Kurds Challenge Turkish Nation-State

 Ayşe Günaysu

On Dec. 20, 2010, Turkish members of parliament, including the ultra-nationalist MHP, Islamist AKP, nationalist CHP, and others, were listening to the tall woman addressing the session during the budgetary discussions for the Ministry of Tourism and Culture. “Rafael Lemkin says genocide is not only about the extermination of the representatives of a nation but also annihilation of its cultural and national values,” she was saying. “Today, of the 913 Armenian monuments remaining after 1923, 464 have been totally destroyed, 252 left to a state of dilapidation, and 197 in urgent need of restoration. Many of the Armenian religious buildings are being used as stables or storehouses, and many of the Armenian churches have been turned into mosques. Armenians in 1915 were driven out of their own homeland. Suffering, exile, and destitution all combined into Armenian people’s painful outcry.” She went on to quote Armenian singer Aram Tigran’s words: “A storm blew away our nest, leaving us orphans, exiled, longing for our nest even if it is made of stone.” She concluded: “Turkish governments’ refusal of Aram Tigran’s last wish to be buried in Diyarbakir is proof that the punishment imposed on Armenians does not end even after their death.”

The speaker was Pervin Buldan, a member of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party from Igdir, one of the places that suffered worst during the Armenian Genocide. She is also the widow of Savas Buldan, a Kurdish businessman, who was one of the victims of the infamous unsolved murders of the 1990’s. Savas Buldan’s dead body was found on the roadside in 1994 after being kidnapped by “unidentified” persons shortly after then-Prime Minister Tansu Ciller declared that she knew the identities of the Kurdish businessmen financially supporting the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) and would do away with them. One year later, a parliamentary commission prepared a report on these unsolved murders, but was never published; the commission had explicitly stated that the state’s secret forces had been involved in the murders.

Ten days before Pervin Buldan’s parliamentary speech, on Dec. 10 at a workshop on the Kurdish Question organized by the Socialist Democracy Party in Istanbul, Galip Enserioglu, the chairman of the Diyarbakir Chamber of Industry and Commerce, was addressing the audience, telling them that Armenians were massacred “at the hands of Kurds.” “We, Kurds, are now paying for our past sins,” he stated. “The Ittihadists had decided to found this nation-state and we, the Kurds, let alone watching as bystanders what they did to Armenians and other non-Muslims, we actively became their tool. Armenians were massacred by our own hands.”

Alliance against the common foe

These speeches were delivered at a time when a surge of national indignation dominated the Turkish political scene in response to Kurds declaring “democratic autonomy” and the start of a de facto “bilingual life”—with Kurdish appearing in the written form in every aspect of life, from price labels at traditional open-air marketsto the official sphere, such as on signs at municipality buildings in Kurdish provinces. During trials of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK), the alleged urban extension of the outlawed PKK, suspects, among them some BDP mayors and chairpersons of local branches of the Human Rights Association, had asked to be able to defend themselves in Kurdish, a demand rejected by the court. When some of the defendants submitted their defenses in Kurdish, the president of the court said the suspects spoke in “an unknown language.” In order to protest this, the BDP started to hold its parliamentary group meetings partially in Kurdish.

This move met with outrage equally vehement on both wings of power in Turkey: the Turkish military and its hate figure AKP government, revealing the fact that the two are allies against the Kurds, whether they are engaged in an armed movement or in peaceful political activity. The speaker of parliament, AKP Deputy Mehmet Ali Sahin, recalled that to speak in another language in parliament was cause to disband a political party, and urged public prosecutors to start legal action against the BDP. Simultaneously the Turkish General Staff issued a statement in which it condemned the BDP’s attempt at a bilingual life, stating that such debates were against the founding philosophy of the Turkish Republic and therefore created “great concern.” The statement predictably included a sentence that, as everyone in Turkey knows, meant threat of military intervention. “The Turkish Armed Forces,” it said, “have always and will continue to stand for the protection of the united, secular nation state that is indicated in the constitution.”

The much-resented Democratic Autonomy is described by the Democratic Society Congress (DTK)—an organization of Kurds comprising intellectuals, representatives from civil society organizations, politicians, and members of the BDP—as the organizational model going from bottom to top, and encompassing village, neighbourhood, district, and provincial parliaments on the basis of confederations. At the top of this organizational structure will be the DTK, which will send representatives to the Turkish Parliament.

