03/03/2012 03:17 pm ET Updated May 03, 2012

Erdogan's Kurdish Challenge

The attack came at night. Fifty young Kurds returning from Iraq were within sight of the Turkish border when rockets began to explode around them. It was late December and freezing cold. "Five or six took refuge behind the rocks. They all died..." said Servet Encu, one of the 15 survivors.

The men were not "militants". But the government had perceived a threat due to recent deadly attacks on military posts in the area.

The authorities called them smugglers, but they were carrying essential provisions purchased from fellow Kurds in Iraq to their desperately impoverished brethren in Turkey.

The treacherous trail between Turkey and Iraq is a well known artery for the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and that particular night intelligence gathered from drones that a suspicious group was approaching the border. Realizing their mistake, the Turkish government issued a public apology.

This was not the first time in the recent past the Turkish government had apologized to the Kurds. A month prior to this incident, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had apologized on behalf of the state for the deaths of thousands of Kurds in Dersim in 1937.

These apologies should be applauded, and reflect a general liberalization of Kurdish policy by Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP). It takes both courage and compassion to admit to a mistake that has cost human lives.

Yet the brutal nature of the bombing indicates the problem Turkey still has in dealing with its Kurds.

Kurds, who constitute 25-30% of the population, continue to complain of marginalization and often feel their voice is not heard. Kurds are not afforded the right to be educated in their language, which is also banned in mosques or government offices. Election laws bar any party that cannot attract 10% of a national vote from Parliament. In addition, Kurds assert that Turkey's anti-terrorism laws have implicated proponents of Kurdish nationalism, activism or recognition. According to a study by the Associated Press, Turkish anti-terrorism laws have resulted in roughly 1/3 of global terrorism convictions post- 9/11.

Kurdish complaints in Turkey are similar to those of their brethren in Syria and Iran. Syrian Kurds were only granted citizenship by President Bashar al-Assad in April 2011, but as the state has devolved into chaos over the course of the past year, this has meant little. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have reported in recent years that Kurds have faced forced evictions from their homes, the barring of parents registering their babies with certain Kurdish names, and restrictions on Kurdish language education.

Only Iraqi Kurds, who endured extreme brutality under Saddam Hussein, are specifically named in their state's constitution, which has also declared Kurdish an official language of the country. As a result of American intervention, they have established a federally autonomous region in the north of the country with a strong government, economy, and educational system.

Who are the Kurds, and what is the source of their discontent? This question can only be understood through the lens of traditional Kurdish social structure, an antagonistic history with central governments, and a very real fear of cultural--or even literal--annihilation.

The irony of our age of nation-states is that while tiny nations like Tuvalu, with a population of around 10,000 people, are independent countries with full United Nations membership, the Kurds, with a population estimated to be about 30 million , are split between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

The Kurds are divided into various tribes and clans and traditionally live by a code of honor, which emphasizes hospitality and loyalty. Affronts to honor can trigger a code of revenge. The honor code has persisted and is an essential part of what it means to be Kurdish.

Attempts to subjugate or assimilate the Kurds have been met with fierce resistance. Their history is one of a series of rebellions against various central authorities, beginning with the Abbasids in the 8th century.

Subsequently, the Kurds established many independent dynasties, including the Ayyubids whose rule extended from Egypt and much of North Africa to the Middle East and into Yemen. Under Ottoman rule, the Kurds enjoyed a measure of autonomy, organized into quasi-independent vilayets. However, a more antagonistic relationship with the center developed during the era of nationalism in the 19th century.

By all standards the Kurds deserved their own nation: They have had their own territory, language, ethnic identity, customs and history for over a thousand years. They had every reason to be proud of themselves. They had produced great scholars, like the mystic Said Nursi, and great rulers like the legendary Saladin who was a model for piety, compassion and courage. They even had a name for their region: Kurdistan.

After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds were promised a homeland under the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. Though the treaty was signed by the Ottomans, it was rejected by Ataturk, the champion of secular Turkish nationalism.

The Kurds fell under colonial administrations in Iraq and Syria, where in both mandates they were pitted against the Arab population. The new states the Kurds found themselves in pursued systematic campaigns of repression to undermine, dilute, or eradicate the Kurdish sense of self in an attempt to cement Arab, Turkish, or Persian nationalism.

Some of the worst repression of Kurdish identity occurred in Turkey.

