Opportunity Missed: Identity Alignment and Turkey’s Kurdish Question

 By Lisel Hintz, Barnard College

*This memo was prepared for presentation at the Contemporary Turkish Politics Workshop at Rice University’s Baker Institute on  October 14, 2016

Over the last year and a half, the approach of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the country’s so-called “Kurdish Question” has been characterized by highly polarizing nationalist rhetoric, deadly sieges targeting Kurdish cities, and persecution of individuals demonstrating support for the Kurdish cause.[1] Prior to this period, however, the AKP had taken unprecedented steps toward resolving the decades-long conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) with the “Solution Process” (Çozüm Süreci) approach it announced in 2013. Most notably, the AKP crossed a former red line in Turkish politics by holding secret negotiations with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. In return for promises to make concessions such as allowing legal defenses to be in one’s mother tongue, the Kurdish delegation – comprised, importantly, of politicians who publicly advocated a peaceful resolution to the conflict[2] – promised to work towards the PKK’s laying down of arms and withdrawal from Turkish territory. A solution to the Kurdish Question seemed closer than ever in 2014.

This recent prospect for the resolution of a conflict that has cost tens of thousands of lives and has plagued the Turkish Republic since its founding in 1923 throws the country’s current potential to devolve into civil war into even starker relief.[3] Rather than detail the bafflingly intricate set of back-and-forth gambits in the rise and fall of the Kurdish Question under AKP rule – nearly all of which are disputed by each party[4] – this paper explores the conditions that enabled ground-breaking overtures by the AKP toward solving the Kurdish Question. In brief, I illustrate how a generally unthinkable policy becomes possible. Applying an identity content framework, I illustrate how what I term Republican Nationalists and Ottoman Islamists view the issue of Turkey’s Kurds in profoundly different ways and how these differences shape the spectrum of options deemed appropriate to address the issues for each.

Specifically, while Republican Nationalists’ conception of Kurdish politics as inherently dangerous creates an identity red line that precludes public expression of Kurdishness, no such notion limits the AKP’s Ottoman Islamist understanding of national identity in this way. I therefore conceptualize the missed opportunity to solve the Kurdish Question as a case of identity alignment, in which the absence of identity red lines created space for policy outreach impossible under previous governments. This analysis reveals that current hostilities between the AKP government and the Kurds are rooted in political power struggles over Kurdish support for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s efforts to consolidate personal power by downplaying animosity between groups. As conflictual as their relations appear now, this distinction shapes the potential for the eventual resolution of the Kurdish Question.

Identity Red Lines: Proscribed Behavior and Permissive Conditions

While the AKP crossed one political red line by carrying out talks with the PKK, another form of red line was involved to make this act possible. In previous work, I develop the concept of identity “red lines” to denote stances on issues seemingly deemed intolerable by supporters of competing understandings of national identity.[5] In making the nebulous concept of identity easier to operationalize, I use a framework for the content of various “proposals” for national identity to parse out behaviors and attitudes that are not only inappropriate but fundamentally unacceptable to supporters of a rival proposal, i.e. identity redlines. First, constitutive norms provide guidelines for membership and appropriate behavior within the Ingroup, defining who “we” are and how we should behave. Second, the social purpose defines group interests – that is, the goals that the Ingroup believes it should achieve. Third, relational meaning defines the Ingroup’s relation to various Outgroups. Finally, the cognitive worldview component provides an overarching sense of the group’s role in the world. Collectively, these components delineate who the group is and how its members should behave. Importantly, this framework does not assume that any of these elements are fixed; rather, through processes of contestation – both within an Ingroup and among an Ingroup and various Outgroups, – these components can and do change.

