Islam as Peacemaker: The AKP’s Attempt at a Kurdish Resolution

According to many scholars, including Reşat Kasaba and Murat Somer, the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds has been fought along ethnic and political lines.  However, the historic exclusion of religion from Turkey’s political sphere prevented Islam from precipitating better relations.  Long restrained by Kemalist governments that regulated the influence of religion on public life, the introduction of Islam into political discourse reflects a new chapter in Turkish politics.  This shift has opened the door to massive reforms in Turkey, and the calming of historically tense relations between the Turkish state and its Kurdish population.

This paper addresses the AKP’s capabilities to initiate additional reform in the Turkish political system and achieve peaceful terms with the Kurdish population.  The renaissance of political Islam, long banned in Turkey, is pioneering the way for a future harmony with Turkey’s minorities.  I maintain that such reform would be a significant indicator that values in Turkish society are shifting away from the pillars of Kemalism, and towards a new, post-Kemalist identity defined by its engagement with Islam and the Kurds.

The AKP, a political descendant of Turkey’s religious parties, won its significant electoral victory over the Kemalist establishment in 2002 by campaigning for greater civil and religious freedoms, and its first-term successes resulted in a 12% electoral increase in 2007.  Kurdish voters played an integral role in both AKP victories because the party managed to unite their dissatisfaction with the Kemalist establishment with those advocating for greater religious reform.

By substituting Kemalist values, which were largely undemocratic and oppressive, with a moderate, tolerant Islamic identity, and bold support for multiculturalism, the AKP is challenging the Western stereotypes towards Islamic political movements, often found in the Arab world.  Using Islam as a primary form of identification and common ground, the AKP government is applying a unique step for rapprochement with the Kurdish minority.  Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has acknowledged the “long-running grievances” of the Kurds, admitting that Turkey “needs to face up to its past.” [1]Despite this, I argue that the AKP has yet to live up to its lofty goals.

The AKP’s development of a moderate Islamic and democratic political identity will only be realized once it facilitates true political cooperation with Kurdish leadership. Otherwise, marginalized Kurdish nationalists will continue to aggravate instability.  After two terms in office, it is time for Erdoğan to repay the Kurdish voters, and apply the values of political inclusion to Turkey’s largest minority.  Considering the political climate of the Middle East in the past year, the window of opportunity may not last long; in order to achieve a successful resolution, Islam needs to take a central role.  Erdoğan’s popularity has never been higher, but the future of the AKP’s legacy and Turkey’s stability hinges on his ability to ensure greater civil rights for the Kurds, and a peace between the two peoples. [2]

The AKP won its first major electoral victory in 2002, and its successes were rewarded in 2007, and again in 2011.[3]According to M. Hakan Yavuz and Nihat Özcan, “the AKP is defending the radical restructuring of the country along multiethnic lines and a greater role for Islam as a new glue for the Turkish nation.”[4] This would be diverging from Turkey’s Kemalist past “with Islamic undertones — including political and cultural rights for the Kurds.”[5] The Kurds played an integral role in both AKP victories due to the party’s electoral strategy: campaigning for greater civil rights for religious Muslims and minorities.[6] Mutual dissatisfaction with the Turkish state encouraged Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to publicly address Turkish mistakes towards the Kurdish minority.

There are many challenges to the AKP’s success, and while it has built a strong economy, the civil reforms assured by the AKP have yet been granted and many are stalled in the quagmire of parliamentary politics.  This study outlines the evolution of Islam in Turkish society and politics from the establishment of the state until the current AKP government.  Radically post-Kemalist, this study assesses the AKP’s ability to use shared Turkish and Kurdish values to reach a compromise, and eventual peace. The acceptance of religious freedom of expression in Turkey has created an opportunity for rapprochement with the Kurds and greater civil liberties, the result of which measure the success of the AKP, and its attempts to bring Turkey closer to democracy.


Islam & Ataturk’s Republic

Western scholars use the Republic of Turkey, established in 1923, as an example of how the battered and beaten Ottoman Empire summarily was resurrected by revolutionary secularists.  Even a century after the creation of the state, Thomas Smith asserts “Turkey stands out as the bright and shining model for democratic development across the Islamic world”.[7] Lead by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s revolutionaries created a new society by eliminating what they perceived as antiquated Ottoman systems of government.  Favoring Western reform, the revolutionaries forced Islam out of the political arena, and limited its relations within the Middle East.  Atatürk was inspired by the West, and was quick to share European practices with citizens of the newly formed republic. [8]

Predominant to Atatürk’s Westernization initiative, several reforms were enacted within the early years that functioned as pillars to the republican establishment. These secular laws included the banning of formal Islamic attire, including the “traditional” fez, which carried Ottoman historical and religious significance.  Religious orders, which played a dogmatic, hierarchical, and cultural role in Turkish society, were minimized. The Gregorian calendar replaced its Islamic equal, a Latin alphabet replaced the previous Arabic script, and sharia, or Islamic law, was replaced with “the Swiss Civil Code, the Italian Penal Code, and a Commercial Code”.[9] These amendments not only served to distance Islam from the political sphere, but additionally spearheaded Atatürk’s definition of a uniform Turkish identity.  Even at the end of the empire, most Turks “viewed themselves primarily as Muslims and were strongly attached to the Ottoman dynasty which they saw as both secular (sultan) and religious (caliph)”.[10] Atatürk hoped that his pillars would sever those ties.

