The Kurdish Struggle for Identity in Turkey

A Kurdish woman.

In a country as heavily nationalist as Turkey, the crescent-and-star flag flies everywhere, dotting the sky with its vibrant red color. Despite the fact that Kurds make up an estimated 20 percent of Turkey's population, the yellow-red-and-green Kurdish flag has yet to be seen waving in the Turkish sky. 

In contrast to much of the Western world where ethnic diversity is celebrated, Turkey has built its national and cultural identity on a forced conformity. Up until the 1990s, the country continued to deny the existence of a Kurdish ethnic identity, classifying them simply as mountain Turks. In 1923, when the modern-day Turkish Republic was formed, the Kurdish language was banned from use for roughly 68 years in an attempt to assimilate Kurds into a "Turkish" identity. Today the language is still barred from public schools, Parliament and other official government institutions such as judicial courts.

Yet the attempted forced assimilation of Kurds and the denial of their identity seems to have added fuel to the Kurdish rights movement, strengthening their resolve to maintain a cultural and ethnic identity.

"They say don't give up your identity, there isn't anything more holy than your identity," says Murat Aktepe, 39, a Kurdish businessman from Mus in southern Turkey. "It's the most important thing for you."

Effects of the language

Despite the government's attempts at dissolving the Kurdish identity, it has grown to be the strongest minority identity in Turkey. This is partially due to Kurds being one of the largest ethnic minorities in the country, as well as a result of the ongoing Kurdish separatist movement happening in the southeast.

"Kurdish people deeply reacted to [the language ban and rejection of their identity]," says Mehmet Aydin, 25. "They wanted to show they had their own language, their own culture and identity. Most of all they wanted to show that they were a participant of the country, they are citizens just as Turks are." Aydin identifies heavily with Kurds, despite his Arabic descent, and speaks Kurdish fluently. He was raised in Kiziltepe, a predominantly Kurdish town in the southeastern province of Mardin, and lived through much of the same discriminations as his Kurdish peers.

"Kurdish people are so resistant to [giving up their identity]. I cannot believe how much passion they have in fighting for their rights," says Aydin.

During the language ban, many Kurdish communities kept their language and traditions alive in secret, behind closed doors.

"Between these years [when the language was banned], of course we talked to each other in Kurdish, but it's a big secret for us," says Turobu Kisin, 45. Kisin is a Kurdish journalist working at Özgür Gündem, a pro-Kurdish newspaper with a bloody history. Özgür Gündem counts 71 of their employees as victims of murder, including Kisin's own brother. Since its establishment in 1992, the paper has been forced to change names nearly 50 times due to government pressure and closures, struggling against government threats in order to report on Kurdish issues.

Kisin says he is from Kurdistan, an unofficial and unrecognized region encompassing parts of eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northern Syria, and northern Iran, where Kurds make up the majority of the population. He recalls families in his village hiding videotapes of weddings and other family gatherings from police, who often raided homes looking for evidence of Kurdish music, language and literature.

"It's important to point out that a person's language is his identity," says the Kurdish Institute of Istanbul's Vice President Meylüt Aykoç. "Without it he will lose himself."

According to Aykoç and statistics gathered by the Kurdish Institute of Istanbul, about 80 percent of Kurdish youth do not speak their native tongue, as a result of the language ban. "The Kurdish language almost met the criteria to become a dead language," says Aykoç.

Outsiders in their own country

Turkey's rejection of the Kurdish identity causes many Kurds within the country to grow up feeling like second-class citizens. Many recount feeling ashamed, alone and helpless in the face of the traumas their communities suffered.

At age 15, Aktepe ran away from his village in the mountains to Istanbul. Unable to speak Turkish and legally prohibited from speaking his mother tongue, Aktepe spent his first few months isolated and alone.

"There is a rule every Kurdish person knows. If you go to the city, never speak in Kurdish. The army will observe you and arrest you," says Aktepe. "I felt isolated. I experienced discrimination always. After I learned how to speak Turkish and began to assimilate, I met lots of Turkish friends who, when I say I'm a Kurd, would say so shocked, 'No!' because being a Kurd is a bad thing."

For nearly half of his life, Aktepe says he "felt very shameful about his ethnic origin and asked God, 'Why, why am I a Kurd?'" It wasn't until he began to get involved in the Kurdish rights movement and educate himself on the politics of the Kurdish issue that Aktepe found pride in his Kurdish identity.

"When your identity and background is denied, you always feel insulted, leaving the next generation to have some complexes about their identity," says Aykoç, who claims assimilation attempts by the government would never have been successful. "As long as an apple cannot turn into an orange a Kurd cannot turn into a Turk."

