Turkey diary: In Diyarbakir the 'Kurdish question' is everywhere
By Jasmeet Sidhu
While in Istanbul and Ankara, it may be easy to avoid what is known as the "Kurdish question".
However, after landing in Diyarbakir in Turkey's east which is also close to the Iraq border, the so-called "question" is everywhere. Having only been recently introduced the topic and by no means an expert on the issue, the following are my initial thoughts based on my on-the-ground experience in Turkey on this highly complex and highly sensitive issue.
One of the main purposes of the trip to Turkey with my Peace and Conflict Studies class was to investigate the nation's relationship with the minority Kurdish population, and as my colleague and classmate Craig Ruttan commented, the relationship has been characterized by the language of terrorism, human rights, accommodation, and international border disputes.
Diyarbakir is considered the political and cultural heart of the Kurdish in Turkey, and what struck us immediately was how different the city was from Ankara and Istanbul. Older women adorned the hijab in greater numbers, the streets slightly dustier and the buildings more run down (with some having PKK graffiti on them). Although the argument that Turkey is "European" (whatever that means) is made plausible in the aforementioned two cities, one has a more difficult time applying that label here for those who don't necessarily identify with being "Turkish" and Turkey's ambition to join the EU.
Indeed, understanding what is the Kurdish issue and how one "deals with it" is necessarily asking a question about the Turkish identity and nation-state, where Turks are all children of the founding father Atatürk, rather than there be an existence of a "brotherhood" between Turks and Kurds.
Indeed, during our visit to Diyarbakir, we have heard from various Kurdish human rights organizations of the struggle to have their children learn Kurdish in school (which they are not allowed) and other basic language and educational rights. Everyone is to learn and speak Turkish, and morph into this homogeneous identity of being "Turkish". Back in Istanbul and Ankara, we primarily heard the issue being treated as one of terrorism, which means focusing on eliminating the PKK, the Kurdistan's Workers Party, and the threats which come from northern Iraq.
At the heart of the question from my perspective is, can a flexible idea of Turkish identity exist, allowing citizens to celebrate their citizenship without compromising their ethnic heritage? On more than several occasions (including by the President of the pro-Kurdish Peace & Democracy Party), the Kurdish question was compared to the French and Quebec in Canada, and reminded me of Stephen Harper's proclamation that Quebec was a nation within Canada.
It would seem that at this stage, Turkey is not willing to accept this bi-nationality within the country. What then? With the terrorist acts and violence having subdued in Turkey for the last several years, Turkey may be compelled to stick with the status quo and simply ignore the issue. However, ignoring the issue will not make it go away, and should be dealt with urgently - though as we've seen in Canada and in other places, the cases and minority rights are by no means ever fully solved.
Jasmeet Sidhu is a graduate of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto and is currently in Turkey for a month. She previously worked for the Star in the radio room last summer, and writes a blog for the Star on climate change, where she covered the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen. In mid-June she will join the Star's summer intern program. Follow Jasmeet on Twitter.