The pillars of Kemalism, or Turkish secularism, represented the foundations of a new society Ataturk hoped to build.  Bernard Lewis writes in his book The Emergence of Modern Turkey, “the basis of Kemalist religious policy was laicism, not irreligion; its purpose was not to destroy Islam, but to disestablish it––to end the power of religion…and limit it to matters of belief and worship”.[11] Legislation to alter the public face of Islam was done not only to separate religious authorities and the state, but also to create a distinctly Turkish form of Islam, one based on the individual and less on the ulema.

Atatürk was well aware of the necessity to balance the familiar tune of Islam with a heavy dose of civil values and traditions, so while the Turkish republic was secular, Islam was never banned.  Building a system where religion is subject to the supervision of the state naturally creates tension between religious and state entities.  In the case of Turkey, however, the separation between religion and state was more ceremonial than anything else.  As early as 1924, Islam was declared the state religion, and although Atatürk ultimately retracted it, there was a frequent presence of Islamic rhetoric in state affairs.[12] Contrary to the instruction that “no one shall be allowed to exploit or abuse religion or religious feelings, or things held sacred by religion, in any manner whatsoever, for the purpose of personal or political influence”,[13] religious and opposition parties soon were allowed to enter parliament.  It can be debated whether this was a result of secularist weakness, or a desire to take steps towards democracy, however the inclusion of religion in politics certainly conflicted with Kemalist ideology.

Kurds were also impacted by Atatürk’s reforms.  Henri Barkey notes that Kurds, who had aided in Atatürk’s military campaigns were “doubly disappointed as the new Turkish regime decided to do away with two main constituents of their identity: ethnic distinctiveness and a strong attachment to religion”.[14] Along with the Kurds, the Kemalist reforms were publicly opposed by varied religious orders, which proved no match for Atatürk’s popularity, and military support.

The aforementioned reforms defined the Turkish version of laicism, where the state retains control and regulates all religious education and instruction.  Interpreted by Jonathan Fox, religious regulation is when “government engages in…restrictions or regulation that can be placed on the majority religion in a state”.[15] Although the Turkish constitution states that all citizens have “the right to freedom of conscience, religious belief and conviction”, the expression of religion was government regulated.[16] One such example is in 1950, when mandatory religious education was introduced as a joint project of the Ministry of Education and the Presidency of Religious Affairs.[17] The restriction of religious expression was a defining quality of Kemalism, and many of Turkey’s political struggles after Atatürk’s death.

Atatürk’s passing in 1938 gave way to a shift in the dynamics between citizens, the government, and the military, which had historically been the vanguard of secularist reform.  In 1946, Turkey transitioned into a multi-party system, permitting opposition movements to enter parliament.  The military, “never convinced that the level of democracy in Turkey and the quality of civilian politics was good enough to become completely subordinate to them”, conducted coups in ‘60, ‘71, and ’80 in order to remove governments it deemed “unsecular”.[18] Frequently criticized for their brutish methods, the military did succeed in maintaining secularism in Turkey during most of the 20th century.  In doing so however, the military weakened popular support for secularist governments, whose legitimacy was repeatedly called into question.  It also increased the ire of religious parties, often targeted by the military, spurring its leadership to find creative methods to entering the political sphere.

Atatürk established a rigid system of government that preached secularism, and regulated religious expression and education.  As succeeding governments lacked the authority and popularity of Ataturk, the military assumed the role of secular protector.  This pattern repeated itself over several decades, as public support for Kemalist governments and the military waned.  At the same time, Turkish Islam, long inferior to the state, rediscovered its role in society.

The series of military coups damaged the Turkish state’s reputation for tolerance in the eyes of its citizens.[19] Each coup resulted in the short-term disbandment of Islamic or non-secular parties, yet yielded the steady growth of an Islamic counter-elite,[20] which according to Nilüfer Göle “owe their professional identity and social visibility to both the modern secular education system and the Islamic movement”. The mobilization of these religious civilians fits Jose Casanova’s theory of public religion in political society.[21] Determined to find a place in a Kemalist world, traditional Muslims attended universities and printed newspapers and magazines.  They managed to integrate into both the secular world of Ataturk while preserving their Islamic values, hence creating a young, educated, Muslim middle class.

