The Root Causes of Turkey’s Kurdish Challenge

February 9, 2010

The Turkish military and Turkey’s Kemalist establishment have a tendency to see the root causes of the Kurdish question in two major sources, social and economic problems in southeastern Anatolia and external dynamics.

This approach presents a number of problems. Perhaps the most important one is the fact that it misses the “identity” dimension of the problem and all the faults committed by the Turkish Republic in repressing this Kurdish identity. The root causes of terrorism and violent radicalism are extremely complex, multifaceted and often intertwined. They resist simplification and easy categorization. It should therefore be stated from the outset that there is no unique panacea or simple formula to “end” terrorism and radicalism. In the absence of “one size fits all” measures, only a long-term and multipronged strategy aimed at strengthening the institutional underpinnings of development, democracy and security will achieve effective results.

Turkey can indeed learn from the debate taking place in the Western world about radical Islamist terrorism promoted by al-Qaeda. A polarized debate about the underlying causes of violent extremism in the Islamic world is taking place among Western policymakers, analysts and academics since the cataclysmic terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Broadly speaking, two major views have emerged. In one camp, the center-left maintains that the struggle against root causes of terrorism should prioritize social and economic development. Inspired by modernization theory, this camp sees social and economic development as the precursor of democratization. It also considers educational and economic empowerment as the best antidote against radicalization and terrorist recruitment. Since poverty and ignorance often provide a breeding ground for radicalism, socio-economic development appears compelling as an effective antidote.

This correlation between socio-economic deprivation and terrorism is strongly rejected by a second group of analysts. Their logic is simple: Most terrorists are neither poor nor uneducated. In fact, the majority seem to come from middle-class, ordinary backgrounds. Terrorism is therefore perceived almost exclusively as a “security threat” with no discernible socio-economic roots or links with deprivation. Not surprisingly, this second group defines the fight against Islamist terrorism with a single-minded focus on state actors, jihadist ideology, counter-intelligence and coercive action.

Both camps make valid points. Yet, they also share important shortcomings. Terrorism has multiple causes. Attempts to create a single typology of terrorism or generic profiles for terrorists are often misleading. An ideal breeding ground for recruitment emerges when various social, cultural, economic, political and psychological factors come together. Breeding grounds for radicalism and terrorist recruitment emerge not necessarily under conditions of abject poverty and deprivation but rather when negative social, economic and political trends converge. In fact, the societal support for radicalism gains greater relevance. This is certainly the case with the majority of Turkey’s Kurds who seems to sympathize with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its political representatives. Absolute deprivation is not the real challenge. The more challenging question is relative deprivation: the absence of opportunities relative to expectations.

It is clear that in today’s Turkey there is a gap between the expectations of Kurds, in terms of their political, cultural and economic aspirations, and the realities on the ground. This is clearly relevant for the conditions of today: In the aftermath of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) democratic opening, the expectations of the Kurdish citizens were significantly raised. Yet, at the end of the day, when the Democratic Society Party (DTP) was banned and many Kurdish officials were arrested, the actual events on the ground created a huge gap between the reality and Kurdish expectations. In that sense, the absence of constitutional liberties brings a “political” dimension to relative deprivation. In other words, there is a growing gap between Kurdish political and cultural aspirations and realities of the Turkish political system. Bridging this gap between reality and expectation is crucial if Turkey is to peacefully solve its Kurdish problem and tackle the root causes of terrorism more rationally. Yes, socio-economic problems matter. The growing number of unemployed Kurdish youth is particularly alarming. But repressive political systems exacerbate the challenge. This is why the Kemalist establishment — from the military to the judiciary — should do their best to support the democratic opening instead of trying to find ways to stifle it. Only then can the Kurds put a distance between themselves and terrorism.