Why We Can't Afford to Abandon Turkey's Kurds

01/18/2016 06:18 pm ET | Updated Jan 18, 2016
  • Stefan Ihrig Polonsky Fellow, Van Leer Jerusalem Institute
ILYAS AKENGIN via Getty Images

JERUSALEM -- The history of Erdoğan's presidency will be written as one of creeping, sometimes galloping, autocratism and of renewed violence in the Kurdish southeast. Erdoğan's new presidential palace and declarations about Muslims discovering America seemed like loony signs of a leader simply not ready to give up and slightly out of step with the rest of the world. They amused but also scared us.

The rejection of calls to recognize the Armenian Genocide during last year's 100th anniversary seemed merely like reflexes of a Turkish strongman who inserted himself not only into the republican tradition of denial but who also continually tries to connect himself back to Ottoman times. With the renewed war against the Kurds, however, we should recognize him for what he is: an autocrat in the making who will not be removed by democratic means should the Turkish people wish to do so and who is willing to sacrifice the lives and freedoms of Turkish citizens for his goals.

Most of the world stood by in silence when the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide came around last April. While there were notable exceptions, most of the world left Armenians and Turks to fight it out between themselves. A small part of the world saw with great interest that the Kurds in Turkey were at the forefront of reconciliation with the Armenians.

What we are witnessing at the moment are the final stages in the demolition of the checks and balances in the Turkish political and societal system.

There are various initiatives, some of which the New Yorker, for example, discussed in an extensive exposé on Diyarbakir and what the Kurdish mayor and others have been doing there, such as the restoration of a prominent Armenian church, acknowledging past violence and extending a hand in friendship. For the Kurds, the Armenian Genocide is no less painful to come to terms with than for the rest of Turkish society as it was oftentimes Kurds who were executioners in this genocide. Furthermore, and as the recent book by Uğur Ümit Üngör has demonstrated in great detail, the Turkish Kurds' own history of suffering in the 20th century is intimately connected to what started in 1915. It continued almost seamlessly into the next decades and included extensive policies of ethnic engineering in the Turkish southeast, then targeting the Kurdish populations.

So, yes, the renewed violence in the Turkish southeast owes a lot to an undigested history of violence against all sorts of ethnic and otherwise defined enemies of the Turkish state. As sociologist Fatma Müge Göçek has shown recently, once more, there is a long tradition of denying violence and of integrating past violence into a sanitized and rationalized narrative of the nation. The renewed war against the Kurds -- within the southeast under the guise of curfews as well as beyond Turkey's borders -- is the latest proof that Turkey has to come to terms with its history of violence. That history needs to be overcome and resolved within Turkey, lest it continue.

Now, in the last few days, over 1,000 Turkish academics signed an online petition to get the Turkish government to stop its undeclared war against the Kurds in the southeast and to resume the peace process. All this somewhat coincided with the recent bomb attack in Istanbul -- and Erdoğan had much more to say about the academics' petition than about the bombers. In an intense and hateful commentary, the president called the academics traitors of the country, alleged they were colluding with foreign interests and terrorists and singled them out for all kinds of reprisals. Others followed suit. Now these academics have to fear physical violence, losing their jobs and prosecution from the state.

Where are all those who are ashamed of the West for propping up people like Assad as we are propping up Erdoğan now, in the name of stability and in order to control the stream of refugees -- from Assad's Syria?

Erdoğan has consistently been fighting and constraining any form of civil society in the last years, most prominently by harassing the press in Turkey. And we, the Western world, otherwise always critical of Muslim countries, stood by silently. Now, Erdoğan has stepped up his game and is attacking the Kurds. We stand silent. And now he is attacking and prosecuting the people in Turkey who stand up to him and support the Kurds. Yet we stand silent.

Not only is it interesting to see how little interest the Western media have taken in the last months in the issue of the "Kurdish curfews" in the southeast, but it is also interesting to take another look at our silence. So, where are all the people lobbying for the recognition of the Armenian Genocide now? Can't they support those who are trying to stop violence in the very same regions in which the genocide took place 100 years ago? Where are all the Europeans who argued against Turkish EU membership in the last two decades because of its alleged lack of civil society -- when the rather vibrant civil society is being demolished piece by piece? Where are all those all over Europe and America who have been philosophizing about the impossibility of a Muslim democracy now? Where are all those so quick to point at the "bad Muslim" now when civil society is standing up to state-sponsored violence and is being bullied, threatened and persecuted by an autocrat in the making? Where are all those who are ashamed of the West for propping up people like Assad as we are propping up Erdoğan now, in the name of stability and in order to control the stream of refugees -- from Assad's Syria?

We are co-complicit in many crimes happening around the world all the time and at any given time. The Middle East is an especially complicated place at the moment; losing Turkey as an ally does not seem to be an option. But, as things seem to be developing, we are losing Turkey anyway. Even if we do nothing. What we are witnessing at the moment -- even if the international press often chooses to look away, especially in the last months -- are the final stages in the demolition of the checks and balances in the Turkish political and societal system. We can all feel that it won't stop with what is happening in these weeks. The trajectory is deadly -- for people and for Turkish democracy and civil society. The new Turkey that Erdoğan is building by sacrificing the Kurds, by silencing the opposition and by dismantling free speech should frighten us. If we really stand for democracy, open societies and freedom of speech, then we must stand with the Turkish academics now.

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