Turkish Islam

Modern Turkish Islam, as defined by M. Hakan Yavuz, is heterogeneous, “liberal and market friendly”.[22] It evolved independently of the Islamic movements of Arab and Persian cultures and also shared borders and ideas with Europe.  In contrast to its Muslim neighbors, the Ottoman Empire was never under Western colonial rule, and it subsequently “adopted the principles of Western-style governing…without much hesitation” rather than it being imposed upon them.[23]Many Islamic traditions, including Sufism, which existed in Turkey before the Ottoman Empire, advocate for dialogue and equality.  The blend of historical experience, geographic location, and religious diversity shaped Turkish Islam; nevertheless it was Atatürk’s revolution and subsequent reforms that challenged Muslim leadership to redefine the faith in accordance with the new Kemalist paradigm.

In order to examine the statistics related to different religious groups in Turkey, a brief definition of each community is necessary.  Turkey may be 99% Muslim, but the population is incredibly diverse.  The largest percentage (88.7%) is Sunni-Hanafi, most Kurds as Sunni-Shafi’i.  The third largest group worth mentioning is that of the Alevi.  A sect of Islam with Shi’ite and Sufi roots, Alevis consist of many different ethnic groups, specifically 66% from Turkish origins, and 22% from Kurdish.  As detailed by Martin van Bruinessen,

“Alevi communities may differ considerably in belief and practice from one place to the other, although their itinerant religious experts (dede) played a somewhat homogenising role. There are Turkish speaking, Kurdish and Zaza speaking Alevi communities”.[24]

Located primarily in Turkey, the Alevi have a unique history in modern Turkey, specific to the Sivas Massacre of 1993, where a Sunni mob killed 37 Alevi leaders who had gathered for a festival.[25] While the KONDA poll shows only 5.73% of the population of Turkey identifies as Alevi, it is presumed that those numbers may be lower than reality, due to a reluctance to emphasize their identity publicly.

Religious diversity is the bedrock of Turkey’s multiculturalism.  In a 2009 study conducted by SETA (Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research) and the Pollmark Research Corporation, religion was considered the “most important bond which holds people of different origins…together in Turkey” over “Shared History and Geography” and “Sense of Brotherhood”.[26] According to KONDA, 54% agreed that being Muslim was a prerequisite for being a citizen of the state and only 45% voted that being ethnically Turkish was mandatory.[27] The majority also concurred with the notion that shared religious beliefs are the proper foundation for coexistence.[28]

A “free and lively” political society is one of the integral factors to democratic state.  Early conflict lead to secular and religious circles creating an open dialogue, as “disputes over life-styles, exposure of the self, expressions of art––in short body-politics––have become central to the political debate between the two groups”.[29] More important than the competitive nature between religious and secular, the development of competing Islamic ideologies is what propelled Turkey to move towards democracy.

Born out of the need to respond to increased religious repression, the movements such as Gülen, Haydar Baş, and Milli Görüş all found their voices in the 1990s.  While the Gülen movement adopted a pro-Western policy, Haydar Baş displayed a fierce “counter secularist” identity.[30] Milli Görüş, a byproduct of both movements, abandoned its radical anti-secularist position after the February 28th coup in 1997, and began advocating for EU membership, civil reforms, and democracy.[31] AKP Prime Minister Erdoğan, a former member of Milli Görüş, who was imprisoned in 1998 for challenging the Kemalism status quo, is a product of this Islamic evolution.  One of his primary goals has been the conversion of Turkey into a nation that is cognizant, rather than fearful, of its Muslim identity.  Religion’s transition from outcast to centerpiece comes at the cost of many Kemalist principles that guided the republic in its early years, yet the AKP’s fusion of Islam and Western conservatism has taken Turkey to new heights.

In 2002, the AKP won a shocking 34.29% of the Turkish national vote against the Kemalist incumbents.  Party leader Reçep Tayyip Erdoğan, campaigning to “energize Turkey’s economy, to consolidate its democracy and to bring it into the European Union”,[32] did little to hide his beliefs in “politics as problem solving not as a means to build an ideologically oriented Islamic community”.[33] To further add to the pains of the secular elite, 2007 national election saw the AKP reach a whopping 46.6% of the vote.  These surprising results have lead to specific reforms in Turkish politics, sparking debate as to the nature and intentions of the AKP, and the future of religion v. state relations.

Many definitions of the AKP exist.  Some scholars heap praise upon the party, claiming it as “a major example of the ‘moderation’ of political Islam”,[34] while others argue “AKP rule has undermined not only the Turks’ commitment to the West but also Turkish secularism”.[35] This range of opinion only serves to complicate the image of the AKP.  M. Hakan Yavuz argues that this confusion has led to Erdoğan’s party being referred to as “fundamentalist”, “Islamist or Islamic”, a “party with Islamic roots” and a “reformed Islamist party”.[36] In order to define AKP, it is best to understand its motives based on the party platform of democracy via EU membership, globalism, and coexistence.

