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Shared Destiny, Common Struggle: Kurds and Turkish-Cypriots

Shared Destiny, Common Struggle: Kurds and Turkish-Cypriots

Turkish political, diplomatic and military muscle is a stark reality of the geopolitical map of South-East Europe, Anatolia and the Middle East. And the peoples of Cyprus and Kurdistan bear witness to that more than most – both standing up to continual Turkish oppression and in doing so, sharing a similar struggle.

Since the 1974 invasion of Cyprus, Turkey has maintained a brazen, yet overwhelmingly unrecognized, the occupation of the north of the island with its far-fetched “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” based on the illusory claim of Anatolian linked Turkish-Cypriot ethnicity.

The Kurds have a tale of Turkish woe that extends back into history much further. Kurds have earned the unfortunate moniker of being the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. The national state of Kurdistan is split among Iraq, Syria, Iran and, of course Turkey. According to the CIA’s World Factbook, 19% of the Turkish population is Kurdish – approximately 15 million people.

It is important to note that over centuries, Kurds in Turkey have largely been integrated into Turkish society, but never fully assimilated. The Kurdish language and free and full expression of their culture have long been curtailed and the sense of the Kurds still being second-class citizens in Turkey persists to this day.

For centuries, the Turks / Ottomans have attempted, unsuccessfully, to assimilate the Kurds into Turkish society – a struggle that continues to this day. Some Ottoman historical context for both contemporary situations, the Kurds and Cypriots, is at this point required.

The Ottoman Empire was a regional superpower of its time. Its influence over the best part of a millennia spread from the Crimean peninsula to Arabia, into North Africa and up into the Balkans as far as the gates of Vienna. Despite its eventual post-World War One dissolution, the spirit and ethos of Ottoman power never really disappeared. It simply reshaped and re-adapted to the post Great War realities of the new European and Middle Eastern maps. In modern parlance, the Turks have “form” as far as the projection of power is concerned.

So, while the new Turkish Republic of 1923 had its geographical reach and influence tapered post Treaty of Lausanne, the spirit of the Ottomans still possessed Ankara when it came to those contentious geopolitical issues that it saw as being within its redefined orbit – such as Cyprus and the Kurds. At the heart of both problems was the lingering Ottoman-esque pseudo-imperial urge to dominate.

For many in the West, and elsewhere come to that, the Battle of Manzikert, 1071, will be either obscure or unknown. Yet this was a pivotal moment in terms of the Turkification of Anatolia. Prior to that, the area had been a realm of the Byzantines. The triumph of the Seljuk (proto-Turkish) armies over Byzantium in 1071 meant the arrival of a new order, a new culture. And that was a virile and expansive Ottoman Turkey.

Europe, the Middle East and North Africa would never be the same.

The now tragic irony is that the Kurds are, unlike the Turks, original inhabitants of Asia Minor and are clearly a separately identifiable people and culture from that of the Turks who, pre-1071, originated from central Asia: many Kurds consider themselves descended from Medes, an ancient Iranian (Persian) people.

Moving away from Kurdistan and west into the Mediterranean, we find the more recent Turkish-inflicted tragedy of Cyprus.
As national identity struggles go, there is a terrible twist in the tale that the identity of “Turkish-Cypriot” is a modern artificial construct, inspired by both Ankara and London, with no bearing in actual ethnic history.

The invasion of Cyprus by Turkish forces in 1974 was a brutal, opportunistic move by Ankara. The fable portrayed by the Turkish government was that there was a long-held “Turkish-Cypriot” claim to anything was dubious in the extreme. Indeed, it is a worn-out fabrication that there are Turkish-Cypriots and Greek-Cypriots defined by ethnicity, blood and DNA.

That fabrication overlooks the glaring history of the Linobambaki – a historical community of crypto-Christian that had existed for centuries in Cyprus prior to the Ottoman invasion on the island in the sixteenth century. In an effort to endure subsequent Ottoman oppression, the Linobambaki absorbed elements of Islamic culture, while still retaining their original Cypriot identity.

By the late nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire, diagnosed as “the sick man of Europe” was in decline and consequently the British, arch-imperialists of the time, stepped in to Cypriot life with the establishment of a protectorate. With the outbreak of World War One in 1914, the British turned that into full-blown annexation.

The British were happy to manipulate the hazy idea of there being a separate Turkish-Cypriot identity in an effort to disrupt and quell twentieth-century Cypriot calls, by some, for Enosis with Greece. A nefarious display of attempted British imperial divide and conquer.

Like the Turkish invasion of 1974 (after Britain granted Cyprus independence in 1960), both occupying entities, the British and the Turks, were happy to spin the yarn of Turkish-Cypriot identity. Ankara simply took that into over-drive with the 1974 annexation and subsequent establishment of the so-called Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

In an effort to strengthen its grip on the northern half of the island, Ankara began to encourage emigration to Cyprus from mainland Anatolia. Consequently, Ankara ensured that it flooded the north of Cyprus, post-1974 invasion, with thousands of Turkish-Anatolian illegal settlers. Indigenous Turkish-speaking Cypriots, the descendants of the Linobambaki, were forced from their houses, their land and their farms by an aggressive policy of Turkification from Ankara.

