Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Cultural War in the Southeast

Abdullah Demirbaş on Diyarbakır's famous walls. PHOTO BY Kathryn Cook/THE NEW YORK TIMES

New York Times Magazine ran a piece yesterday by Meline Toumani featuring Abdullah Demirbaş, the former DTP district mayor of Sur, the old center of Diyarbakır province. The piece is quite empathetic in its treatment of DTP, but a careful read highlights well the difficulties DTP politicians face in terms of breaking ties with the PKK (see Feb. 4 post). The Demirbaş profile is thought-provoking and paints a portrait of the unavoidable role the Kurdish language necessarily plays in public life, and consequently, why reform cannot exclude cultural rights. While AKP has been largely supportive of development efforts in the southeast, this support has not often been applied to the extension of Kurdish cultural rights, involving the use of the Kurdish language and the ability to gather and participate in politics as Kurds. AKP seems reluctant to endorse the notion that one can conceivably be both Kurdish and Turkish, and is instead intent to focus on the economic aspects of reform, a move that some observers see as a co-optation of the larger Kurdish agenda for cultural rights.

Demirbaş was dismissed last July for his public use of Kurdish. Also mentioned is the prosecution of Diyarbakır mayor Osman Baydemir who was put on trial after using Kurdish in an attempt to quell protests in March 2006.

From the article:
Demirbas was in a legal ordeal when we spoke last summer because he had been using Kurdish in his capacity as the mayor of Sur, Diyarbakir’s central district, an ancient neighborhood ringed by several miles of high basalt walls. For printing a children’s book and tourist brochures in Kurdish, according to a report by the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party, Demirbas was accused of misusing municipal resources. For giving a blessing in Kurdish while officiating at a wedding ceremony, he was accused of misusing his position. And for proposing that his district should employ Kurdish-speaking phone operators and print public-health pamphlets in Kurdish, he was accused (and later acquitted) of aiding a terrorist organization — the Kurdistan Workers Party, or P.K.K.

The fact that a reference to terrorism should find its way into the reported accusations against Demirbas, a 41-year-old schoolteacher-turned-politician, might seem bizarrely beside the point, given the scale of the conflict between Turks and Kurds. The fighting between P.K.K. guerrillas and Turkish soldiers has raged in various forms for nearly 30 years and since 2004 has alternated between short-lived cease-fires and sporadic attacks. After 12 Turkish soldiers were killed in a devastating assault in October last year, the military began a series of airstrikes against P.K.K. camps in northern Iraq. These came after months of diplomatic wrangling in which Turkey criticized American and Iraqi leaders for not supporting its fight against the P.K.K., and the Bush administration begged Turkey not to destabilize the one part of Iraq that was fairly functional. This would seem to be far more serious than a dispute over the language of a children’s book.

But the battle that Demirbas entered, waged entirely on paper and in courtrooms, is closely related to the violence. For the past two years, politicians all over southeastern Turkey, along with human rights advocates, journalists and other public figures, have been sued for instances of Kurdish-language usage so minor that they are often a matter of a few words: sending a greeting card with the words “happy new year” in Kurdish, for example, or saying “my dear sisters” in a speech at a political rally. Such lawsuits have become so common that in some cases the accused is simply fined for using the letters W, X or Q — present in the Kurdish but not the Turkish alphabet — in an official capacity. In cases involving elected politicians, like Demirbas, the language usage is sometimes considered disloyalty and can carry a prison sentence.

This miniaturist culture war and the fighting in the mountains are related because they both reflect the inability of Turkish society to integrate Kurds — about 20 percent of the country’s total population and the majority in the southeast — in a way that doesn’t insist on assimilation down to the last W, X or Q. For decades, Turkish law has not allowed acknowledgment of Kurds as a distinct ethnic group; from 1983 to 1991 it was even illegal to speak Kurdish in public. Until 2002, broadcasting in Kurdish was essentially banned, and only in 2003 could parents give their children Kurdish names (except, again, for names using W, X or Q). But even these small advances suggest that while the military fight has been a stalemate, the deeper cultural conflict can, with relative ease, be resolved. Such at least is the vision of Abdullah Demirbas. His may not be the effort that makes headlines, but it is probably the one that matters most.

