The words "Kurdish minority" passed from the lips of U.S. President Barack Obama during his meeting with students in Istanbul on Tuesday, with the potentially troublemaking term leaving an echo of controversy in Turkey.
Although Obama emphasized the need to protect and promote the political rights of Kurds, his use of the term "minority" displeased political parties with typically disparate views on the Kurdish issue and was met with caution by Kurdish intellectuals in Turkey.
Selahattin Demirtaş, the parliamentary group deputy leader for the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, or DTP, said he refused to be referred to as a minority because the term does not fit Kurds’ situation in Turkey, where they number 15 million, by some estimates, out of a population of 72 million. "As the DTP, we do not describe Kurds as a minority," Demirtaş told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review yesterday. "Kurds are a people living in their homeland and they are one of the principal founders of the Turkish Republic."
The question that prompted Obama’s controversial use of the phrase referred to the (now seemingly unlikely) possibility of the northern Iraqi Kurdish administration breaking away from the Iraqi capital of Baghdad. "You will let there be a Kurdish state in northern Iraq? You'll allow this?" the student asked.
After assuring the audience that the United States "would be opposed to anything that would start cutting off parts of Turkey," the U.S. president went on to stress the importance of rights of minority communities.
"Now, I also think that it's important that the Kurdish minority inside of Turkey is free to advance in the society and that they have equal opportunity, that they have free political expression, that they are not suppressed in terms of opportunity," the U.S. president said. "I think that the president and prime minister are committed to that, but I want to continually encourage allowing, whether it's religious minorities or ethnic minorities, to be full parts of the society," Obama said, emphasizing later in the discussion that he himself is a member of a racial minority in the United States.
"Obama is using the European Union language," Ahmet Ersin, a member of Parliament’s human rights committee and the İzmir deputy for the main opposition Republican People’s Party, or CHP, told the Daily News. "Kurds cannot be considered a minority in Turkey. They are a principal unit of the country. The rhetoric on ’minority’ is false." Ersin said he suspects that preparations are being made to change what he termed "fundamentals."
"Among these is some work on the Kurdish question," he said. "If they have a will to grant Kurds minority status, this is unacceptable."
The CHP and the DTP are often on opposing sides of the Kurdish question, with the former arguing that the state should be "blind" to the ethnicity of its citizens and the latter demanding constitutional guarantees for the cultural and political rights of Kurds.
Kurdish authors cautious
Kurdish intellectuals had different views on whether the word "minority" suits their position within Turkish society. İrfan Babaoğlu, the president of the Kurdish Writers’ Association in Turkey, said Kurds could not be considered a minority because "Kurds have woven the fate of this country together with the Turks and have the right to occupy seats even in top levels of the state." Babaoğlu was not convinced that minority status would help Kurds in their demand for cultural expression. "It is Kurds’ most natural right to express their culture. Minority rights do not meet these necessities," the Kurdish author said. "It is appropriate, however, for Obama to express the Kurdish issue, which was denied for decades in Turkey."
Kurdish writer Şeyhmus Diken said there are two different attitudes about the concept "minority," one that belittles the diminished numbers of a people and another that emphasizes a need for protection of a certain group. "I think Obama used the word in its latter form, in which I see no problem," Diken said. "I am against a description that takes Kurds as a diminishing people in need of special care."
The definition since 1923
In Turkey, the term ’minority’ is defined solely in terms of religion, not ethnicity, by the Lausanne Treaty, which was signed in 1923 to establish Turkey’s borders. The treaty refers to "non-Moslem" minorities in one chapter. Armenians, Greeks and Jews are thus legally considered as minorities, and thus enjoy special rights such as being able to "establish and manage at their own expense É schools and other establishments for instruction and education, with the right to use their own language." Not all Christians wanted to be noted as a minority in the Lausanne Treaty, however. The Syriac community, for example, opted out of the categorization.