After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan
Jonathan Randal
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25

Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict: An International Security Reader
Edited by Michael E. Brown, Owen R. Cot, Jr., Sean M. Lynn-Jones, and Steven E. Miller
MIT Press, $18

The Ends of the Earth: A Journey Into the Dawn of the 21st Century
Robert D. Kaplan
Random House, $27.50

A Modern History of the Kurds
David McDowall
St. Martin’s, $17.95 (paper)

Edited by Roger Griffin
Oxford University Press, $17.95

The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order
Samuel P. Huntington
Simon & Schuster, $26

Reluctant Neighbor: Turkey’s Role in the Middle East
Edited by Henri J. Barkey
US Institute of Peace, $22

Much of the world’s conflict is now concentrated in the old precincts of imperial Turkey: the Balkans, Chechnya, Caucasus, Persian Gulf, Levant, Kurdistan. These violent fractures have brought Turkey renewed attention, as have its own turbulent civil war, continuing struggles with Greece, and burgeoning Islamic revival. Three years ago diplomat Richard Holbrooke told Congress that “Turkey stands at the crossroads of almost every issue of importance to the United States on the Eurasian continent.” In Washington, Turkey is now breathlessly spoken of as a “front-line state” in the perilous Middle East and a key link to Caspian Sea oil. In the language of US strategic significance, Turkey is hot.

Until recently, however, Turkey was largely ignored by the American intelligentsia; not much of Byzantines, Ottomans, or modern-day Turks and Kurds is found in school curricula or popular culture. This oversight is now being reversed. In his recent political travelogue , Robert Kaplan writes:

Astride two continents and two climatic zones, Istanbul near the turn of the twenty-first century was a lesson in the ramifications of plate tectonics, from where the plates of the Greek-Slavic Orthodox world (European, yet somewhat Oriental) and the Turkic world (Asiatic, yet Westernizing) collide, recoil, and collide again.

Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order renders a less romantic but equally sweeping judgment: Modern Turkey, he says, is a “torn country,” neither West nor East, rooted in Islam but yearning to be European. And that sums up the emerging view of Turkey: a house divided against itself, split along religio-cultural (fundamentalist/secularist) or national (Turkish/Kurdish) lines.

This view–“our” values versus theirs, ancient animosities at work, and so on–may be convenient to the habits of American journalists and policy makers, but it is seriously misleading. Turkey is divided against itself, but the source of the division is a decrepit ideology forged by one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable men: Mustapha Kemal, later called “Ataturk.” The ideology, sometimes called “Kemalism,” is a resilient strain of fascism that still grips Turkey 75 years after its dramatic appearance at the end of the World War I.



The Turkish state created by Ataturk from 1920 to 1923 was built on nationalism and secular modernization. It relied on military power to achieve both objectives, and has remained dedicated to this dual purpose ever since. Correspondingly, its two mortal challenges are the Kurdish insurgency led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the anti-modern/anti-secular reaction of large numbers of Muslims, led politically by the Welfare Party (Refah Partisi). The current crises–a civil war with the PKK that has left 27,000 dead, and a confrontation between Islamic “fundamentalism” and the military–are recurrent themes of modern Turkey’s history.

Turkish nationalism germinated in the waning years of the Ottoman sultan and flowered quickly at the end of World War I. The humiliation spurred by the Treaty of Sevres (which guaranteed the virtual disappearance of a Turkish state) was unacceptable to a small group of patriot-intellectuals who despised the sultan’s backwardness and cowardice. Attracted to European culture, these “Young Turks” devised a new conception of Turkish nationalism founded not on a sultan or caliph, but on a romantic view of the Turkish people. When the Ottoman empire came apart at its seams, a tattered fabric of many nationalities ready to separate from the empire, the vision of a Turkish nation-state emerged as the sturdiest cloth.

One man acted with particular force on this new image of Turkey: Mustapha Kemal, who, as a 33-year old general, had dealt the British their bitter defeat at Gallipoli in 1914. When the Ottoman sultan came under British domination at the end of the war, Kemal saw the political opportunity. Dispatched to central Anatolia as inspector general in April 1919, Kemal quickly rejected the sultan’s capitulations, assembled a national congress, declared independence, established a new capital in Angora (now Ankara), and issued a National Pact setting forth the principles of what would become the Turkish Republic. Britain responded by spurring an invasion by the Greeks that was repelled after a brutal two-year war.

