The drumbeat of war, atrocity, and other horrors often seems a ceaseless rat-a-tat-tat from the Middle East. But imprisoned Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan recently sent hopes for peace in Turkey soaring with a call to his followers to end their military campaign for an independent state.
“Weapons should go silent and ideas speak,’’ Ocalan declared in a written statement released to ethnic compatriots in southern Turkey — the Kurdish heartland — as they celebrated Nowruz, their springtime New Year festival. Many Kurdish customs and the Kurdish language were outlawed in 20th-century Turkey, an ugly oppression whose aim was to crowbar the country’s Kurds into the Turkic-speaking mainstream.
Ocalan’s remark was not just rhetoric as usual. Weary of 30 years of warfare that has claimed at least 40,000 lives, the government of Turkey and the ethnic Kurds, who form the country’s largest minority, seem determined to find a bridge to lasting peace. That’s a welcome aberration in a region notorious for undying ethnic and religious antipathies. The Turks seem grudgingly but truly committed to allowing Kurds more liberty and greater participation in government. The Kurds seem finally willing to relinquish the old dream of an independent homeland in favor of greater rights, respect, and some degree of autonomy within Turkey. Both sides seem dedicated to laying down their guns and sticking to dialogue.
Partly, the evolution on the Turkish side reflects human-rights pressure from the European Union. Ordinary Kurds, meanwhile, want to retain their identity and native tongue, yet also increasingly wish to participate in Turkey’s growing affluence. They seem readier now than in the past to see their daughters and sons acquire fluent Turkish, as well as learn useful international languages such as English or Arabic.
No final deal is done. Much can go wrong. The peace process may take years. But both sides seem well and truly sick of violence. “History and our peoples’’ — Turk and Kurd — “demand a democratic solution, and peace that matches this era’s spirit,’’ stated Ocalan.
Kurds are mostly Muslim, but famously non-fanatical when it comes to faith. Their passion is for a place to call their own — the roughly 30 million Kurds inhabiting southern Turkey and adjoining chunks of Syria, Iraq, and Iran are often described as the world’s largest ethnic group without a state. It’s easy to sympathize with the dream of a homeland. But it’s also hard to ignore that Turkish Kurds, at least, are almost certainly better off as citizens of an educated, increasingly powerful, and potentially hugely prosperous nation straddling Europe and Asia.