Despite a high number of very young Kurds unable to speak the language, many Kurdish and minority youths find themselves facing an odd predicament when it comes to the question of who they are. When asked if they feel welcome in Turkey, many Kurds are quick to respond with a definitive no, even though they have been born in the country and know it as home. "Being born in Turkey doesn't make me feel like a Turk," says Aydin. "I never feel as a Turk at all."

Bridging generations

Drawing from their experiences growing up during the most intense period of fighting between Turkish nationalists and Kurds—both civilian activists and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)—many younger Kurds are getting involved in the Kurdish rights movement alongside the older generation. They are hoping to find a solution to one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts in Turkey's history.

"Growing up as a Kurdish boy means you always feel helpless," says Çekdar Türk, 21, who was born in Kiziltepe and is the son of the town's current mayor. "We grow up with a very big fear in our hearts. The point is not whether I want to or not, it's that I have to help my people. I am responsible for this as an individual, and I want to help." Türk is studying business at Bahçesehir University in Istanbul in hopes of aiding the Kurdish movement economically. "I don't believe I can [help] politically because politically nothing happens in this country," says Türk.

Türk's father, Ferhan Türk, is a civilian leader in the Kurdish rights movement and was elected mayor of Kiziltepe in 2008 with 78 percent of the vote. In December of 2009, Ferhan Türk was arrested along with multiple other Kurdish mayors and politicians from Southeast Turkey. He is being detained for supposed involvement in the Kurdish Communities Union, an organization the government alleges to be a political arm of the outlawed PKK. This is not the first time Ferhan Türk has been imprisoned for his political activism. According to his son, he has spent a total of 11 years in jail, with his longest sentence being eight years.

"Sometimes they would take my father and put him in jail for 15 to 20 days. They would torture him for more than 15 days in jail without any evidence of committing a crime," says Türk. "Because he was Kurdish he was a potential criminal. He was active in the Kurdish civilian action, not the PKK rebellion, but active as a civilian to solve this Kurdish issue in Turkey. Since the state does not want this issue to be solved they would arrest him often to get him to give up fighting."

Human Rights Watch has been watching the trials of 152 Kurdish party members, including Ferhan Türk, with critical eyes, condemning the prosecution's use of overly broad antiterrorism laws. In a report issued on April 18 of this year, Benjamin Ward, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, explains that "without compelling evidence of violent activities, it's hard to see the prosecution's effort to link this legal party with an illegal organization as anything but a clampdown on legitimate political activity."

Although protected by his political title now, Ferhan Türk experienced heavy torture while imprisoned at Diyarbakir prison. Diyarbakir is known as one of the world's worst jails, with a reputation for torture practice and extremely poor living conditions. According to his son, Ferhan Türk suffered psychological and physical torture including electrocution, extreme temperatures, beatings and forced consumption of fecal matter.

"Pushing my father to eat his feces was the government's way of telling the Kurds, 'You don't have an identity; you are not human; you are like animals so you should eat your feces like pigs,'" says Türk.

Stories of detention, imprisonment and torture are not uncommon among Kurds. Kisin was jailed and tortured more than 10 times between 1990 and 1992 for his ideas. He claims that, although he was sympathetic to the PKK cause, he never held a gun in his life. In 1995, he was arrested again and imprisoned for 11 years, during which he suffered a dislocated shoulder after being tied and hung in a stress position. He recounts being raped, shocked in his genitals, blasted with cold water, and bound with weights.

"It's a big trauma not just for individuals but for all Kurdish society," says Kisin. "I never held a gun in my life. I never killed anyone. I was put in jail because of my ideals. They claimed I am a terrorist but I am involved in the legal part of the Kurdish struggle."

A new chapter

While the thought of the Kurdish flag flying in Turkey brightens the hearts of many Kurds, it causes fear in some Turks who retain suspicions that minority groups pose a threat to state unity, a concept taught early in the republic's founding.

Complications following recent parliamentary elections in June led to setbacks for what many had hoped would be a new chapter for Kurdish representation in government. Following a judicial court's refusal to release multiple newly elected members of Parliament currently behind bars, pro-Kurdish independent candidates, the BDP and CHP boycotted Parliament's opening session. To date, they have still refused to take their seats.

During a jazz concert in Istanbul in mid July, shortly after the violent clash resulting in the death of three Turkish soldiers, members of the audience booed Aynur Dogan for singing a song in Kurdish. The incident showed that, despite living together for centuries, the polarization between Kurds and Turks has grown.

In Turkey few issues are more complicated and sensitive than the Kurdish issue. Tensions remain high among both Kurds and Turks for many factors. An unspoken resistance to Kurdish representation in Parliament causes many Kurds within Turkey to feel their voice is not heard. While violent clashes between the PKK and the Turkish military leave both sides in a perpetual state of mourning, the conflict is not even close to being resolved.

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