At war’s end, Kemal banished the sultan and gradually reduced the power of Islam in the political life of the new republic. These actions, controversial even within his inner circle, were unambiguous: there is no turning back, he was saying, and no standing still. The new Turkish nation would look to the West–toward secular, industrial, progressive Europe–for its future. Islam had served Kemal well, providing the fervor that defeated Greece, but when the state was safe the gazi discarded all vestiges of Islam. He abolished the caliphate, banned Muslim headdress, altered the calendar and work week, and changed from Arabic to Latin script. Though Islam was not outlawed, it was displaced from the center of society.

In this new climate, the republic grew in Kemal’s own image. When he adopted a surname–another bow to Western ways–he chose purposefully: Ataturk, “Father of Turks.” He was the father, the progenitor, of a new state shaped by three principles of governance and philosophy at the core of his own life: a military ethos, a leading role of the central government in all matters, and the idea of a Turkish nation.

The pivotal position of the military was built directly on Ataturk’s shoulders. Secularism was taken up as a military virtue, and the gap created by his rejection of Islam was partially filled in the political sphere by the regimen, orderliness, and hierarchy of military life. The military remained at the core of Kemalism, its fiercest enforcer. Statism was the civil corollary to this military preeminence. As Ataturk declared in his 1931 manifesto, “It is one of our main principles to interest the State actively in matters . . . especially in the economic field, in order to lead the nation and the people to prosperity in as short a time as possible.” Ataturk’s model was not a Soviet-inspired collectivism, and did not discourage private enterprise. But the large industries–energy, transportation, steel, and the like–were deemed too vital to leave to the weak instruments of capitalism.

The axis of Ataturk’s revolution, however, was the idea of a Turkish nation. The Ottoman Empire had been a classic dynasty based on the triumph of a clan–the family of Osman–and guided by religion. Within the Empire, the identity of a citizen was firstly that of a Muslim; “Turk” was used derisively to denote an uncultured peasant of Anatolia. Ataturk nurtured a fresh concept of Turkishness, built around a people–a Turkish nation or “race”–with its own glorious record of historical achievement. “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk,” was his famous evocation of patriotism, and the state and political culture he forged over two decades aimed to reinforce that image. These efforts sometimes took absurd forms, such as the claim (supported by Ataturk) that the Turkish people founded Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern civilizations. But Ataturk’s more mundane initiatives were of lasting importance. The change from Arabic script, for example, was part of a larger program to revive and enrich the Turkish language and give it a distinctly national form, while severing a link to the Islamic past.

From the first, then, Kemalism was devoted to rational nation building, in contrast to European fascism, which was born in a ferocious rebellion against the Enlightenment. Still, Ataturk’s ideology bears particularly striking similarity to Italian fascism. The urge to make over a “corrupt” society, to transform and modernize through the power of the state, to exalt and enforce–often violently–an exclusive racialism, and to impose martial order: these pivotal features characterized both. And, like much of European fascism, Kemalism was rooted in a fateful trauma and fueled by a sense of exceptional worth.

The Turkish trauma was the loss of a great empire. Culminating in 1914-18, that loss occurred over many decades, and was thus ingrained in the Turkish psyche. Though little scapegoating attended this national trauma, the new Turkish state was distinctly racialist: the massive population transfer with Greece in 1923, the continuous harassment of Armenians and Assyrians, and the complete denial of Kurdish identity all express its vibrantly exclusionary nationalism. At the same time, Turkishness was raised to a special virtue. While he inherited the nationalism of the Young Turks, Ataturk was far more ambitious in creating an entirely new foundation of statehood. This dynamic nationalism, working together with his militarism and statism, set him apart from mere authoritarians of the twentieth century.

The exercise of power in Ataturk’s Turkish Republic–at times quite ruthless, based on military power and ethos–also bore a troubling likeness to fascism. It was, until many years later, a dictatorship that employed terror and propaganda at will, utilizing a one-party state and the army to proselytize coercively. Ataturk himself became a cult figure; even today, “insulting” Ataturk is a serious crime.

To be sure, Kemalism had its own distinguishing features that set it apart from European fascism: it lacked the psychotic extremism of the Nazis, the comic overreaching of Mussolini, and the territorial ambition of both. Kemalism was also distinguished by its success. It survived, and then gradually accepted a (highly imperfect) form of democratic governance, beginning a dozen years after Ataturk’s death. In part because of this success and softening, Kemalism has generally escaped the onus of fascism. Roger Griffin’s Fascism–a 1995 collection that includes Griffin’s own excellent, defining essay–excludes Ataturk’s phenomenon even though it fits virtually all of Griffin’s ten characteristics. Nearly alone in this attribution is Jonathan Randal’s After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? impressionistic survey of the Kurds, Randal insightfully notes that “with the passage of time Kemalism became less a modern concept than an aging reflection of foreign ideologies, borrowed from the French and Russian revolutions and from Mussolini’s corporate state.”

