Many Kurds appear unsure about what their attitude should be towards the protests against Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and his government. Prominent amongst the protesters are Kemalists from the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and nationalists of the National People’s Party (MHP)–two political groupings that historically played a large role in suppressing Kurdish identity and rights in Turkey. During his tenure in power Mr. Erdogan also went further than previous Turkish leaders in recognizing the Kurdish reality, even making an agreement of sorts with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that saw PKK fighters withdraw from Turkey these past weeks in return for promised democratic reforms. Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) also has good relations and cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.
As a result, some Kurds react to the ongoing protests against Mr. Erdogan with indifference or even antipathy. “I never heard these Kemalists speaking up or protesting when Kurds were being beaten by police” is one refrain we hear. Others worry that the protests may subvert the peace agreement with the PKK, leading the Turkish government astray before it fulfills its side of the deal. Especially if Kurds are seen siding with the protestors in force and protesting as Kurds, the government may turn against them again, as Kurds.
Some Kurds react to the ongoing protests against Mr. Erdogan with indifference or even antipathy.
Despite this, the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) expressed its support for the protests. One of the most prominent members of parliament involved in the protests is Sirri Sureyya Onder, a BDP MP representing a district of Istanbul. Many of the protestors on the streets in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other cities are ethnic Kurds as well.
These people are right to support the protests. Just as Turkish democracy could never be truly healthy as long it suppresses ethnic minorities like the Kurds, Kurds will never be free under a government that ignores the rights of other groups. The protests that started in Gezi Park are no more about trees in a park than the civil rights movement in America was about one woman’s right to sit where she wanted on a bus in Alabama. These protests are about a dictatorship of one elected party, a party that rules more and more on behalf of only “its people.” It’s about a system of government in Turkey that is too centralized, to the point that the Prime Minister makes decisions about trees in a park, bridges across the Bosporous, statues on the Armenian border and every little thing municipalities, districts and even private individuals can and can not do. As is, such a government will never deliver the democracy package Kurds need and deserve. The fighters who withdrew to the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan will be betrayed when the Sultan in Ankara refuses to decentralize the political system or concede any substantive power.
The fighters who withdrew to the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan will be betrayed when the Sultan in Ankara refuses to decentralize the political system or concede any substantive power.
Kurds like anyone else are also not solely defined by their ethnicity. They have many identities. Some are religious and some are secular. Some are democrats and some not so much. They can be workers, businesspeople, students, socialists, Islamists and liberals. I know a good many secular, liberal Kurdish democrats who spent the last two weeks protesting side by side with their secular, liberal, democratic Turkish compatriots–people who supported the Kurdish struggle for rights in Turkey even though they are not Kurdish. So when the AKP reneged on the tacit bargain it made with the Kemalists some ten years ago–that they would leave secular Turks to live their lives in peace without religiously-inspired harassment–many Kurds saw basic principles of liberalism, democracy and good governance under threat and rallied to the protests.
The issue is thus one of principles and solidarity. The logic should not be hard to understand. One need only think of a famous speech by the German pastor Martin Niemöller to realize where Kurds should stand on this issue and others like it:
First they came for the socialists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since August 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press).