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Veysi Dag

Why does the Turkish government continue to sub-humanize millions of Kurds?

This image was taken by the author during the Film Festival of Berlin in 2019. The footage displays how the Turkish soldiers arrest Kurdish civilians.

On 13 November 2022, a terrorist attack was carried out in Taksim Square in Istanbul – a busy hotspot for Tukey’s secular citizens and tourists – killing at least six civilians and injuring over 80 others. The Turkish authorities imposed censorship on the media reporting on this explosion and restricted social media platforms. No groups have yet taken responsibility for this terrorist attack. However, the Turkish Interior minister Süleyman Soylu and other prominent members of the Turkish government claimed that the Turkish security forces arrested an alleged female terrorist identified by Turkish authorities as a Syrian-Arab citizen, named Ahlam Albashir. They claimed that she was trained and sent by a Kurdish group such as the anti-ISIS Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) to Turkey from Afrin, a Kurdish town that was invaded by the Turkish military and pro-Turkish Islamic terrorist groups in 2018 and since then has been ruled by the Turkish forces and Islamic terrorists. In other words, the Turkish government blamed the Kurds for the Istanbul terrorist attack before 24 hours had elapsed from this attack. Immediately, the Kurdish groups not only denied any links with the allegedly identified bomber and her terrorist attack, but also condemned it and offered their condolences to victims’ families. Nevertheless, the Turkish media ran front-page headlines dramatizing the stories of victims of the terrorist attack in connection with the Kurds. In this way, the Turkish media and institutions promoted a high degree of hostility and racism against the Kurdish population. Ethnic Turkish individuals started to express their abhorrence and contempt towards the Kurds on social media platforms. Why does the Turkish government promote such an extreme degree of hostility and racism (welcomed by the Turkish media and ethnic Turkish citizens) against the Kurdish population?

This image was taken by the author during a cultural event of the Kurdish refugees in Rome in 2019. This footage is from a film of how the Turkish army has destroyed the Kurdish town Nusaybin in 2015 and covered the ruined town with the Turkish flags while the Turkish armed forced take a photo in front of the ruined neighborhood.

There is certainly a political calculus behind this attack, underpinning the periodical agendas of ultranationalist and Islamist Turkish government actors in relation to domestic politics (the upcoming election next year in Turkey, criminalizing the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and legitimizing the deportation of Syrian refugees) or Turkish foreign policy (gaining legitimacy for another Turkish invasion in the Kurdish region in Syria, obtaining concessions from the Biden administration for Turkish weapon purchases, and abandoning the Kurdish self-administration in Northern Syria, as well as presenting the Turkish state as a “victim” of terrorism). However, I argue that the Turkish smear campaign displaying hatred and extreme ethnic racism against the Kurdish population has cultural, historical, political, and social dimensions that, in my opinion, the Turkish public has internalized. This hostile and anti-Kurdish approach in Turkey is an indication that the Kurdish population has been subhumanized by the Turkish state since its foundation and this Turkish perception of the Kurds is ongoing. Put bluntly, the Kurds were not and are not regarded as equal citizens in Turkey, but rather as subhuman and a threat to the homogenized Turkish identity consisting of aggressive nationalism and more recently accompanied by radical Islamism.

Kurds have been living in Turkey under repressive conditions created by both Kemalist and Islamic regimes since the foundation of the Turkish Republic. These conditions are rooted in the 1920s when, after signing the Treaty of Lausanne that sealed the survival of the Turkish state, the Turkish elites under the leadership of Atatürk refused to recognize the cultural, political and social rights of the Kurds. Subsequently, terms such as “Kurdish” and “Kurdistan” were not only outlawed but also became subject to criminal prosecution when the Turkish leadership waived the Article 39 of the Treaty of Lausanne, which had granted the Kurds freedom and language rights. Since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the First World War, Kurds in Turkey were reduced to living below the status of standardized human beings because of their differing ethnic and social identities and realities, which challenge the homogenized nationalistic and Islamic Turkification.