Now a few words about the KCK case: The first wave of arrests in April 2009 focused mostly on BDP (then DTP) activists. Subsequent operations steadily climbed up the political hierarchy and began to encompass former mayors and elected city council members. Finally, amid complete international silence, the arrests peaked on Dec. 24, 2009, with the arrests of elected mayors Hatip Dicle and Muharrem Erbey, chairman of the Diyarbakir IHD branch. The 7,587-page indictment dealing with the most senior suspects targeted in the KCK operations reveals that these people were being persecuted for peaceful political activities. As Emin Aktar, chairman of the Diyarbakir Bar Association, has pointed out, no one is being accused of using weapons or bombs, only of organizing civil protests; people’s participation in funeral services for fallen PKK guerrillas is also repeatedly presented as criminal. Erbey’s offenses include participation in a commission of legal experts established under DTK auspices to study Turkey’s constitution and make proposals for its amendment. Significantly, despite every legitimate reason, the court declined the repeated demands for release of those defendants who have been in jail for more than a year without any court ruling establishing their guilt.

This wave of arrests came after last year’s Kurdish “opening” fiasco. The government had first declared that they would take steps to bring about a solution to the Kurdish Question. Right after, a group of guerrillas left their arms and turned themselves into Turkish security forces with enthusiastic mass demonstrations by the Kurds welcoming them. The nationalist front in Turkey rose up in protest of this peace initiative and the government immediately made a U-turn, arresting the guerillas, and following with these mass arrests and the KCK case targeting the peaceful Kurdish political movement.

Kurds: The first to recognize Armenian Genocide

It is no coincidence that it was the Kurds, the main, unyielding, and massive opponent of the system in Turkey since the foundation of the Republic, particularly for the last three decades of armed struggle, who first publicly pronounced their recognition of the Armenian and Assyrian Genocide of 1915-16, long before Turkish intellectuals.

Recep Marasli was the first. A Kurdish intellectual, writer, and political activist, Marasli was one of the victims of the torture house of Diyarbakir Prison. He was one of the defendants in in the famous Rizgari–Ala Rizgari case trialed by the Diyarbakir Military Court after the 1980 military coup (Rizgari was one of the major Kurdish national movements in Turkey). Marasli was an inmate in the Istanbul Alemdag Military Prison in 1982 when “Armenian organizations,” as he calls them, began a series of attacks on Turkish diplomats. Racist hatred dominated the headlines of the newspapers, and prisoners suspected to be of Armenian origin were particularly subjected to even more barbaric tortures in Diyarbakir Prison. Marasli, together with a friend, prepared a brochure about the Armenian Genocide, challenging the official history and giving an account of the crimes against humanity committed against the Ottoman Armenians. The brochure was secretly circulated among the prisoners, and later formed a part of Marasli’s legal defense submitted to the military court, The defense was published as a book by the Komal Publishing House in Duisburg and Istanbul in 1986, and covered the topic of the Armenian Genocide between pages 286 and 292. From 1982 on, every year until his release, on April 24 Marasli’s small group commemorated the genocide in various ways, depending on the circumstances–sometimes putting a hand-made poster on the wall of the ward, sometimes organizing a seminar, sometimes circulating a leaflet.

This is how he recalls his first acquaintance with the fate of the Armenians in Turkey and his steps to raise awareness of it, in the preface of his book on the Armenian Genocide published in Turkey in 2008.1 Since 1982, Marasli has devoted much of his time to learning more about the Armenian Genocide and the above-mentioned book was the result of his work of many years.