Leyla Şahin v. Turkey, a case on the contested issue of headscarves, brought before the European Court of Human Rights in 2005, highlights one of the major domestic challenges faced by the AKP today.  Although headscarves have been banned from public universities and government in Turkey since the creation of the republic, nearly 70% of woman in Turkey wear a headscarf, including President Gül’s wife.[37] Many Turkish politicians posit that the EU’s lenient laws on religious expression justify the removal of the ban.  In Leyla Şahin v. Turkey the European Court judged in favor of the state, and upheld the ban.[38] Although the AKP accepted the ruling, it was made apparent that EU demands, focused on minority rights, did not include that of the religious Sunni majority.  This is one such example where foreign democratic influences have not been supportive of Turkey’s current transition.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded a secular Turkish republic that restricted religious expression in public and political life.  His vision was a shortsighted prescription for the challenges facing the young state.  It did not accept that religion played a central and vital role in defining Turkish identity.  Since, Atatürk’s legacy has forced Turkish Islam on the path of reinvention and rediscovery.  Drawing on both democratic and Islamic values, a new political hybrid has emerged with the intent of overturning Atatürk’s legacy.  This process resulted in the founding of the AKP, which developed a democratic personality that opened its arms to other marginalized populations in Turkey, including the Kurds.

Unity in Diversity

The motto of the European Union, “In varietate concordia”, or “Unity in Diversity”, recognizes the challenge of preserving Europe’s immense cultural diversity and richness, while also building a collective future.[39] Throughout Turkey’s decades-long push towards EU membership, similar expectations were set.  While Kemalist leadership only prioritized unity, the AKP, led by Prime Minister Erdoğan and President Abdullah Gül, combined traditional Turkish values with the EU’s social standard in order to advocate for religious reform and multiculturalism in Turkish society.  As Bruinessen points out, “Ethnic diversity is not a problem in the mindset of the AKP; Kurds and Turks are naturally united by the fact that they are Muslims”.[40] This chapter addresses identity issues in modern Turkey, and their impact on the AKP’s relations with the Kurds.

When Turkey joined the European Union’s Culture 2000 Program, they were required to permit the expression of Kurdish identity and culture.  This initiative fosters “cultural dialogue, knowledge of the history, creation and dissemination of culture, the mobility of artists and their works, European cultural heritage, new forms of cultural expression and the socio-economic role of culture.”[41] This is one of many ways the AKP government has tried to include the various minorities in the country, in order to alter European perceptions of Turkey.  In many ways this has been a successful endeavor, Istanbul’s selection as European Capital of Culture in 2010 is a sign of EU approval towards Turkey.

If one of the goals of the AKP is begin a new chapter in Turkish history, then party leadership was keenly aware of need to address, if not embrace, the Kurdish population leading up to elections. The Kurdish vote played an integral role in the AKP victories of 2002 and 2007.  M. Hakan Yavuz and Nihat Ali Özcan explain that the Kurds voted for the AKP primarily because “Many Kurds regard the AKP as an anti-Kemalist and anti-systemic party that has been ‘suppressed’ by the same enemy as they have”.[42] According to Murat Somer, the AKP won over Kurdish voter by improving health care and rural infrastructure, developing a less security oriented government perspective, including Kurdish members in the party, openly challenging the military, and by implementing Islamic-conservative rhetoric in the region.[43] This effort required domestic and diplomatic flexibility, and engages common Turks and Kurds in a difficult struggle to understand their respective identities.

Both Turkish and Kurdish identities have undergone extreme change and diversification since the establishment of the state. [44] Kemalism’s rigid definition of “Turkishness”, and attempted assimilation of Kurds and other minorities was similar to its efforts to control the Muslim leadership.  However, Kemalists never managed to expunge religious and ethnic identity from defining the citizens of Turkey.  Ironically, the common sense of persecution by both religious and ethnic groups provided some of the basic groundwork for their mutual interests in the 21st century.  According to a 2006 survey by the KONDA Research & Consultancy, 78.1% of the 50,000 polled subjects identified themselves as Turkish, but there were over 100 secondary responses. Another 15.6% answered “Kurdish”; roughly 11.5 million if one includes minors.  The diverse answers in the poll indicate that 21st century citizens of Turkey have “no restraints in expressing their ethnic identity”.[45]

All of the above mentioned adaptations prove that Turkish ethnic identity is far more complex than the rigid guidelines set out in the Constitution.  Like Turks, Kurds have a variety of ethnic differences based on where they live.  Together, they were ignored in Atatürk’s conception of a model “Turk”.  These laws attempted to create ethnic identity through the “descent rule”[46], however it is obvious that despite a sharing a modern “common identity”, Turkish identity is undergoing a period of immense change.[47]

The gradual acceptance of a political Muslim identity is one example of how Turks are rejecting the labels placed upon them by the state’s founders.  Doğu Ergil highlights the widespread impact of Kemalism:

“Although the plight of the Kurds has tended to receive the greatest international attention, other groups outside the official mainstream of Turkish society—Islamic activists, ethnic and cultural minority groups, and intellectuals on both the left and the right— have all, at one time or another, been silenced by the Turkish state. The root of this intolerance is to be found not in the character of the Turkish people or their political leaders but in the very nature of the Turkish state”.[48]

