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Kurdistan - Turkey


Approximately 20 percent of Turkey's population consists of ethnic and religious minorities. Turkey's Constitution provides a single nationality designation for all Turks and thus does not recognize ethnic groups as national, racial, or ethnic minorities. Therefore a true census has been historically unavailable. Citizens of Kurdish origin have constituted a large ethnic and linguistic group in Turkey. Millions of the country's citizens identified themselves as Kurds and spoke Kurdish. Kurds who publicly or politically asserted their Kurdish identity or publicly espoused using Kurdish in the public domain risked public censure, harassment, or prosecution. However, Kurds who were long-term residents in industrialized cities in the west were in many cases assimilated into the political, economic, and social life of the nation, and much intermarriage has occurred over many generations. Kurds migrating westward (including those displaced by the conflict in the southeast) brought with them their culture and village identity, but often little education and few skills.

The Kurds have been the minority group with the greatest impact on Turkish national politics. The size of the Kurdish population led to a perception as the only minority that could pose a threat to Turkish national unity. Indeed, there was an active Kurdish separatist movement in southeastern Turkey since 1984. In Turkey, the Kurdish national movement dates back to at least 1925, when Atatürk ruthlessly suppressed a revolt against the new Turkish republic motivated by the regime's renunciation of Muslim religious practices. Uprisings in the 1930s and 1940s prompted by opposition to the modernizing and centralizing reforms of the Turkish government in Ankara also were also put down by the Turkish army. Kurdish opposition to the government's emphasis on linguistic homogeneity was spurred in the 1960s and 1970s by agitation in neighboring Iran and Iraq on behalf of an autonomous Kurdistan, to include Kurds from Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The majority of Kurds, however, continued to participate in Turkish political parties and to assimilate into Turkish society.

Since the 1930s, Kurds have resisted government efforts to assimilate them forcibly, including an official ban on speaking or writing Kurdish. Since 1984 Kurdish resistance to Turkification encompassed both a peaceful political struggle to obtain basic civil rights for Kurds within Turkey and a violent armed struggle to obtain a separate Kurdish state. The leaders of the nonviolent struggle have worked within the political system for the recognition of Kurdish cultural rights, including the right to speak Kurdish in public and to read, write, and publish in Kurdish. Prior to 1991, these Kurds operated within the national political parties, in particular the SHP, the party most sympathetic to their goal of full equality for all citizens of Turkey. President Özal's 1991 call for a more liberal policy toward Kurds and for the repeal of the ban on speaking Kurdish raised the hopes of Kurdish politicians. Following the parliamentary elections of October 1991, several Kurdish deputies, including Hatip Dicle, Feridun Yazar, and Leyla Zayna, formed the HEP, a party with the explicit goal of campaigning within the National Assembly for laws guaranteeing equal rights for the Kurds.

The government's main strategy for assimilating the Kurds had been language suppression. Yet, despite official attempts over several decades to spread Turkish among them, most Kurds have retained their native language. In Turkey two major Kurdish dialects are spoken: Kermanji, which is used by the majority of Kurds, as well as by some of the Kurds in Iran and Iraq; and Zaza, spoken mainly in a triangular region in southeastern Turkey between Diyarbakir, Ezurum, and Sivas, as well as in parts of Iran. Literate Kurds in Turkey have used Kermanji as the written form of Kurdish since the 17th century. However, almost all literary development of the language since 1924 has occurred outside Turkey. In 1932 Kurds in exile developed a Latin script for Kermanji, and this alphabet continued to be used in the mid-1990s.

Prior to the 1980 military coup, government authorities considered Kurdish one of the unnamed languages banned by law. Use of Kurdish was strictly prohibited in all government institutions, including the courts and schools. Nevertheless, during the 1960s and again in the mid-1970s, Kurdish intellectuals attempted to start Kurdish-language journals and newspapers. None of these publications survived for more than a few issues because state prosecutors inevitably found legal pretexts for closing them down. Between 1980 and 1983, the military government passed several laws expressly banning the use of Kurdish and the possession of written or audio materials in Kurdish.

By 2010 there was a growing division within the Kurdish population and growing fears among a vocal but radical minority that a successful National Unity Project could spell the end of the PKK. The argument that certain elements of the Kurdish population will always oppose a government opening toward the Kurds as a threat to the PKK is becoming more widespread in Turkey as the National Unity Project is increasingly perceived as dividing instead of uniting.

Most Kurds, were more hopeful and less radical than they were in the 1990s, but an increasingly vocal minority had become even more radicalized due to the National Unity Project and other perceived threats to the PKK. An estimated approximately 25 to 30 percent of Turkey's Kurdish population considers Ocalan to be its political leader and is open to violent mobilization. The more moderate 70 percent is not prepared to counter-demonstrate because, by nature, they are not people prone to political mobilization.

Most of the radicalization is among Kurdish youth who have no particular political goal and are frustrated with what they view as a hopeless situation. The youth bulge suggests that radicalization will continue: 48 percent of the population of Diyarbakir is under the age of 19. Around 40 percent of Turkey's Kurds are young and increasingly politicized partly because of their embrace of technology, such as the internet. This population is "like a treasury" of recruits for the PKK. The older generation of Kurds - those now middle aged - are the last generation which can act as a bridge between the state and the PKK. The young generation, should be called the "separatist generation" due to their radical political views.

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