On March 21, 2013, after years of armed struggle, Abdullah Öcalan—Turkey’s imprisoned Kurdish leader—accepted a peace deal proffered by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While Erdoğan will claim credit for winning an agreement to have PKK fighters withdraw, the life expectancy of the deal remains in question because Erdoğan seems unwilling to implement the confederation which Turkey’s Kurds and Öcalan’s followers demand. Such a confederation would not only require political reorganization, but would also demand fundamental reform of Turkey’s arm forces and security services to enable Kurds to serve in the bodies which once oppressed them.
So what is Turkey’s motive for pushing a peace process which the Turkish leadership is not willing to see to the end? In my Kurdistan Tribune column, I cynically suggested two theories: First was Erdoğan’s desire to win the Kurdish vote for any constitutional referendum that could propel Erdoğan into a revamped presidency, offering him even greater powers. And the second was a desire to win the 2020 Summer Olympics, the award of which to Turkey could personally net Erdoğan’s family hundreds of millions of dollars since, regardless of what debt hosting the Olympics might incur to the Turkish people, seldom is there a large project which Erdoğan cannot direct to Çalik Holdings, a company run by his son-in-law.
In a recent speech, Fethullah Gülen, the controversial Turkish religious thinker in self-imposed exile in the United States, has suggested a third goal. According to Hürriyet Daily News:
Gülen has spoken out on the peace process, calling on everyone to “find religion as the common ground…” Gülen said groups should unite over what they hold in common, “our God, our prophet, our religion,” warning people against ignoring these common points, which would lead them to “disunity.”
That sounds good but, in effect, Gülen is arguing Kurds—who tend to prioritize ethnic identity over religious identity—should embrace more Islamist thinking in order to find commonality with their oppressors. It is worth noting where we have heard such thinking before: In 1971, after the Pakistani Army lost Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), the Pakistani military and President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto sought consciously to promote religion as the identity which would unite all Pakistanis regardless of ethnic group. (Pakistan had been formed as a state for the Muslims but, in practice, ethnic identity remained as important if not more so among the Pashtun, Baluchi, and Bengalis). The result was a deliberate—and largely successful—attempt to radicalize the population.
Pakistan is a mess today largely because the Pakistani military and its component, the Inter-Services Intelligence–implemented Bhutto’s vision. It got worse: After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan was able to leverage its position as the only point of egress for the West into Afghanistan as a way to exclusively support the so-called Peshawar Seven, in effect transforming Pakistan’s religious obsession into their far more liberal neighbor, forever changing that land as well.
Make no mistake: It is long past time for Turkey to make peace with the Kurds. Let us hope that Turkey does not believe that the path to peace lies in promoting religious identity over righting historical wrongs.