. . . .

Since D.T.P. members first entered Parliament, they have been urged by everybody from the prime minister to the European Union to the United States to condemn the P.K.K. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the leaders of other parties have stated repeatedly that until the D.T.P. does so, it will not be trusted. D.T.P. leaders have attempted to distance themselves from the P.K.K. without directly condemning the group: in public statements, they constantly reiterate that they are against separatism, do not want to divide the Turkish state and oppose all violence. In the autumn, D.T.P. leaders began calling fallen Turkish soldiers “martyrs,” as the military and the rest of Turkey’s establishment have always done. But that wasn’t nearly enough after an early-October attack killed 13 — the worst strike by the P.K.K. in years. Turkish television channels broadcast continuous gut-wrenching footage of soldiers’ mothers collapsing over coffins and uniformed officers comforting them. An intense climate of national mourning set in, along with a focus on national security that Kurdish activists feared would obliterate any hope for cultural reforms.

Aysel Tugluk, a young female leader of the D.T.P. and a one-time member of Ocalan’s defense team, sounded exhausted when she spoke at a conference in Istanbul later that month. She started her talk with a long string of condolences for all those who died, then went on to say: “If you force the D.T.P. to condemn the P.K.K., you deny us the possibility to take initiative in a way that could turn out to be effective.” But she added that if Kurdish cultural demands were met, the D.T.P. would be able to condemn “any force that deploys violence” and that the most important step right now would be for Kurds to be allowed to express themselves in their native language. “After 30 years, we still have violence,” Tugluk said, “so I think we should stop and ask, What was our mistake? The P.K.K. has to be taken into account from a sociological point of view; it is the result of the nonsolution to the Kurdish issue: we have to focus on the origins of that issue.” Ayhan Aktar, a sociologist at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, described the situation to me more bluntly: “If the D.T.P. condemns the P.K.K., they won’t ever be able to go to Diyarbakir again; they will get beaten up on the street by some hotheads when they set foot in town.”

Dilek Kurban, an analyst at Tesev, the research institute that was a sponsor of the event at which Tugluk spoke in October, told me that the personal element should not be discounted: “Every family in the southeast has someone in prison or in the mountains.” (“In the mountains” is a euphemism for fighting on behalf of the P.K.K.) “For them,” she continued, “the condemnation seems like a betrayal of their own sons and daughters, who, in their opinion, have paid too high a price for their national liberation. If those people are integrated into social life and civic life, I wonder how much of this problem will remain. But when there is still a conflict, both sides cling to their symbols: the Turkish flag or the photos of Ocalan.”

After the October crisis, harassment of Kurdish politicians only worsened. In December, a military court arrested the 35-year-old D.T.P. chairman, Nurettin Demirtas, on charges of forging medical documents to avoid military service. (Among politically minded, university-educated Kurds and Turks alike, it is common to evade military service.) Demirtas is now in a military jail awaiting word on a possible five-year prison sentence. Meanwhile, a photo began to circulate of a woman, dressed in a P.K.K. uniform, standing outside a camp in northern Iraq. The largest Turkish daily, Hurriyet, along with many other media organizations, reported that it was the D.T.P. legislator Fatma Kurtulan, leading to an official investigation. (When reporters asked Kurtulan to explain herself, she said, “You know perfectly well I’m not the person in that photo.”) In December, the Turkish chief of staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, made a statement that showed what some in the military thought of the D.T.P.’s July election gains. “The P.K.K. is in the Parliament,” the general said, a charge repeated throughout the Turkish media.

But the most dubious moment in this legal battle came last month, when the chief prosecutor for Turkey’s capital city, Ankara, filed a case against Ahmet Turk, a D.T.P. deputy (and former party president), for “insulting the military.” The reason for the accusation was emblematic: last August, when the military held a reception celebrating Turkish Victory Day, it refused to invite D.T.P. legislators. The D.T.P.’s Turk (who is Kurdish, despite his last name) made a statement admonishing the military for excluding his party, saying, “Now it is clear who is engaging in separatism.” As a result, he stands to face a two-year sentence for insulting the military by accusing it of being separatist.
Baydemir and other DTP members are facing another probe for attending a party conference in Diyarbakır in which Öcalan was lauded.

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