Every now and then I’m reminded of the baby naming laws in various countries, and then I spend the next half an hour looking up all the absurd things parents tried to name their offspring. It makes a good distraction from almost anything. Try it! It’s fun. This article alone occupied me for five of the minutes I had allotted for writing this post, and on top of that I now know that someone in Denmark attempted to call their kid “Anus.” Knowledge is power.
I came across an article the other day about a couple in Turkey who were recently granted the right to name their daughter “Kürdistan” by the Turkish Supreme Court. “Kürdistan” is a weird name, I guess, but it’s not exactly “Sex Fruit.” Still, I’m surprised by the verdict. Bordering on amazed.
The Kurdish Issue and the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party) are two of those touchy subjects which populate top spots on “what not to talk about when visiting country xyz” lists. In fact, I’m pretty sure it was from just such a guidebook admonishment that I first learned about Turkey’s Kurdish population. Forbidden Fruit syndrome kicked in, and in my first weeks and months in Turkey I found myself searching endlessly for what seemed like safe enough opportunities to quiz people about Kurdistan.
by jan Sefti
First, I learned that it’s not actually Kurdistan, and a lot of people, notably government people, don’t like it being called that. When Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region last November and actually referred to the area by its official name, it was considered a historic moment. The political implications of allowing the word “Kurdistan” to be bandied about have been making the government uneasy for decades, and severe restrictions are still applied to the use of the Kurdish language as well as transliterations into Turkish.
Second, I learned that Kurds are not overly popular in much of Turkey. Not-so-subtle anti-Kurdish sentiment is, well, if not “everywhere” then at least not exactly uncommon at all. One afternoon, the subject came up during an afternoon English Speaking Club I was running in Istanbul. “Kurds are lazy and do not pay tax,” one student insisted. “They kill our young people, kill our soldiers, always fighting and killing. The PKK is just terrorists. Here in the west, we pay for them to live and they make crime everywhere. In Turkey we think they are bad people.” The other students scrambled to correct him. They wanted me to understand that not everybody thought that way. And it’s true, not everybody does. Which brings me to my next point, that…
…third, I learned that to frame it as a racial issue is to miss the point. This is where things get murky.
Turkey is founded on Atatürk’s forward-looking, Western, secular principles, and its various Kemalist leaders have spent the better part of the last century zealously guarding those principles against any and all perceived attacks. Turkey is a proud nation, and in many ways rightly so. National, political, and cultural identity are all but inseperable; Turkey has never aspired to become a melting pot. While the now largely abandoned call for Kurdish statehood posed an obvious threat to the country’s hard-won borders, the Kurdish people’s claim to a unified cultural identity represents a more subtle risk, this time to the very idea of what it means to be Turkish.
Although Turkey’s desire to preserve Atatürk’s vision for its future is understandable, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that ensuring it at the expense of Kurdish freedom, dignity, and identity is morally indefensible. The bloody history of the PKK (recognized as a terrorist group by NATO, the United States, and the EU) adds another troubling layer to the picture. Now, more than 30 years after its formation, the PKK is synonymous with the Kurdish people in many minds and any mention of “Kurdistan” conjures up images of Turkish flags draped over coffins.
But even Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the PKK, has been calling for an end to the bloodshed since 1999. Kurds in Turkey have recognized that dialogue, not guerrilla warfare, is the way forward.
In his book Crescent and Star, Stephen Kinzer says that Turkey is on the brink of a newfound era of self-realization:
The brightest scenario may also be the most likely. In it, Turkey’s leaders break out of their denial and recognize how fully their people deserve democracy. Political parties and the military command, renewed and invigorated by generational change, join to lead the race toward modernity. They break away from their fears and commit themselves to building a country in which every citizen is free to speak, write, worship, and organize. In a land of such magnificent diversity, this freedom liberates enormous energy. Religious believers, Kurdish nationalists, human-rights advocates and freethinkers of every stripe unite to demand that Europe open its doors to such a richly colorful nation.
Today, many people in Turkey, Kurds and Turks alike, agree with his assessment and share his hopes for the country’s future.