Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan reportedly described Israel’s actions against the Gaza flotilla in 2010 as a “cause for war.” This follows his recent threat to use the Turkish navy to block Israeli energy development in the Mediterranean and escort ships in future attempts to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Erdogan’s bellicosity towards Israel has delivered a jolt to those who viewed Turkey as a stable, secular Muslim state oriented to the West. That many have been taken by surprise can in part be explained by the media’s limited coverage of Turkey’s problems. This is evidenced by contrasting the extensive coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the sporadic attention paid to the fierce twenty-seven year war between Turkey and Kurdish separatists.
Comparison of Coverage of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict with Turkish-Kurdish Conflict
The New York Times has a reputation for providing extensive coverage of international events. So if the Turkish-Kurdish conflict were to receive coverage anywhere in the mainstream media, one might expect to find it in the New York Times. A Lexis-Nexis search on New York Times articles using key words “Kurds” or “Kurdish” and “Turkey” or “Turkish” – turned up 77 articles between Sept. 13, 2010 and Sept. 13, 2011. About 2/3 of these articles dealt with the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds.
In comparison, a similar search on New York Times articles using key words “Palestinians” and “Israel” or “Israelis” turned up 785 articles. About 2/3 of these articles, approximately 500 in number, prominently featured the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So the Times publishes about 10 times more articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than on the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. The time period selected is not an aberration, a search on “Israel” or “Israelis” and “Palestinians” covering the past five years of Times coverage turned up 4,317 items compared to 506 for a search on “Kurds” or “Kurdish” and “Turkey” or “Turkish.”
The eight to ten times more frequent coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is inverse to the relative levels of violence in each respective conflict. Since 1984, when the violent phase of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict began, minimum estimates put the death toll at over 40,000. By contrast, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over that same period has produced less than 10,000 Palestinian and Israeli fatalities.
Two recent events, the abortive 2011 Gaza flotilla that got stranded in Greece, and the recent escalation of violence along the Turkish-Iraqi border, offer an example of the imbalance in coverage relative to the level of violence.
A Lexis-Nexis search of New York Times articles dealing with the grounded flotilla found 51 articles focusing on the topic. Not a single life was lost in the several weeks during June and July 2011 that the drama played out.
The Turkish bombardment of suspected Kurdish bases in Iraq in mid-August, which killed a reported 100-150 people, resulted in just five separate reports, four of which were perfunctory dispatches, like the 103-word item that read as follows:
The Turkish military said Monday that it had killed more than 150 Kurdish separatists this month with artillery fire and airstrikes in northern Iraq that were carried out in retaliation for increased cross-border violence. The rebels, who are fighting for autonomy in southeast Turkey, often operate out of bases in northern Iraq, where the Iraqi Kurds have achieved a level of autonomy of their own. The rebels — from the P.K.K., or Kurdistan Workers Party — have refused to stop fighting unless demands like the release of a jailed leader and public education in the Kurdish language are met by the Turkish government.
It cannot be argued that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets more attention because of its allegedly high civilian toll. A large portion of the dead and maimed in the Turkish-Kurdish conflict are civilians, mostly Kurds.
The excessive focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also cannot be justified by any calculation of the number of people in the aggrieved group. An estimated 40 million Kurds spread out over Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria far outnumber the 6-9 million Palestinians. The Kurds have suffered more comprehensive impoverishment and much greater loss of life, not only at the hands of the Turks, but also under the chemical weapon attacks by the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, the war between the Turks and the Kurds evinces all the ugly features of protracted ethnic conflict – death squads, terrorist attacks, reprisals, destruction of entire villages, wanton disregard for the safety of non-combatants.
On Aug. 18, the Times’ only analysis pieceon the escalating war between the Turks and Kurds quoted statements by Turkish leaders, giving evidence of their brazen double-standard when it comes to dealing with their own problems as opposed to injecting themselves into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Turkish President Abdullah Gul warned, “Whoever thinks that he can bring Turkey into line with terror, violence and weapons is greatly misled… . The cost of this will also be very heavy.”
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan weighed in, stating, ”Turkey will not be tolerant towards the terror organization that targets our country’s unity and integrity, as well as the safety of our citizens’ lives and commodities.” He added, “Our patience has finally run out … Those who do not distance themselves from terrorism will pay the price.”
The implication of his words are that it is not just the terrorists themselves who will pay a price, but those who reside alongside them and do not reject them will also be targeted. This statement strikingly contrasts with Erdogan’s condemnation of Israel’s policy of isolating Gaza to ensure no weapons are delivered by sea to Hamas. Replace “Turkey” with “Israel” in the above sentence and it is evident that Erdogan’s stance on responding to Kurdish attacks on Turkish citizens is harsher and more indiscriminate than Israel’s response to terrorism from Gaza. The Times deserves credit for covering the conflict at all, but the Times might have also noted Erdogan’s inconsistency.
Why it is Important to Adequately Cover Turkey’s Conflict With the Kurds
More extensive coverage of the conflict between Turkey and Kurdish separatists would bring into focus the tense and complicated relationships Turkey has with all of its neighbors. This may be of some importance in trying to understand Turkey’s escalating rhetoric towards Israel. In the past, Iran and Syria, which also have restive Kurdish minorities, have cooperated with Turkey against Kurdish separatism. However, the conflict in Syria has now pitted Turkey against Iran and the Syrian government. An Armenian web site reports that Turkey is clashing on issues with its Arab neighbors as well. (The Armenians, of course, have their own bitter history with the Turks.) There is also the longstanding feud with the Greeks over Cyprus. Lurking even further in the background, but always a factor, is the historical antagonism between the Russians and the Turks.
While much is written of Israel’s demographic worries with regard to its Arab population and to the Palestinian population outside of Israel, Turkey too has its own demographic concerns with its Kurdish population, estimated to be as high as 23 million. The current government has tried a carrot and stick approach to its Kurdish problem. It has offered increased recognition of the Kurds as a minority, while escalating its military operations against separatists along its border with Iraq.
The strategy does not appear to be working. In addition to the flare-up of violence along its borders, on Aug. 29, a Kurdish web site reported on multiple demonstrations in Turkey.
The Times published an op-ed on June 18, 2011 by Sebahat Tuncel, a Kurdish member of the Turkish parliament, who wrote:
Kurds have been struggling for freedom and autonomy in Turkey for decades — often in the face of violent state repression. We will no longer accept the status quo. We are demanding democratic freedoms, the right to speak our own language in schools and mosques and greater political autonomy in Kurdish-majority regions.
Since Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., came to power in the 2002 elections, Turkey has deepened its diplomatic and economic ties with governments across the Middle East, and Mr. Erdogan’s public denunciations of Israel have made him a popular figure throughout the region. But while the prime minister frequently expresses his sorrow over the deaths of Palestinian children, he has not so much as mentioned the Kurdish children who have been killed by the army and the police in Turkey.
In Turkey – as in Iran and many Arab states – there has been a dramatic decline in fertility rates. But this overall number masks differences between ethnic groups. Although the data is disputed, some evidence exists that the Kurds in Turkey have as much as twice the fertility rate as the ethnic Turks (David Goldman “Spengler” has written about this in several articles for Pajamas Media). This points to the possibility of intensified ethnic conflict in the future.
Greater media exposure to the conflict between the Kurds and Turkey would be informative to the American public. The Times with its extensive Middle East coverage could lead the way by raising the issue of the double-standard Turkey applies to its own battle with terrorists and demands for autonomy among its minorities as opposed to its increasing hostility to Israel. It also might generate scrutiny and discussion about whether Turkey’s other conflicts have a role in the Islamist government’s appetite for confrontation with Israel.