This Time must End: The Struggle of the Kurds

In Turkey and across all the borders of the Kurdish people, their rights have been denied. The language and culture of the people, their right to self-determination have suffered under continual state denial and prosecution.

This time must end. The Kurdish people have the right to be themselves: to speak, to write, to work and rule themselves in peace with us all.

Collapse of an Empire

With the Ottoman defeat in WWI, the borders of the entire Middle East are to be redrawn. The opportunity for the Kurds to gain independence after centuries of occupation is at hand.

The Allies carve up the remains of the Ottoman Empire. They make early overtures toward a Kurdish state in the Treaty of Sèvres.

Signed on August 10, 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres outlines the future of the Middle East. In addition to granting independence to Armenia and outlining the break up of the Ottoman Empire, it grants the Kurdish people something they for centuries have struggled for.
Many Turks feel humiliated by the war’s outcome. A new Turkish national movement arises from this resentment and gains political control of government. It means doom for the Treaty of Sevres.

The Treaty of Lausanne

Under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal, later known as Atatürk, the Turks tear up the treaty. The Treaty of Lausanne takes its place and there is no Kurdistan in the equation. There is no longer any reference to the Kurdish people.

They are divided, written off and isolated by the colonial borders of Iraq, Iran and Syria. The rejection of the Treaty of Sevres leads to Kurdish revolts, repression and bloodshed.

As Turkey’s first president, Atatürk  sees the Kurds as a threat to his secular, modernizing revolution.

His government forces thousands of Kurds from their homes, closes Kurdish newspapers, bans Kurdish names and restricts the use of the Kurdish language.

“The Father of the Turks”
By 1924, the new Turkish Republic led by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk, “The Father of the Turks”) deploys policies of assimilation against Kurdish people such as forced migration and establishment of Turkish boarding schools to detach Kurdish children from their native language.

This despite Atatürk’s promised political autonomy for the mostly-Kurdish populated East and Southeast of Turkey. In reaction, some local Kurdish leaders rebel against forced assimilation and the centralization and secularisation of the state.

Official records note that 16 insurgencies erupted in eastern Turkey. However, these rebellions fail to launch a popular Kurdish liberation movement. They are organized by local leaders who derive their authority from local religious and feudal structures.

A Turkish State

“If the army rules a country, they need taboos; otherwise, people would ask questions…They need Atatürk. They need huge flags. … They need a lot of lies about history.” – Ahmet Altan, a courageous editor-in-chief of the Turkish newspaper Taraf.

Since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Turkish Republic in 1923, the state and the army have been nearly synonymous, and the army has seen itself as a protector and heir to Atatürk’s cherished legacy. Disparaging the army’s image has always been illegal.

Schools teach reverence for the army, media and business interests have known that breaking faith with the army means losing bank loans and state contracts.

Rise of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkeren Kurdistan – PKK) is created in 1978 as a Kurdish Marxist-Leninist organization aimed at creating a United Socialist Kurdistan. Leading the greatest Kurdish rebellion in the history of Turkey, it initially conducts small-scale military operations against rival Kurdish socialist organizations and local feudal landlords.

The military rule following the coup in September 1980 dissolves all influential socialist organizations in Turkey. PKK, obtaining support of Syria, transfers members to Bekaa Valley in Lebanon to training camps. It creates bases in Iraqi Kurdistan along the Iraqi-Turkish border.

Because of this dispersion, from 1980 to 1984, the party can organize and train its members and becomes an organization that can challenge Turkish military rule. A rule that increases PKK membership by eliminating rival Kurdish organizations, which had remained based in Turkey.

Kurdish political prisoners in Turkey are tortured, some dying in hunger strikes. Pressure on Kurdish civilians increases with a ban on public and private use of the Kurdish language. With its new level of organization and membership, in 1984 the PKK launches its first attacks on the Turkish state.

The Banning of the Kurdish Party

In 1990, a group of Kurdish and Turkish leftists established a legal political party, the HEP (People’s Labour Party) in order to seek a democratic solution of the Kurdish question.