Consequently, many Turkish-Cypriots want complete independence from Turkey and the removal of the post-1974 illegal Turkish settlers that came from Anatolia to northern Cyprus. They look to reunite with their Greek-Cypriot brethren. Not Ankara. Not Athens. But Cyprus.

It is then fair to say that there is a symmetry between the struggles of the Kurds and the struggles of the Turkish-Cypriots. Both are presently confronted with the over-whelming power-politics of Turkish post-Ottoman influence. Ankara to this day persists with aggressive policies against both.

Fair then to say, the Kurdish and Cypriot struggles against Turkey are both venerable traditions.

In 1833, the Ottomans had to contain the Gavur Imam revolt. Gavur Imam, a Cypriot and part of the Linobambaki community, rebelled against the tax regime that the Ottomans had inflicted on the island. This popular uprising tried to unite all Cypriots under the banner of fair treatment for all islanders.

While the Gavur Imam revolt eventually ran out of steam, it clearly shows a historically healthy opposition among “Turkish-Cypriots” (Linobambaki) to the malevolent instincts of Turkey / the Ottoman Empire.

Looking back into Asia Minor to the Kurdish issue, a more recent, bloody example of Turkish repression was in the early twentieth century, when the Turks brutally put down the Dersim (Seyit Rıza) rebellion of 1937-1938 in the east of Turkey. Thousands of Kurds were slaughtered in reprisals by Ankara. A bloody tradition of anti-Kurdish sentiment brazenly displayed by Ankara to the world.

Struggle, protests, uprisings and organized resistance against both injustices have historically the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. Understandably so.

A notable example is the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). Since 1978, the PKK has engaged in armed struggle with the Turkish state in an effort to overcome continual Turkish repression of Kurdish rights, culture and language, striving for autonomy and equal rights.

In more recent years, the on-going Turkish repression of the Kurds has been perfectly well illustrated by the 2016 jailing of Democratic Party (HDP) member and chairman, Selahattin Demirtaş, on the dubious charge of supporting militant (read Kurdish) struggle against the Turkish state.

The HDP is the third largest party in Turkey, but small matters like that are of no concern to Ankara. Demirtaş remains incarcerated and actually ran for office from behind bars in 2018.

Organizations like the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK) continue to work for the interests of Kurds and to highlight Turkish repression and human rights abuses. It consists of representatives of political parties, social, cultural and religious establishments of Kurdistan and independent individuals.

The KNK was established for the purpose of forming a higher body of the Kurdish people to protect the interests and unity of the nation of Kurdistan. It consists of different commissions and communities that are active in the different subjects like foreign relations, environmental issues, women rights and culture.

Meanwhile, in Cyprus, the World Union of Turkish-speaking Cypriots (WUTC) was founded to fight for the rights of all Cypriots in the face of Turkish aggression and the influx of settlers from Anatolia.

The WUTC is a non-governmental organization which lobbies for Turkish-Cypriots in international arena. Aside from its political activities, WUTC also has different committees within, as well as an educational institution called Fazıl Önder Academy and an organisation related to traditional intangible heritage activities, the Cypriot Folk Music Society.

Regardless of being roundly criticized, Ankara’s misdemeanors in the Mediterranean persist.

Back in 2011, Turkish-Cypriots launched a significant anti-Turkish government demonstration in reaction to the imposition of economic austerity measures from Ankara. In response, then Prime Minister Erdogan responded with an Ottoman-tinged reply that the demonstrators were being “outrageous” and generally ungrateful.

Erdogan’s generally questionable stance on the Cypriot situation was well summed up by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in 2017 had some choice words about Turkish double standards. Following Erdogan’s suggestion that Israel was taking over the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem under the guise of “terrorism”, the Israeli Prime Minister’s office responded with: “It is interesting what Erdogan would say to the residents of Northern Cyprus or the Kurds. Erdogan is the last person who can preach to Israel.”

In Cyprus, at just the start of this year, the Turkish-Cypriot newspaper “Afrika” published a piece critical of Ankara’s military actions against Kurds in the mire that is currently Syria. The Afrika newspaper — which is often anti-Ankara and staunchly critical of Erdogan — wrote on its front page: “one more occupation from Turkey”, and drew parallels with the Turkish occupation of Cyprus. Incensed by the article, Erdogan had called “on my brothers in north Cyprus to give the necessary response to this newspaper”. Outraged, hundreds of illegal Turkish-settlers in the occupied north of Cyprus attacked the offices of the Turkish-Cypriot newspaper the following day.

These tragic events did lead thousands of Turkish-Cypriots demonstrating against Turkey’s presence on the island once again. A few days later after these attacks, thousands of Turkish-Cypriots take the streets of north Nicosia chanting “we want our country back.” There had been international solidarity statements released from international bodies as well as European institutions for Afrika newspaper and Turkish-Cypriot community during these events.

There is an undoubted solidarity between the Kurds and the Cypriots, built on hundreds of years of Turkish discrimination and oppression. While their struggles are not identical, they do share a broad common theme – promoting dignity, equality and human rights while rejecting Turkish occupations in their lands and Turkey’s self-serving ethno-nationalist tendencies.

Ferran Taberner

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