Since my mid-20s, I have been studying two things that fascinate me:
- How someone uses language—the words they chose.
- How political self-interest creates and maintains geopolitical divides.
I believe humanitarian aid should be accessible to anyone—much more so than military aid, which Western governments incur debt to provide almost instantaneously—regardless of background, ethnicity, or geographical location.
As someone who constantly studies the “feel of language,” word usage is extremely important to me, especially when it comes to what words are used and omitted. Therefore, knowing the geopolitical divides that exist in the region where last Monday’s devastating earthquake occurred and how it serves Turkey, Syria and the West’s interests, it is not surprising that Western media outlets and governments fail to mention that the autonomous region of Kurdistan was also affected by the earthquake.
Mainstream Western media outlets are referring to the earthquake as the “Turkey-Syria Earthquake,” omitting any mention of Kurds even though Kahramanmaraş and Gaziantep, where the epicentre was located, are not majority Kurdish cities but do have a significant Kurdish population. Further east, cities badly affected by the earthquake, such as Urfa and Diyarbakir, the world’s biggest Kurdish city and where the Kurdish movement to declare an independent Kurdistan was born, have a Kurdish-majority population.
A Moral Compass
I was raised on a Western media diet. (I am not going to say, “I turned out okay.”) It was not until I lived for several years in what is considered “the east” that I saw firsthand the stark contrast in how events are reported. Consequently, I learned that journalism does not have universal ethical standards.
The omission of Kurdistan occurred to me—admittedly not immediately—when Halime Aktürk, a former Kurdish journalist, now an upcoming filmmaker, texted me, “There is no word to describe the pain people are going through in Turkey, Kurdistan and Syria right now.”
I had used Halime’s words as a moral compass before.
The realization, thanks to Halime, that Western media outlets cherry-picked which regions, geo-cultural territories and ethnicities to mention, and that Kurdish was never mentioned, while disappointing, was not surprising. This was another example of the Kurdish ethnicity being unrecognized. (READ: erased)
In the West, minds are influenced by media-sold narratives in the following way:
Question: After the massive earthquake, how many people changed their bio emoji flag from Ukraine to Turkey, Syria, or Kurdistan’s flag?
Because they were not instructed to do so. (We are social creatures and want to conform to the norm.)
Where are all the social media virtue signalling for earthquake victims? There certainly was immediate social media virtue signalling when Russia invaded Ukraine, when Will Smit slapped Chris Rock during the Oscars, and when Iran’s morality police murdered Mahsa Amini.
Since I am on a tangent, I will ask: Why is the US able to send $115 billion in “aid” (tongue in cheek) to Ukraine yet not find some political heart to lift crippling sanctions on Syria, even temporarily, in the wake of the earthquake?
Geopolitical divides determine whether you are a friend to the US, hence “the West,” or expendable and, in many instances, unrecognized. (e.g., Kurdistan)
Sometimes I feel we are all just selfish pieces of work.
As I write this, we have, on the one hand, a devasting earthquake that has killed to date more than 33,000 which will inevitably increase and an election scheduled to take place on June 18 in which Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is running for re-election. (NOTE: Erdogan had said, prior to the earthquake, that the election might be held as early as May 14.) Talk about a dichotomy!
History is instructive. In 2011, twin earthquakes near the Kurdish-majority city of Van led to the deaths of at least 600 people. The Turkish government’s aid provision was “questionable,” as officials decided, on a case-by-case basis, who would receive emergency tents. Moreover, the Turkish government systematically prevented aid from reaching Kurdish-majority cities.
Just as in 2011, Turkey’s issue with its Kurdish population is influencing humanitarian assistance to the February 6th earthquake. In response to Erdogan’s cracked down on visible instances of intra-Kurdish solidarity, Kurdish relief foundations have had to work covertly.
I see Erdogan’s actions as a waste of an opportunity to gain international goodwill, something Turkey desperately needs, especially with Erdogan’s attempts to impose his will on NATO.
However naive, there is an argument to be made that the conditions are right for Turkey and Kurdistan to engage in “earthquake diplomacy” if Erdogan would only see the earthquake as an opportunity to reimage Turkey’s relationship with its Kurdish citizens. (It would be too wild of a stretch to expect Turkey’s government, under Erdogan, also to take a step towards recognizing Kurdistan’s existence.)