“Neo-Ottomanism”, a return to the imperial days when ethnic and cultural diversity were integral parts to longevity and success, may open the doors for a more constructivist nationalist identity.  If the AKP permits the expression of Kurdish identity, it will allow the crystallization of a new Turkish culture, one that chooses to embrace differing “descent-based attributes” and the message of “In varietate concordia”.[49]

Kurds comprise an estimated 20% of the Turkish population, but many have migrated from their traditional cities in Southeastern Turkey to urban centers in Ankara, Istanbul.  Over one million Kurds have migrated to Istanbul alone, making it the largest Kurdish city in Turkey.[50] The causes for this migration are many.  State institutions long neglected the war-torn region that owns the worst recorded education system in the country.  Over half the population live in household of 6 or more persons.[51] Balancing the economic prioritization of the country’s regions is a difficult, and the EU has been quick to criticize the AKP for not coming together with a specific plan for rehabilitating Southeastern Turkey.[52]

One example of how the AKP has followed through on some of its Kurdish reforms is the “Return to Village and Rehabilitation Project”, which has allowed several hundred villages to reopen and for displaced residents to return to their homes.  Additionally, a series of legal measurements have been made to ensure compensation to victims of terror and the fight against terror, including property, disability, death, and length of displacement.[53] These small measures have given instant credibility to the AKP and its attempts to restore optimism in Southeastern Turkey.

Another, albeit controversial, example of how Turkish and Kurdish aims are being met is the Southeastern Anatolia Project.  The Turkish government, long having coveted the opportunity to harness the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for energy use, devised a strategy that would be bring long-term sustainability to the region.  Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi, or GAP, is meant to cultivate economic and agricultural growth by doubling Turkey’s farmland.  Critics of GAP argue that the AKP has not provided enough support to the local farmers whose land was razed for the project, in addition to causing alternative effects on the traditional lifestyles of the residents of the region, specifically the relationships between men and women.  The argument is that economic stimuli are welcome, but only with the “willingness of the modern Turkish state to accommodate different ethnic identities on an equal footing based on democratic citizenship”.[54] GAP has significantly altered the social, cultural, and environmental landscape, by providing employment opportunities, and large-scale economic packages; one specific way the AKP has convinced Kurds that there will be a better future.[55]

Mountains and arid plains are no friend to an already marginalized population, however they make excellent cover for the insurgent PKK.[56] Years of civil war and economic famine forced many to find better opportunities in the urban world.  The AKP needs to continue providing resources to those victimized by the conflict with the PKK, in addition to creating more employment opportunities, in particular for women.[57] Economic growth should set the groundwork for education, social rehabilitation, and a secure border.  Last, but not least, Erdoğan needs to ensure that the Turkish military will continue to be present in the region to protect the shared economic interests of Turks and Kurds.

Turkish foreign policy has also undergone intense reconstruction.  Under the supervision of Dr. Ahmet Davutoğlu, the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Turkey has begun to heavily invest in relationships outside its borders.  In his book Strategic Depth, Davutoğlu implicates the importance of establishing better relations with Turkey’s 20th century competitors.  This concept, which recommends resolution with both Kurdish populations in Turkey and Iraq, is popularly known as “zero problems with neighbors”. Davutoğlu argues that Turkey’s central location between several cultural axes places it is in a primary position to problem-solve and mediate growth between Europe, the Caucasus, and the Middle East.  “Neo-Ottomanism”, another term for Davutoğlu’s “zero policy” approach, suggests Turkey employ its common Islamic heritage in order to foster strong ties with its Middle Eastern neighbors.[58] This strategy has been tremendously successful, much to the chagrin of Turkey’s secularist elite.  It encourages Turkey’s Islamic heritage to be interpreted as a missing link to those Middle Eastern countries that Kemalism long discounted.

The AKP has developed a strategy towards the Kurds that mixes moderate politics with traditionalism, but are the Kurds reaping the benefits of this relationship?  Reforms allowing Kurdish language, broadcasting, and private education may be viewed as baby steps for Kurdish leadership, but represent radical change for Turks.[59] Geoffrey Gresh and Matan Chorev argue “there are still many stipulations in the new laws that inhibit the full and open expression of the Kurdish language”, albeit they do not specify as to who specifically is responsible for the small alterations in Kurdish rights.  Progress has been slow, largely because the AKP still needs to work with the military and the rival CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi or Republican People’s Party), who have resistant to dramatic alterations to the constitution.

These protocols are critical steps, however the acceptance of Kurdish political parties will mark a seminal moment for Turkey’s Kurds.  Four Kurdish parties, the most recent in December, 2009, have been banned from parliament. Although the AKP is in a uniquely empathetic position, and it has warmly accepted Kurdish members, pro-Kurdish parties are a different story.  This is primarily due to the important role the Kurdish vote played in previous AKP electoral victories. Permitting Kurdish parties to run in parliament without the fear of banning could alter Kurdish voting patterns in a way that would be detrimental to the AKP’s success.

