The Turkish Question – part 1

The Legend of Kawa

Every year on March 21st, the Kurds of the world unite to celebrate Newroz. It’s a festival with ancient roots across the Middle East, celebrating the coming spring and the promise of renewal. For the people of Kurdistan, though, it means something more. It’s tied to their foundation myth – the ancient revolt of the Medes against the Assyrian tyrant Dehak. As origin stories go, it’s pretty grisly. The Medes were forced to surrender their children to feed a pair of serpents, which the evil spirit Ahriman had wrapped around the shoulders of the king. One day, the blacksmith Kawa was ordered to kill his daughter and give up her brain. But instead of killing her he killed a sheep, and he sent the animal’s brain in place of hers. Under cover of darkness he led her up to the Zagros Mountains, far from Dehak’s clutches. Word of his deception spread, and the rest of his fellow subjects did the same. They offered up the brains of sheep and their children escaped to the hills, where they learnt to be self-sufficient, strong and free. Finally the blacksmith led an army to storm the castle, and he cut off the tyrant’s head. The people lit enormous fires and danced in celebration, banishing the darkness from the land.

Origin myths can be powerful things. The Kurdish people trace their heritage back to the blacksmith Kawa and the Medes. They still light fires and dance in circles, celebrating a freedom that they hope to re-attain. And year after year, in southeast Turkey, militias armed by the Turkish state arrive in tanks and military jeeps and break up the celebrations. The BBC reported this year that there was “little mood to celebrate” the festival in the city of Diyarbakir, where an all-out war between the army and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) has been raging since the autumn. Government spokesmen boast of the number of “terrorists” they’ve killed, and locals mourn the relatives whose corpses they’re too scared to collect for fear of getting shot by the army’s snipers. There’s a sinister circular logic at play: any Kurds remaining in this war zone are thought to be terrorists, so everyone killed by the army is a “terrorist” by definition. According to the Kurdish press, it’s not that they’ve lost the appetite to celebrate the festival – it’s more that the celebration’s been suppressed with bullets and bombs.

We Need to Talk about Turkey

In the early ‘90s, the gangly Canadian writer Michael Ignatieff made an interesting documentary about the region. You can watch a short but illuminating section of it here (courtesy of Adam Curtis’ colourful blog on the topic). We see him visit the heart of PKK-held territory in northern Iraq. He mugs for the camera, sits in on a group self-criticism session, and generally vibes with the cheerful, comradely Kurds. But then he crosses over into Turkey and visits Diyarbakir, where he’s followed by state police wherever he goes. As Kurdish women gather in back-streets to celebrate the festival, he captures footage of armoured vehicles roaring onto the scene to break it up. Armed militiamen charge at a crowd of women and children, firing their guns in the air. It’s been almost 25 years, but not much has changed.

Now more than ever, Turkey is poised at the heart of our foreign policy. The wars in Iraq and Syria, the ‘migrant crisis’, our energy dependency on Russia, even Brexit – you can’t address these topics without stumbling into the Turkish President Erdogan’s house of smoke and mirrors, scratching around for the truth. But a curious omerta has attached itself to the topic of Turkey in Parliament and much of the mainstream press, particularly regarding ‘the Kurdish Question’. In January, a Guardian opinion piece by the liberal hawk Nick Cohen managed to castigate Jeremy Corbyn and “the Left” for failing to support the Kurdish cause. If you word-search the article for a mention of Turkey or Erdogan – or even for the Tories, who are actually responsible for our foreign policy and who’ve brusquely dismissed all criticism of the Erdogan regime – you’ll come away disappointed.

This article, by a well-regarded and high-profile member of the British commentariat, was published on the same day the Independent described the worst flare-up in Turkish-Kurdish tensions in 20 years, as the death-toll climbed in Diyarbakir and the Turkish government vowed to “cleanse” the region of Kurdish fighters. A few days later, the reporter Yvo Fitzherbert wrote from Cizre that “As urban centres have been transformed into war zones, thousands have fled as they have become legitimate targets in the eyes of the military.” The disparity is noteworthy in part because it illustrates the extent to which Cohen’s become an Establishment hatchet-man hack and a compromised journalist, but mainly because it seems like a neat example of what the anthropologist Michael Taussig terms the ‘public secret’, or ‘that which is generally known but cannot be spoken’. These secrets are socially important – they oil the cogs of our institutions, which couldn’t function without them. To ‘deface’ such a secret, to publicly acknowledge what we otherwise know not to know, is a violent act. But if facts are sacred, we’re doing something valuable by bringing them back to the fore, and re-enchanting them.