Drawing inspiration from Ottoman-era administration of social groups along religious lines, institutionalized in the millet system, the AKP and its supporters view religion as the most salient category of membership. As the Ottoman caliphate represented the institutional and spiritual home of Sunni Islam, being a Sunni Muslim is thus a constitutive norm of membership in today’s Ottoman Islamist Ingroup. The internalization of religion as the primary identity line for societal organization meant that ethnicity was a relatively less salient and politically unimportant form of identification. Relatedly, the AKP’s Ottoman Islamist understanding of Turkey’s national identity promoted by the AKP contains no red line, no prohibition against the public and even political expression of ethnic identity.

In direct contrast, previous Turkish government and military elites holding a Republican Nationalist understanding of Turkish identity supported the elimination of the public expression of ethnicity, often through brutal means.[6] For Republican Nationalists, who draw inspiration from Ottoman collapse rather than Ottoman glory, particularly the devastatingly dismembering effects of ethno-nationalism during the Balkan Wars and World War I, articulating an ethnic identity was the equivalent of potential support for a separatist movement. Even uttering the word “Kurd” or engaging in Kurdish naming practices was considered threatening to the unity and stability of the Republic.[7] Difference was inherently dangerous. While Kurdish militants revolted against the nationalization efforts[8] of the Turkish government in the Republic’s early years as part of the Sheikh Said Rebellion and later as the PKK, Republican Nationalists in government and society generally viewed all self-proclaimed Kurds as dangerous irrespective of their individual views on violence against the Turkish state. Public expression of Kurdishness was a red line not to be tolerated.

As a brief demonstration of the power of such red lines, the idea of the ultra-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP) making favorable outreaches to the Kurds is virtually unthinkable no matter how big the electoral payoff might seem; its Pan-Turkic Nationalist members would not support it, and, equally importantly, Turkey’s Kurds would not buy it. This history of open enmity and violent attacks[9] by Pan-Turkic Nationalists directed toward Kurds rules out any electoral cooperation, at least in the foreseeable future.

For Ottoman Islamists, however, Kurds who openly declare their Kurdishness can be part of the Ingroup as long as they meet the other constitutive criteria. Alevi Kurds, for example, do not adhere to the Sunni Muslim constitutive norm and thus are relegated to the Outgroup by both Ottoman Islamists and Republican Nationalists.[10] Sunni Kurds, however, can be and were enthusiastically courted by the AKP through multiple rounds of outreach. This absence of a red line against the public expression of ethnic identity thus becomes a permissive condition in the AKP’s extension of overtures toward the Kurds. In effect, the Ottoman Islamist proposal for national identity aligns with a particular initiative in a configuration that is novel in Turkish politics.

However, the AKP did not make substantial outreaches to the Kurds until its later terms, with a (largely unsuccessful) Kurdish Opening announced in 2009[11] and the Solution Process of 2013. As Tezcür notes, the AKP was arguably constrained from doing so when it first came to power in 2002 because of the political strength of actors such as the Turkish military, historically a staunchly Republican Nationalist institution.[12] After using the EU accession process as a foreign policy arena in which to contest Republican Nationalism and weaken its institutional representatives back home,[13] the AKP was no longer restricted in its menu of choices for dealing with the Kurdish Question.

The unprecedented nature of the Solution Process reflects a recognition by the AKP that previous efforts had failed. It also produced an unprecedented response. At the 2013 annual celebration of the Spring Festival of Newroz in Diyarbakır, PKK leader Öcalan’s Newroz message read by Kurdish politicians, not only called for a ceasefire but also proclaimed: “The Turkish people who live in what is called Turkey today – ancient Anatolia – should recognize that their common life with the Kurds, under the flag of Islam, rests on the principles of amity and solidarity.”[14] Given the radical Marxist roots of the PKK, the use of Islam as an overarching identity that binds Turks and Kurds together is truly extraordinary. However politically calculated the statement may have been, elites were urging their constituencies to recognize a long-standing commonality, to acknowledge being privileged members of a common Ingroup with sacred roots. Such statements would not have been possible under a Republican Nationalist government (or any Pan-Turkic Nationalist government that could have been in power), nor would they have been believed by either constituency if declared.

