On Oct. 24, Kurdish migrant farm workers started a fight in the town of Ipsala, in the northwest region of Turkey. After the Kurdish workers apparently harassed local girls, some of the town's youth attacked the workers in retaliation. The conflict escalated, and the Kurdish workers were forced to take refuge in the town's mosque to avoid a growing anti-Kurdish mob. Across the country, veiled mothers, the precise constituency one would imagine to be supportive of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, protested the government's "Kurdish opening," which promises overtures toward the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a terrorist organization that has waged a 25-year struggle against Turkey.
Social violence between Kurds and non-Kurds, an unusual phenomenon in Turkey, has been spurred by the recent "Kurdish opening." How the AKP deals with the Kurdish problem will not only determine the party's political future, but also has the potential to make or break Turkey's ambitions as a regional power. It will take an individualistic, European approach to resolve the Kurdish issue to the benefit of both the AKP and Turkey as a whole.
The "Kurdish opening" envisaged bringing members of the PKK back to Turkey from the organization's bases in Iraq and cells in Europe through an unofficial amnesty. This approach, however, backfired when 34 PKK members, whom the Turkish government had allowed into the country from Iraq, delivered fiery speeches in support of the terrorist group. On October 19, speaking to a rally in Diyarbakir, the party members said they had returned to Turkey not to take advantage of the AKP's amnesty, but rather to represent the PKK. The group added that they had no remorse for their past actions, including violence, and made political demands on the Turkish government.
These demonstrations, and images of individuals involved in terror attacks walking freely in Turkey, have touched a raw nerve. The government has since backed down, calling off its plan to bring more PKK members back to Turkey, and the "Kurdish opening" has flopped. Yet Turkey can still resolve this impasse. The AKP has, thus far, dealt with the issue by giving collective, ethnicity-based group rights to the Kurds. This approach has led to social backlash in Turkey for being perceived as too conciliatory to the PKK, and for challenging the notion of "Turkishness." But Turkey can break the Kurdish impasse by increasing the rights of all Turkish citizens, regardless of ethnicity and religion.
Solving the Kurdish problem in Turkey requires an
understanding of the very notion of what it means to be a Turk -- someone
defined by historic Turkish identity rather than ethnicity. Turkey is an
amalgam of various Muslim ethnic groups, including Kurds as well as Bosniacs, Crimean
Tatars, Albanians, Circassians, Abkhazes, Georgians, Arabs, Macedonian-, Serbian-,
Bulgarian- and Greek-speaking Muslims, and ethnic Turks, among others.
The Turkish amalgam is a non-ethnic, historic entity that is a product of the country's Ottoman past. For 500 years, the Ottoman Empire treated its entire Muslim population as members of the same political grouping, the Muslim "millet," imprinting its Muslim population with an indelible collective political identity. In the twentieth century, the members of the former Muslim millet in Turkey came to see themselves as Turks, regardless of their ethnic background.