The Kurdish-Turkish Conflict and its Relation to the Theories of Misperception, Identity and Culture
Comparing of Several Theories about the Origin of Conflicts with the Turkish-Kurdish Conflict
The Turkish-Kurdish Conflict and its relation to the Theories of Misperception, Identity and Culture
by Uta Freyer 30/11/14
The Kurdish–Turkish conflict is an armed conflict between the Republic of Turkey and various Kurdish insurgent groups, which have demanded separation from Turkey to create an independent Kurdistan, or to have autonomy and greater political and cultural rights for Kurds inside the Republic of Turkey. The main rebel group is the Kurdistan Workers' Party or PKK, which is considered a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States, the European Union and NATO. The PKK was founded in 1978. There have been many revolts between the Turkish and Kurdish population in the history; but the revolt since 1984, when the PKK attacked Turkish police stations and military bases, is the longest ongoing since ever. In 2013, Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK, announced the end of armed struggle and a ceasefire with peace talks.
The Kurdish population with 25-30 Million people are worldwide the biggest nation without a state. They are divided into several states in which they live as a minority. Most Kurdish people live in Turkey and Iraq, but there are also minorities in Iran and northern Syria. In every country the Kurdish population needs to fight for recognition and equal rights, but the strongest troubles took place in Turkey.
In this essay, I will compare several theories about the origin of conflicts with the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. I will start with to illustrate the connection between “War and Misperception” (Jervis 1988) and the Turkish-Kurdish conflict; further I want to disclose the theory of “Identity and Conflict” (Brewer 2011) and “The Cultural Dynamics of Ethnic Conflict” (Ross 1998) in relation to the history of the Kurds.
War and Misperception: Jervis (1988) argues in his article, that it seems, on balance, that states would asses the adversary intent in a negative tend and are more likely to overestimate the hostility of others than to underestimate it. States would be prone to exaggerate the reasonableness of their own positions and hostile intent of the others; indeed, the former process would feed the latter (p.688). Every perception is hypothetical and so does not permit conclusive answers (p.683); a problem would lie in determining whether perceptions are accurate (p.680). Pessimism about current diplomatic and long-run military prospects may lead statesmen to exaggerate the possibility of current military victory as a way of convincing themselves that there is, in fact, a solution to what otherwise would be an intolerable dilemma (p.676). Perceptual dynamics could cause statesmen to see politics as safe when they actually were very dangerous or, in the final stages of a deep conflict, to see war as inevitable and therefore to see striking first as the only way to limit destruction (p.675).
A transmission of Jervis theory could explain the foundation and attack of the Kurdish rebel group `Kurdish Workers Party´ (PKK). Historically, the Kurds were squeezed between two equally strong rivals, the Ottoman and the Persian empires. Using the rivalry to their advantage, the Kurds were able to construct a buffer zone and enjoy a large degree of autonomy until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Ottomans began to consolidate their borders, their campaign included the elimination of Kurdish autonomy on the eastern front and, as a result, some Kurdish groups revolted (Saatci 2002, p.556). Until the late 1800s the word Turk did not have any political meaning (Saatci 2002, p.554). After the foundation of the Turkish Republic as a nation-state, those minorities with a religion other than Islam but no territorial claim, specifically the Jews, were allowed to become citizens. The Greeks and Armenians, being the non-Muslim minorities whose numbers were greatly reduced by the conflicts before and during the World War 1, were either compelled to assimilate or were expelled through pressure or population exchange programs. The Turkish state then focused its attention on the Kurds and made efforts to integrate them. They chose to eradicate the issue through forced assimilation (Saatci 2002, p.557). But- what was “this issue”? This issue was a perceived threat through the existence of the Kurdish population with their differentness, as another ethnic tribe inside the country; the kemalistic ideology provided a homogenous Turkish state. The perceived threat of the Turks was- probably- the fear that the Kurds aspired to autonomy and to undermine the Turkish state. The Kurds themselves had no clear political direction; they were discordant about their aspiration to an autonomic empire. Some Kurdish politicians with high influence were assured to have a better strategy in ensuring their political power through cooperation with the respective state they were living in. This also conducted to fights between Kurdish subgroups.
However, the efforts for assimilation of the Turkish state created a sharper line than ever before (Saatci 2002, p.557). They were facing not only restrictions on religious practises, but also cultural extinction. This long-lasting discrimination released the foundation of the PKK and their armed revolts.
