Atatürkian Ideology Remains Toxic for Turkey

By Ali Aziz:

Summary: The succession of crises in Turkey reflects its shaky foundations. Ataturkian ideology[1] holds that there is no such thing as a distinct Kurdish people, but this ideology undermines the strength of the state and its true philosophy from the beginning.

In his 1991 book Turkey and the Middle East, Philip Robbins called Turkey the “anxious” state. Turkey’s biggest anxiety comes from its geography. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1923, Turkey found itself on the margins of both Europe and Asia.

Since Kemal Ataturk founded the Republic of Turkey in 29 October 1923, many  crises have arisen, which, over time, remain unresolved. Among the most dangerous of these crises is the ongoing Kurdish issue in both Turkey and in the Middle East. Ataturk established an ideological approach towards the Kurdish people, their identity, and their culture that sought no less than the abolition of the Kurdish identity, culture, and language.

This policy has turned into a well-established historical and social conundrum for the Turks. Disengagement has become almost unthinkable over time. In 1923-1927, Ataturk and thus the Turkish state unambiguously declared that there is no such thing as the Kurdish people or the Kurdish language. Instead, it described the Kurds as the “Mountain Turks.” It is true that this policy is no longer official or constitutional, as it had been in the past, but it is easy to see its deep effects within Turkish culture. These play out in the sentiment Turks manifest towards the Kurds and their identity.

The Kurds unsurprisingly rejected this Ataturkian policy, and they began to oppose and pressure the new republic with massive armed revolts since 1922. In an ever-intensifying tug-of-war that included armed conflict, Kurdish pressure began to consolidate against the state of Turkey. Because of the Kurdish response, the Turkish policy towards them became the focal point of the state’s Kurdish policy around which other policies revolve.

The series of Kurdish revolutions and uprisings that began in 1920 ended completely by the end of the 1930s. Consequently, the weight of official procedures ultimately fell onto the shoulders of the Kurdish people, turning northern Kurdistan (eastern Turkey) into a silent hell. The consequences of the state’s policy ruined the life of the Kurds. It denied their rights. It was the Kurds, not the Turks who were affected by the policy and practice of the state. The Kurdish language was banned, Kurdish culture became taboo: listening to Kurdish songs led to the Kurds being imprisoned and tortured, political activists and intellectuals were imprisoned for many years, and many of them were executed or assassinated. The Turkish state also destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages and towns and displaced millions of them to western Turkey in order to eradicate their identity.

Parallel to this untenable Kurdish state of affairs, Turkey’s official and popular culture treating the Kurds as strangers and enemies of both the Republic and the Turkish people became entrenched. This view began to take form at the beginning of the twentieth century. It continues to the present day.

Kurdish identity vs. Turkey’s weakness in international relations

A recent example of this trend is the condition Turkey imposed concerning Norway’s and Sweden’s request to join NATO. Because Turkey is a member of NATO, to complete the accession of the two countries Turkey’s approval was required. However, Turkey put forward the condition that Norway and Sweden should halt all activities of the Kurdish parties present in those two countries, especially the activity of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey even required that they hand over dozens of members of the PKK and provided a list of the names of those members. Some of these members are not Turkish citizens, such as Amine Kakabaveh, a former member of the Swedish Parliament. (She is a Swedish citizen of Iranian Kurdish origin).

Although Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who led the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2003, differs radically from Ataturk in his political and ideological outlook, he has not been able to change an established structure within the state that still affects current policies. The Ataturkian ideology that shaped both the state’s behaviour and popular culture has been consistently evident in all previous eras and governments. It has not changed, not even slightly — except with regard to the Turkish interior — since 1991, during the era of the former President Turgut Ozal, who began by lifting the ban on Kurdish songs.

Erdogan went further than Ozal when he tried to lift the ban on the Kurdish language and culture. But Erdogan found himself on a collision course with the Ataturkian ideology, which is like a hurricane that wraps itself around everyone in its path. How much inertia or counter-thrust does it take to stabilize something a hurricane wants to topple? Erdogan had to stand against this Ataturkian hurricane to accomplish what could be achieved for the benefit of the Kurds.

