You are all Kurds now!

Many in Turkey were outraged when the Turkish government issued a decree last November, granting immunity to civilians taking the law into their own hands to combat supporters of the 2016 coup.

But it was not the first time that such a law has been enacted in Turkey; a similar carte blanche was given as long ago as 1931, when the seven-year-old Republic of Turkey was suppressing a series of revolts in its Kurdish provinces.

The 1931 law said “acts and behaviours carried out individually or collectively” between June and December the previous year by local authorities, security forces and civilians helping “during the pursuit and extermination of the revolts” in parts of the mainly Kurdish southeast “will not be considered as crimes”.

According to official history in Turkey, Turks and Kurds are like meat and potatoes; they fought the War of Independence together; and they founded the republic together.

The Kurds, however, were never particularly happy with the Turkification policies of the new republic designed to create a homogeneous Turkish nation. They preferred to preserve their own language, and more generally, their own cultural traditions.

That was not too surprising considering that the Kurds were the largest “non-Turkish” ethnic group in the republic. According to some sources, out of 13,542,795 people living in Turkey in 1927, 1,184,446 were Kurdish-speakers, and they were concentrated in a large, contiguous territory in southeastern Turkey, forming a plurality in seven provinces.

In the wake of the abolition of the Ottoman sultanate in 1922 and the caliphate in 1924, the alliance between the Turks and the Kurds began to break down, triggering a series of rebellions between 1925 and 1938.

The most important of these was the revolt led by Sheikh Said, the chief of the Nakşibendi dervishes, which broke out in the eastern provinces in February 1925 and had spread to much of the southeast by the following month. In passing, let us note that according to a booklet published by the Turkish Joint Chiefs of Staff quoted by Baskın Oran, 18 revolts broke out in Turkey between 1924 and 1938; 17 of these were located in the east.

The government’s response to the rebellion was swift and ruthless. Fethi Okyar was replaced by İsmet İnönü as Prime Minister; and the parliament approved the Law for the Maintenance of Order, which gave extraordinary powers to the government for two years and remained in force until 1929. In the meantime, special tribunals were set up in the east and the capital Ankara. The revolt was crushed and Sheikh Said and his followers were captured, sentenced to death and executed.

It was by now clear that the government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the republic after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, had no room for a separate Kurdish identity. The new nationalist ethos denied the identity of the Kurds, claiming they, like the Turks, had migrated from Central Asia, though four thousand years earlier.

The thesis also asserted that the Kurds had fallen under the influence of the Persians and had forgotten their mother tongue. Perhaps because of this, it was commonly believed that the Kurds were more prone to assimilation, and could be easily Turkified through the ideological apparatus of the state, notably through the educational system and conscription to the armed forces.

More concrete policies also targeted the Kurds, starting with the Eastern Reform Plan of 1925, which called for prohibition of the public use of Kurdish in areas with mixed Turkish and Kurdish populations, the deportation of families who posed a security risk to western Turkey, and the establishment of an Inspectorate General to govern eastern Turkey and of a military regime in the region until the measures were fully implemented.

It was in this context that the above-mentioned immunity law of 1931 came into force. Deportations became more widespread and systematic with a law of 1934 that authorised the settlement of Caucasian and Balkan immigrants in traditionally Kurdish areas.

The main objective of the law, the government said, was to “civilise” society and make Turkey a country that spoke the same language, felt the same and thought the same.

In the following years, the Kurds have continued to share the fate of other ethnic groups not considered to be part of the “Turkish nation”. Turkey’s Kurds have also rejected this status as they believe it makes them second-class citizens, and have preferred to view themselves as one of the founding elements of the country.

The pressure on the Kurds reached a new height after the military coup of 1980. All signs of a separate Kurdish identity were prohibited by the junta, including the Kurdish language, banned by Law No. 2932 of 1983 that remained in force until 1991. The displacement of large numbers of civilians and the burning of Kurdish villages then became common practice as part of the military struggle with the armed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The Kurds have either “lived” through these events, or have listened to the stories about atrocities from family members.

And 86 years after 1931, the government issued a decree under the state of emergency powers instituted in the aftermath of the July 2016 failed coup attempt.

It said that “individuals engaged in suppressing the attempted 15 July 2016 coup, terrorist actions or other actions that are a continuations of these, regardless of whether or not they hold an official title or whether or not they are executing official duties” would be immune from criminal and financial responsibility.

As somebody said, “With the last executive order, you are all Kurds now!”

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