August 6, 2011
In his victory speech to the party faithful on June 12, 2011, the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was beside himself with joy. For the third time in nine years, his party had scored an impressive electoral victory. The BBC went so far as to call him, “the most successful leader in Turkey’s democratic history.” But the Turkish military, more relevant in the country than the English news organization, was getting ready for an endorsement of its own. Last week, four of its highest-ranking generals resigned together.
While that drama has yet to, fully, sort itself out, I had a head scratching moment in the course of the victory speech itself. Diyarbakir, the provincial capital of my hometown, was mentioned in a way that was new and news to me. The way the prime minister saw it, “Believe me, today, as much as Istanbul, Sarajevo has won; as much as Izmir, Beirut has won; as much as Ankara, Damascus has won; as much as Diyarbakir, Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, West Bank, Jerusalem, Gaza has won. …”
I know Diyarbakir well. Gaza is in the news. Both places are unhappy about their situations. They also have their contrasts. Hardly anyone of note ever mentions the first. The second is subject of discussions at the ministerial levels. The people of Gaza speak Arabic with impunity; the people of Diyarbakir, unless they want to be hermits, are forced to speak Turkish. But that is not how the Turkish prime minister sees the situation. Diyarbakir he dismisses out of hand. Gaza he wants to grab with ten fingers. Should I make you privy to one of his recurring dreams? Gaza is a damsel in distress. And, hear, hear, he is her knight in shining armor.
The Prime Minister Erdogan’s dalliance with Gaza is odd if you are not familiar with his worldview. He operates in a realm of faith and sees the world in Manichean terms. Notwithstanding the ringing endorsement of the BBC, his understanding of democracy is circumstantial. If it can help him rein in his rumbustious military, he is all for it. Otherwise, he is consumed with things like Islam and late Ottomans. In Gaza and Sarajevo, he sees stepping-stones. In Damascus and Jerusalem, he wants to sell Turkish delight.
Filial love compels me to be charitable to him in spite of my reservations about his policies. Full disclosure: in the June 12 elections, in spite of my importunities, my mom voted for him because, in her words, “He has the fear of God in his heart.” My mom has a point; the Kurds had fared better in Ottoman theocracy than in Turkish democracy. But my generation of Kurds wants neither. If it were up to us, we would take our place right after South Sudan, as Kurdistan, as the newest free country in the world.
So what does one do with one’s square Kurds who are refusing to be round Turks in a world of absolute truths at a time of Arab spring? Will the Turkish dogs and Kurdish cats ever learn to live in one bag, oops, my mistake, one state? One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that those who speak for the Turks and the Kurds view each other as existential threats. Neither would shed a single tear for the other if either were to disappear from the face of the earth.
There was a time when the Kurds of Turkey felt strong and asked for total independence and Turks were considering federation. With the arrest of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan the expectations have been lowered. When John McNaughton, a Pentagon official, spoke of America’s predicament in Vietnam, he was also speaking of the Kurdish quandary in Turkey. As Barbara W. Tuchman relates it, “aiming for victory could end in compromise but aiming for compromise could end only in defeat, because to reveal ‘a lowering of sights from victory to compromise … will give the DRV [North Vietnam] the smell of blood.’”
Yes, that cursed and addictive smell of blood. The Turkish prime minister smells it in Diyarbakir and wants a total victory over the Kurds. As to his boast that Gaza should find inspiration in his success in Diyarbakir, nothing so idiotic has ever been uttered on the topic. In the Kurdish province of Diyarbakir, a little bit less populated than Gaza, 411,232 voters voted for Labor, Freedom and Democracy bloc, a Kurdish umbrella group. For Prime Minister Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, it was a little more than half of that: 230,213. But given the way election rules are stacked against the Kurds, Erdogan’s party was awarded initially five later six seats. The Kurds were left with five.
The dictators may be counting their days in the Middle East. But one imposter in Turkey is thinking in terms of thousand years. The party in Cairo has just started. The one on the Tigris in Diyarbakir, to paraphrase Arundhati Roy, on a quiet day, I hear its rumblings all the way from the city on the Potomac in Washington, DC.