In 1924, spoken and written use of the Kurdish language was banned by the Kemalist government in an attempt to homogenize the population, under a policy of "Turkification." A sequence of revolts followed as the Turks attempted to forcibly assimilate the Kurds. A resettlement law passed in 1932 resulted in the relocation of hundreds of thousands of Kurds to the steppes of Anatolia.

The relocation effort stalled as the Turks faced fierce resistance from the Kurds of the mountainous Dersim region, which had been renamed Tunceli by the government. The Turks subdued the rebellion through bombing, the use of poison gas, and burning Kurds trapped in caves, barns, and forests. Women committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of government forces. The operation resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. The regime sealed off the area to foreigners until the mid 1960's.

The military governor of Dersim announced that the Kurds were to be known as "Mountain Turks," a denial of their identity that became standard for the government. In 1960, the President of Turkey declared: "There are no Kurds in this country. Whoever says he is a Kurd, I will spit in his face." The following year, he would assert: "No nation exists with a personality of its own, calling itself Kurdish."

The following decades were comparatively quiet, and upheavals within Turkish political society resulted in a slight relaxation of state sentiment towards the Kurds. A new generation of Kurds grew up educated in Turkish schools, leaving their towns in the periphery for the opportunities afforded by modern cities like Ankara and Istanbul. Yet studying in the cities threw their status as Kurds in sharp relief, and anger grew among the students.

In the early 1980's, the Kurdistan Workers Party, originally a Marxist student movement, launched a rebellion against the Turkish state. Over time, the PKK entrenched itself in the mountainous regions and established bases in Kurdish areas of surrounding countries. The PKK tried to ingratiate themselves with tribal groups, while targeting Kurdish landlords known as aghas and others they accused of collaboration with the central government. Both the government and the PKK competed to gain the allegiance of local clans. Ordinary people suffered the most, as entire families were wiped out by one side or the other.

The government resorted to depopulating villages accused of supporting the PKK, with over 3500 villages emptied by 1999. The numbers of displaced persons ran into the millions.
A ceasefire was declared by the PKK after the 1999 capture of its leader Abdullah Ocalan. It vowed that in the future it would only use peaceful methods and work within the political system to achieve its aims. There was an air of optimism as the AKP, which ran on a platform of reform, swept into power in 2002. In the post-9/11 environment, however, the PKK were seen as terrorists not befitting of a role in government. In 2004, the PKK resumed attacks.

The conflict between the central government and Kurdish periphery has intensified ever since. In October 2011 the PKK killed 26 soldiers in the worst attack on the security forces since the early 1990's. President Gul vowed "vengeance," joining Erdogan, who earlier that year had promised to "annihilate" the PKK.

Today the situation is highly volatile. The predicament of the center and the plight of the periphery have left the nation at an impasse. Draconian measures enacted by the state are met by acts of subterfuge by the desperate periphery. This status quo must change.

The majority of Kurds wish nothing more than to live with honor and dignity in peace and prosperity. They demand equal rights and the opportunities to play a full role in their respective countries. On its website, the Iranian PKK offshoot, Kurdish Party for Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), stated that it is advocating for autonomy within Iran, including the "establishment of a constitution on the basis of the international templates for human rights." The acting leader of the PKK declared in 2010 that his organization "would disarm for Kurdish rights in Turkey."

The intractable conflict with the Kurds, the results of which can be seen in the tragic deaths of the smugglers and over 40,000 people over the past 30 years, can only be truly solved by extending to all full rights of identity, expression, and participation in the democratic system.

Turkey has emerged as a military and economic powerhouse in the region with a distinct voice of its own. Erdogan was the first head of Muslim government to visit Somalia and see the anguish of the starving Somalis. He took the lead on Tunisia and Syria to defend the rights of the civilians being slaughtered by their own heartless rulers. Turkey is relishing the role as a frontline player on the international stage with the big boys of the West. It is beginning to appreciate the fact that it is better to be an honored guest in Africa and Asia than an unwelcome one in Europe.

But there is a dichotomy at the heart of Turkey's newly forming identity. It cannot be a champion of human rights and compassion abroad while ignoring them at home. The presence of the Kurds is thus a challenge to Turkey as it is to every nation in which they find themselves.

This article was written by Akbar Ahmed and Aja Anderson. Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. His forthcoming study is called Journey into Tribal Islam: America and the Conflict between Center and Periphery in the Muslim World, to be published by Brookings Press.

Aja Anderson is Program Coordinator and Chief of Staff for the Ibn Khaldun Chair at American University's School of International Service and is assisting Professor Ahmed on his forthcoming study.