On the ground, the Ataturkian ideology continued to determine the political and cultural trends in Turkey. This determination pointed towards the nearly complete annihilation of the Kurdish people. It meant that Erdogan had not achieved enough to satisfy the Kurds or provide a minimum level of justice for the Kurdish people.

More than thirty million people were affected when the Turkish state severed their ties with the Kurdish language and culture for a century. This explains why political leaders in Turkey, such as Necmettin Erbakan, Turgot Ozal, Suleyman Demirel, Tansu Ciller, Mesut Yilmaz, Bulent Ecevit and others followed the great exodus to America provoked by the military coup of Kenan Evren in 1980. Most of them provided strategic services and facilities to Western countries and crafted their policies in return for meeting conditions that do not seem to be of fundamental importance internationally, but which remained important for Turkey: namely the suppression of the Kurds within Turkey and stifling them globally. This was realized by neutralizing Western countries that succeeded in obtaining from Turkey what was serving their policies in the region and the world. For example, Turkey participated in the second Gulf War, but its acquiescence with Washington was related to the situation of the Kurds in Iraq. In 1991, Turkish President Ozal (Die Zeit, February 22, 1991), declared that Turkey would not allow the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. It used its participation alongside America against Iraq as a bargaining chip for this assertion. This concealed Turkey’s permanent fears related to the Kurdish situation not only in Turkey but also outside its borders. In another example, we find that former Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Ciller entered into a  military intelligence agreement with Israel and America in 1993 aimed at confronting regional threats. However, the Turkish thrust of a fist in the face of these threats has not had much effect, except in the Kurdish region in Turkey and in Iraq against the Kurds only.

The complexities of the Kurdish side mirror the quandary of the Turkish state

It could be said that the ceiling of Turkish demands stops at a certain height. It means committing to fight the Kurdish essence in all its dimensions. This is what transformed the attitude towards Kurds and their identity into a phobia that thrives in both the official and popular Turkish mentality. The superficiality of the Turkish approach and interaction at the level of international relations thus becomes clear. For example, if Norway and Sweden agree to Turkey’s demands, it will be difficult to achieve a tangible result for Turkey, because it remains possible to simply transfer these Kurdish activists wanted by Turkey to another country that does not easily meet the demands of Turkey. However, if we go back a little to 2015, when Turkey shot down the Russian plane, NATO reacted very coldly towards Russia’s serious threats against Turkey. This prompted Turkish President Erdogan to go to Moscow to offer an apology and compensate for Russia’s loss. Erdogan’s position appeared to be of remarkable humiliation, compared to the firmness he is known for.

This underlines the fact that, when it is a question establishing the mutual relations and settlements between the two sides on multiple issues, Turkey finds itself permanently in a weak position with regard to the West in general and NATO in particular, the same approach can be observed in Syria. Turkey’s obsession, since the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011, and in particular after 2014— when the Kurds in Syria gained a positive international reputation as the enemy of  ISIS — has always been based on the fear of developments within the Kurdish region in northern Syria. Despite Turkey’s apparent support for the Syrian revolution, Turkish policy on the ground has moved towards achieving its larger goal, which is to undermine the Kurdish authority in Syria by strengthening the anti-Kurdish Syrian opposition and even favoring the Syrian regime as well as ISIS, while working towards facilitating their control over the Rojava areas (Western Kurdistan). The rumor has been circulating that Erdogan opened up talks with the Kurds as early as 2003. In fact, the impression of openness falls apart once one examines the minutiae. Yes, the PKK and its proxies in Syria played a notable role in inciting Erdogan and his government to oppose the Kurds because of their affiliation with the Iranian-Syrian joint front, but it can also be said that Erdogan managed to achieve a reasonable solution with Ocalan, who has been vegetating in Turkish prisons since 1999. It could have been conducted by carrying out tangible reforms in the Kurdish region, in cooperation with Ocalan, with the aim of pulling the rug out from under the feet of the PKK, which has been led by Turkish and Kurdish Alevis for nearly two decades. Unfortunately, Turkey has not changed much in its nationalistic sentiment towards the Kurds, as one example among many may show. The Kurds are known to be religious and predominantly Sufi. Last year, the Turkish government allowed the Kurdish language to be taught to children in schools. However, the procedure requires placing the Kurdish language in the category of marginal lessons alongside courses on religion. Students must choose only one subject between the two, either religion or the Kurdish language. Hence, the Turkish government puts Kurdish students in a very difficult situation, implying that if they choose the subject of their national language, they are rejecting religion and will be thought of as infidels!