Opportunity Missed: Power Politics

The shift from previous Republican Nationalist political elites’ perception of red lines to a case of identity alignment under Turkey’s current Ottoman Islamist AKP government helps to explain how a previously inconceivable political outreaches to the Kurds was made possible. The AKP was able to convincingly and effectively cross the political red line of negotiating with Kurds as Ingroup partners because of the absence of an identity red line that deems the political recognition of Kurdishness anathema to Turkishness. While the Solution Process was not without difficulties,[15] the ceasefire held and the parties remained committed to negotiations. Erdoğan received enough of the Kurdish vote to grant him victory in the first round of the 2014 presidential election. Selahattin Demirtaş, co-chairman of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – a pro-Kurdish party that courts a broad electoral base with a platform supporting gender equality, pro-environmental policies, and LGBTQ rights –received approximately 10 percent of the vote. While an impressive achievement for Kurds and Turkish liberals alike, the numbers also signal that Erdoğan’s promises to continue the Solution Process and his use of brotherly Muslim communal outreaches[16] were successful in his outreaches to significant elements of Kurdish voters. In the Kurdish-populated provinces of Şanlıurfa, Bingöl, and Van, Erdoğan received 69, 66, and 43 percent, respectively; in Diyarbakır, he received 34 percent.[17]

However, signs that the interests of Kurds were not taken seriously dramatically weakened this developing partnership. Ultimately, a power struggle intensified by personal ambitions, rather than any deep-seated group-level identity conflict, scuppered what was Turkey’s most likely chance at solving the Kurdish Question. Frustrated by the Turkish government’s refusal to defend the Kurdish-populated Syrian city of Kobani against an ISIS siege in September 2014, Kurdish leaders began to withdraw their backing of Turkey’s move to a presidential system.[18] This constituted a serious betrayal to Erdoğan, who views a presidential system as the ideal embodiment of his consolidated rule and has politically disowned members of his party who did not support his ambition.[19] The HDP’s catapult over the 10 percent electoral threshold – originally put in place as part of the 1982 military-written constitution to keep Kurdish parties out of parliament[20] – further provoked Erdoğan’s ire, as the party’s allotted seats dislodged the AKP’s parliamentary majority for the first time since it came to power in 2002. Crucial for achieving Erdoğan’s primary goal, the loss of a two-thirds majority in the June 2015 election greatly hindered the chances of approving a presidential system for Turkey. The future of the AKP and Erdoğan’s leadership appeared shakier than ever.

The timing of the breakdown in the ceasefire is puzzling unless we consider the provocative effect created by the Kurds’ obstruction of Erdoğan’s presidential ambitions. Although PKK militants killed members of the Turkish security forces in several attacks following the Kobani siege, the Turkish government decided to act in reprisal against PKK forces only after the HDP’s June election gains. Two days after the 22 July 2015 revenge killing of two police officers in anger over the failure to prevent an ISIS bomb attack that killed 32 Kurdish activists headed to rebuild Kobani, an act for which the PKK denied responsibility,[21] the Turkish Armed Forces began bombing PKK targets again for the first time in more than two years. The sieges of cities like Cizre in which tens of civilians died were legitimized as necessary in the campaigns to root out terrorists.[22]

The constitutive act of the AKP’s naming of Kurds as terrorists generated a visceral effect for its supporters that exacerbated the polarization in Turkey already existing along many lines, such conservative/secular and Alevi/Sunni. Following twin bomb attacks in October 2015 that killed more than 100 Kurdish and leftist peace activists in Ankara, government officials and supporters reacted with indifference at best,[23] and with jeering at worst.[24] Because those who lost their lives were Kurdish or leftist, or just part of the opposition, they were assumed to be radical, deviant others who had it coming. Difference has once again come to be seen as inherently dangerous, this time as a product of personal animosity and tactical rhetoric.


