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Home » EU - Turkey Relations, International

The Demographics of the Kurdish Minority in Turkey

Submitted by on 28 Mar 2013 – 15:57

By Dr Armand Sag, Chairman, Institute for Turkish Studies and Ph.D.-fellow at Tilburg University in the Netherlands

When it comes to the Kurdish minority in Turkey, the key elements seem to revolve around the concepts of ‘nation-building’ and ‘assimilation’. However, the approach of the European Union is intensely more different than the Turkish approach. For instance, the figures of the Kurdish population in Turkey itself are much disputed. This has everything to do with the methodology of the surveys and population censes. How do you distinguish people who belong to a distinct minority group? Is language the criterion, or culture, or even the out-dated (and downright backward) notions of ‘ethnicity’ and ‘race’ etcetera? But even with language, how do you determine the aspect of language? Do you ask which language they speak at home with their parents behind closed doors? Or do you ask which language someone regards as their mother tongue, regardless if someone is able to speak it or even understand it? Or do you just ask which language one can speak?

These criteria are difficult to explain and even more complicated to implement in a survey. It becomes even more difficult when a certain person is influenced by the process of nation-building and feels they are ‘Turkish’ but he is in fact Kurdish although he does not speak Kurdish anymore. Then what was the defining element of being ‘Kurdish’? Was it that his great-great grandparents used to speak Kurdish? And what if the person has both Kurdish and Turkish grandparents but feels either Turkish or Kurdish? If a family has raised their children through a mix of Turkish and Kurdish grandparents, and one cousin feels he is “a hundred percent Kurdish” and becomes a Kurdish nationalist while another cousin refuses to learn Kurdish and becomes a Turkish patriot; than what is the line between defining an identity? Was the family of these two cousins, Kurdish or Turkish?

All of these questions need to be answered before one can even think of acting out a survey in the lines of an approach to Kurdish demography. In the past, this has not always been the case. Figures vary, in the case of the Turkish city Diyarbakır in the Southeast of Turkey, between “90% Kurds living in Diyarbakır” and “35% Kurds living in Diyarbakır”. The range of these percentages is so wide that no decent conclusion can be given about the factual demographics of the Kurds. What can be given as a factual sheet, are the figures until now. In this comparative case study, we can look at the city of Diyarbakır.

One of the first accounts of an eyewitness (a certain Mr. Simon) speaks of Diyarbakır some 200 years ago as “thirty-eight thousand souls, of which the greater proportion are Turks, and the remainder Armenians, Kurds, Jacobites, and Catholics.” In this context it is not revealed if this is based on religion, language, culture or identity. It is quickly followed by the first official population census of the Republic of Turkey in 1927 in which Diyarbakır is said to have 185,000 inhabitants of which 56,000 are defined as ‘Turks’ (or 30%). Again, there has not been additional information about the way the people were defined to be either ‘Turkish’ or ‘Kurdish’. However, the resettlement policy of the Republic of Turkey from the 1930s onwards did change the demographics. From the 1930s onwards, Turkish refugees who were driven out of the Balkans by Christian nationalists were resettled in East-Anatolian provinces like Diyarbakır in order to increase the development of those regions. In comparison to other areas of Anatolia, Diyarbakır and surrounding provinces were still undeveloped. An additional aim could be the Turkification of non-Turks in the region, since the non-Turks were regarded as hostile to the new Turkish Republic ever since the Şeyh Sait Rebellion of Diyarbakır in 1925 which had conservative-religious motives and was dominated by Kurdish tribe leaders.

The resettlement promptly changed the population of Diyarbakır when in 1935, another official population census showed 85.9% of the inhabitants to have Turkish as their mother tongue. After the enlightened and liberal constitution of 1960, the first population consensus based on language was performed. People in Diyarbakır were asked which language they regarded as their mother tongue, some 134,235 inhabitants (or 33.42%) answered it was Turkish. It is clear that the resettled Balkan Turks were used in the process of nation-building in the newly formed Republic of Turkey, but became assimilated in the Kurdish tribes of the region instead of Turkifying them. This would mean that the resettled Balkan Turks either assimilated instead of Turkified, or simply moved to other regions.

An example on a micro-scale would be perfect to clarify this process of assimilation. Of the resettled families that were located to Diyarbakır, the ones who married Kurds quickly learned Kurdish in order to communicate with their in-laws. Their kids received Kurdish names and felt more ‘Kurdish’ than anything else. When the Kurdish process of nation-building erupted in the 1970s, these (now grown) ‘kids’ were among the most fanatical and fierce Kurdish nationalists. It is not surprising that it was there in Diyarbakır, where eventually the Kurdish terrorist organization PKK was created. Just like PKK-founder Abdullah Öcalan, most of the other founding Kurds of the PKK could hardly speak a word of Kurdish because of their Turkish-Kurdish mixed ancestry.

Therefore, if the criteria for being ‘Kurdish’ or ‘Turkish’ would be the mastery of a certain language, the recent research of the European Union in September 2005 would be correct: 93% of Turkish citizens said their mother tongue was Turkish while 7% said it was another language. When simply asking with which cultural identity someone identified themselves, only 10% answered different from ‘Turkish’ according to former Yale and Stanford-professor Yılmaz Esmer’s recent research and survey of 2012.