Erdoğan’s anti-Kurdish pogroms – a call for international solidarity
The wildfires in Turkey come against abackdrop of racist persecution and violence against Kurdish people.
Last Friday afternoon, in the district of Konya in south-central Turkey, seven members of a family were murdered by anti-Kurdish racists in the neighbourhood where they had lived for twenty-four years. This, alone, should illicit international condemnation of the attack and solidarity with Kurds in Turkey.
But, as if that were not enough, the same family had already suffered years of racist abuse from their neighbours, and only in May were attacked by an armed mob of around sixty people. The attackers told them ‘We are the Grey Wolves. We won’t let you live here’ and left seven family members seriously injured. The Grey Wolves is a militant street organisation linked to the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
It these two attacks fail to raise the alarm, we can also note that the state response to the attack in May was so inadequate that Barış Dedeoğulları, who was killed last week and spent three days in intensive care following the earlier attack, commented shortly before he was murdered. ‘We have now given up hope on security and law. I know now that justice does not apply to the Kurds.’ Only ten people had been detained after the May attack, with all but two of these later released; and, while the Dedeoğulları family suffered from daily racist abuse, it was the attackers who had been given police protection.
If two attacks and a major lapse in policing doesn’t generate concern, then we could look back at the previous week and see three further instances of anti-Kurdish mob violence, including another fatal attack in the same district of Konya. On each occasion, the authorities demonstrated their preference for the perpetrators of the attacks, including by forcing the Kurds to leave the district. There was a further mob attack last weekend, which, like one of the earlier attacks, forced a family of seasonal agricultural workers to return home in fear of their lives. The attackers, who threatened to burn down the house in which the family was staying, also described themselves as Grey Wolves. And on Wednesday evening, more seasonal workers were attacked with knives by a small group led by the village mukhtar, or headman. This attack took place in front of a gendarmerie sergeant who sided with the attackers.
If this pattern of officially condoned brutality is still dismissed as just the work of a few bad apples, then the reaction of the Turkish government to the Konya massacre, and police attacks on protestors who came out to show solidarity with the murder victims should draw attention to the pervasive character of this racism and its presence at all levels of Turkish society. The Interior Minister and the Chief Public Prosecutor both stated that the Konya attacks were the product of an eleven-year dispute between the families and had nothing to do with racism. They even tried to persuade the Dedeoğulları family’s lawyer to tweet out a statement to that effect. The massacre was indeed the culmination of a long history of tension, but this started with anti-Kurdish racism and it is this racism that continued to poison the relations between the neighbours. However, the official line is that it is not the racism of the attackers, but the claim that the attack is racist that is a threat to society. A protest in Istanbul in solidarity with the murdered family was attacked by racists armed with sticks, who were joined in their attack by the police. Journalists were especially targeted, and Mesopotamia Agency’s Muhammed Enes Sezgin recounted that he was attacked by four counter-demonstrators and a policeman. Police detained the journalists and not their attackers, and Sezgin told how they were beaten at the police station leaving bruises all over their bodies.
If repeated violent racist attacks, police support, and government denial is not deemed enough to prove that something is seriously rotten in Turkish politics, then an examination of government rhetoric and institutional prejudice against the Kurds and those who represent them might set what is happening in frightening context. A longer historical view would also show hostility to Kurds as endemic and built into the constitution of the nearly 100-year-old Turkish Republic. Even a map of Covid vaccination coverage can illuminate the official attitude shown towards predominantly Kurdish regions. In these areas, immunisation rates are much lower, reflecting the poverty, poor infrastructure, and distrust of government, and also government refusal to produce health information in the Kurdish language.
Turkey’s relentless crushing of Kurdish identity persuaded the founders of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to resort to armed struggle. Turkey regards the PKK as terrorists, and they also accuse anyone arguing for Kurdish rights of being linked to the PKK and in breach of anti-terrorism legislation – so depriving the Kurds of any possibility of a constitutional route through which to pursue their demands for recognition. The pro-Kurdish Leftist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) has seen thousands of members put in prison, including former party co-chairs, MPs and mayors, and their elected mayors have been replaced by government appointees. 108 leading party members are currently being put through a trial that could see them all given a life sentence, and the Constitutional Court is examining a case for the closure of the party. The constant labelling of the HDP as terrorists makes them a target for nationalist zealots, such as the man who took a gun into the HDP office in İzmir in mid-June and murdered Deniz Poyraz, a young woman who was volunteering there.