These concerns aside, Erdoğan has recognized that this is the next necessary step towards democratization.  For over 80 years, Turkey has excluded large portions of its population due to its ethnic background, flopped back and forth from secularist republic to military control, and until recently has been governed by an elite few.[60] Turkey has neither been a completely authoritarian regime, nor a complete democracy, so suffering waves of political unrest as a result.[61]Borrowing from Hegre, Ellingsen, Gates, and Gleditsch, the AKP must realize dreams of the Kurds in order to achieve its own aspirations.  Only by including them as equal partners can Turkey move away from bloodshed and towards unity.


Attempting to identify the causes of civil war is a difficult task, and the challenge of developing successful resolutions is even more so.  Each event is singularly different from the other; the keys to peace in Algeria or Cambodia are different to those in Sri Lanka and Chechnya.  Cross analysis of particular cases is necessary to build a larger picture of patterns and similarities, but the majority of the work remains enormously case-specific.  Outlining potential solutions requires in-depth analysis of a country, its government, and its citizens.

Although the thirty-year conflict between Turks and Kurds has left thousands killed, population shifts have caused Kurds to reshape their identity and their national goals, and political reform has Turks dreaming of democracy.  Economic opportunism, brought on by the global market, is allowing for the restoration of Southeast Turkey and providing more work to unemployed Kurds.  In short, the 21st century is becoming the stage for Turkey’s next civil revolution.

Religious and ethnic diversity thrives in Turkey in spite of and because of Kemalism’s authoritarian regime.  Kemalism forced Turkish Islam to confront itself and recreate its public image in accordance with modernity.  After decades of marginalization, Muslims discovered a way to achieve political expression in the political system.  This has attracted the support of ethnic minorities like the Kurds, who “fit in a meaningful category in the worldview of AKP thinkers: they are a kavim, a Muslim people with a legitimate corporate identity based on language and tribal organization”.[62] Cooperation between Muslim and Kurdish leadership appears to be building a new Turkey.

Zeki Sarıgil and Murat Somer challenge the validity of this theory.  Both argue that while Islam is not a divisive factor in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, it is not a positive force either.  Somer contends that prioritization of Islamic identity may “deepen the secularist-Islamist and Sunni-Alevi cleavages”, that Turkish and Kurdish Islamic movements have “competing goals”, and that rather than preaching the “Islamicization of ethnicity”, they are advocating for the “ethnicization of Islam”.[63] Sarıgil adds that there is little evidence that the pro-Islamic approach towards the Kurds is making a positive impact in relations.  Ultimately, “increases in religiosity do not necessarily reduce ethnic awareness”.[64] The influence, says Sarıgil, of religious parties like the AKP amongst the Kurdish population is a result of their economic performances and ability to provide stability.

Somer and Sarıgil’s arguments regarding the deepening cleavages in Turkish society may hold weight, but they also discredit the decades of dissatisfaction with Kemalism.  Political Islam may not solve all of Turkey’s worries, but in the case of Kurds it seems to have bridge some of the gaps.  Erdoğan refers to use a common language as a means to achieve shared goals, rather than reducing ethnic self-awareness.  Evidenced in polls and political partnerships, Islam is central to 21st century Turkish and Kurdish identities, and their futures. [65]

Recent years have seen a drop in AKP effectiveness in Southeastern Turkey, but this can be attributed to the 2011 elections.  As Henri Barkey has noted, the AKP shifted away from its Kurdish policies is because campaigning for ethnic diversity “cost it votes in traditional Turkish areas of the country without winning new ones in the Kurdish regions”.[66] Even though 2011 witnessed the admittance of the pro-Kurdish BDP into parliament, its demands for regional autonomy has placed strain on the AKP.  Many Turks remain skeptical about the value of recognizing Kurdish language rights or Kurdish cultural rights.[67] Despite Erdoğan’s efforts, “many Kurds have become disillusioned with the lack of substance of the government’s ‘Kurdish initiative’ and are increasingly skeptical about the government’s intentions.”[68] PKK violence has returned, and the AKP’s vision of a Turkish-Kurdish peace seems at a crossroads.

The AKP has the popular support and political vision to make Turkey a more democratic country, yet there are many unknowns.  How will a steady course towards EU acceptance increased freedom of speech impact the future of the AKP?  Erdoğan, Gül, and Davutoğlu may be taking serious risks by promoting democratization.  The Turkish military, although recently subdued, is still a wildly unpredictable player in Turkey’s future cannot be forgotten.  There is no way of knowing how Kurds would response to greater civil freedoms.  In the wake of the Arab Spring, will a larger, more fervent Kurdish independence movement take form?  As Kurdish parties gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Turkish public, how will the radical PKK respond?  As long as PKK forces are in conflict with the Turkish military, no reconciliation is guaranteed.

