Last April an Italian newspaper published an interview to Mesut Yegen, an ethnic Kurdish sociologist from METU University in Ankara. It was a selection of questions from a wider work. Turkish Diary publishes today the full interview.
Last January, when we first met, you spoke of a new assimilation campaign that the Turkish State, according to you, was about to launch. What did you mean?
There are new campaigns which are organised by a sort of cooperation between the State and the NGO’s. These campaigns are called “Girls off to school” or “Father send me to school”… never mind the names, the aim is to go to the Kurdish provinces and find girls who are not being sent to school because of traditional reasons. There are many families in the rural areas that don't send their daughters to school, but this is mostly, as I said, because of traditional reasons, like girls getting married too early, at 14 or 15 years, etc. So it’s not because Kurds are sort of opposing the policy of assimilation or Kurds do not want to be educated, it's something very common in many parts of the world. So the Turkish State, to my knowledge, has now realised that the Kurdish identity is being reintroduced through such women or such girls. That is to say: the Kurdish language is being taught by those Kurdish women who cannot speak Turkish, or who have not been sent to school in the past. So they are trying to change this situation. They’re sort of obsessive about this fact. Many NGO’s and other State partners go to these provinces and try to persuade parents to send their daughters to school. For me this is a new campaign of assimilation.
But let me say something. I said this is a new campaign of assimilation, but within a particular context. The Turkish State in general feels, believes that Kurds could be assimilated into Turkish. They say: “Ok, there is no discrimination against Kurds, it’s not important for the Turkish State whether you’re Kurdish or not, if you agree to get assimilated into Turkish you’re being treated as other Turkish citizens”. So you can read it from this point of view. And I can read it from this point of view too, I’ve no problem. As I said, I’m putting this contention within a particular context: in the last three years State officials and the ordinary people began to have some doubts about the possible Turkishness of Kurds. People began to feel that Kurds are not so good people, they have a sort of collaboration with the United States, they are inside other foreign powers, so these doubts have become quite common with regard the Kurds.
So although the Turkish State has formally believed that Kurds could be assimilated, that Kurds could become Turkish, nowadays it began to have some doubts, but on the other hand these new campaigns indicate that those doubts are not that strong yet.
I’m 100 per cent sure that this is not only a gender question. We cannot think that the Turkish State is involved in that issue because it wants to take care of Kurdish girls, this is not the only issue. As I said, the Turkish State has realised that the Kurdish identity is strong or is being reproduced and it wants to see an end to this situation.
And what is your evidence for that?
Sometimes facts speak for themselves. There are Kurdish girls over there who cannot speak Turkish and they’re taken to school. Look, assimilation is not a devil. When I say this there are people who get offended, but it’s not a devil. All the nation States have employed the policy of assimilation. This is not a special campaign, the Turkish schools themselves are means of assimilation. Look at me: I am Kurdish and I have been assimilated to Turkish. Why? Because I couldn't go to a Kurdish school since Kurdish schools are not allowed to be, and we were sent to Turkish schools and we were assimilated into Turkish. It’s obvious, all the nation States employ such a policy, and I really don’t understand why people get offended when I say that. Assimilation works in every single aspect of our everyday lives. If you admit that there are Kurds over there who have their own language etc., and if you don’t let them to reproduce their culture, and if you open some spaces for that to get assimilated into Turkishness, it’s obvious that you’re assimilating these people. Look at the Italians, or look at France: in the 19th century only 20 percent of French people spoke proper French, now it’s 95 percent. And I say that it’s something normal, but people get offended.
This women issue, this gender issue is important, you know. People take it as if I was sort of opposing this idea of sending girls to schools. Of course this is nonsense, this is ridiculous. From a normative point of view I said this many times. If the option is between not going to school and being assimilated into Turkish, I’d say: Ok, go and get assimilated into Turkish. I have no problem with that.
The problem is that Kurdish culture is not allowed to reproduce.
Exactly. This is the problem. And I’m just pointing to a fact, a pure objective fact.
How do you interpret the recent events in Diyarbakir?
This is a complex issue, and I should say we cannot show one single reason for such big developments, but I have a kind of assessment. I think two issues concurred. The first issue is that all the main players involved in the Kurdish question have decided to change their position or have decided to change this state of course between 1999 and 2006. Ocalan was captured in 1999 and afterwards PKK declared a ceasefire. For 6 or 7 years it worked. Now what I’m seeing is that all the main players – the Turkish State, the government, and PKK – are getting ready to change their position.
PKK realised they could not continue on these conditions, because on one side there are some other Kurdish groups who are getting strong now in Turkey, some more traditional groups let’s say, on the other side the European Union declared PKK a terrorist organization, which means in Europe it’s not going to be that easy for PKK anymore to collect money, to organise Kurdish resistance etc. Besides, it’s not easy for a military organisation like PKK to keep people together if you do not continue to fight. So all this pushed PKK to change its policy. This is the first issue.