However, on the Kurdish side, it is worth noting that the PKK’s policy no longer reflects the nationalist aspirations of the Kurds in Turkey. The party’s leadership has fallen into the hands of the Alawites, who are close to the Iranian and Syrian regimes. This is because the PKK has been immersed in extremist leftist literature, which has been unable to find credibility even among leftists. Although the party bears the name of Kurdistan in its title, it finds its place in a vicious circle very far from the aspirations of the Kurds and the Kurdish cause. It is also possible to consider the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), as another example of the same phenomenon, in the sense that it works for goals that are not necessarily a reflection of the Kurdish goals and its nationalist rights. This may be due to the dominance of several trends within the ranks of the party that reflect the concerns and goals of other non-Kurdish entities such as leftists, religious minorities, homosexuals and other groups. Therefore, although this party is known in media circles as a Kurdish party, it actually has 57 members in the parliament, only 13 of whom are Kurds. While the number of Kurdish parliamentarians within the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is about one hundred. Had the HDP taken into account the nationalist aspirations of the Kurds, it could have courted an alliance with the AKP to form a government. Unfortunately, the HDP missed the opportunity, and this is what allowed the Turkish National Movement Party (MHP) to take advantage of the opportunity and ally itself with the AKP. This alliance dealt a fatal blow to the Kurdish issue in Turkey.

Turkey’s relationship with the West with regard to the Kurds

The Western Front, led by the US, and other fronts like Russia, Iran and even the Syrian regime were able to obtain great gains, while the Turkish presence suffered from undermining and weakness, not to mention the Syrian street’s loss of confidence in Turkey, which appeared, since the beginning of the revolution, as an image of a hero that constantly asserts standing by the Syrian people. However, the cumulative events since 2011 exposed the image of this hero to constant ridicule, especially after Erdogan lost his successive bet on the cities of Syria with his famous phrase “the red line” in his speech to the Syrian regime and his warning against thinking about controlling every city that the Syrian regime was about to enter. The regime was winning ground every time Erdogan put the red line on it, while Erdogan lost his bet one after another. This is what happened in Aleppo, Ghouta al-Sham, Homs and other cities. Further, if we dig deeper, we find that the performance of the Turkish state was in fact in harmony with the goals of the Syrian and Iranian governments, with a submissive intertwining of the Turkish phobia of the Kurds with the Russians and Americans in Syria, given the balanced and logistical Kurdish relations with Russia, America and even the Syrian regime. Today, the Turkish situation has become exposed and cannot bear to hide its face behind masks. Turkey has completely submitted to the Russian-Iranian-Syrian policies on the one hand, and has submitted to the will of NATO to accept Norway and Sweden as new members of the alliance, with apparent weakness in other issues such as the relationship with Greece and the countries of Europe. Turkey’s share of all this was not only nothing, but it also lost a lot in the international and regional arenas, except that it increased its enmity with the Kurds and their aspirations in Turkey and in the region in general.

