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United in Nationalism: Notes on the Aftermath of the Failed Coup Attempt in Turkey

[Taksim Square, Istanbul. Photo by Yasemin Taşkın] [Taksim Square, Istanbul. Photo by Yasemin Taşkın]

As is by now well known, on 15 July 2015 some segments of Turkey’s military forces attempted a coup against the country’s elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. On the night of the coup attempt, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, one of the founders of the ruling party, called on the people to defend democracy against the coup organizers. That night, thousands risked their lives and took to the streets, which were occupied by military tanks, to side with the elected government. In a world where democracy is by and large reduced to the ballot box, it might be easy to mistake elected-government rule with democracy. Yet 15 July was not the first time that the military had intervened in the country’s “democracy” during the AKP administration. Under the orders of the AKP administration, there was an overwhelming military presence in Turkey’s Kurdistan following the success of the 2015 electoral successes of People’s Democratic Party (HDP), a left-wing umbrella party that emerged from within the Kurdish Liberation Movement. This presence involved months-long round-the-clock curfews in Kurdish towns and villages, with the military demolishing buildings, destroying neighborhoods, and targeting any Kurdish individual who stepped out of his/her house during the curfew. After the June 2015 elections produced a hung parliament, a second general election was held in November of the same year. In the Kurdish provinces these elections took place under the shadow of military tanks, and election results saw votes for the HDP fall from 13.1% (in the June elections) to 10.8% (in the November elections).

It appears that the putschists of 15 July were among those who led the military “operations” in Turkey’s Kurdistan. On 23 June 2016, the parliament granted immunity to members of the armed forces involved in “counter-terrorism” operations in the Kurdish provinces. The act of killing with impunity, having the power to decide whether “to take life or let live,”[1] grants a god-like sovereign power. There have been different arguments about the timing of the coup attempt. While some argued that it was actually the government who initiated the coup attempt and therefore it fits well into their agenda, some others argued that the coup organizers felt at immediate risk of being purged and that is why they attempted a coup rather impetuously. However, perhaps it is due to their increasing feeling of sovereignty, the putschists had the courage to attempt to take over the state at this particular historical moment—immediately after their acts of massive killing and destruction. Perhaps their performances of sovereignty in Kurdish towns and villages helped them imagine themselves as capable of bombing the Grand National Building of Turkey and becoming sovereign in entire country.

Even though the putschists included some of the leading commanders of the brutal violence in Turkey’s Kurdistan, many commented that the attempted coup was the first time that Turkish military forces had targeted civilians. Such a perspective cannot be explained simply through ignorance or lack of awareness of the recent experiences suffered by Turkey’s Kurds. Rather, it is born from the fact that, just like the members of the armed forces who demonstrated that Kurds were not considered civilians by indiscriminately targeting Kurdish individuals, for many citizens of Turkey Kurds do not count as civilians. Deep-rooted racism against Kurds throughout the history of Turkey symptomatically expresses itself in the nationalist Turkish imaginary as the “terrorist Kurd” or “enemy within,” if not “not yet human.” This imaginary belongs not only to non-Kurds who openly and enthusiastically invest in Turkish identity. When it comes to the rights and political demands of the Kurdish people, even those who are highly critical of Turkish nationalism, which has been experienced as violence by various minority groups in Turkey, and who position themselves in the internationalist left, sometimes find themselves entrapped in conspiracy theories and aligned with the nationalists.

Hence, sadly (yet not surprisingly) we did not hear a single word about the wide-scale violence conducted by the putschists in Turkey’s Kurdistan in the democracy rallies organized by the AKP, nor at those held by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the country’s so-called social democratic party, alongside a number of socialist organizations and NGOs. The ten-point manifesto set out by CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, which was read out at the various democracy rallies organized by the party, suggests the necessary steps to be taken for a full-fledged democracy in Turkey, yet it included not a single point on this wide-scale violence in Turkey’s Kurdistan. The Kurds of Turkey have long learnt by experience that when people remain silent on the subject of the violence in Kurdistan, it paves the way for more violence against them. Either on a personal or institutional level, silence is a manifestation of consent. Hence, as the largest opposition party in parliament, the silence of the CHP was indeed a manifestation that a coup-like regime or military violence is considered acceptable for Turkey’s Kurds. After the coup attempt, CHP leader, together with the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a far right Turkish nationalist party (and the fourth party in the parliament after the HDP), were invited to a meeting with President Erdoğan. This invitation excluded the HDP. During this same period, Erdoğan, who is well known for his long list of defamation cases, withdrew the cases against members of the CHP and MHP, while those against the HDP remained. Besides, HDP was excluded from the most recent constitutional commission created in September with the partnership of AKP, CHP and MHP. The representatives of these three parties came to an agreement on seven articles of amendment mostly concerning the judiciary. In sum, the meetings with Erdoğan, along with the democracy rallies, were not merely a declaration of a united anti-putschist stance of these three parties, but also of a united anti-Kurdish stance; and in their anti-Kurdish stance, all are united with the putschists.

We are now witnessing how this united nationalist front is affecting the lives of the Kurds and those who speak up against the government’s Kurdish “politics.” On 11 September, the government appointed trustees to twenty-four municipalities in Turkey’s Kurdistan. That is to say that the elected mayors of these municipalities were removed from duty and replaced with pro-government trustees. On September 8, more than 10,000 teachers, most of whom are members of the left-wing trade union Eğitim-Sen, were suspended on the grounds of supporting “terrorism.” 4,313 of these teachers are from the city of Diyarbakır, the center of Turkey’s Kurdistan. Meanwhile, government pressure still continues on those who signed the Academics for Peace petition, which condemned the government for conducting massacres in the Kurdish provinces and invited the government to make peace negotiations with the Kurdish political movement. The government also accused the signatories of supporting terrorism. 105 signatories of the Academics for Peace petition have lost their jobs, while many others have been subjected to mobbing and discrimination in their universities. In addition to the putschists, the country’s prisons are rapidly being filled by Kurds as well as those who are critical of the violence against the Kurds. According to the recent reports by human rights organizations, torture is again being seen in Turkey’s prisons. The government’s recent shut down of the Kurdish cartoon, Zarok TV, along with 5 other Kurdish channels and 4 anti-government channels, shows that the current government and its allies allow no space for Kurds who are in demand cultural and political rights.

Criminalization and silencing of the voices of anti-AKP (pro-Kurdish rights) Kurds and of those demonstrating their solidarity with them is not simply a human rights abuse that harms democracy, but also (may be more importantly) an active call for counter-violence and intensification of the conflict. In other words, it is a provocation of counter-violence. As pro-Kurdish voices are excluded from the political space, already existing rage against AKP and its allies (namely CHP and MHP) will grow further and further. History has shown us that ruling elites can draw power from conflict, and this is perhaps the government’s current aim. If, however, it is the case that those in power, as well as other parties who collaborate with the government while at the same time wishing to take their place, aim to drawing power from conflict and violence, it is a most dangerous and deadly game.

[1] Foucault, Michel. "Society must be defended: lectures at the Collège de France." Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador (2003).


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