In the study of civil wars, religion is often attributed as a conjoining cause that creates separation between groups of people.  Can it then serve as a key ingredient to solving long-standing conflict and achieving peace?  Chances to break the cycle come once in a generation.  Violence still has the ability to shake hopes.[69] For Turkey to remain successful in the 21st century, it must recognize the historical importance of the moment, balance its multiculturalism and its faith, and seize the opportunity with both hands.  The AKP’s campaign for religious freedom has set the stage for negotiations with Kurdish partners.  Peace with the Kurds would signify the end of Kemalism, reaffirm the AKP’s legacy, and serve as an example of Islam’s role as peacemaker.



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“Turkey and the Kurds: Peace Be unto You,” The Economist, Aug. 18 2005,

[2] Morton Abramowitz and Henri J. Barkey, “Turkey’s Transformers: The AKP Sees Big,” Foreign Affairs 88, no. 6 (2009): 118.

[3] Gökhan Bacik, “The Parliamentary Elections in Turkey, July 2007,” Electoral Studies 27, no. 2 (2008): 377.

[4] M. Hakan Yavuz and Nihat Ali Özcan, “Crisis in Turkey: The Conflict of Political Language,” Middle East Policy 14, no. 3 (2007): 118.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Geoffrey Gresh and Matan Chorev, “Turkish-Kurdish Reconciliation: Promise and Peril,” Turkish Policy Quarterly 5, no. 3 (2006): 109.

[7] Thomas W. Smith, “Between Allah and Ataturk: Liberal Islam in Turkey,” The International Journal of Human Rights 9, no.3 (2005): 307.

[8] Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).

[9] Feroz Ahmad, The Making of Modern Turkey (London: Routledge: 2002).

[10] Ibid., 80.

[11] Lewis, 412.

[12] Smith, 311.

[13] The Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, Part Two, Section VI, Article 24, 2004,

[14] Henri J. Barkey, Preventing Conflict over Kurdistan (Washington, DC: Carnegie

Endowment for International Peace, 2009).

[15] Jonathan Fox, “Do Democracies Have Separation of Religion and State?” Canadian Journal of Political Science 40, no.1 (2007): 1.

[16] The Constitution of the Republic of Turkey, Part Two, Section VI, Article 24.

[17] Lewis, 418.

[18] Ersel Aydınlı, “A Paradigmatic Shift for the Turkish Generals and an End to the Coup Era in Turkey,” The Middle East Journal 63, no.4 (2009): 581.

[19] Nilüfer Göle, “Secularism and Islamism in Turkey: The Making of Elites and Counter-Elites,” The Middle East Journal. 51, no. 1 (1997): 46.

[20] Göle goes into detail about the three categories of these new Islamist counter-elites, defining them as engineers, woman, and intellectuals, who all have contributed to the unique political movement.

[21] Inger Furseth and Pal Repstad, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” in An Introduction to the Sociology of Religion(Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2006) 97-109.

[22] M. Hakan Yavuz, “Is There a Turkish Islam? The Emergence of Convergence and Consensus,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs. 24, no. 2 (2004): 213.

[23] Bora Kanra, “Democracy, Islam and Dialogue: The Case of Turkey,” Government and Opposition. 40, no. 4 (2005): 515.

[24] Martin van Bruinessen, “Turkey’s AKP Government and Its Engagement with the Alevis and the Kurds,” (paper presented at the international symposium “The Otherness and Beyond: Dynamism between Group Formation and Identity in Modern Muslim Societies”, Tokyo, December 5, 2009).

[25] Kerem Öktem, “Being Muslim at the Margins: Alevis and the AKP”,

MERIP – Middle East Research and Information Project,

Pollmark Research Corporation & SETA: Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, “Public Perception of the Kurdish Question in Turkey”, 2009.

KONDA: Research and Consultancy. “Religion, Secularism and the Veil in Daily Life”, section 7.1, 2007,

[28] Pollmark & SETA, “Public Perception of the Kurdish Question in Turkey.”

[29] Furseth and Repstad, 48.

[30] Mücahit Bilici, “The Fethullah Gülen Movement and Its Politics of Representation in Turkey,” The Muslim World 96, no. 1 (2006): 1.

[31] Ekrem Güzeldere states that “many influential Kurds” were in Milli Görüş, “where many of the AKP founders began their political careers” and occupied important positions in the movement.

[32] Stephen Kinzer, Crescent and Star: Turkey between Two Worlds (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008).

[33] İhsan Dağı, “The Justice and Development Party: Identity, Politics, and Discourse of Human Rights in the Search for Security and Legitimacy,” in The Emergence of a New Turkey: Democracy and the AK Party, ed. M. Hakan Yavuz (Salt Lake City: Utah University Press, 2006) 88-106.

[34] Murat Somer, “Moderate Islam and Secularist Opposition in Turkey: Implications for the World, Muslims and Secular Democracy,” Third World Quarterly 28, no. 7 (2007): 1271.

