Political Islam and Kurdish nationalism

Political Islam and Kurdish nationalism

Last weekend, Prime Minister Erdoğan demanded that Kurds show a reaction against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), just as a million citizens did after similar ethnically-motivated terrorist attacks in Spain. Turkey has not seen similar protests, because the two countries differ significantly in terms of history, culture, political systems, the zeitgeist, and individual perceptions. The Spanish case might be inspiring, but one hat does not fit all.

The Kurds are represented by different groups with different ideologies in Turkey, such as political Islamism, liberalism, and the authoritarian nationalism led by the PKK. Most importantly, the problem is becoming less and less manageable. There are two reasons for this: First, the problem has gained a self-perpetuating character. The Kurdish nation-building process has reached a point of maturity in various forms. Second, the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) ideological arguments seem less capable of managing the problem. As a result, a number of Islamist Kurds are planning to stop supporting the AKP and establish a new party.

Although the Kurds have different arguments, tools and alliances, their demands are moving away from individual rights toward “group rights.” Ultimately, they would want to reinforce this with a “political entity.” This entity may have either Islamic or secular overtones, but it is certain that its final shape will be provided by the “Kurdish identity.”

For the last decade, Erdoğan has been able to manage the Kurdish problem thanks to economic welfare, the emphasis on Islamic brotherhood, and his claim that “We put an end to the policies of denial and assimilation.” Erdoğan’s conflict-management capacity was further assisted by the way some Kurds perceived the AKP as anti-systemic and opposed to the “ancien regime.” Nevertheless, sooner or later, this problem was bound to hit the wall of “ethnic identity.”

Despite the common and comforting slogans defining the AKP’s approach, it is time to face the music. Individual rights will no longer suffice. We are at the “group rights” phase of this process. The government cannot avoid this reality.

The “ideological dilemma” facing the AKP is striking. The thesis of “Islamic brotherhood” is not enough to manage the ethnic demand. On the one hand, the changing meaning of freedom in the world and in Turkey, changes in the social structure, the development of communication technologies and economic welfare, have all made Turkey more sensitive to PKK attacks. On the other hand, the new understanding of “rights” affected by the EU process and the Arab Spring has made the “management of the Kurdish problem” a more complicated endeavor. No doubt, Erdogan is feeling the pressure as elections get closer.

The developments that will make the “Kurdish identity” more visible will have dramatic consequences in Turkey. I believe we will find out once again - just as we did in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire - that “Islamic brotherhood” has a very limited capacity to force different ethnic identities to live together. The powers of the nationalist and Islamist theses will be re-tested. Moreover, the ethnic fault line will disrupt not only the legal-political life, but also religious networks. These developments will test not only Erdoğan’s political capacity, but also the capacity of his ideology.