The Arab Spring and the Kurdish Awakening

“The real fear is not that Syria is dividing. It’s that the Kurds are uniting,” Aliza Marcus — the author of the best book published so far on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), “Blood and Belief: The PKK and the Kurdish Fight for Independence” — argues in a recent article about Kurds in the Middle East. There are approximately 35 million Kurds in the Middle East. Although exact numbers are often disputed it is widely accepted that at least half of the total Kurdish population — about 15 to 20 million — live in Turkey. The Palestinians may be the most often proclaimed “nation without a state.” The Kurds, on the other hand, who outnumber the Palestinians by a factor of five, are the most populous such nation in the Middle East.

The concept of a nation-state is of course a Western invention, with relatively recent roots in the 18th and 19th centuries. France, with its famous revolution in 1789, is often considered the textbook example of this European trajectory for nation-state formation. If France is par-excellence the most illustrative European example of a strong nation-state, there is little doubt that the France of the Muslim world is Turkey. The Kemalist revolution modeled itself after the French Republic’s anti-clerical laicism and assimilative nationalism. Although France is today far more advanced than Turkey in terms of its democratic evolution, an aversion to religiosity, minority rights, multiculturalism and federalism became common characteristics of both France and Turkey.

The Kurdish challenge to the Kemalist project traumatized Turkey from the early days and continues to do so today. From the Sheik Said uprising in 1925 to the PKK’s current struggle for self-rule, the Kurdish question remains the Achilles heel of the Turkish nation-state. Assimilation was probably an easier proposition in the 19th and early 20th century. It became increasingly difficult to assimilate a minority with growing ethnic and political consciousness in the last few decades.

Today, Turks are facing an increasingly nationalist Kurdish generation with growing expectations and aspirations. And Turks know the power of nationalism. They lost their empire because of nationalist minorities determined to establish their own nation-states. Ethnic demands for self-determination, supported by President Woodrow Wilson in the United States, became the nightmare of the crumbling imperial center. It is therefore not surprising that today Ankara is equally alarmed about prospects of Kurdish nationalism and a greater Kurdistan emerging in the region. It is very likely that in the wake of the dissolution of the Assad regime a semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government will be formed in northern Syria. With the presence of the Kurdish regional government in Iraq, a newly formed Kurdish region in Syria, and Iran’s own Kurdish region, soon Turkey will see nothing but Kurdish entities at its southern borders.

As Aliza Marcus argues in the foreign policy journal The National Interest: “Ankara, for one, has long worried that what happens to Kurdish minorities in Iraq, Syria or Iran would strengthen Turkish Kurdish separatists or legitimize international calls for Turkey to grant Kurds national rights. Turkey is right to be concerned. After Saddam Hussein was toppled in 2003, the creation of a Kurdish federation in northern Iraq reinvigorated nationalist demands by Turkish Kurds, who demanded no less for themselves. (These demands were one reason why in 2005 the PKK abandoned the cease-fire it had called after PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was captured and imprisoned by Turkey in 1999.) If Syrian Kurds win autonomy, Turkey’s reasons for denying its Kurdish minority the same will sound specious. After all, it’s hard to keep claiming that Kurds don’t know what they want — or don’t really want what they say — if almost one-half of the region’s Kurds govern themselves.”

It is time for Turkey to realize that the Arab Spring at its core is a movement for democratic self determination. Such sweeping change in the region was bound to have a major impact on Kurdish demands for self-determination. The emergence of an independent greater Kurdistan is the dream of millions of nationalist Kurds. The only hope for stemming this growing tide in Turkey is to co-opt the Kurds in the framework of federalism and autonomy. This may be a bridge too far for a country that constantly fears dismemberment due to its vivid memories of Ottoman disintegration. Turkey has already given up strict assimilation. But it has yet to adopt genuine multiculturalism. Nothing less than serious steps towards democratization, multiculturalism and federalism will co-opt the Kurdish tide.