Turkish-Kurdish Tensions in Sweden: How did we get here?

*Source; Kira Walker Rudwar ©. Kurds in Sweden at a rally for independence.

Turkish-Kurdish Tensions in Sweden: How did we get here?

A Kurdish man was shot in Stockholm at the beginning of February 2016. Although the attackers are still unknown, there is a strong belief among the Swedish Kurds that the attack was politically motivated. Some media outlets even speculated that the crime was committed by Turkish nationalists or by a group that sympathises with ISIS. Not so long after that, a Turkish cultural centre in Stockholm was hit by an explosion – again the attackers are unknown.

Journalists, the Swedish police, and analysts are trying to find out whether this was retaliation, and whether this is just the tip of the iceberg, a sign of a greater spill-over of Turkish-Kurdish tensions to Sweden. They may have a point. Just in the last few months of 2015, there were small-scale clashes between Turkish and Kurdish communities where Swedish riot police had to intervene, and there were chain of bomb attacks against both Kurdish and Turkish cultural associations.

This is surely not the first time a spill-over of Turkish-Kurdish tensions has happened in Europe. Turkey’s domestic problems have always been trans-nationalised; take for instance the assassination of Turkish diplomats by the Armenian militant organisation ASALA (Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia), the Armenian diaspora lobbying for the recognition of the genocide, the Turkish states’ counter-lobbying to prevent that from happening, Kurdish diasporas’ hunger strikes to protest Turkey’s actions in the 1980s, leftist and religious fundamentalist organisations from Turkey operating in Germany after the 1980 coup d’état in Turkey, violent clashes between Turkish leftists and the ultra-nationalist groups all around Europe, Kurdish diasporas’ lobbying efforts at the EU Parliament and other European Union member state parliaments, the formation of the Kurdish Parliament in exile, Assyrians from Turkey lobbying for recognition of their plight, the assassination of three Kurdish women in Paris, and many other instances. Turkish politics is very much a presence in Europe. The upshot is that Turkey’s domestic politics becomes European politics within seconds, due to the presence of large Turkish and Kurdish communities from Turkey in Europe. Especially during the 1990s and early 2000s, Germany, France and Belgium became the scenes for a Kurdish-Turkish political struggle either via public relations wars, lobbying activities or violent clashes.

However, Sweden was not a place where these tensions turned violent on a frequent basis. Now the authorities are concerned that this might become a bigger issue in the near future, considering the current developments in Turkey. Newspapers report that the police officers even declared that they should not have let the Kurdish demonstrators protest in front of a Turkish cultural centre considering the tensions in Turkey. Now authorities are taking extensive measures in areas where Turks and Kurds live. Is this just the beginning? Will there be more clashes? It is hard to speculate on that at the moment; it will not do any good, and risks criminalising both communities in Sweden. What we need to do is to try to understand the root causes of these events and talk about how they can be prevented.

Why does it come as a surprise?

Migration from Turkey to Sweden started in the mid-1960s and recently the Turkish associations celebrated their 50th anniversary. In these 50 years, Turkish, Kurdish, Assyrian, Alevite, Armenian and other communities migrated to Sweden with overlapping or separate migration flows either as refugees or labour migrants. The Kurdish diaspora, which was formed from the mid-1970s onwards, consisted predominantly of asylum seekers who were politically active even before they migrated to Sweden. The Turkish community mostly originated from Central Anatolia, and came for economic reasons.

The Kurdish diaspora immediately became visible on the Swedish political scene, and became one of the most effective diasporas in Sweden. Members of the diaspora created an image of a well-integrated community and took part in many aspects of public life, by becoming authors, public intellectuals, academics, politicians, and even comedians. They managed to keep the Kurdish issue on the agenda in Sweden and their activities were relatively well received compared to other countries where the Kurdish movement has been criminalised or suppressed.

The Turkish diaspora, on the other hand, was not visible in the public scene for a long time and did not actively get involved in activities that included lobbying in favour of the Turkish state or political groups in Turkey in general. Surely, members of the community had political opinions and they were reactive to what was going on in Turkey. However they were not mobilised enough to constitute a critical mass with power in Sweden. Despite this, it is possible to observe that there has been an awakening during the last decade and mobilisation patterns are changing.

