The Ocalan Opportunity

Imagine, for a moment, if many Hispanics in America came to feel they were so suppressed in language and culture that they sought to carve out a homeland for themselves. Some even resorted to terrorist attacks, leaving thousands killed. And then, the rebel leader was caught, tried, and sentenced to death.

That unlikely scenario is roughly what's happened in Turkey.

A 15-year rebellion by the Kurd minority against Turkish rule has left some 30,000 people dead and rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan captured, convicted, and sentenced to the gallows. Since his trial ended last month, feelings of revenge on both sides remain strong. A cooling-off period has begun as the case is appealed, and the world waits to see if the Turkish government will actually hang its "public enemy No. 1."

This is no ordinary ethnic flare-up in some distant land. In fact, the Ocalan sentence is really a test, like the war in Kosovo, for defining the future of Europe and what it stands for.

The EU (whose states do not have the death penalty) has advised Turkey (which has not executed a criminal since 1984) not to go beyond a life sentence for Ocalan.

The EU is on the right track, but it should use this crisis to do more. With Ocalan convicted and his fighters divided, Turkey is in a position of strength. It might listen to European arguments to move beyond ethnic nationalism and the related suppression of Islam to embrace universal ideals, such as tolerance.

Long a bridge between East and West, Turkey already has one leg in Europe as a loyal NATO member. And it has a starter-kit trade pact with the EU that it hopes will lead to membership. But full entry is not likely, the EU threatens, if Ocalan is hanged.

In private, some EU leaders see Turks as "a different culture." In public, they cite human rights violations, especially against Kurds, as reason enough not to expand Europe's border across the Bosporus. (They also worry about cheap farm exports and a flood of Turkish migrants.)

Without EU entry, Turkey will look east for allies. It already has hopes of being a big player in Central Asia.

Now's the time for Europe, with American help, to nudge Turkey to open a constructive dialogue with its 12 million to 15 million Kurds. The EU is leading a similar process between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Why stop there?

For decades, ever since Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, forced Turkish identity on the Kurds, Turkish officials have denied there was such a thing as a Kurd, insisting they were "mountain Turks."

But if Turks want to call themselves European, they can't afford to force Kurds to be called Turks.

And Europe, if it wants to end the kind of nationalism that it knew all too well in this century, can begin to talk to the Turks as Europeans.

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