This perception of the Kurds in Turkey recalls the discourses and practices of state institutions and in various situations such as civil conflict, slavery, colonial policies and ethnic cleansing that aim to dehumanize subordinated groups. These acts of classification, exclusion and dehumanization are, for example, facets of anti-modern regimes like fascism, most popularly evidenced by the eugenics-based ideology of the Nazi and Mussolini regimes. These subhuman descriptors aim to degrade culturally, racially, religiously different communities as dehumanized, “inferior,” “feeble-minded” and subordinate minorities. Such designations help legitimize mistreatment, abuse, and racism. The Kurdish population in Turkey shares the destiny of these “subhumanized” groups as their culture, heritage, tradition and language are demolished, and they are othered at the expense of elevating the superiority of Turkish society. For instance, the Turkish interior Minister Süleyman Soylu recently confirmed this when he responded to an inquiry about why Kurdish music has been banned by local authorities. He responded that the ban on the Kurdish music serves to protect the lifestyles of Turkish citizens. Thus, the Kurds are ethnicized by ruling Turkish elites and institutions, which directly generate the racial and ethnic hierarchical power dynamics that exclude subordinated Kurdish society from institutional structures and “Turkish” public life.

To justify the elimination of the Kurds from Turkish life, the social, political, and institutional structures of the Turkish state immediately label the Kurds as “terrorists,” and “criminals”, equating them with wild animals. Being identified as a “terrorist” at the hands of the Turkish state and public indicates the extent to which the Kurds are narrated as “dangerous” elements in Turkey. To materialize this policy, there are many examples depicting the Kurds, their traditions, culture and ways of living in the Turkish media and films like Valley of the Wolves (Kurtlar Vadisi- 2003), or Warrior (Savaşçi- 2017), as well as in popular Turkish culture. The Kurds are visualized with contempt and hostility when they are depicted as bandits, separatists, “vatansiz- heimatlos” and terrorists who behave in an “uncivilized,” and “wild” manner. The Kurdish visualization – constructed and boosted by nationalist state policies and institutions and welcomed by the Turkish public –presents the Turkish view of the Kurds as subhuman entities.

 

This image was taken by the author during the Kurdish Film Festival in Berlin in 2019. The footage is from a Kurdidsh film displaying how the Turkish military attacks a Kurdish town.

These discourses and power resources in Turkey leaves Kurds unprotected. This reality, for instance, has grave consequences for the Kurdish population, which finds itself marginalized by the Turkish state’s institutional structures and subjected to permanent persecution and criminalization. The Kurds do not have a “normal” and “dignified” life in Turkey and share the experience of the cruelty of the Turkish state, which Kurds describe as barbaric par excellence. Many Kurds, for example, have expressed in the twitter space that the Turkish state terrorizes Kurdish society and constructs a miserable life following their discrimination, subhumanization and injustice. They understand their own Kurdish reality from the Turkish perspective as hostile and describe their conditions in Turkey as “marginal” within the realm of Turkification as their Kurdish culture and identity and language are permanently subjected to contempt, xenophobia, hostility, criminalization and elimination by Turkey’s cultural, social, and political institutions. Consequently, the Kurds criticize the Turkish state, media and public for its dehumanizing policy, which denies Kurdish reality and aims to alienate Kurds from their own culture.

Although the racist and ani-Kurdish policy in Turkey is not a new phenomenon, the efforts of the current interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, in cooperation with ultranationalists from Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), to insist on the connection of the Kurdish groups with the terrorist attack in Istanbul without any meaningful facts and evidence implies a looming dark phase. This was initiated by dark forces like the coalition of the former Turkish Prime Minister of Tansu Ciler, Mehmet Agar and Dogan Güres at the start of the 1990s, which used all possible outlawed means and extrajudicial methods to murder over 15 thousand Kurdish civilians. The dark side of this policy not only includes the promotion and continuation of the hostile and anti-Kurdish approach as laid out above or the elimination of limited prospects for peace and reconciliation but also involves a violent campaign that could intensify the Turkish repression and lead to genocidal practices by the Turkish state against Kurdish civilians. The consequence of a such a violent process will not only further harm the Kurdish population but also the Turkish population, and most importantly, the basis for reconciliation and a peaceful life that may not be possible any time soon for the next few generations in Turkey.

About the Author
The author is a research fellow at the Political Science Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, working on the governance structures of the Kurdish diaspora community in Berlin and the structures of the Kurdistani Jews in Jerusalem.
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