Turks and Kurds are trapped in a spiral that suits the hardliners

“‘You are a writer. You have to speak up,’ I kept telling myself,” said Yasar Kemal, the great Turkish author of Kurdish descent. As a human rights activist and advocate of pluralistic democracy, his task was not easy – to promote co-existence in a land where hatred spoke louder than peace. Since his death in 2015, things have taken a turn for the worse. Yet another terror attack hit Turkey this weekend, aiming at driving a further wedge between Turks and Kurds, and shattering our hopes for peaceful reconciliation.

Shaken by 31 suicide attacks and bombings in the past 15 years only, Turkey has become a nation of perpetual angst. At every “breaking news”, our hearts sink deeper as we try to make sense of what has happened. It feels as if time gallops – there is barely any moment to stop and think and analyse, let alone to grieve together. The recent tragedy came from Kayseri, a central province whose capital is an industrial hub in Anatolia. A public bus carrying civilians and soldiers on weekend leave was destroyed by a car full of explosives, killing at least 13 and wounding 55.

In Turkey, military service is compulsory for all male citizens. Every year, approximately 700,000 young men are enlisted, catapulted from their homes and lives into military headquarters across the country. It was these young soldiers who were slaughtered ruthlessly in Kayseri. The atrocity was doubly shocking for the nation as it transpired only one week after twin blasts near a football stadium in Istanbul, which murdered 44 and injured 155. That attack was allegedly claimed by TAK (Kurdistan Freedom Falcons), an offshoot of the armed terrorist organisation PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party).

Following the blast, a mob of Turkish ultranationalists marched into the headquarters of the pro-Kurdish opposition HDP, where they set pieces of furniture on fire. All over social media there are accusations of betrayal and pledges of revenge. Officials spoke of “answering in kind”. Those who speak of peace and unity are accused of being too soft or too romantic. This is exactly how terrorists succeed: a nation is divided into “us” versus “them” and politicians fail to promote democracy and coexistence.

Mourners at the site of explosions near a football stadium in Istanbul that killed 44 people on Tuesday. Photograph: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images
Mourners at the site of explosions near a football stadium in Istanbul that killed 44 people on Tuesday. Photograph: Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images

After every terror attack, it is more or less the same pattern. There follows a media gag; reporting is restricted. Turkish citizens check international sources to get information about what is happening in their own country. Social media becomes more politicised. Politicians come forward, repeating the same lines they have uttered before. “We will fight these cowards with a national mobilisation,” said Fikri Işik, Turkey’s defence minister.

HDP is the third biggest party in the parliament. In the elections held in June 2015, it had visibly increased its power, for the first time managing to get support from both Turkish and Kurdish voters. With a programme that promoted women’s and minority rights, it passed the 10% electoral threshold. Back then, the HDP was regarded as a source of hope by many Turkish liberals and democrats. But no longer. Today the mood is completely different. There is resentment and bitterness on all sides.

HDP co-leaders Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ are both in prison, and mayors of Kurdish towns have been arrested. The Kurds feel hurt, yet so do the Turks, and no one has the time or the will to understand the other’s pain. It was a big mistake on the part of the AKP government to arrest Kurdish MPs. It was another mistake on the part of the HDP not to prove it was independent of the PKK and its violence. We are wallowing in a spiral of mistakes.

There is no doubt that the violence of PKK must be condemned fully and unconditionally. Nothing justifies the killing of innocent people. There can be no excuse for terrorism. At the same time, the AKP government must stop using vindictive, divisive language. The peace process that collapsed in 2015 must be reinitiated before it is too late for everyone. The PKK is playing a very dangerous game in Turkey. They seem to want Kurds, including apolitical Kurds, to feel uncomfortable in major Turkish cities and the two people to fall increasingly apart. Hardliners on both sides will benefit from such polarisation. Meanwhile, Turkish and Kurdish democrats are sandwiched between extremities, unable to challenge the insanity of ultranationalism, unable to breathe.

Elif Shafak is an award-winning novelist. She was born in Strasbourg in 1971 and is the author of 12 books, including The Forty Rules of Love and her latest novel Honour. She writes in both English and Turkish, and divides her time between London and Istanbul.

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