Kurds, Riots and Islamic State: three reasons Turkey is a hot mess

Recent riots across Turkey and politics surrounding the fight against Islamic State shed a light on an age-old argument between the Turkish people and the Kurdish minority.


What’s the story?

Turkish nationalists have been rioting and ransacking the buildings of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The violence comes in retaliation to a group of Kurdish terrorists, the PKK, who recently carried out several attacks against Turkish soldiers and police. The Kurds are an ethnic minority group within Turkey.

Nationalism is a strong form of patriotism (love of your country) with feelings of superiority over other countries and nationalities.


Olivia from Scenes of Reason reports from Turkey;

Mannequins lie on the floor like bodies. Riot damage in Alanya, Turkey. Turkish nationalists are attacking buildings linked to the Kurdish PPK party. The PPK have been fighting Islamic State, but that hasn't stopped the government using airstrikes against them. (C) Scenes of Reason

Local shops linked to the Kurds have been ransacked

Reporting from popular Turkish tourist destination Alanya, Olivia from SoR states “it is very clear that not only are the Turkish people patriotic (most evident from the wealth of Turkish flags on almost every shop and street corner), but a large number are seemingly intolerant in their dealings with the Kurdish people.

Even in a town like Alanya, where everyone welcomes you with open arms, three local shops and two popular restaurants have been burned to the ground because of some association with the Kurdish.

These are innocent shop owners and restaurateurs whose livelihoods have been temporarily destroyed. Not to mention the groups of tourists who were at the epicentre of this violence.”


Why is this happening?

A building on fire in Turkey. Riot damage in Alanya, Turkey. Turkish nationalists are attacking buildings linked to the Kurdish PKK party. The PKK have been fighting Islamic State, but that hasn't stopped the government using airstrikes against them. (C) Scenes of Reason

Olivia from SR witnessed riots in Turkey

The Turkish nationalists involved in the riots are being organised by supporters of a far-right political party – the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and another nationalist organisation called the Grey Wolves (Ülkücü Ocakları). Far-right politics often (but not always) involve extreme nationalism.

The Nationalist Movement Party believes that the Kurdish people are trying to split up the country.

These recent riots were provoked by attacks by the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). This rebel Kurdish group is attempting to create a Kurdish independent state within Turkey. 16 police officers were killed recently by bombs laid by the PKK.

That’s a lot of names so we’ll make it really simple: nationalist Turks are ransacking buildings of a pro-Kurdish political party, in response to attacks by a separate rebel Kurdish group.

With us so far?


Hold up – who are the Kurds again?

The Kurds or the Kurdish people originate from a region called Kurdistan.

Map of Kurdistan, areas in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran where the Kurdish people originate from

The map shows the area historically known as Kurdistan, now split between Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran

The country now known as Turkey was once part of the Ottoman or Turkish Empire.

It was massive: containing Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Israel, Jordan, Syria, and parts of North Africa and many more. Though the Ottoman/Turkish Empire was one of the largest and longest lasting empires in history by 1915 it had gone into decline.

The Empire was run as a Muslim Caliphate (a state where Islam is recognised as top law).

Kurdistan was a region within the Ottoman Empire. It covered areas which are now southeast Turkey, northern Iraq, northern Syria and western Iran.


After World War I the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne created the states of Turkey, Iraq and Syria. The creation of the new states meant that Kurdistan was now split within these countries.

Around 1/5th of Turkey’s population are Kurdish. Most of the Kurdish population still live in the southeast of Turkey; which used to be the region of Kurdistan. The Kurds were promised within the treaty that they would still be allowed to use their language. The state of Turkey became secular, meaning there is no official religion of the country.

Syria, Iraq and Iran also have Kurdish populations.



Riot damage in Alanya, Turkey. Turkish nationalists are attacking buildings linked to the Kurdish PPK party. The PPK have been fighting Islamic State, but that hasn't stopped the government using airstrikes against them. (C) Scenes of Reason

Turkish Riots: Over the years the Kurds claim to have been oppressed

Over the years the Kurds have accused the Turks of oppressing them. In 1930 the Turkish Minister of Justice is reported to have said “The Turk is the only lord, the only master of this country. Those who are not of pure Turkish origin will have only one right in Turkey: the right to be servants and slaves.”

