The Kurds: A Stateless People, Turkey’s Enemies, or the Colonized Other?

Deniz Duruiz

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A Turkish soldier takes a selfie in the area of Mount Bersaya, north of the Syrian town of Azaz near the border with Turkey, on January 22, 2018. The Turkish military on January 20 launched operation “Olive Branch”, its second major incursion into Syrian territory during the seven-year civil war. The operation, with Turkish war planes and artillery backing a major ground incursion involving Ankara-backed Syrian rebels and Turkish tanks, aims to oust the People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia from its Afrin enclave. SALEH ABO GHALOUN/AFP via Getty Images.

Reflecting on the U.S. troop withdrawal from northern Syria, which facilitated a Turkish incursion into the area and to possible human rights violations against the Kurds, PoLAR editors asked Firat Bozcali, Deniz Duruiz, and Çağrı Yoltar to discuss what is missing from western media coverage of the situation. Other essays may be found on our Ethnographic Explainers page.

Eric Schmitt, a Pulitzer Prize–winning American journalist, explained Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria on New York Times’s podcast The Daily as follows: “At the heart of this are really the Kurds, the stateless people, they represent a significant minority in the Southeastern part of Turkey and Turkey sees them as a terrorist group within their own country.” The Kurds, at least some of the Kurds, he said, were American allies but so was the NATO member Turkey. “The problem of the United States,” he continued, “is that they are caught in the middle of this, trying to manage them both to keep them from clashing, which would undermine many of the security goals that the United States has in the region.” Michael Barbaro, the host of The Daily, continued interpreting his guest’s words, “So Turks and the Kurds are sworn enemies but they are both allies of the United States.”

Although Schmitt and Barbaro’s conversation was clearly problematic in the sense that it legitimized the United States as the big brother who keeps these two regional actors apart (later echoed by Trump’s cocky analogy of two kids fighting in a lot) and framed the U.S.’ imperial interests in the region as “security” and “counter-terrorism”, let us put that aspect aside for now and turn to three basic premises underlying this conversation. The first premise is that Turkey’s incursion into Syria is not a response to the threat of terrorism at the border. This is undeniably true, there has never been an attack from across the Kurdish-controlled areas of northern Syria to Turkey; the border was dead silent at the time of the incursion, period. Thus, the incursion is at least as much about Turkey’s own Kurdish population as it is about Kurdish-led military control of the autonomous cantons of northern Syria. The second premise is that Kurds are framed as terrorists in their own country, and the third one is that Turks and Kurds are sworn enemies. These two are more complicated. What does it mean to consider an entire people terrorists, or at least potential terrorists? And if these two peoples consider each other enemies, how do they live together in the same country?

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Masked protesters prepare to throw petrol bombs towards Turkish police using water cannons and tear gas to disperse a demonstration in Istanbul protesting security operations against Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey on December 20, 2015. The number of Kurdish rebels killed in a massive Turkish military offensive in the restive southeast has jumped to 102, a security source told AFP, as the operation entered its fifth day. The government has imposed curfews in the mainly Kurdish towns of Cizre and Silopi as security forces battle militants linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). / Photo by CAGDAS ERDOGAN/AFP via Getty Images.

Eric Schmitt’s decision to call the Kurdish political movement as well as the Kurdish people of Syria and Turkey “the Kurds” acknowledges that the Kurdish political movement represents Kurds, or at least the majority of Kurds in Turkey and Syria, a fact that the Turkish state tries to obliterate at every opportunity. Building on the typical colonial formula, the Turkish state comes up with a grid of good Kurds and bad Kurds, the vague lines of which keeps all Kurds at bay as potential terrorists. Conversely, Turkey, or “Turks” in Barbaro’s words, refers to the Turkish state, which has the sovereign privilege to declare “terrorist” whichever Kurd it wills. However, considering Kurds terrorists never remains exclusive to the gaze of the state. In fact, it has been seeping into the social fabric of Turkey in the form of the racialization and criminalization of Kurds, the exclusive apportionment of security and other citizenship advantages to the dominant Turkish identity, and the ethno-racial distribution of class privilege in Turkey.