I present this thesis because Greek and Turkish foreign ministers George Papandreou and Ismail Cem capitalized on the earthquake in Izmit near Istanbul on August 17, 1999, which killed over 17,000 people, to reconfigure Turkey-Greece relations. Erdogan’s reputation would be bolstered by a new peace initiative in the run-up to Turkey’s Presidential elections.
Unfortunately, the present situation is very different from that of the 1990s. In 1999, Turkey leaned more towards Europe. Today, Erdogan plays the tension card with the Kurds and anyone who opposes his political ideology and has not forcibly shoved Russia away when it invades Ukraine, away like the West has.
I know what I just described is wishful thinking. The above-mentioned can only occur if Erdogan is convinced that his self-interest and political survival depend on a dialogue with Turkey’s estimated 14,000,000 Kurds. Unfortunately, it does not. Turkey’s history, and Erdogan’s personal record, have shown that in the aftermath of natural disasters, more, not less, anti-Kurdish repression is likely to follow.
Additionally, Erdogan is astute enough to know that the main opposition party, The National Alliance, has failed to convince voters that they are a force for change. Furthermore, millions of Turkish citizens affected by the earthquake are currently homeless; they are far less likely to be able or want to turn out to vote. When voter turnout is low, hardliners profit; thus, a low turnout would give Erdogan’s right-wing coalition a winning edge.
To show that his self-interests take priority over helping his citizens, in a move meant to bolster rescue efforts and reconstruction Erdogan declared a three-month state of emergency covering the country’s 10 southern provinces hit by the earthquake and then went ahead with Turkish forces bombing Kurdish militia positions in Syria.
Due to Erdogan’s targeting of Kurds, Turkish society has become militarized as well as divisive between Turks and Turkey’s citizens of Kurdish origin. Promoting divisive narratives is an effective political strategy worldwide, not just in the West. Why people keep buying into such narratives has me questioning the nature of humanity.
Furthermore, Erdogan has undermined US-Turkey relations because Kurds in Syria are America’s main ally in a multinational coalition against ISIS, which is why he accuses the West of enabling terrorism, which is why I believe no US administration while Erdogan has been in power, has made any serious attempts to mediate an end to Turkey’s war on Kurds. Optics plays a critical role when it comes to navigating when and how to cross geopolitical divides.
The Turkish government has its self-interests. The US government, which undeniably leads the West, has its self-interests. Here is another dichotomy, if someone sins differently than you, who are you to judge them? The world is full of contradictory truths that keep our discourses alive.
For the moment, the earthquake has relieved much of the mounting political tension for upcoming elections. Besides the blatant xenophobic resentment of Kurdish and Syrian refugees, Turks of all political stripes were finger-pointing at each other regarding Turkey’s hyperinflation, censorship, high housing costs, and security issues. Once the impact of this tragic event is over—reporting on the earthquake is already dimming—becoming I am sure Erdogan will return to evangelizing highly nationalistic and divisive policies that he feels will win him the election.
It is puzzling that Erdogan still fails to recognize the damage his government’s treatment of the Kurds has done to Turkey’s international standing as a democracy and an economic leader. While the US most likely will not exert its diplomatic and economic leverage on Turkey in the wake of this week’s natural disaster to advance Turkey socially and economically, which ironically would serve its interests, this does not mean Erdogan cannot put aside geopolitical and cultural divides and view the earthquake as a historic opportunity for Turkey to change course, thus creating a legacy of peace rather than oppression.
Unfortunately, as with most political leaders, Erdogan’s story is about power. Every politician wants to be seen as a powerful leader in the face of a problem, especially during a crisis. However, millions of people are homeless, looming medical disasters, and a death toll expected to surpass 50,000, according to the UN relief chief Martin Griffiths. This natural disaster is beyond Erdogan’s power.
However, putting aside differences—Yes, I am putting it mildly—is not beyond his power. It is well with his power to do what’s right for all those within Turkey’s border and its surrounding neighbours who have seen their lives destroyed in a matter of moments. I hope Erdogan soon sees compassion as another avenue to serve his self-interest at home and abroad.
Nick Kossovan, a self-described connoisseur of human psychology, writes about what’s on his mind from Toronto. You can follow Nick on Twitter and Instagram @NKossovan