Regarding the Turkish State, I see this: the Turkish State has now realised that the Kurdish identity is stronger than ever before. The Turkish State or Turkey has always had this Kurdish question but nowadays it’s an entirely different issue. The feeling of “we-ness”, the feeling of “we are Kurdish”, this feeling of Kurdish identity, as I said, is stronger than ever, and the Turkish State has now, as I said, come to a point that he says: we should stop this process, otherwise in ten years we’re going to have a Turkey in which we have almost two nations and this is something which cannot be tolerated by the Turkish State. In order to tolerate such a situation, it’s obvious that you have to employ very huge reforms, not the ones that have already been employed as a result of the pressure put by the European Union, you know this small scale of reforms: Kurdish courses, broadcasts in Turkish only half an hour a day and with subtitles, no school etc.
So if the Turkish State does not interfere with this situation, now we are going to have almost two nations in the future, and this of course, it’s not a bizarre thing, but the State governing Turkey cannot cope with that, so the Turkish State, as long as I understand, has decided to give an end to this situation, so what I’m saying is that the issue is not only to remove PKK and, as we all know, PKK basis are mostly in Iraq, in Northern Iraq. I don’t know the exact figures, but PKK has 5 or 6 thousand militants and only 1.500 or 2000 are inside Turkey, while the others are in Northern Iraq. That means PKK is not such a big issue. The big issue is the fact that Kurdish people are more conscious than ever, they are more sensitive towards their own identity than ever. So as I said the Turkish State realised that it has to give an end to this situation.
I don’t know if it can succeed, if it’s going to achieve it, but this is what they’re trying to do. This is what I feel.
Do you think that all this is provoked by what is happening in Iraq?
Sure. Iraq, and European reforms. The Kurdish Identity or this idea of “we-ness” is stronger now because of mainly three issues.
One is the European Union, now the Kurdish people, consciously or unconsciously, feel that the Turkish State may not employ policies of violation - or massive violation - anymore. The European Union would not allow the Turkish State to resort to such policy. I don’t know if it’s a correct feeling, but this is how people feel.
So the European Union is one thing and of course Northern Iraq is the most important thing. This is the first time in the history of Kurds that Kurds have an authority which is run by themselves and, besides, the image of Barzani is kind of a mythical image. It’s very important for any Kurd. Because the members of Barzani's family have been fighting for almost 80 years, since 1920s or 30s. And no other family has been this much identified with the Kurdish struggle. There have been many sort of heroes côte à côte in Kurdish history, but no other family has been that insistent on promoting Kurdish ideals. So it’s an important myth.
You said three issues…
And of course the other thing is that PKK has been quite insistent in Turkey, it has been fighting for twenty years. PKK, HEP, HADEP, DEP, all these parties also have been quite influential in sort of saving and developing this Kurdish identity.
Do you see a solution to this situation?
I don’t think a peaceful solution is likely in the near future. What I see is that, as I said, the Turkish army and the Turkish State are getting ready to launch a new campaign, a military campaign. I think Turks are trying to persuade Kurds that they are not going to be let to go any further. And I feel that another conflict is going to begin, and I’m not sure how Kurds are going to react to this kind of situation.
As far as I see, their reaction is not going to be the same than before. If for instance a war against the civilian people begins again, I think people are going to react. Do you remember the situation in 1990s? Some Kurdish leaders were murdered but the killers were not known. If this begins again I think the Kurdish people are going to react. So this is another issue. I can foresee that the Turkish army is going to begin another campaign but on the other hand I cannot be sure about the possible attitude or possible response of Kurds. Anything can happen. Kurds can decide to forget everything that they have earned until that time or they can sort of revolt.
And do you think the European Union could do something?
It can do. I mean, this is what I wish, but I don’t know. I think it all depends on international strategies. Iran can be the most important part of the issue, because, as far as I understand, it’s obvious that the United States are going to do something. I don’t know what’s going to be done, I don’t know the form, but something is going to be done, it’s obvious.
I think the United States is searching for help and is asking Turkey to be an ally on that issue, but I’m not sure whether the Turkish government or State is ready to give this help. This is an important part of the issue. If one day we see that the Turkish State, the Turkish army or the Turkish government say that it’s ready to give a hand to the United States, that day I will understand that the United States has opened the space for the Turkish State to suppress the Kurdish revolt or resistance not only in Turkey but in Iraq. So this is the worst scenario.
I’m not sure whether it’s going to happen or not, and I’m not sure what Europeans would do if this happened.
This would be very complicated, because The US supports Kurds in Iraq.
Yes, it’s very complicated.
And I don’t know if the Turkish State would for instance ask the right to suppress the Kurds in Northern Iraq, and I think this is impossible, I think the international community would not allow it.
And is there a link with the new wave of nationalism which has been going on?
Oh yes, what has dramatically changed is that the Kurdish question has always been a question between the Turkish State and the Kurdish people or the Kurdish resistance, while now it has become a question which is going on between the Kurdish people and the Turkish people too. This is something new in the history of the Kurdish question. And it’s something very dangerous. I’m receiving like a hundred emails every day talking of all these hate speeches about Kurds. And of course this is the other part of the issue. If a campaign is launched against Kurds in Kurdish parts of Turkey, we don’t know what can happen in the rest of Turkey. We have already received signs of possible clashes - like a lynch episode - happened in many parts of Anatolia, Trabzon, recently in Sakarya...