Since the November election, the Erdogan government has launched a near civil war in the predominantly Kurdish regions of southeastern Turkey. It is seeking to create a climate of fear and repression that will drive out of the legal political process the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the coalition of leftwing Kurds, Turkish leftists, ecologists, feminists, labor activists, and LGBT activists that scored 13% of the popular vote in the June elections.
After Erdogan’s moderate Islamist and increasingly authoritarian Justice and Development Party (AKP) was deprived of a majority in the June election, the government struck out against the HDP and its base in the Kurdish areas, making it hard for HDP to mobilize. Still, the HDP was able to hold onto its parliamentary fraction in November as well, albeit on a diminished basis (10% of the popular vote), thus helping to keep alive the spirit of the leftwing Kurdish movement (as at Kobane in Syria) and that of Gezi Park uprising of 2013.
Since November, as Erdogan has escalated the repression, his clear goal is to provoke the guerrilla fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) into a return to the fruitless armed struggle of earlier times. Following in the footsteps of the Kemalist military he largely sidelined, Erdogan has been in recent years labeling almost any Kurdish group or its supporters “terrorists” controlled by the PKK.
Recently, the new wave of repression has been extended to Turkish intellectuals and academics, after over 1100 of them signed a statement by 1400 “Academicians for Peace” against the repression of the Kurds. The petition also featured a number of well-known intellectuals of the left outside Turkey like Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Zizek.
The petition began with these words: “The Turkish state has effectively condemned its citizens in Sur, Silvan, Nusaybin, Cizre, Silopi, and many other towns and neighborhoods in the Kurdish provinces to hunger through its use of curfews that have been ongoing for weeks. It has attacked these settlements with heavy weapons and equipment that would only be mobilized in wartime. As a result, the right to life, liberty, and security, and in particular the prohibition of torture and ill-treatment protected by the constitution and international conventions have been violated. “
It concluded: “We, as academics and researchers working on and/or in Turkey, declare that we will not be a party to this massacre by remaining silent and demand an immediate end to the violence perpetrated by the state. We will continue advocacy with political parties, the parliament, and international public opinion until our demands are met.” (I was one of the international signatories.)
In response, the Erdogan regime detained dozens of academic signatories at Turkish universities on “support of terrorism” charges. While most were soon released, the signatories are being threatened with violence by nationalists and in many cases are being fired from their jobs. Many are also being banned from travel abroad.
The leftist teachers’ union Egitim-Sen has acted courageously, offering legal support. US academics Chad Kautzer and Çiğdem Çıdam have organized another petition in support of academics in Turkey who are suffering repression after having signed the original petition. Yet another statement was issued by prominent Iranian academics in the diaspora in support of their Turkish colleagues.
The relative silence of the US and the European Union should also be noted. The US needs Erdogan’s military bases, while the EU needs his cooperation to slow the flow of migrants into Europe from Syria and other countries ravage by civil war.
Leftists and progressives outside Turkey should not dismiss these events as routine, as just another round of repression in a society where the military and police have long had their way in the name of nationalism, and, more recently, in that of a supposedly moderate but very repressive Islamo-nationalism.
Instead, what is going on in Turkey constitutes an important juncture for the entire region, including Syria and the Arab world. Erdogan wants to wipe out those groups that over the last several years have expressed the deepening discontent of young people, Kurds, feminists, LGBT activists, ecologists, labor activists, and others. This new Turkey found a voice in the Gezi uprising of 2013 and in the 2015 elections. These new movements have also expressed a deep solidarity with the progressive movement of the Syrian Kurds in Kobane and elsewhere, where young women have been in the forefront of the fight against ISIS. It is the possibility of real change from below that haunts Erdogan and his regime.