Another reason for the oversight is that Kemalism’s virulence was largely hidden from view for several decades. Only now, and only gradually, are we beginning to understand the genocide committed against Turkey’s Kurdish population, an intentional extermination of “Kurdishness” that began in the first years of the Republic.



The Kurdish tribes of Anatolia, which predate the Turkish presence in the Middle East, sided with Ataturk against the British and Greeks in the early 1920s, but the Turks quickly turned on their Muslim brothers. From 1923 on, Ataturk’s repression of Kurdish nationalism and even Kurdish identity was savage and predatory. He filled the Kurdish southeast with Turkish administrators, gave land to Turkish war veterans, forbade the use of Kurdish language in court, and, most important, banned the native tongue in schools, effectively denying formal education to Kurdish children. The measures quickly spurred a Kurdish uprising, led by Sheik Said, which erupted throughout the southeast in 1925. It was quashed by overwhelming Turkish force: Ataturk, using the ragtag revolt as a pretext for assuming dictatorial powers which he never completely relinquished, crushed the Kurdish insurgents. Sheik Said and 660 of his compatriots were executed, most by public hanging, and another 7,500 were arrested. Villages were destroyed, massacres reported. The response was well in excess of the challenge, and the army’s terrorism bred more resistance; individual towns and villages rose up through the ensuing years. The army’s reply was again harsh: hundreds of villages were razed, thousands of Kurds killed, and perhaps half a million were deported. The tribal rebellions persisted through the 1930s, the bloodiest of which (in Dersim, now Tunceli province) may have taken 40,000 lives as a result of army reprisals. Turkish Kurdistan was placed under a nearly permanent state of martial law and a news blackout.

The basis of the confrontation was Turkish nationalism. The Turkish state from 1923 onward simply refused to acknowledge that Kurds even existed–they were known, until the 1990s, as “Mountain Turks.” The new mythology of Turks as founders of the great Asian civilizations neatly folded the Kurds into that conceit. Scholarly work on Kurdish history was outlawed. A “Turkification” program was instituted in the southeast, raising the visibility of Turkish culture, moving Turks into the area, and earnestly promoting the cult of Ataturk. At the same time, the area, so long a pastoral and agrarian economy, was steadily impoverished by pogroms, deportations of Kurdish elites, and the disappearance of the Christian entrepreneurial class.

Chief among the insults was the attack on language, which penetrated beyond the formal venues of court or schoolroom. The Ankara regime replaced Kurdish village names with Turkish equivalents, forbade the naming of children with Kurdish names, and outlawed the singing of Kurdish folk songs. Because only one Kurd in twenty could speak Turkish in the first years of the Republic, the denial of their own language was economically devastating.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as David McDowall explains in his excellent Modern History of the Kurds, the situation became more desperate. Unemployment among Kurds rose by 150 percent between 1967 and 1977. By the early 1990s, less than 10 percent of adults in the Kurdish southeast had industrial jobs, and those tended to be in low-skilled industries. On the large landowners’ estates, peasants would work eleven hours a day for $2. Children–the fortunate survivors of a 30 percent mortality rate–would work alongside their parents. Less than a third of the population received any formal education and less than one in five women attended school.

The demise of viable agrarian life and the growth of urban poor and unskilled youth radicalized large segments of the Kurdish people–20 percent of Turkey’s population. However varied in social outlook and separated by tribes, dialects, and rates of assimilation, the Kurds were ripe for rebellious nationalism. Their chance came with the creation of the PKK in 1974 on the campus of Ankara University. The founder, Abdullah Ocalan, modeled the PKK on other Marxist liberation movements that employed revolutionary violence. By 1980, the PKK was poised to respond to the pivotal event of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict: the September 12 coup.

For the outside world, the coup was a bloodless, temporary measure, engineered by a “reluctant” military, and essential to eliminating terrorist threats and restoring order. To the Kurds in southeastern Turkey, the generals’ reign was a new wave of terror and repression, rivaled only by the sanguinary pogroms of the 1930s. While many Turkish militants of left and right were prosecuted, vast numbers of Kurdish nationalists were targeted. The new constitution promulgated by the junta (which remains in force today) was designed to punish Kurdish nationalism: the mere recognition of a distinct Kurdish identity was criminalized, and the Kurdish language was effectively outlawed. The statements by junta leader General Evren at the time of the coup, which focused on keeping Turkey undivided, and the arrests and trials of so many prominent Kurds immediately after the military seized power, clearly exposed the junta’s primary, obsessive fear of Kurdish nationalism.