Although HEP becomes the first legal Kurdish party in Turkey, it is later closed for abetting “terrorism”. Another similar Kurdish political party is also closed. Although Kurdish parties gain significant electoral supports and win local government elections throughout the Kurdish region, they are unable to enter parliament because of failure to surpass the national election threshold.

However, in the parliamentary elections of June 2007, Democratic Society Party (Demokratik Toplum Partisi, DTP) succeeds by registering its members as independent individual candidates who do not require surpassing the electoral threshold.

DTP has now also been closed by court decision. On December 11, 2009, the Constitutional Court of Turkey bans the DTP, ruling that the party has become “focal point of activities against the indivisible unity of the state, the country and the nation”. The court states in its ruling that the party had ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The ban and ensuing violence deepen uncertainty over efforts to end a conflict between the state and its largest ethnic minority. The European Union has expressed concern over the ban, saying in a statement “while strongly denouncing violence and terrorism, the presidency recalls that the dissolution of political parties is an exceptional measure that should be used with utmost restraint.”

The court has closed several parties on similar charges in the past. Democratic Society Party is the 27th to be shut down in Turkey since 1968.

A Forbidden Language

Kurdish has perhaps as many as 35 million speakers today. It exists in a continuum of dialects spoken in a geographic area spanning Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria and a small number of speakers in the South Caucasus.

The written literary output in Kurdish is confined mostly to poetry until the early 20th century, when a written literature begins to emerge. In its written form today Kurdish has two regional standards, Kurmanji in Turkey, and Sorani further east and south. Roughly half of Kurdish speakers live in Turkey. Kurdish in written form is illegal in Turkey for most of the 20th century.

From the 15th to 17th centuries, classical Kurdish poets and writers develop a literary language. The most famous classical Kurdish poets from this period are Ali Hariri, Ahmad Khani, Malaye Jaziri and Faqi Tayran.

The Italian priest Maurizio Garzoni publishes the first Kurdish grammar titled ‘Grammatica e Vocabolario della Lingua Kurda’ in Rome in 1787 after eighteen years of missionary work among the Kurds. This work is important in Kurdish history, as it is the first acknowledgment of the originality of the Kurdish language on a scientific base. Garzoni was given the title ‘Father of Kurdology’ by later scholars.

Today, Kurdish is an official language in Iraq, while it is still banned in Syria. Before August 2002, the Turkish government placed severe restrictions on the use of Kurdish, prohibiting the language in education and broadcast media. The Kurdish alphabet is still not recognized in Turkey, and the use of Kurdish names containing the letters X, W, and Q, which do not exist in the Turkish alphabet, is not allowed.

In Iran, though Kurdish is used in some local media and newspapers, it is not used in public schools.

In March 2006, Turkey allows private television channels to begin airing programs in the Kurdish language. The Turkish government demands that programs must avoid showing children’s cartoons or educational programs that teach the Kurdish language. Broadcast was limited to 45 minutes a day or four hours a week. Some of these restrictions on private Kurdish television channels were relaxed in September 2009.

Imprisoned Children

There are currently more than 4000 Kurdish children in prisons in Turkey. The children are being treated as adults, charged and sentenced for ‘terrorism’.

Many of the children have been sentenced to jail terms of up to twenty-five years for throwing stones at the Turkish police in anti-government protests in support of the outlawed Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK).

Instead of being in schools and playgrounds, these children are being kept in jails by the Turkish government because of their Kurdish identity and support for self-determination.

Colours: The Flag of Kurdistan

Red symbolizes the blood of the Kurdish people and the continued struggle for Kurdish freedom and dignity.

Green expresses the beauty and the landscapes of Kurdistan.

White expresses peace and equality.

The Sun is the source of life and light of the people.


Ercan Yavuz, Turkey starts to question early period of republic. Today’s Zaman, 22 November 2009.

IKN Informationsdienst Kurdistan-Nederland.

AKIN American Kurdish Information Institute.

Rojhelat – The Kurdish Observer.

Caleb Lauer, Pen against sword: A profile of Ahmet Altan. Today’s Zaman, 7 February 2010.

– Patrick Mac Manus


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