EDMONDS, Washington — Ethnic Kurdish populations have resided in regions of Asia Minor and the Middle East for centuries. Various nations have forcibly drawn lines through their native territories as time has passed. After the First World War, the establishment of Turkish borders limited the possibly of a formal and cohesive Kurdish state. In modern times, there are an estimated 30 million ethnic Kurds worldwide. This makes the Kurdish people “one of the largest groups of people without […] a nation state” or land of their own. A large portion of the total Kurdish population resides in Turkey where Kurds face ongoing violence, discrimination and social ostracization.
Kurdish Oppression in Turkey
Ethnic Kurds and ethnic Turks have had a notably strained relationship in recent history. According to The Kurdish Project, a nonprofit advocacy and educational organization, the modern borders of Turkey run directly through Kurdistan. Kurdistan, a historically Kurdish region that is not a country, has territories in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Since Turkey’s founding, Kurdish culture, language and identity expression have undergone staunch repression, with tensions rising substantially in the last forty years. In an interview with The Borgen Project, retired U.S. diplomat Fred Lundahl stated, “What the Kurds have had to deal with in order to get anything done, to get any sense of respect, has always been hard.” Lundahl spent 30 years in embassies around the world for the State Department.
The Turkish government bears a history of oppression against the Kurdish culture, even cracking down on names that Kurdish families give their children. In 2003, Turkish national authorities passed a reform law aimed at limiting names using the letters x, q and w — letters traditionally found in Kurdish names. “Because they’re [Kurds] immediately noticed by their names […] they’ve basically been oppressed this whole time,” observed Lundahl.
In one criminal court case around the same time, authorities attempted to prosecute seven parents in the southern Turkish city of Diyarbakır for giving their children Kurdish names. The prosecution argued that the names were secret codes in a Kurdish terrorist scheme against the Turkish government. Though a judge ultimately dismissed the case, resistance to Kurdish expression continued.
Continued oppression and exclusion from Turkish political, cultural and social landscapes have resulted in Kurdish ostracization. According to Lundahl, “Government after government has missed the boat at trying to tamp down this feeling.” This has led to the tensions that still persist today.
Kurdish oppression at the hand of the Turkish government has directly and indirectly bred a committed nationalist movement. This noticeably manifested in the form of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, in the 1970s. Until his capture in 1999, Abdullah Öcalan, a Kurdish Turk, headed the PKK, which was widely designated a terrorist organization. Prior to Öcalan’s capture, the PKK’s actions led to the deaths of an estimated 30,000 people. The group initially worked in an effort to establish a Kurdish region in southern Turkey, though this goal shifted over time.
In its early years, the PKK appealed to many Kurds of all standings. It especially attempted to draw in Kurds from impoverished and disadvantaged areas. A major conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government in 1984 resulted in the government’s forced evictions of an estimated one million Kurds. Mass unrest and the destruction of Kurdish communities accompanied these evictions. The Kurdish Project suggests organizations like the PKK provide the Turkish government the justification to oppress and terrorize everyday Kurds.
Turkish Majority Politics and Kurds
In the last 20 years, Turkey’s present-day political majority party has risen: the Justice and Development Party, or the AKP. The AKP’s growing power has led to even fewer attempts at inclusion in Turkey, according to Lundahl. At the forefront of this struggle are current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of the AKP, and the organization’s conservative values. “What [Erdoğan] is doing is serving the Islamic, more fundamentalist people in small towns in central Turkey, that’s his base. And that base feels threatened by the Kurds,” said Lundahl.
One particular move against Turkey’s Kurds, in addition to political persecution and imprisonment, has come in the form of Turkey’s hydropower efforts in Kurdish regions of Turkey. Since the early 2000s when the AKP came into power, the government exercised significant control of a dam campaign throughout Turkey’s southeastern provinces. This disproportionately affected Kurdish communities and infrastructure, as well as neighboring regions severely dependent on the controlled water supply.
“There’s also been big developmental projects in eastern Turkey that revolve around these systems of dams […] for electricity and water for irrigation,” shared Lundahl. “These projects were peddled as ‘this is going to bring economic development to the Kurdish areas of Turkey.’ In fact, the Kurds didn’t benefit from any of it. The Kurds lost land, Turkish companies came in with big agricultural businesses. All of these things… have just been getting worse and worse.”
The Kurdish Role in the Syrian Civil War
Others factors in Kurdish oppression are the war on terror and U.S. involvement in the Kurdish regions of northern Syria. Key allies of the U.S. in the fight against Islamic extremism, the Kurdish Protection Units, or YPG, have played a crucial role in helping American forces combat groups like ISIS.
Turkey, on the other hand, treats the YPG with significant hostility. When former President Donald Trump withdrew American forces from Syria, the YPG lost major backing and resources that the U.S. provided, paving the way for Turkish forces in the region to resume their efforts combatting Kurds and others in the region.
Within Turkey, the conflict in Syria also shaped the social landscape. According to Lundahl, “There [were]huge numbers of Syrian refugees that the Turks had allowed to come in, and what was interesting about this was that this was being allowed by the [Turkish] government, it was to get them away from the war zones, which happened to be Kurdish areas.”
Lundahl now owns Music for the Eyes, a specialty shop for cultural artifacts in Langley, Washington. He recalled his last trip to Turkey to visit suppliers: “A lot of the shops in downtown Istanbul were being run by Syrians… and so there was a whole other social problem coming up because they were taking over from urban Turks.” Lundahl further suggested that Kurdish businesses in Turkey have taken a hit from the Syrian refugee crisis. This has also further ostracized Kurds.
Despite the Turkish government’s best efforts to subjugate Kurds, many still hold out hope for cultural, social and political freedom. “We have followed the struggle of the Kurds to rise out of their second-class status for years [… as well as] the wonderful things that the Kurds did in Iraq in terms of getting their own country, in effect,” said Lundahl. Kurds in southern Turkish cities are reviving the ancient oral practices of Dengbej, a musical storytelling tradition that goes back 5,000 years. Its return represents the preservation of heritage in the face of oppression.
Though the situation holds complex diplomatic weight and serious humanitarian concerns, it also is not without hope. Organizations like The Kurdish Project work to spread knowledge of Kurdish oppression, history and struggles for everyday Kurds. Their work continues the advocacy for Kurdish rights in Turkey and beyond.
– Maddie Youngblood