Turkey’s Kurdish policy returns to repressive plan from 1925

Decades of attempting to solve the Kurdish issue with denial, repression, assimilation and destruction have led Turkey to a dead end. The issue has remained festering since Ottoman times, with a century of rebellions keeping it on the country’s agenda. Yet it remains misunderstood by the majority of the country.

This misunderstanding is down to a conscious policy from the state, which for years has presented the issue as one of suppressing outlaws or tackling terrorism, and so the greater public sees it as a question for the country’s security policy. With the issue thus detached from reality, and tinged with a dose of chauvinism, the public sees the Kurds’ struggle as an illegitimate one that merits a heavy handed response.

This is how the current period of conflict transformed into one of destruction and denial.

The state’s policy of assimilating the Kurdish minority stretches back to the Ottoman period. But in those days, since the predominant ideology held that the empire’s entire Muslim population were members of an ummah, or religious community, its assimilationist policies focused on Islamisation rather than Turkification. 

It was only when the empire reached its end stages at the turn of the 20th century under the Committee of Union and Progress that Turkification processes really took off, and these accelerated after the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. It was the committee’s mission to unify the different ethnicities living in these lands under a single Turkish identity and nation state.

The state employed its policies of assimilation in every institution from mosques to schools. The family institution, too, became a centre for implementing these policies. 

At the root of this endeavour lies the Eastern Reform Plan, which was hatched in September, 1925, months after the Turkish military suppressed an uprising by the Kurdish leader Sheik Said in Diyarbakır.

The same plan laid the groundwork for the state’s massacres of thousands of Kurds in its violent suppression of another uprising a decade later in the southeastern province of Dersim. The Turkish government would later rename the province with the Tunceli, using a Turkish name.

While there have been changes to the policies laid out in the Eastern Reform Plan over the years, it remained in action for decades, and its basic principles have informed every successive government’s approach to the country’s Kurdish question.

The plan consisted of 27 articles. The first stressed that a state of martial law should be implemented in Kurdish provinces after rebellions, and should remain in place until the plan’s objectives have been met. The implementation of this plan in 1925 was the first example of martial policies that would be repeated more stringently after every uprising in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast. So, the region has never been far from some form of emergency rule, and has never seen a normal administrative regime.

In 1986, the period of martial law ended, to be replaced by the state of emergency, known in Turkish as OHAL. This newly branded emergency rule was lifted by the ruling Justice and Development Party shortly after it came to power in the 2002 elections. The government proclaimed the end of OHAL as if it was setting in motion a revolution, yet while emergency rule ended in name, the same practices continued. 

The Eastern Reform Plan’s second article divided the Turkish Republic into a “general inspectorate” of five regions. Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish eastern and southeastern provinces were assigned to the fifth of these regions. This amounted to a system of colonial governorates that continued until 1948. 

Very similar dynamics can be seen in the state of emergency period after 1986.

The third article prohibited natives of the region from serving in ordinary or martial law courts, either civil or military. In other words, Kurds were barred from office. This was an explicit manifestation of the mistrust the state felt for Kurds, who were not allowed positions within the state unless they cast off their Kurdish identity.

This continues in our time in a far harsher manner. Anyone who wishes for examples can simply look at the number of doctors and other public servants dismissed from their roles due to security investigations.

The plan’s eighth article stated that the region’s inhabitants would pay through taxation for expenses incurred by the state as a result of rebellions. Similar measures exist today, with the state demanding payment for its expenses for conducting operations in the region.

The ninth article bestowed the government with the right to exile political and tribal leaders and their relatives to other parts of the country. 

During the period after the plan was written the authorities began campaigns displacing Kurds from their villages en masse, and this policy made a return in the 1990s. This resembled a form of genocide, as Kurds were relocated far from their homelands to new cities without being given homes or jobs.

Up to our times, security policies have had a paralysing effect on the economy in the southeast, with few opportunities for work in every sector. This, too, has caused mass migration of Kurdish youth to large cities around Turkey. 

Many of the Eastern Reform Plan’s articles relate to assimilationist policies, among them prohibitions against the use of the Kurdish language in government jurisdictions, including governorates, town halls, schools, marketplaces and other institutions. The same prohibitions were fully adopted in the 1982 constitution, which the military drafted after taking control of the country in a military coup two years earlier.

The language prohibitions laid out in that constitution effectively continue to this day, even though they were seemingly repealed in reforms in 2001. 

This means that even now, the ban on Kurdish continues de facto in parliament. Moreover, while letters that are not in the Turkish alphabet like Q, W and X are allowed to be used in other languages like English, they are not used by the government in its record of Kurdish names and words. 

So today, while shop or street signs exist around Turkey in Arabic or in English using these letters, it suddenly becomes a problem when a word with Q, X or W appears on a sign in Kurdish. This can only be explained as a hangover of the Eastern Reform Plan.

It is worth remembering the history of that plan, how it was formed after Sheikh Said’s rebellion in 1925 and how the period after its policies were implemented was marked by further rebellions, bloody massacres and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

Coming to our time, we see that while the name and form of the plan has changed, it is clearly still in effect.

We witnessed this in the period of destruction after the peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party broke down in 2015, and the government sent its tanks and heavy weaponry to Cizre, Sur, Yüksekova, Nusaybin and other Kurdish cities in the southeast. The military response left districts levelled, killed large numbers of civilians and displaced more than half a million people. The chaos still continues to this day in Diyarbakır’s Sur district.

In the ongoing curfews imposed on Sur, we see the continuation of the Eastern Reform Plan.

We see the same policies at play in the Interior Ministry’s seizure of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)’s municipalities in Mardin, Van, and Diyarbakır on Aug. 19, just months after we won those seats in the local elections. This time, the government uses executive decrees or a state of emergency, but the spirit is the same.

Thus the changing names of these measures signifies little. Nearly a century has passed, but the same short plan – whose length and details are insufficient to fill out a single book – is still in play. 

* Dr Selcuk Mizrakli is the elected mayor of Diyarbakir. Deposed from his post, he penned this article from prison, exclusively for Ahval.

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.