That nationalism did grow quickly in response to the dictatorship’s harsh measures. From 1984 the PKK became a force to be reckoned with, a genuine guerrilla movement significantly supported by ordinary Kurdish peasants. What began as a nuisance to the Turkish state grew over the 1980s into a large-scale civil war. By 1990, some 300,000 troops were deployed in the southeast, and an enormous amount of the national budget (with reports ranging from 25 to 40 percent) was going to support police and military operations there. In 1992, the government began a policy of forcibly evacuating villages in order to deprive the PKK of its popular support. Some 3,000 villages have been emptied, and as many as two million Kurds driven from their homes into shantytowns and overcrowded apartments in Diyarbakir, Adana, Izmir, and Istanbul–a population of “internally displaced” second in the world only to Sudan.

At issue was not so much a separate Kurdistan (the PKK dropped this goal in 1993), but cultural rights–principally the right to speak, publish, educate, and broadcast in Kurdish, aspirations confirmed in an exhaustive survey of Kurdish attitudes conducted by Ankara University Professor Dogu Ergil in 1995. President Turgut Ozal had granted limited rights to speak Kurdish in 1991, but other cultural freedoms–for example, broadcasting and educating in Kurdish–were denied. Kurdish activists were also concerned with economic development in the southeast, which the government had long promised and never delivered. Firmly in control of the civilian governments’ policy toward the southeast, the military would not allow broader cultural rights or the emergence of Kurdish political parties. Turkish nationalism, the bedrock tenet of Kemalism, could not be modified even to accommodate harmless cultural longing.

This rigidity is especially pernicious. In an insightful essay in Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict, MIT professor Stephen van Evera presents ten hypotheses on war and nationalism. One focuses on the content of nationalist ideology: “Does the ideology of the nationalism incorporate respect for the freedom of other nationalities,” he asks, “or does it assume a right or duty to rule them?” Those that exclude, he says, are forms of “hegemonistic, or asymmetrical, nationalism,” which “is both the rarest and the most dangerous variety of nationalism.” The hegemonistic type–of which Kemalism is an instance–is especially dangerous both because it cannot permit even mild deviations and because violent suppression begets violent reaction, especially against a minority with the muscle to fight back. The PKK, whose vague Marxism and violent acts alienated many Kurds, remained the only vehicle for Kurdish aspirations and the only protector against state-sponsored cultural genocide, which was rationalized by an inflexible, unitary, racialist ideology, and enforced with organized violence.

The second challenge to Kemalism–a vibrant political Islam–has also appeared often in the years of the republic. The September 12 coup occurred just six days after Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of an Islamic political party and the deputy prime minister, gave a rabble-rousing speech condemning Israel. Erbakan was arrested during the coup, and the incident renewed the tensions between Islam and the military. Like Ataturk, the generals of the 1970s and 1980s used Islam to their advantage: Marxists and Kurdish leftists were countered with military support for the so-called imam-hatip schools–religious instruction for adolescents meant to divert them from leftist politics. Meanwhile, in the junta and its aftermath, Turkish politics barely tolerated the likes of Erbakan and his new party, Refah.

But with the civil war draining the treasury, boosting inflation to more than 100 percent, piling on more debt, and strangling foreign investment, low-skilled workers and farmers–the most religious strata in Turkish society–were the first to suffer. The economic impacts of war and “globalization” drove increasing numbers to Refah. Students of the imam-hatip schools were coming of age politically. And the swarms of Kurdish refugees were given aid and comfort by Refah and other Islamic organizations. This combination of factors boosted Refah’s fortunes in 1994 municipal elections (electing mayors in Ankara and Istanbul) and December 1995 national elections, when the party won a slight plurality, enabling Erbakan to form a government six months later.

The secularist military would not tolerate Erbakan in power, however, and within a few months was demanding that he rescind his mild reforms, which permitted greater religious expression–allowing women to wear head scarves in court, for example. When he balked, the military forced a “soft coup,” threatening to oust him; finally, in June 1997, he resigned. Democratic governance would again not stand in the way of Kemalism. The military has made it clear that Erbakan will not be permitted to become premier again, even if Refah is the top vote recipient in the next election.



