A Kurdish Problem

For The Boston Review:

On the morning of June 7 this year, a car bomb exploded in front of Istanbul’s Vezneciler metro station. Used by tourists and thousands of university students daily, it was a ten-minute walk from my home. Perplexed Turks gathered at the tape strung around the site, watching as the husk of a police bus was towed away, the presumable target of a powerful blast that killed twelve. The closest I could get was the sixteenth-century Shehzade mosque, more than a hundred meters away from the blast, where workers nimbly collected shards of ancient stained-glass windows.

A friend of a friend, a young police officer assigned to the nearby Istanbul Municipality office, was among the dead. A few days later, there was barely room to breathe as thousands of men lined up for his funeral prayers at the Fatih Mosque. Newly restored, it has become the center of life for the pious in Istanbul’s most conservative area. At one corner of the mosque’s courtyard, a permanent funeral pavilion is erected where the state’s martyrs are displayed before burial.

“May Allah accept him as a martyr,” the imam prayed. “May Allah allow us to fight our nation’s enemies, from within and without.” Military brass in pressed uniforms mingled with bearded old men who recalled decades of secular coups their superiors had perpetrated.

A hardline offshoot of the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) claimed responsibility for the bombing, calling it retaliation for a war in the southeast that has killed 2,300 and displaced 350,000. In that area of the country, car bombings and roadside IEDs kill police, soldiers, and civilians on almost a daily basis. The PKK—designated a terrorist organization by NATO, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the European Union—has been fighting Turkey for Kurdish autonomy since 1984. Its last insurgency, which peaked in the 1990s, killed at least 35,000. The current one may turn out to be as bloody: the explosives used today in Turkey are far more potent and powerful, and the PKK has used them in places where it impossible to avoid killing civilians along with security forces.

But the conflict is not so simply described as a war between Kurds and Turkey, as it is often portrayed in Western coverage. Members of the thirty million–strong Kurdish demographic in the region—the largest stateless ethnic group in the world—can be found on all sides of an increasingly complex, multifaceted conflict that stretches across Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

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