It seems that Turkish prisons played a great role in the awakening amongst Kurds of the truth about Armenians. Naci Kutlay, another well-known Kurdish writer and intellectual, refers to an even earlier stage in Turkey’s recent history–the military intervention in 1971, when he and his Kurdish socialist comrades were tried at military courts. He recalls that during the hearings, court records revealed the Armenian origins of many of the Kurdish defendants, which was a total surprise to many of their friends. This was when he was first faced with the truth that Kurds had massacred Armenians, not only because of government lies that made them believe the Armenians would establish a state and persecute Kurds, and not only because of religious hatred, but also because of their greed for Armenian wealth.2

Naci Kutlay and Recep Marasli are not the only Kurdish dissidents who have acknowledged the truth. For the past few decades, many Kurdish intellectuals have publicly expressed their shame over the Kurds’ role in the genocide and have apologized in interviews published in various magazines and newspapers. One of them is Orhan Miroglu, a Kurdish intellectual and another victim of the Diyarbakir Prison who was shot and seriously wounded during the assassination of the legendary Kurdish writer, poet, and activist Musa Anter in Diyarbakir in 1992. In an interview with a journalist from the daily Birgun, in response to what he thought of the “Armenian Genocide allegations,” Miroglu said: “The Armenian Genocide is not an allegation. It is a fact even acknowledged by the Turkish Republic’s founding ideology of Kemalism [in the past]. Even Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was quoted in General Harbord’s report on the Armenian Question to have said ‘we guarantee that no other Turkish atrocity will take place against Armenians.’ The CUP (Committee of Union and Progress) planned a genocide targeting Armenians. Kurds were the accomplices of this genocide. Kurds should apologize to Armenians for the genocide in the name of friendship and peace. I, as a Kurdish intellectual, apologize to Armenians. In order to come to terms with our past we have to apologize [to Armenians].”

Kurds on forefront of struggle for democratic Turkey

Now Kurds are struggling for their national identity, and also for a more democratic Turkey, against a block of allied forces in defense of the nation-state, i.e. the Turkish military, the nationalist front in general, and the ruling AKP that had asked (and succeeded to some extent) to get the votes of the left-wing, democratic, progressive sections of the population, swearing that they stood for democracy and human rights against the militaristic Kemalist establishment.

Today, Jan. 13, 2011, the KCK trial resumed in Diyarbakir and now I’m listening on the TV to the news agencies’ reports about the violent clashes between demonstrators and security forces in the city, as well as in other Kurdish provinces, such as Hakkari, Cizre, Nusaybin and Batman, as thousands of people demand justice for the KCK defendants. It’s being reported that during the hearing the microphone was turned off when the first defendant started to speak in Kurdish.

It is clear enough that no progress can take place in Turkey without Kurds first gaining ground in their struggle for the recognition of their rights and for democracy in Turkey. The future of Turkey depends to a great extent on the success of the Kurdish political movement, backed by dynamic masses rising for their rights, in making the Turkish nation-state finally accept to abandon the old ways of ruling and take a new road towards a future with greater justice for all.

As for the nature of the Kurdish reality in the past and in the present, it should not be considered as a paradox that Kurds were at the same time both perpetrators and saviors in 1915 (especially the Alevi Kurds in Dersim) because there has never been a single uniform Kurdish (or other) identity completely independent of individual, or regional, or social, or cultural differences. Similarly it is not a paradox that a group in a specific period in history acted as the perpetrators of a crime against another group, but also became the victim of their common oppressor. And thirdly it is not a paradox when members of a group that had been the perpetrators at the time later became the first to acknowledge the guilt and apologize—especially if it has also suffered. It’s just that one cannot put life and its actors into ready-made compartments. That’s why life is much more complicated, much more contradictory, and holds much more hope for the better despite the prevalence of injustice and suffering.

But it should not be unexpected that the same land—the homeland of Armenians and Kurds —continues to bleed. Because it is the crime scene. No good can grow in the soil of a crime scene until justice is served. Only then can the dead, the Armenian and Assyrian victims of the genocide who are denied a gravestone, be duly and respectfully buried in the hearts of the living; can the dead’s suffering spirits be freed of their agony and be able to retreat to their eternal peaceful sleep. Only then can the soil of the crime scene start to be fertile again, for the Kurds and for us all, bearing fruit again and feeding its children.

1. Recep Marasli, Ermeni Ulusal Demokratik Hareketi ve 1915 Soykırımı (The Armenian National Democratic Movement and 1915 Genocide), Peri Publishing House, Istanbul: 2008.

2. See http://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:jic4Agcy2egJ:www.radikal.com.tr/ek_haber.php%3Fek%3Dr2%26haberno%3D6710+K%C3%BCrtler+ve+Ermeniler&cd=1&hl=tr&ct=clnk&gl=tr.

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