The Kurdistan Tribune describes how the Turkish constitution forces citizens to protect the “indivisible integrity” of the country. This means “that the whole of the country should be kept as a single Turkish nation with no separatist inclinations”. To achieve this, the constitution rules that “everyone bound to the Turkish state through the bond of citizenship is a Turk” (Turkey 21)”. This attempt to “Turkify the population” restricts the Kurdish culture by forcing Kurds to identify as Turkish. It’s also illegal to give a child a Kurdish name.

To avoid groups like the Kurds being segregated in one area (which potentially could lead to rebellion) the Turks moved and deported many Kurds to non-Kurdish areas. Cultural Survival reports the deportation and killing of 1.5 million Kurds in the years between 1925 and 1939.

Image of a woman over a dead child in the Armenian genocide

Like the Armenian Genocide, the Turkish authorities deported thousands of Kurds

This was similar to the 1915 Armenian Genocide. Turkish rulers killed of over 1 million Armenians. Armenia, like Kurdistan, was once part of the Ottoman Empire. Armenians were also treated like second class citizens by their Turkish rulers. The terrible irony is that the Kurds took part in the Armenian genocide, only to find themselves the victims of similar oppression later.

Publications in the Kurdish language were shut down in the 1960 and after 1980 the language was banned in government offices. Until 1991 it was illegal to broadcast in any language other than Turkish, unless it was the language of a country which Turkey had diplomatic relations with. This new law affected the Kurds the most as the Kurdish language is not the official language of any country.


Leyla Zana, Kurdish MP in Turkey

Leyla Zana, Turkeys first female MP is Kurdish.

Kurdish is still banned in parliament. Turkey’s first female MP Leyla Zana caused outrage when she spoke in Kurdish when being sworn in as an MP. “I have completed this formality under duress. I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people”. The Nobel Peace Prize nominee was given a 10 year jail sentence in 2012 for spreading Kurdish propaganda. The Turkish government has imprisoned many other Kurdish activists.

The Turkish government denies that they have oppressed the Kurdish minority. The fear of losing the Turkish national identity is understandable. Remember, Turkey’s ancestors ruled a mighty empire for hundreds of years.


What is the PKK?

A fighter in the PKK holds an AK-47 assault weapon. In Turkey the PKK fight for the rights of the Kurdish people

A Kurdish fighter in the PKK

From the 1960s onwards more and more people called for recognition of the Kurdish culture. Eventually the militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) formed in 1984 and began an uprising in the southeast of Turkey. The rebel group wants a Kurdish independent state in the area which use to be Kurdistan. It’s estimated that 40,000 people have died due to the conflict between the Turks and the PKK.

The Turkish government view the PKK as a terrorist group. This view is shared by the United States of America.

By 2004 things seemed to look more positive. The first Kurdish language programme was broadcast on TV and famous Kurdish activists were freed from prison.

However the PKK then resumed hostilities and violence occurred over the next couple of years. In 2009 the Turks promised to extend the rights of the Kurdish people and reduce the military presence in the Kurdish regions. A ceasefire was declared whilst both sides engaged in talks. These then broke down when 14 Turkish soldiers were killed by the PKK in 2011.

In 2013 PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan ordered fighters to stop attacking the authorities. This uneasy ceasefire lasted for two years, until 2015. The recent riots are a reaction to a PKK bomb which killed Turkish soldiers. Everything changed when the Turkish government announced airstrikes against Islamist group Islamic State.


What has Islamic State got to do with this?

Islamic State Flag. Kurdish fighters from Turkey have been assisting the fight against IS

Flag of the so-called Islamic State

Just when you thought you had the PKK sussed as “just another rebel group” it turns out that the UK, USA and the PKK share a common enemy. The PKK are taking the fight to Islamic State (IS).

Islamic State: a group of militant Muslims who were once part of rebel group Al Qaeda. IS formed as a separate group in 2006 and are reported to have around 30,000 soldiers, controlling areas in northern Iraq and northern Syria. Islamic State fighters want to create a Muslim Caliphate in the Middle East.

