Hürriyet, Turkey
May 2 2009

Another problem from hell

The other night I took a taxi from Istanbul's crowded Taksim Square.
On the way home, I started to chat with the young driver, asking him
about business in this time of economic crisis.

"It is very bad, bro," he said, explaining that customers are trying
to spend less and less. Then I asked him the typical Turkish question:
"Memleket nere," or, "which city are you from?" "I am from Van," he
replied, but then anxiously added: "Yet make no mistake: I am no

Apparently that was a statement with some baggage. And that was
something he eagerly wanted to share, especially after learning about
my job. "Hey, if you have a little time," he hence asked, "let me
explain to you what the Kurds are."

Fears about 'the Kurd'
"Sure," I said, and sat down in the back seat for an extra 15 minutes
to listen to the man's story. He told me that as an ethnic Turk, he
was deeply frustrated by his Kurdish neighbors who were allegedly very
chauvinist, exclusivist and intimidating.

"In my hometown, a Kurd will never buy from a Turkish shop," he said,
"whereas we don't make any distinction." He then drew a totally
negative stereotype: "Kurds are lazy, dirty, rude and nothing good
comes out of them." The worst thing, for him, was their eagerness to
reproduce: "You want to make two kids and send them to good schools,
bro, right? Well, the Kurd makes 10 kids so that half of them will be
terrorists and the other half will be thieves."

I was already stunned by all this, but he had more to say. "They are
multiplying like rabbits," he argued, "and if the state doesn't stop
them, they will take over the whole east, killing and expelling us

"Stop them?" I asked. "What do you mean?"

He answered: "Their leaders should be taken down. We should start with
those DTP [Democratic Society Party] members. They are all PKK, and
they should killed one by one. Only then the Kurd will learn a lesson
and start to behave."

Then the conversation moved on to another topic, which took us from
current affairs to a dark past. "Perhaps we should do what my
grandfathers did to the Armenians," he coldly said, and the rest went
on like this:

- The Armenians? What do you mean? Are you talking about 1915?

- I think so.

- So, what happened then?

- Oh, one night my grandfathers took the knives out and raided all
Armenian homes, killing them one by one.

- But why?

- Well, it is bad, I know. But the Armenians started it. Before the
great killing, they raided nearby Turkish villages, and they tortured
and slaughtered every Muslim they found. They had special knives to
rip pregnant women's bellies.

They would smash the unborn babies to rocks. If my grandfathers did
not go out and kill them, they would do the same to us, too. That is
the rule, bro: If you don't kill them first, they will kill you all.

Before leaving the taxi, I tried to tell the hardnosed young man a few
things that could help. "It is haram [religiously forbidden] to kill
the innocent," I reminded him, which he tended to agree with. Then I
said maybe the Armenian militants of 1915 and the Kurdish terrorists
of today were driven by fears like his. Maybe every group suspects the
others' evil intentions and act accordingly. Maybe the problems could
be solved if they learned to talk to each other.

Even this simple idea was a bit puzzling for my driver, so I just said
good night and left. But there were many other good questions to
ask. Was he ever provided with ample information so that he could
appropriately contextualize the observations he was making in his
hometown? Did anyone ever inform him about the possible causes of
poverty in the Southeast, or about the worldwide correlation between
poverty and higher birth rates? Did he ever learn about Kurdish
communities' sentiments on Turks and why they felt the need to
withdraw? Did he ever get such information from his government or his

Driven by fear
I bet the answers would be all negative. And this underlines the core
problem: Ethnic tension, and ultimately conflict, arises from the lack
of objective knowledge about the other, which leads to paranoia about
the other. People hardly do evil for that they enjoy evil. They rather
do evil for that they fear evil.

That is something we should keep in mind while dealing with not only
the contemporary issues such as the Kurdish question, but also
historical ones such as the Armenian "Meds Yeghern" (Great Catastrophe).

In her book, "A Problem from Hell," Samantha Power, whom President
Obama appointed to a senior position, describes the latter well. Yet
to get the full picture, one also needs to read other works such as,
"Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922"
by historian Justin McCarthy. That will show you that the massacres of
Armenians were motivated by fear rather than anything else.

They were, in other words, driven by my driver's maddening idea: If
you don't kill them first, they will kill you all.

http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/english/opinion/1 1559249.asp?scr=1