Our EU representatives have just approved a payment of six billion Euros to Turkey over the next two years, with Britain contributing £500 million. The minutes of a private meeting between President Erdogan and some senior EU officials were recently leaked. Even if faked by the Russian secret service, as some have speculated, they provide a neat summation of the power dynamics at play. Erdogan is shopping for two things: money (to deal with refugees, at least ostensibly), and EU membership. When he asks for 3 billion Euros per year, and he’s only offered half, he replies like a gangster. “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria any time”, he tells them, “and we can put the refugees on buses”. President Erdogan, with the offer they can’t refuse. Lo and behold, the EU found the money.

The refugee situation goes some way to explaining our rulers’ abiding deference to Turkey, and their handling of the awkward question of war in its southeast corner. At the very least, it tells us that our liberal interventions are carefully chosen. The British state doesn’t break up every fight – it isn’t stupid. It breaks up the fights it thinks it can get away with and benefit from, and its army of paid-up opinionistas moralise its choices after the fact, like a dry-cleaning service. But Turkey is more than a holding cell for the wretched of the earth, the people displaced by war and want, who scratch at the walls of Europe. It’s a gatekeeper and a power in its own right, and the power it wields depends on territory claimed by a troublesome bunch – the people of Kurdistan.

The conflict goes deep, to the heart of what it means to be a state, or a sovereign people, and the final meaning of ‘democracy’ is challenged by every faction. It plays out in the arid pages of quarterly reports and risk assessments, in national and corporate legal documents, as well as in the theories of anarchists and crypto-religious militants. It also plays out at the intersections of two sets of lines on a map: the lines of national borders, and those of pipelines. Caught in a grid of competing ideas and interests, real human beings are killing each other. It’s a human decency not just to notice it’s happening, but also to do our best to understand why. Many of the secrets of the modern world and how it works are defaced when we stop and look at a map, and ask what’s going on in southeast Turkey.

A word on ethno-religious conflicts 

Last year I got lost in Berlin with my girlfriend, looking for a club in the Mitte district. We stopped to talk to a pair of drunk guys, hoping for directions. Sadly, they weren’t much use. They’d come to Berlin for a conference, and they wanted to make the most of their final night, to paint the town red. They asked where we were from, and as soon as my girlfriend answered “Bucharest”, they got excited.

“Ah, Romania!” one of them said. “Vlad Tepes! If it wasn’t for him, we’d all be Turks. We’d be saying Allahu akbar instead of going to clubs and having fun.”

I was a little surprised that a prince from the fifteenth-century was the first thing that sprang to mind when he thought of Romania. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy with a Christian paladin profile picture, an Anders Breivik type. They were friendly, apparently liberal and urban guys who worked for Rolls Royce. It was said as a joke, but it caught me a bit off-guard. From the chalky cliffs of the British Isles, it’s easy to forget that Turkey’s more than a holiday destination for much of the world. Its gravity can still be felt throughout continental Europe, the crescent-flagged enormity that years ago had threatened to swallow it whole.

As recently as the 1990s, in former Yugoslavia, thousands of innocent Bosnians were slaughtered for being ‘Turks’. In his book on the Bosnian genocide, the historian Michael Sells describes the rise of a poisonous doctrine called ‘Christoslavism’. According to the Serbian Orthodox nationalists who gave the ragtag paras their license to kill, Slavs are essentially Christian. It’s in their blood. By this logic, conversion to Islam amounts to renouncing not only one’s faith but also one’s Slavic identity, and thus becoming a ‘Turk’. This notion of ‘racial transformation by conversion’ was expressed in Bishop Petar Petrovic II’s 1857 play, The Mountain Wreath , in which ‘Slavic Muslims transform themselves into Christ-killers, the people held responsible for the Serbian Golgotha and the death of the Christ-Prince Lazar’. In this play, considered a dramatic and literary masterpiece in Serbia at the time of the Balkan conflict, ‘Orthodox priests and bishops make the clear proposition that the act of exterminating the Slavic Muslims, whom they called “Turkifiers”, was inherently sanctifying and purificatory’. The Serbian Golgotha they referred to was the Battle of Kosovo Field in 1389, when the Serbian leader Prince Lazar was killed by Ottoman soldiers. A mere six hundred years later, during the conflict in the ‘90s, somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000 people (depending on who you’re asking) were killed, many of them civilians. In the genocide at Srebrenica, over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered at once.