Each one of these actions is alarming, together they reveal a state where racist violence is being encouraged and nurtured from the very top. Imperial Russia had a name for such racist attacks. They called them pogroms. A pogrom is ‘an organized, officially tolerated, attack’ against a community or group – originally against Russian Jews. Governments do not have to carry out such attacks themselves. If they have created a sufficiently hostile atmosphere, they can sit back and watch them happen.
After a brief interlude of peace negotiations (between 2013 and 2015), President Erdoğan has pursued an increasingly oppressive approach towards expressions of Kurdishness and Kurdish self-organisation, and his position has been reinforced by the vicious ethnic nationalism of the MHP, on which the AKP government has depended for support since 2015. It has been noted that no MHP bills have become law, but that is to miss the point. They have shifted the government’s frame of reference further and more firmly to the right. For Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) the Kurds provide a scapegoat on whom all troubles can be blamed. Nationalist Turks might be finding it difficult to feed their family, but they are urged to unite with the government against this enemy within. And the violence and unrest this creates itself becomes an excuse for the government to call for citizens to rally round the nation and support strong central leadership. We saw how this worked with the attacks against the HDP in the run up to the November 2015 general election. Meanwhile, attacks on Kurds in Syria and Iraq are used to distract from troubles at home and provide a focus for Turkish patriotism.
Turkey is, of course, far from unique in its exploitation of racism. We are well-accustomed to its use as a political tool in the UK, especially by right-wing Brexit supporters; but in the UK this must contend with a broad antiracist consensus that itself has an establishment element. While there is no room for complacency, and recent years have witnessed worrying developments, institutional racism can still be called out. There is both a quantitative and qualitative difference between this and the pervasive anti-Kurdish racism that has come to define Turkish politics. We can see developments that are more comparable to what is happening in Turkey in Narendra Modi’s India, where Hindu’s are encouraged to attack the Muslim minority. Erdoğan has added his own fuel to the Indian fire by encouraging Indian Muslims to pursue an Islamism that further divides then from their Hindu neighbours and discourages joint action against an oppressive regime.
With wildfires sweeping through Turkey’s forests, we have seen how anti-Kurdish racism has become the prism through which people are persuaded to interpret their world and its troubles. Government supporting media – without a shred of evidence – were quick to accuse the PKK, and also the HDP, of deliberate sabotage, and although this is not the official government line, the poison has spread. As I write, reports are appearing of vigilantes stopping cars with numberplates from Kurdish majority areas in order to attack their occupants. Mehmet Deniz, a district co-chair of the HDP, was in one of the cars stopped in Antalya and has described being surrounded by twenty people with guns. He was released unhurt, but others have not been so lucky. In its public rebuttal of these accusations of deliberate fire-setting, the Kurdistan Communities Union, the umbrella organisation that includes the PKK, points out that ‘the AKP-MHP government wants to prevent the peoples of Turkey and the Kurdish people’s struggle for democracy and freedom from coming together. The AKP-MHP government sees its own end in the connection of the Kurdish people and the peoples of Turkey.’
The government’s failure to tackle the fires is causing public outcry and condemnation, and Erdoğan has demonstrated how an autocrat who surrounds himself with yes-men can misjudge the public mood. Anger was only increased – along with baffled astonishment – when he arrived in Marmaris with a convoy of over a hundred vehicles and proceeded to throw packets of tea at the crowd. It has been pointed out that Erdoğan had no problem amassing a fleet of thirteen presidential aircraft while he allowed firefighting planes to rot useless in their hangers. Turkey had the use of only three firefighting planes, which were on loan from Russia, while neighbouring Greece has twenty. Turkey has also built up their military aircraft, which they are using even now to bomb Kurds in Iraq and Syria, while appealing to the EU for planes to help extinguish the fires. It can be noted, too, that the deliberate burning of forests in Kurdish areas is a well-known practice of the Turkish military – and when it is the Kurdish landscape that is being destroyed local people are prevented from trying to extinguish the flames.
The ongoing disaster of the forest fires, and their mismanagement, is further reducing the already diminishing support for Erdoğan and his government, but that could make him even more dangerous in his determination to hold onto power by all means. Racism remains a favourite weapon in Erdoğan’s armoury, and we can expect to see it employed even more, and even more viciously. This is made easier by the lack of international condemnation in response to Turkey’s assault on human rights and freedoms. Western governments are more interested in business deals (especially for the arms trade), in NATO strategy, and in using Turkey to keep refugees out of the rest of Europe. Their effective dismissal of human rights will only change in response to pressure from below, which is why the HDP has put out a call for international solidarity against the racist attacks. Dundee and Aberdeen Trades Councils have already made public statements in response to this call. If your organisation wants to add its voice, please contact [email protected]. Meanwhile, please spread the word about what is happening – and don’t let Turkey get away with murder.