As a summary, both sides did not trust for diplomatic prospects. They had a negative assumption about cooperation and cohabitation with their different cultural backgrounds. Nowadays, the political situation changed. Both parties aspire to find a political solution in cooperation. The Kurds abandoned their pursuit for autonomy; they try to negotiate bigger autonomy and more rights inside the Turkish nation as an independent minority inside the Turkey. Why was this solution not feasible before officially 45.000 people (dpb 2014) died, hundred thousands were injured and millions of people needed to flee?
In my interpretation, the conflict is an example for the overestimation on both sides: the Turkish party overestimated the threat of the Kurdish population and underestimated their willingness for cooperation. They construed the differentness of the Kurdish population as a risk for Turkish identity. On the other hand, the Kurdish population overestimated the Turkish efforts for Assimilation as a danger for their cultural and political identity and started a riot.
Certainly, every side has its causes and justification for their own view of the whole process. Therefor it could be seen critical to speak about misperception; more accurate would it be to denominate the term as a perception. Each side with its perspective and history has its own statement of grounds that is difficult to define. In any case, the exact effect of misperception cannot be defined in detail. Thus, it will remain theoretical and speculative what exactly would have happened if the history would have been changed. (“War has so many causes (…) and misperceptions has so many effects (…) that it is not possible to draw any definitive conclusion about the impact of misperception on war”- Jervis 1988 p.675). The theory of misperception by Jervis does not find an answer in detail for this complexity.
“Identity of Conflict” and “The cultural dynamics of Ethnic Conflicts”
Brewer asserts in her essay about identity and conflict that group identity or collective identity had often been implicated in the origin and maintenance of intergroup conflict. When a group identity is important and salient, the individual would be motivated to enhance group welfare and protect group interests, including defending the group boundaries from encroachment, protecting group values from dilution, and preserving group integrity. Concerns for symbolic threats to group values and icons or lack of respect and recognition would be often conceptualized as the subjective “irrational” bases of intergroup hostility and fear, posed in opposition to concerns for objective or “realistic” threats to material welfare and group existence as posited by rational actor theories of group behaviour (Brewer 2011, p.125). This theory explains the development of the build-up of arms of the PKK: The Turkish politics eliminated the word “Kurds” from use, the Kurdish language was banned and Turkish names replaced Kurdish names for children and towns. Education in schools was forbidden in Kurdish language, definitions and explanations about Kurds and their (historical) housing development area were banished. The Turkish politic of assimilation denied the cultural and ethnic differences.
In opposite of that, Brewer explains the importance of group identification for the self: Identity is central to how people make sense of the world (p.134). A particular individual belongs or does not belong, respectively, to social groupings. In-group membership would be more than cognitive classification: it carries emotional significance as well (p.126). Cooperation between individuals will occur only to the extend that they have a high proportion of shared genes, since helping close relatives perpetuate ones own genes. Further, for one group to maintain its legitimacy, it must delegitimize the other (p.135). Once a people feels wronged or humiliated, they are vulnerable to political leaders or demogogs who exploit the sense of fear, humiliation, and victimization to define themselve in terms of this offended identity, suppress other allegiances, inflame vengeance against the offending “other” and set the stage for war and lethal violence (p.137).
This threat of identity in the Kurdish-Turkish conflict can be an explanation for both sides. Every side feels threaten in the maintenance of their identity as a nation and justified thereby the attack or the elimination in designing laws, compulsory change of residence for a huge amount of villages with the aim of eradication, military attacks, suicide attacks and many more.
At last I want to assume the impact of culture to conflict. Ross argues in this article about culture as a socially constructed, shared, collective structure as a usefully thought of as a worldview which explains why and how individuals and groups behave as they do and includes both cognitive and affective beliefs about social reality and assumptions about when, where and how people in ones culture and those in other cultures are likely to act in particular ways (Ross 1998, p.160). The intragroup bonds would act almost like a secret code (p.161). He argues further that realist analyses would emphasize the state as a key actor in international politics whereas a cultural analysis sees the role of the state as more variable (p.163). Ross argument is that culture becomes politically relevant when it serves as a threat to a group legitimacy. This argumentation, in my point of view, summarizes all three theories in an accurate way. On example for this is the embargo of the Turkish state to celebrate the Kurdish Newroz-festival in spring. In its meaning it is the celebration for the new year for Kurdish population. It became more and more a political statement for the Kurds in Turkey and was forbidden than, because Turkish politicians suspected attacks and riots. For the Kurdish population the embargo was a sign for even more anger and hate, because they felt unaccepted in their traditions and beliefs. The conflict and the aggression grew more and more every year in which the celebrations were forbidden. This is an example for a typical misperception where a population is not getting acclaimed in its values, culture and identity. Build-up of arms, violence and aggression develops very easy and conflicts can escalate, as it happened in this case.