Erdogan is exploiting Turkey’s divisions

Because ethnic and religious identities have for decades been suppressed, opening that can of worms could lead to serious civil strife.

Inflammable cleavages. Kurdish people wave a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) flag in front of a police water cannon vehicle in Diyarbakir. (AFP)


2017/07/23 Issue: 116 Page: 18


The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr



Meeting with Kurdish residents in eastern Turkey, there was a definite feeling that discrimination is on the rise. Many Kurdish politicians must sign at police stations weekly. The infrastructure boom that reflects life under the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) elsewhere in Turkey is absent. As the results of recent elections and a referendum in April illustrate, Turkey is very much a country divided.

The very creation of Turkey almost a century ago depended on the conformity of all members of society. Those from different ethnic backgrounds were forced to accept the common Turkish identity. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered from 1916-18 in large part because they did not fit the mould of being “Turkish.” The children of Armenian and Assyrian families were kid­napped, adopted and raised as Sunni Turks, never to know their real heritage.

The reality, of course, is that Turkey is a diverse country of Turks, Assyrians, Kurds, Alevis, Alawites, Laz, Greeks and others who have coexisted uneasily for decades under the immense shadow of the state.

What has become clear in recent years is that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is exploit­ing long-standing cleavages within Turkish society for his benefit. Erdogan is using long-standing fears rooted in the past to divide and conquer so as to ensure his political reign continues.

As recently as 2013, Ankara embarked on a mission to return property taken by the state decades ago to religious minority groups as part of its “democratisa­tion package” that would bring it closer to the European Union. Today, however, some churches and other places of worship are being put up for sale by private owners, creating conflict between minorities and mainstream Sunni Turks.

The decades-old war with Kurdish separatists came within a whisker of ending in 2013 but when the Kurdish-rooted Peo­ples’ Democratic Party (HDP) entered parliament and took away the AKP’s parliamentary majority, Turkey went back to war with the Kurds.

The HDP was formed as a political party in 2012 on a platform to represent all mem­bers of society. It appealed to those on the fringes: Women, religious and ethnic minorities, and the poor. To a degree, it succeeded. Its MPs Erol Dora and Garo Paylan, for example, are of Assyrian and Armenian back­ground, respectively.

The HDP challenged the very archaic concept that Turkey was built on in the 1920s — that there are people in Turkey who do not follow the standard political convention but do, critically, want political representation.

As unfortunate as it is, the reason Turkish society tolerates the persecution of the HDP and other opposition party members is because the deep-seated notion that Turkey is a homogeneous country remains strong. It is a comfort blanket to many unable or unwilling to look into the annals of history and recognise that their country was built on the mass murder of thousands.

Pro-government media help perpetuate this sentiment: At 7pm every day, the headline news invariably depicts families of soldiers killed by Kurdistan Work­ers’ Party (PKK) separatists wailing over their sons’ coffins. The war on the PKK has never been as popular among main­stream Turks and Erdogan knows this well.

The president has managed to implant in people’s minds the idea that criticism of himself is tantamount to criticism of the Turkish state — a charge that carries a lengthy prison sentence. A wave of recent court cases clearly points to this.

There is nothing innovative in pitching one enemy against another to advance one’s own goals but what is dangerous in Turkey’s case is that because individual ethnic and religious identities have for decades been suppressed by both the state and society, opening that can of worms could lead to serious civil strife.

Look at Syria: Before the war, it was viewed as an “oasis of peace” in a deeply troubled neighbour­hood. It took a very short time for its various ethnic and religious communities to become sectari­anised and now there are perhaps half a million dead. The Syrian regime pitted Syrian against Syrian to stay in power. Let us hope the Turkish authorities have not set a similar train in motion.


Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).


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