As Jonathan Randal deftly puts it, “Only a state as slavishly faithful to the ossified letter of its founding dogma could have backed itself into a corner as totally as Turkey did in this final decade of the twentieth century.” Randal makes a compelling case: Kemalism, sclerotic and corrupt but clinging to the rigid mindset of Turkish nationalism, could not allow the pluralism that makes Western democracies so adaptive. The obdurate military dashed hopes for economic growth and democracy, and turned perhaps a third of the electorate toward traditionalist reactionaries like Refah. Randal, whose reporting skills are legendary (while his book is oddly gossipy and repetitive), has it exactly right. McDowall’s more measured and conventional history also pinpoints Turkish nationalism as the core problem, whereas neither Huntington nor Kaplan frame the issue with quite such clarity. Huntington, to his credit, does offer a remarkable answer to this question: What follows Kemalism, if (as Huntington supposes) Turkey cannot totally escape its Islamic past and will never be accepted by Christian Europe? Turkey could, he replies “be ready to give up its frustrating and humiliating role as a beggar pleading for membership in the West and to resume its much more impressive and elevated historical role as the principal Islamic interlocutor and antagonist of the West.” (Erbakan’s inability to deliver such a vision is due to his personal failures as a politician.) Huntington says Turkey could “become a South Africa . . . changing itself from a pariah state in its civilization to the leading state of that civilization.” But the possibility of a Turkish Mandela emerging to turn that trick–to reject “Ataturk’s legacy more thoroughly than Russia has rejected Lenin’s”–is difficult to imagine among Turkey’s corrupt, obsequious, and aging elite.

Moreover, a visionary, Islamic Turkey is everything America would abhor. American backing of Ankara, lavish since the time of the 1980 coup, is predicated on precisely the opposite: that Turkey will remain not only secular and Western-oriented, but will serve as a bulwark against Islamic and Arab militancy in the region. Until the anti-foreign aid virus infected Capitol Hill, Turkey was the third-largest recipient of military assistance. The dispatch of sophisticated weaponry–F-16 fighter jets, Black Hawk and Cobra helicopters, tanks, etc.–is justified by Turkey’s “bad neighborhood”: Syria, Iraq, and especially Iran.

But the bad ‘hood rationale is a canard. As Henri Barkey and his colleagues point out in Reluctant Neighbor: Turkey’s Role in the Middle East, the relations Ankara pursues with these difficult states are complex and not without some danger (partially stemming from Kurdish restiveness). But they neither justify the weapons flow to Turkey nor fulfill the US policy of “dual containment” of Baghdad and Teheran. One could instead view Turkey as the meddlesome neighbor: sending arms to Chechen rebels and Azeri belligerents, occupying northern Cyprus, repeatedly bombing Kurdish areas of northern Iraq, threatening Syria (which harbors Ocalan), and huffing about Greece, Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Russia.

In any case, the neighborhood where the Turks use the weapons conveyed from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Texas is its own southeast, where jets and helicopters attack PKK camps and empty out Kurdish villages. It is by far the most significant use of US weapons in the world. America has supplied the muscle for Turkey’s war, and winked at the military’s actions–including its violent supression of free expression–to sustain Turkey as a platform for the protection of US “strategic interests” in the Persian Gulf and in the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, especially the flow of Caspian Sea oil. This, in essence, is what Nixon, Kissinger, and Carter did in the Shah’s Iran in the 1970s, and, in a different way, what Reagan and Bush did in Saddam’s Iraq in the 1980s: bribe tyrants in exchange for their fidelity to American interests. Both ended badly, indeed disastrously for nearly everyone. Now the disaster unfolds in Turkey: tens of thousands dead and wounded, millions homeless.

The new attention to this debacle is welcome, but the regard of a few intellectuals and journalists is unlikely to unlock the grip of ideology in Turkey or overcome American inertia. Of the former, one can say that Kemalism will ultimately lose its power; the current crisis, which includes official corruption of the dirtiest kind, indicates how tenuous Ataturk’s legacy may be, how easily it may disassemble with the right combination of charismatic leadership and the internal will to change. As to the policies of Turkey’s most stalwart ally: Washington’s embrace of the status quo is simply thoughtless and reflexive. America’s major news media regard Turkey as some sort of exotic Muslim sideshow. But the show has been running for a long time, and features a sustained pattern of massive human rights violations, among the most egregious in the twentieth century.

Would it be different, one wonders, if we saw Turkey as a fascist bully engendering its own collapse? If we saw the “white genocide” of the Kurds in a more compelling historical light, and the peril in Turkey’s re-running the “Iran precedent”? That fascism still lives in Europe is a disturbing idea. That America is its closest ally is an abhorrent one.


Order John Tirman’s Spoils of War: The Human Cost of America’s Arms Trade (from which this essay is adapted).

Originally published in the December 1997/ January 1998 issue of Boston Review