The analytical use of identity proposals and red lines specifying particular points of contestation among those proposals allows us to understand how previously unthinkable policies become conceivable. The groundbreaking outreach to Kurds under the later terms of AKP rule become possible because of the identity alignment of the AKP’s Ottoman Islamism with initiatives that recognize the public expression of ethnic identity such as Kurdishness. The political weakening of Republican Nationalists under the AKP reduced the significance of their objections to recognizing Kurdishness and negotiating with the PKK.

This novel condition of identity alignment makes the opportunity missed in the breakdown of the Solution Process, due to power struggles and the personal animosity of Turkey’s president, all the more frustrating for those involved. It may be the case, however, that the public recognition of Kurdishness legalized under the AKP may become normalized and internalized to the point where rolling back the societal and political shifts witnessed under the AKP may, in turn, become unthinkable, irrespective of the identity understanding of the future party in power. On the other hand, a (re)hardening of identities[25] along Turkish-Kurdish lines may also occur should the conflict continue or devolve, as it currently threatens, into civil war. New red lines could form where none existed, further narrowing the chances of a resolution to the Kurdish Question.

[1]O Akademisyenler Tutuklandı,” Hürriyet, 16 March 2016: http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/o-akademisyenler-tutuklandi-40069893.

[2]Sürecin Adına Barış Süreci de İmralı Süreci de Diyebiliriz,” T24Haber.com, 6 March 2013: http://t24.com.tr/haber/surecin-adina-baris-sureci-de-imrali-sureci-de-diyebiliriz,225165.

[3] Metin Gurcan, “Türkiye İç Savaşın Eşiğinde Mi,” Al-Monitor, 14 December 2015: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/tr/originals/2015/12/turkey-clashes-between-pkk-and-security-forces-civil-war.html

[4] The AKP, for example, claims that the PKK broke the ceasefire by assassinating two policemen on 22 July 2015, thus justifying the bombing of PKK militants in airstrikes beginning 24 July. The PKK denied responsibility for the assassinations, suggesting they were carried out by the People’s Defense Forces (HPG), a militant wing separate from the PKK, and thus did not constitute a breach of the ceasefire agreement. See “PKK’dan Şehit Edilen İki Polis için Flaş Açıklama: Biz Yapmadık,” Cumhuriyet Gazetesi, 29 July 2015: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/turkiye/333183/PKK_dan_sehit_edilen_iki_polis_icin_flas_aciklama__Biz_yapmadik.html#.

[5] The qualifier “seemingly” is used here to emphasize the constructed and malleable nature of identities and their constitutive components, no matter how intractable contestation over particular components may appear at a given time. Lisel Hintz, “‘Take It Outside!’ National Identity Contestation in the Foreign Policy Arena,” European Journal of International Relations, Vol. 22, No. 2, 2016.

[6] See, for example, Welat Zeydanlıoğlu, “The White Turkish Man’s Burden: Orientalism, Kemalism, and the Kurds in Turkey,” Guido Rings and Anne Ife (eds) Neocolonial Mentalities in Contemporary Europe (Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2008).

[7] See Senem Aslan, “Incoherent State: The Controversy over Kurdish Naming in Turkey,” European Journal of Turkish Studies, Vol. 10, 2009.

[8] On this concept, see Rogers Brubaker, Nationalism Reframed (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[9] See, for example: “Video Shows Turkish Nationalists Attacking Pro-Kurdish Party Offices in Capital,” Reuters and Vice News, 9 September 2015: https://news.vice.com/article/video-shows-turkish-nationalists-attacking-pro-kurdish-party-offices-in-capital.

[10] “Interview with Mehmet Bayrak: Alevi Kurds’ Double Oppression and the Myths of Turkey’s Official History,” Kurdistan Tribune, 14 December 2012: http://kurdistantribune.com/2012/alevi-kurds-double-oppression-myths-of-turkeys-official-history/.

