Turkey's 'Kurdish question' won't go away

[Green Left Weekly, #1029, October 22, 2014]

Ever since the foundation of modern Turkey in 1923, the country's Kurdish population has endured severe discrimination and national oppression. The nationalist officers around Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), the victor of Gallipoli, who led the struggle which established the republic, were ruthless Turkish chauvinists. They saw the large Kurdish minority as a problem to be dealt with.

During the 1919-22 war of independence against the British and French imperialists and their proxies, when Kurdish support was vital, Kemal stressed that in the new state 'Turks and Kurds would live as brothers and equals'. But once victory had been assured, Kemal was quick to declare that 'the state which we have just created is a Turkish state'.[1]

The genocide of 1915 had disposed of the Armenian Christian minority; the much more numerous and Muslim Kurds were to be assimilated. In March 1924, a government decree banned all Kurdish schools, associations, publications and religious orders. For decades even speaking Kurdish was a crime. The Kurdish regions were subject to brutal repression.

Nine decades after the declaration of the republic, recent events around the siege of Kobanê demonstrate that Turkey's rulers remain deeply hostile to the Kurds and see their legitimate aspirations as a threat to the existence of the state. Some concessions have been made but the Kurds remain an oppressed minority, albeit a very large one.

How many Kurds live in Turkey?

In 2012, the total population of Turkey was 74.7 million. How many of these are Kurds? Not surprisingly the estimates differ considerably.

A September 20, 2012 article by Mashallah Dakak reported on new data released by the Turkish Statistical Insitute, a government agency. Using this data, the author suggested that 20 million was a reasonable estimate of the number of Kurds living in Turkey — 27% of the total population.[2]

Of course, many Kurds have emigrated, whether to escape oppression or to find work or both. It is estimated that the Kurdish diaspora in Europe is about 1.3 million. Germany is home to 800,000 Kurds.

Kurds denied education in mother tongue

Turkey's large Kurdish population is denied education in their mother tongue. The sole language of instruction in schools is Turkish. The provision of state school education in Kurdish is a longstanding demand of the Kurdish community.

This year there was a protest boycott of government schools in the Kurdish regions. In some places the community established schools staffed by volunteers teaching children in Kurdish. The schools were attacked by the army (!) but the people mobilised to protect them.

Such severely discriminatory policies by Turkey's rulers are the very thing which threatens the integrity of the state which they claim to be protecting. Recognising the diversity which exists and having several official languages would help to preserve the unity of the state; persisting with the imposition of just one official language will surely push things in the direction of a split.

Racist state

A 2013 incident highlights the cruel and absurd lengths to which the racist Turkish bureaucracy will go. It denied three-year-old Kurd Asîwa Anter an identiy card. The reason? Her name contained the letter 'w' which does not exist in the Turkish alphabet!

Her father Dicle Anter explained:

If our language does not exist, we will not exist either. We have struggled for this language for years and we have paid the price. No matter how many obstacles they expose us to, we will speak our mother tongue. We demand that they find an urgent solution for the Kurdish language immediately. Practical steps should be taken so that our children will not be deprived of their names.[3]


  1. Kendal, 'Kurdistan in Turkey' in Chaliand ed., A People Without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan (Zed Books: London, 1993), p. 48.
  2. See Over 22.5 million Kurds live in Turkey, new Turkish statistics reveal.
  3. See How Turkey Rules its Kurdish Subjects with the Language of Hate.