in early August.

Turkish Kurds and the PKK are signaling that they too are ready for a compromise — and an end to the conflict that has left few families untouched by tragedy and exacerbated the widespread poverty here in the southeast. “What the government is telling us is positive and we are holding our hands out for peace,” said Ali Narin, manager of the Deniz Cafe in Diyarbakir. “But to solve the Kurdish question we need a willing power with a well-determined plan. I don’t know if we have that yet.”

While talk of a plan for a negotiated solution is a promising step in the right direction, concrete details and time frames remain vague, and any road forward is likely to be long and difficult.

The DTP seeks limited autonomy for Turkey's Kurds, as well as an amnesty for PKK rebels and constitutional amendments to protect Kurdish rights.

For his part, Erdogan has an uneven, stop-and-start record on the Kurdish issue. Although he appears committed, it remains unclear just how far he is prepared to go. What is certain is that much of his politic future is staked on this issue.

For decades, the Kurdish quagmire has impeded Turkish democratization, and weakened Ankara's relations with the U.S. and EU. While the road to peace is unlikely to be short, many in Turkey today are ready to move forward.

"There is no doubt that identity policies adopted in the founding period of the Republic … [are] out of touch with the spirit of the times," said Sahin Alpay, writing in the Turkish daily Today's Zaman. "It is high time that Turkey adapt its identity policies to the age of human rights, democracy and respect for diversity."