Ataturkian ideology is a historical knot of the Turkish state that seeks temporary gains at the expense of the state’s future

This fact explains to us how the adherence of the Turkish state to the Ataturkian ideology towards the Kurds weakened the Turkish political performance at the level of international relations and at the regional level. This clearly shows the decline of the Turkish state continuously since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in the Middle East in 2011. Turkey has been oscillating between the Russian and American camps, clinging to both, to prevent the development of the Kurdish situation in Iraq and Syria leading to an internationally recognized situation, with growth and prosperity on the economic, political and military levels, adjacent to the greater part of Kurdistan. This lies within Turkey on the borders of northern Syria and Iraq. The strange paradox here is that Turkey could have played a different role in this turbulent environment, in winning the Kurds to their side by changing its view of them and establishing a new page with them in which their rights are recognized.  However, Turkey, captive to the Ataturkian ideology on which the republic was founded, a whole century ago, has stood and is still an obstacle to Turkey’s aspirations of playing a role that emulates its role in the bygone era of the Ottoman Empire.  Moreover, the other strange irony is that the Ottoman Empire could not play this role at the international level until it allied itself with the Kurds in the famous Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, which the Ottoman Empire won thanks to its alliance with the Kurds. The importance of this alliance lies in the fact that the Ottoman Empire, at the time of Sultan Selim I, was exposed to great dangers from the Safavid state led by Sultan Ismail Shah I. The Safavids began to advance in large numbers through the forces they called the Qizilbash (Red Head) towards the center of Ottoman power in present-day Turkey. At that time, most of the Kurdish emirates were allied with the Safavid state. Importantly, the Safavid dynasty is of Kurdish origin. Sheikh Safi al-Din al-Ardabili (1252-1334) was a Kurdish Shafi’i jurist from Iranian Kurdistan and the owner of a Sufi doctrine. In his time, Shiite Turkmen tribes started to migrate to Ardabil, and his grandchildren married Turkmen women. During the reign of his great grandson Shaikh Junaid (D. 1460) the Safavid officially declared their conversion from the Sunni to the Shiite sect, and he was the grandfather of Ismail Shah I, the founder of the Safavid Empire. When Sultan Selim I (1470-1520) felt the danger of the Safavids, he initiated, approaching one of the most prominent Kurdish leaders, Idris Bitlisi (1457-1520), who was a scholar, historian and poet, to negotiate with the Kurdish princes in order to win them over to the Ottoman Empire in its confrontation with the Safavid state. Since the influential Shiite Turkmen in the state had sensitivities and grudges with the Kurdish princes, this matter helped the Kurdish princes, allied with Sultan Selim, and fought with him in the Battle of Chaldiran defeating Ismail Shah Safavid (1487-1524). The alliance of Kurdish princes is considered the main factor in the victory of the Ottoman Empire and its transformation into the greatest power in the region and beyond.

The dangers of hostile geography surrounding Turkey, and whether the Ataturkian ideology can withstand the great changes in the world.

Turkey today lives in the midst of a hostile geography, but its terrifying obsession is with the Kurdish people in Turkey and beyond its borders. This ambiguity in the contemporary Turkish politics unlike the ancient Ottoman position, was decided by the Ataturk’s ideology towards dealing with the Kurds in a rigid and closed way, simultaneously with a constant weakness, hesitation and compromise towards the unfriendly states surrounding Turkey: Russia, Armenia, Bulgaria, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Greece and behind it the eastern and western European countries. So far, there is no tangible guarantee that Turkey will change its attitude towards the Kurds in a way that serves both sides, but it is certain that ideologies do not stand forever in the face of the winds of change sweeping the world.

[1] The Ataturkian ideology is inspired by the racist and nationalist wave that is highly dismissive of the others. Ataturk was influenced by Western thoughts and the rise of the nationalist tide characterized by fascism and chauvinism, which provided the Nazi and fascist movements with the ground upon which the systems of government in the countries ruled by those Nazi and fascist movements are based. The Ataturkian ideology, with strict frankness, announced, in the context of the complete abolition of the Kurds, their identity and their culture, that the happy one in Turkey is the one who says I am Turkish.



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