[11] Özlem Kayhan Pusane, “Turkey’s Kurdish Opening: Long Awaited Achievements and Failed Expectations,” Turkish Studies, Vol. 15, No. 1, 2014.

[12] Güneş Murat Tezcür, “When Democratization Radicalizes: The Kurdish Nationalist Movement in Turkey,” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 47, 2010, p. 779.

[13] See Hintz 2016.

[14]Abdullah Öcalan’ın Newroz Mesajının Tam Metni: ‘Bu Son Değil Yeni bir Başlangıçtır’,” Sendika.org, 21 March 2013: http://sendika10.org/2013/03/abdullah-ocalanin-newroz-mesajinin-tam-metni-bu-son-degil-yeni-bir-baslangictir/. Emphasis mine.

[15] For example a frustrated Kurdish delegation said the AKP was too slow to act on its promises, some Kurds engaged in the anti-government Gezi Protests beginning June 2013, and most Kurds were disappointed that the September 2013 “democratization package” of proposed constitutional amendments did not include mother-tongue education

[16] See, for example, a speech given in Diyarbakır two weeks prior to the election: “Başbakan Erdoğan: Bu Irkçı Adaya Buradan Oy Çıkmayacak,” Star, 26 July 2014: http://www.star.com.tr/guncel/basbakan-erdogandan-diyarbakirda-onemli-aciklamalar-haber-918829/.

[17]Cumhurbaşkanlığı: Seçim 2014,” İnternetHaber.com, 23 February 2015: http://secim.internethaber.com/cumhurbaskanligi-secimi-2014/.

[18] Demirtaş stated: “We are not a bargaining party… We will not make you president.” Quoted in Sinan Onuş, “Erdoğan ve Demirtaş’ın Cıkışları Ne Anlama Geliyor?” BBC Türkçe, 18 March 2015: http://www.bbc.com/turkce/haberler/2015/03/150318_sinan_erdogan_demirtas.

[19] One of the reasons for hand-selected Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s early (and most likely forced) resignation was his unsatisfactory support for the shift to a presidential system. See “Erdoğan Davutoğlu Arası Neden Bozuldu ‘İstifa Süreci’,” MemurHaber.com, 5 May 201g: http://www.memurhaber.com/erdogan-davutoglu-arasi-neden-bozuldu-istifa-sureci-1590777h.htm.

[20]Yüzde 10 Barajının Öyküsü,” NTV.com, 30 March 2011: http://www.ntv.com.tr/turkiye/yuzde-10-barajinin-oykusu,3xMZ-FVFNkWjU9mAPgxf9g.

[21]PKK’dan Şehit Edilen İki Polis için Flaş Açıklama: Biz Yapmadık,” Cumhuriyet Gazetesi, 29 July 2015: http://www.cumhuriyet.com.tr/haber/turkiye/333183/PKK_dan_sehit_edilen_iki_polis_icin_flas_aciklama__Biz_yapmadik.html#.

[22] Mahmut Bozarslan, “Adı Cizre Görünümü Kobani,” Al-Monitor, 18 September 2015: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/tr/originals/2015/09/turkey-kurds-pkk-cizre-curfew-civilian-demand-answers.html.

[23] “Why Did the Justice Minister Smile,” Hürriyet Daily News, 13 October 2015: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/why-did-the-justice-minister-smile.aspx?PageID=238&NID=89764&NewsCatID=503.

[24]Konya’da ‘Saygı Duyurusu’: Ankara’da Hayatını Kaybedenler Yuhalanıp Islıklandı,” Diken.tr.com, 13 October 2015: http://www.diken.com.tr/konyada-saygi-durusu-ankarada-hayatini-kaybedenler-isliklandi/.

[25] See Daniel Byman and Taylor Seybolt, “Humanitarian Intervention and Communal Civil Wars: Problems and Alternative Approaches,” Security Studies, Vol 13, No. 1, 2003.