The label “terrorist” is relatively new in the history of racialization of Kurds, beginning with late Ottoman Empire. The label marks the state’s response to no longer being able to deny the existence of the Kurds, as a result of the thirty-five-year-long armed resistance of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which has caused a crisis in the dominant Turkish identity (Ünlü 2016). However, one should also read it within its historical context in order to see that “terrorist” is yet another label in the litany of markers used to racialize Kurds, which play on the border of differential exclusion (demarcated by class, gender, political support for the Turkish state etc.)  and inclusion by assimilation into Turkishness. These markers are heavily influenced by Orientalist and colonial imagery of the colonized other. They draw on elements like metaphors of animality, savagery, primitiveness, and monstrosity (Deringil 2003; Türkyılmaz 2016; Yonucu 2008) and include details like dark skin color, hairy bodies, even a widespread belief that Kurds have tails, excessive sexuality, violent masculinity, and an inherently barbaric culture (Saraçoğlu 2009; Gönen 2011; Ergin 2014). Drawing parallels between the so-called rugged landscape of the Kurdish region and the unyielding and harsh nature of Kurds is another common colonial and Orientalist discursive trope (Öncü 2011). The image of the Kurds as a “warrior people” is strangely also reproduced in their Western representations. This racialization is further triangulated through the stereotype of Arabs living in deserts. President Erdoğan perfectly reproduced this colonial imagery in a recent TV program while talking about his plans to replace the Kurdish population of northern Syria with Arabs (mind you, ethnic cleansing is a war crime). Erdoğan claimed that northern Syria is not conducive to the lifestyle of Kurds and is more fitting to that of Arabs since those places are deserts. These images, alongside that of “the terrorist,” circulate among Turkish nationalist publics through news, TV series, and movies, and are reproduced in the actual or imaginary encounters of Turks and Kurds (Öncü 2011; Açıksöz 2019).

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Kurdish women work on a farm at the Turkish-Syrian border on October 18, 2014. Turkey is turning a deaf ear to insistent pressure to take a more pro-active stance in the fight against Islamic State (IS) jihadists, adding to existing strains with the West under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Western diplomats have repeatedly made clear they want to see the key NATO member play a key role in the coalition against the militants, who are battling for the Syrian town Kobane just a few kilometers from Turkey. Photo by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images.

My fieldwork site, the farms and agricultural fields of western Turkey, was one such terrain of encounters of Turks and Kurds. More than one million Kurds from the Kurdish region migrate to Western Turkey to work in these farms for several months each year. Turkish farmers assumed that a Turkish anthropologist would agree with their view of Kurds, and openly shared with me their opinion that Kurds are terrorists or supporters of terrorism. Yet, more often than not, these statements would not be about the political views of their workers, but would tie into discourses about what the farmers deemed to be inappropriate or uncouth behavior of Kurds, discursively supported by the colonial images of their so-called violent culture described above. This characterization, in turn, is used to legitimize the background checks run exclusively on Kurdish workers by the Turkish security forces upon their arrival, the labor controls instituted by the potential or actual intervention of the Turkish security forces in disagreements between Turkish farmers and Kurdish workers, and racialized workplace hierarchies, which divide this labor force along ethno-racial lines by making non-Kurdish workers (or Kurdish workers who openly performed allegiance to the Turkish state in their workplace in the presence of their boss) spy on other Kurdish workers. Thus, the circulation of the image and the discourses of “the Kurd as terrorist” has many implications beyond its immediate deployment, such as displacing class antagonism onto racialized hierarchies and replacing formal structures of labor control and labor discipline with racialized affective mechanisms.

The invocation of the image of the terrorist also legitimizes state racism backed by Turkish nationalist publics, especially at times of escalated conflict. After the ceasefire between the Turkish state and the PKK collapsed in July 2015, the PKK made a call to the Kurdish people for organized self-defense and declared autonomy in many provincial town centers in the Kurdish region. The Turkish state responded with immensely disproportionate violence, demolishing people’s homes, turning entire cities into rubble, displacing hundreds of thousands of people, killing over one thousand people, among them the elderly and the children. The special forces of the police and the army also displayed grotesque symbolic sexual and racial violence by posing with their weapons in the bedrooms of the houses they occupied, shitting in the middle of living rooms, and distributing  photos of the obscene graffiti they painted on the streets of the occupied cities. Such graffiti read: “you will see the power of the Turk”, “if you are Turkish, be proud, if you are not, obey”, referring to the militants disguised in women’s shalwars “in the spring, I will make you wear G-strings”, and referring to 150 people, including elderly women and children, that the special forces killed with mortar fire in the basements of three buildings “Love in the basement is a whole other ball game” using a pun on the word Bodrum, the synonym of basement, which is also a famous summer travel destination by the Aegean Sea.