Kurdish PKK fighters in Iraq have been praised for fighting back against IS. Time magazine outlines how they’ve won back land from the Islamist group. “The Kurdish groups, most notably, the Peshmerga are being seen as the most effective ground troops in the battle against ISIS as Turkey sits almost idle with its well-equipped army on the border.”

The Kurdish forces are also assisting the USA in the IS fight. The New York Times details how allies of the PKK are target spotting for US drone strikes within Syria. The Kurdish group People’s Protection Units (YPG), joined the fight last year and has dealt “significant setbacks” to the Islamist group.


A demonstration against the PKK in Kadıköy, İstanbul Turkey on 22 October 2007

Friend of foe: an anti-PKK demonstration. Despite helping fight IS the PKK are seen as terrorists

Turkey doesn’t see it that way. They seem to think a terrorist is a terrorist. “How can you say that this terrorist organization is better because it’s fighting ISIS?” says Mevlut Cavusogl, the Turkish Foreign Minister. “They are the same. Terrorists are evil. They all must be eradicated.”

Under increasing international pressure Turkey announced it would be assisting the fight against Islamic State with airstrikes. Yet many see this move as a smokescreen to attack the Kurds.

Right after announcing its involvement in the IS fight Turkey started a continued bombing of Kurdish territory. The New York Times reports that “Turkey is more actively targeting Kurdish insurgents with the P.K.K. than it is fighters with the Islamic State. In Turkey’s recent roundup of 1,300 people it identified as terrorism suspects, 137 of those arrested were linked to the Islamic State and 847 were linked to the P.K.K.”

When Turkey joined the IS fight it set out a non-IS area which is to be bombarded. However this area has also been designated a non-Kurdish zone. This prevents the Kurdish forces entering the area to attack Islamic State. In agreeing to the Kurdish free zone the anti-Islamic State coalition has gained Turkey as a partner. Yet, it means losing a valuable ally on the ground – the Kurdish groups.

Food for thought: if the phrase “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is true, does that technically mean that the USA is friends with the PKK – a group they call terrorists? Work that one out if you can.


What happens next?

Refugees arrive in Turkey

Each day more refugees arrive in Turkey

Perhaps more than any other country Turkey is feeling the effects of the Islamic State situation.

Violence in Iraq and Syria has led to thousands of refugees being forced from their homes. Turkey is right next door so many of these refugees are fleeing into the country before attempting to travel to Europe. Not all of this is due to Islamic State; in Syria a civil war is raging.

The crossing to Turkey is not safe; many of the boats used are in poor condition. The Turkish coastguards have rescued 48,000 people this year. Yet, many more are being lost. This month the western media gave an outcry over an image of a young Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, washed up dead on a Turkish beach.

If they make it across refugees in Turkey are vulnerable to people smugglers. Many don’t have money or passports.

Riot damage in Alanya, Turkey. Turkish nationalists are attacking buildings linked to the Kurdish PPK party. The PPK have been fighting Islamic State, but that hasn't stopped the government using airstrikes against them. (C) Scenes of Reason

Violence against the Kurds in Turkey is likely to continue

Ahmet Davutoglu comments in the Guardian that Turkey is hosting 2 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees, spending £3.9 billion to do so. Turkey’s Prime Minister says that the West is to blame for the current crisis. Whoever is to blame, Turkey is picking up the pieces.

What is certain is that the attacks on pro-Kurdish properties are likely to continue.

Olivia spoke to several locals today, one particular account struck a chord; “a shop owner noted heavily that attacks like these do happen, and more frequently than is realised, he was very quick to state however, that on the whole Kurdish and Turkish people live in harmony, he recalled how his best friend is Kurdish ‘I’ve drank tea with my Kurdish best friend every morning, I have done so every single morning for the past seven years… today, he did not show up’.”


Kurdish Learnings: we’re all people, and we all have a culture we wish to protect.

Are the Turkish government in the wrong over their treatment of the Kurdish minority? As the Kurdish groups are helping in the fight against IS does this mean we should forget the illegal acts they’ve committed in the past?


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