Turkey is going through a crisis, not only political in nature but moral as well. Once on a trajectory toward democracy, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s consolidation of control over the last decade has reversed what gains Turks had already made in terms of press freedom and separation of power. Erdoğan has become Turkey’s Vladimir Putin.
Even as Erdoğan has rolled back Turks’ freedoms, Kurds have become more assertive. While Erdoğan condemns the Kurdistan Workers Party (better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK) as a terrorist group, the group does not meet the terrorist criteria based on Erdoğan’s own embrace of Hamas. Certainly, some PKK off-shoots still conduct terrorism, but the PKK itself is more an insurgency. It fights the Turkish army, not civilians, and increasingly holds and controls territory.
Without doubt, the PKK remains more popular than the Turkish government in Diyarbakir, much of southeastern Turkey, and among the Kurdish population in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara. While the PKK’s past terrorism was a mistake—and delegitimized the group in the West and convinced not only the United States but also the European Union to designate it—the Kurds’ shift to non-violent political protest is both welcome and effective.
A massive hunger strike among Kurdish prisoners in more than 60 Turkish prisons is now at day 54. Even the Turkish press acknowledges the pressure the Kurdish prisoners have exerted on the Erdoğan regime. The Turkish government has banned public rallies in Diyarbakir and other cities in sympathy with the hunger strikers. While Erdoğan has dismissed the starving prisoners “as just a show,” the deaths that will likely occur in the next few weeks will undermine the legitimacy of Erdoğan’s strategy. The growing unrest and discord should also raise questions about the wisdom of choosing Turkey as the host of the Summer Olympics.
As for the United States, regardless of the election outcome, it may be time to re-evaluate why the United States categorizes the PKK as a terrorist group rather than an insurgency. Perhaps the United States will choose to maintain its terror designation but, if this is the case, it should explain why. Regardless, the Kurdish hunger strike and the Kurds’ recent turn toward non-violent resistance should lead Washington to reconsider its policy and outreach to Turkey’s Kurds.