The American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that “details are always melancholy; the plan is seemly and noble”. Some of this broad-brush spirit seems to have nested in the Transatlantic imaginary, lending our every global adventure a moral or mythic dimension. After supporting the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and watching in despair as it all went wrong, Michael Ignatieff wrote that his mistake had been in “generalising and interpreting particular facts as instances of some big idea”. Instead, he should have recognised that “specifics matter more than generalities”. For an understanding of any given conflict to be accurate or useful, it should give an account of how the groups in question came to be in conflict, and the melancholy details of what’s at stake. History repeats itself when systems of behaviour and understanding go unacknowledged and unreformed. And in the case of ethnic conflict there’s plenty of history to draw on.

The Ottoman Phoenix
The Ottoman Empire was founded by the Oghuz tribe of Turks in 1299, in what’s now the northwest of Turkey, near the Sea of Marmara. It’s generally agreed that the Empire reached its peak in the 1500s, during the reign of Suleyman “the Magnificent”. Its subjects then were Arabs and Turks, Greeks and Armenians, Romanians, Serbs and Bulgarians – a veritable rainbow – and its territory spread from southern Europe down through Mesopotamia, as far as the Persian Gulf. It lasted till the 1920s, when, depending on your perspective, the final nail in its coffin came with the Turkish War of Independence (1922), the dethroning of the final Ottoman sultan (also 1922), or the abolition of the caliphate (1924). By any account, at more than six hundred years, it had a good innings.

The reasons for the collapse of any empire are hard to pinpoint. Triumphalist Europeans suggest that it squared up to Western powers as best it could, and in the resulting war of ideas the Christian West won out. This idealist view of history is appealing to lab-dwelling types (your Dawkins, your Harris) for whom historically-grounded ways of life are equivalent to scientific hypotheses that sufficiently clinical probing can prove or disprove. As Mr Ignatieff found out, this kind of perspective leads down a dangerous road. When collective ways of life are seen as falsifiable propositions, and holy books are read as a kind of programming code that adherents never question or selectively apply, a politics of collective guilt is only a motion away. It might seem paradoxical that scientists are so quick to explain the material world in terms of “memes”, or what the embattled Boy’s Own foghorn Niall Ferguson dubs “killer apps”. And it might seem strange that if empires rise and fall on their merits, the colonies where Dawkins and Grayling grew up sipping tea in the native dusk have declared independence and gone their own way. But the blue planet turns in mysterious ways.

Certainly, by the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire had grown unwieldy, loosening its grip on its far-flung territories. During this period, France, Russia, Italy, Britain and Germany had all begun to nibble away at its edges. “Their objective was to avoid the collapse of the Empire, while maintaining it in an inferior and weakened position,” argue al-Rodhan, Herd and Watanabe, in Critical Turning Points in the Middle East 1915-2015. “To achieve this objective, they not only interfered in the internal affairs of the Empire, but also began to conquer and occupy territory in the region.” In 1830, France began its occupation of Algeria. The British forcibly occupied Yemen in 1839, allowing them to protect their access to India. They also made formerly-Ottoman Egypt a protectorate in 1882, which gave them control of the Suez Canal as well as a steady supply of cotton for the mills back in good old Blighty. Ottoman territory, then, was being encircled.
In the 1860s, an angry ‘Young Ottoman’ called Ziya Pasha protested that “We have remained mere spectators while our commerce, our trades, and even our broken-down huts have been given to foreigners”. Europeans and their high-interest banks had been sprouting in Istanbul ever since the Ottomans signed a free-trade deal with Britain in 1838. Eager to compete with the wealthy upstarts of Western Europe, the sultan introduced a set of reforms called the Tanzimat . Though based in Quranic scripture, these reforms were designed to reorganise law and society in the shape of a country like France, and they proved disastrous. In the words of another Young Ottoman, Namik Kemal, these reforms seemed to mainly involve “the establishment of theatres, frequenting ballrooms, being liberal about the infidelities of one’s wife and using European toilets”. As Pankaj Mishra explains in his book From the Ruins of Empire, “So disruptive was the overall effect that in 1876 Sultan Abdulhamid would himself join the growing popular reaction against Westernisation, and turn to pan-Islamism as a bulwark against Western encroachments upon the Muslim world.” So much for Westernisation – maybe the ummah could come to the rescue.
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