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NEW YORK, NY – APRIL 20: A man walks by a mural by artist Banksy supporting jailed Turkish artist Zehra Dogan on April 18, 2018 in New York City. Photo by Gary Hershorn/Getty Images.

These photos were distributed widely via social media, sports fans made banners out of them, and most everyone who objected to this unjust war paid a price. For example, over one thousand Turkish, Kurdish, and Armenian academics who signed a peace petition have been sued for terrorism charges; some received death threats and had to flee the country. Some lost their jobs, and some were imprisoned, albeit for relatively short periods. Zehra Doğan, an artist who painted a replica of the photograph distributed by the police as a token of military victory in the city of Cizre in darker colors and with the military vehicles as scorpions and cockroaches, received a sentence of two and a half years of prison sentence. She served 600 days before she was released. The famous street artist Banksy painted a mural of Zehra Doğan on Houston Bowery Wall in New York, depicting her face behind bars, one of which is a pencil. Ayşe Çelik, a Kurdish teacher in the city of Silvan, who called a talk show program and said that kids are dying in the East of the country and pleaded with viewers not to remain silent, received a fifteen month prison sentence. She was jailed with her new-born baby, was released from prison a few weeks later, was jailed again, and, finally, four years later, she was acquitted of all charges. These are the mildest examples—Kurdish politicians, activists, students, and journalists received much higher sentences for speaking up and many are in prison to this day.

Could we deduce from all of this that Turks and Kurds are sworn enemies? One typical answer that puts the liberal conscience at ease is that it is the Turkish state and the Kurdish guerillas that are enemies, not the people. The Turkish and Kurdish people are people, the argument goes, they are brothers, friends, co-workers, lovers, spouses, and sometimes, enemies. Although this is true to some extent, we also have to see that there is a systematicity to the enmity that has permeated the entire social body, which triggers these visceral, affective, and embodied responses to the racialized and sexualized other, namely, the Kurds. This enmity is embodied in the figure of the terrorist, through which the other is easily taken out of her humanity, and thus, all sense of justice, fairness, and integrity is suspended when it comes to Kurds. It also becomes an avenue for expressing grievance related to the loss of privilege that the dominant ethno-racial group, the Turks, have been experiencing due to minimal attempts in the 2000s to give the Kurds their cultural rights. Through the invocation of hatred and enmity for the terrorist, Turks enjoy the inappropriateness of the other, reaffirming their superiority. This is why politicians consolidate all nationalist votes every time they reignite the war, fan the flames of enmity, and revert to discourses spreading hatred against Kurds. And once again, the term is never solely directed against the Kurds who support the Kurdish political movement. Once some Kurds are declared terrorists, all Kurds become potential terrorists, obliged to pay allegiance to the Turkish state in every social interaction with Turks, while being mostly treated as suspects even when they do so. Ironically, the crude simplification of Turks and Kurds being enemies shows us something that remains hidden otherwise: dominant Turkish ethnicity is predicated upon the Kurd’s being a colonized and racialized other, whose potential for equal citizenship disturbs not only the status quo of the Turkish state order but the entire social order. Turkey rectified that social order this time by attempting to “control the lifestyle in those areas,” in Erdoğan’s words, and attacking Kurdish-controlled northern Syria.

Deniz Duruiz is the Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University. She received her PhD in anthropology from Columbia University. For her doctoral dissertation, she conducted ethnographic research with Kurdish migrant workers and Syrian refugees, both in the Kurdish region and at twelve different rural worksites in western Turkey. She is currently working on her book project which examines political violence in the Kurdish region and the resulting racialized and regionally divided class formation in Turkey. Her postdoctoral research explores the Syrian experience of migration to Europe with a focus on labor.


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