While I was conducting interviews for my PhD thesis (between 2008 and 2012), I observed that the relations between the two groups were affected by the political turmoil and developments in Turkey. There was detectable social and political distance between them, but these tensions did not frequently turn into violent encounters. I found that there were verbal tensions between the members of the community, and inter-ethnic marriages, friendships, or other sorts of cooperation were unlikely. However, people who are stakeholders in their communities, such as the leaders of main umbrella organisations, were very reasonable people and during my interviews with them they constantly underlined that they wanted civil relationships between the groups and they would never encourage the use of violence to make a point. Members of youth organisations also testified that they detect some tensions between the two groups, especially when things heated up in Turkey, but they do not think that violent encounters were likely. What has changed since then?

The Kurdish issue is far from being a new phenomenon in Turkey. It went through different phases, some of them more brutal than others. Especially in the 1990s, when deportations from villages, extra-judicial killings, and disappearances were happening in combination with torture, oppression, and detentions, the Kurdish diaspora was extremely active in Europe. Polarisation in Turkish society is not a new phenomenon either. Turkey has been through different phases, which included struggles for democratisation as well as democratic reversals, over and over again. However, recently we are observing the same old troubles that haunt Turkey with much more intensity and frequency – brutally and staggeringly. We have an extremely polarised society, which is fragmented on so many different levels that it will take generations to repair, if it is ever possible. The country is divided into two camps: pro-government and anti-government. And the latter is also divided into dozens of fractions due to ideological and ethnic or religious differences. Most of the grievances that exist in Turkish society are intertwined. The first breaking point was the Gezi Park protests in 2013, where this polarisation was revealed. Then the collapse of the Kurdish peace process in July 2015, discussions of a presidential system, power struggles and the not-so-low-intensity civil war, are adding to these already existing tensions. We cannot expect this delirium-like situation not to trigger an immediate response from diaspora communities. Conflicts disseminate and political discourses echo in the transnational space.

The tensions are not just between Turks and Kurds. The tension is not even purely ethnic to start with. Today’s Turkey is a place for a clash of ideologies more than anything else. And this is what is happening in Sweden now. It can happen anywhere. Today Stockholm; tomorrow Berlin? Brussels? Paris? The fragmentation and cleavages within the Turkish diaspora itself can even be deeper than the ones between Turkish and Kurdish communities. Because of the toxic environment in Turkey, all groups from all walks of life are pushed to their boundaries. That is why the diasporic space is also transforming itself according to the changing political scene in Turkey. New diaspora organisations are emerging which have more ultra-nationalist agendas. They were not there until a few years ago. There were people who sympathised with such ideas but the difference today is that they are mobilising.

What to do next?

Analysts are right to predict that this could be a sign of a problem that is getting deeper in Sweden, and elsewhere where both Turkish and Kurdish diasporas reside. These perceived tit-for-tat attacks are just the surface of a debilitating problem. We cannot expect that a situation of civil war in Turkey, which causes great tragedy and dismay, will just bypass these communities in Sweden.

Dr. Paul Levin, Professor of Turkish Studies at Stockholm University, was absolutely right when he suggested after the shooting of a Kurdish man in February that both communities should get together and try to find a solution to this problem before it is too late. The community leaders know very well that both groups will be affected negatively with the continuation of these attacks. Reoccurrence of these violent attacks will only contribute to anti-immigration sentiments, which are rapidly growing in Sweden. We still do not know who the perpetrators are but there is a dominant discourse about retaliation. These could be individual acts, and they could be marginal. But the real problem is not violence – it is the reflection of homeland conflicts to diaspora communities in Sweden at a social level. With regards to interactions between the two communities, we should also keep in mind that besides the dynamics of the homeland conflict, there can be Sweden-specific dynamics that are independent from Turkey and Turkish politics. This merits a careful approach by the Swedish authorities as well. A platform that can bring members of both communities together to formulate a roadmap to address these urgent issues could be the first step towards preventing further cleavages.

Bahar Başer

Başer, Bahar, “Turkish-Kurdish Tensions in Sweden: How did we get here?”, Independent Turkey, 22 February 2016, London: Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (Research Turkey). Original link: http://researchturkey.org/?p=10830

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