Soner Çağaptay, “Secularism and Foreign Policy in Turkey: New Elections, Troubling Trends,” Policy Focus #67 (Washington, DC: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2007),

[36] M. Hakan Yavuz, “Introduction: What Is an Islamic Party? Is the AKP an Islamic Party?” in Secularism and Muslim Democracy in Turkey (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

KONDA, “Religion, Secularism and the Veil in Daily Life.” 2007,

Senem Aydın and Ruşen Çakır, “Political Islam in Turkey,” CEPS Working Document no. 265, 2007,

“United in Diversity,” EUROPA: The Official Website of the European Union, <>.

[40] Bruinessen, 3.

[41] “Culture 2000″ Programme,” EUROPA: The Official Website of the European Union,

[42] Hakan Yavuz and Özcan, 131.

[43] Murat Somer, “Why Aren’t Kurds Like the Scots and the Turks Like the Brits?: Moderation and Democracy in the Kurdish Question,” Cooperation and Conflict 43, no. 2 (2008): 220.

[44] Ethnic Groups in the Republic of Turkey, ed. Peter Alford Andrews and Rüdiger Benninghaus (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1989, 613).

[45] KONDA: Research and Consultancy. “Social Structure Survey”, Published in Milliyet daily on 19-26 March, 2007,

[46] James D. Fearon and David D. Laitin, “Ordinary Language and External Validity: Specifying Concepts in the Study of Ethnicity,” (paper presented at the meeting of LiCEP, University of Pennsylvania, October 2000). Cited in Kanchan Chandra, “What Is Ethnic Identity and Does It Matter?” Annual Review of Political Science 9, no. 1 (2006): 397.

[47] Murat Somer, “Turkey’s Kurdish Conflict: Changing Context, and Domestic and Regional Implications,” Middle East Journal 58, no.2 (2004): 235.

[48] Doğu Ergil, “The Kurdish Question in Turkey,” Journal of Democracy 11, no. 3 (2000): 122.

[49] Kanchan Chandra, “What Is Ethnic Identity and Does It Matter?” Annual Review of Political Science 9, no. 1 (2006): 397.

[50] KONDA, “Religion, Secularism and the Veil in Daily Life.” Section 6.1:

“According to the Turkish Statistics Institute, 11,622,000 people live in Istanbul.

Based on KONDA’s calculations on the survey data, Kurds and Zazas in Istanbul number 1,571,000. Considering Diyarbakır’s population (677,000 according to TSI, KONDA’s calculation shows the number of Kurds and Zazas in this city to be 618,00. The level of the Kurdish population in Istanbul is a striking data demonstrating the high percentage of ethnic mixing among society and how inseparable ethnic groups are.”

[51] KONDA, “Social Structure Survey.” Section 5.3.

[52] Gresh and Chorev.

Brookings Institution, “National and Regional Laws and Policies on Internal Displacement: Turkey,

[55] Leila M. Harris, “Water Rich, Resource Poor: Intersections of Gender, Poverty, and Vulnerability in Newly Irrigated Areas of Southeastern Turkey,” World Development 36, no.12 (2008): 2643.

[56] Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler, “Greed and Grievance in Civil War,” Oxford Economic Papers 56, no. 4 (2004): 563.

[57] Harris.

[58] Alexander Murinson, “The Strategic Depth Doctrine of Turkish Foreign Policy,” Middle Eastern Studies 42, no. 6 (2006): 945.

[59] Gresh and Chorev.

[60] Andreas Wimmer, Lars-Erik Cederman, and Brian Min, “Ethnic Politics and Armed Conflict: A Configurational Analysis of a New Global Data Set,” American Sociological Review 74, no. 2 (2009): 316.

[61] Havard Hegre et al., “Toward a Democratic Civil Peace? Democracy, Political Change, and Civil War, 1816-1992,”American Political Science Review 95, no. 1 (2001): 33.

[62] Bruinessen, 4.

[63] Murat Somer, “Turkey’s Kurdish Conflict: Changing Context, and Domestic and Regional Implications,” Middle East Journal 58, no. 2 (2004): 235.

[64] Zeki Sarıgil, “Curbing Kurdish Ethno-Nationalism in Turkey: An Empirical Assessment of Pro-Islamic and Socio-Economic Approaches,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 33, no.3 (2010): 533.

[65] Pollmark & SETA, “Public perception of Kurdish Question in Turkey.”

[66] Henri J. Barkey, ‘Turkey’s Moment of Inflection,” Survival 52, no. 3 (2010): 39.

[67] Pollmark & SETA, “Public perception of Kurdish Question in Turkey.”

[68] Bruinessen, 10.

“Violence Dampens Hope of Ending Turkey’s Kurdish Conflict – Middle East – World – The Times of India.” The Times of India: Latest News India, World & Business News, Cricket & Sports, Bollywood. Jul. 9, 2010,

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