Friday, May 20, 2011

The Prime Minister's Curious Obsession with Inonu

Commemorations of the Dersim rebellion were held in the city (now known as Tunceli) on Wednesday. The Tunceli Cultural Association and Dersim Associations Federation organized the demonstrations. DHA PHOTO from Hurriyet Daily News

In an election rally in the southeastern city of Van, Prime Minister Erdogan once again took the opportunity to assail the CHP for its role in the massacre of thousands of Alevi Kurds in the fall of 1937/spring of 1938. Curiously, Erdogan focused his scorn on then-CHP leader Ismet Inonu, who was not president at the time (an error repeated here in Today's Zaman (also repeated in Zaman) -- in fact, Inonu, after a political fallout with Ataturk, resigned in fall 1937). Obviously the CHP, the oldest party in Turkey and the party of Ataturk, has undergone numerous transformations since 1938.

This Wednesday marked the annual commemoration of the Dersim massacre, an oft-overlooked event in Turkish history that has received increasing attention in the Turkish media in recent years as Turks begin to discover and constructively discuss the darker side of the republic's formative years.

The attempt by Erdogan to associate the CHP with Dersim is not the first. He made the same remarks last August while campaigning for Kurdish votes for the September referendum (see here, in Turkish).

Just as significant to the prime minister's remarks in Van was the religious tone of his speech, calling on Turks and Kurds to unite as Muslims and accusing the pro-Kurdish BDP of creating dangerous divisions. Particularly disturbing, and completely fallacious, the prime minister, speaking in Siirt, another southeastern town, accused the BDP of fostering Zoroastrianism. I would like to know more about the roots of this accusation (is there some Turkish/Kurdish cultural significance? where did this come from?), and so if anyone has any information, please send it onward.

In March, BDP leader Selahattin Demirtas warned Kurds from speaking openly at mosques, hinting that imams appointed by the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, might be spies for the state (a dangerous intimation given that the PKK was killing imams in the dirty war in the 1990s). Also curiously, the BDP, which is well-known for its neo-Marxist, secular views (not Zoroastrianism!!), has made efforts this election cycle to compete with the AKP for religious votes. From Hurriyet Daily News:
Erdoğan said the course in solving the Kurdish issue has been changed since 2002, as they have ceased to ignore the existence of the problem. Outlining five documents issued by İnönü in the late 1940s that prohibited the use of Kurdish and ordered the confiscation of books written in the language. “Dear residents of Van! When you were suffering this pain here in Van, we were suffering the same pains in Istanbul. This period of denial has lasted until we came to power.”

The police and gendarmerie have taken extraordinary security measures in the city in order to prevent a potential dispute between the ruling and pro-Kurdish party fans. However tight security measures in the eastern province of Van ahead of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s election rally Friday did not dissuade protesters from taking to the streets for a mass prayer.

Despite a crackdown resembling the days when the region was under a state of emergency, some 5,000 members and supporters of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, gathered outside to hold their midday prayers at a park instead of in a mosque.

Imams in Turkey are selected and assigned by the state. The BDP has charged the government with using religion as a political tool.

Hundreds of police officers silently joined in the act of civil disobedience, held just hours before Erdoğan was set to arrive. The thousands of people who showed up for the prayer dispersed silently, without a trace of slogans or banners.

“They used to say the religion of Kurds is Zerdust, not Islam. Who said that? The man in İmralı and those who follow him,” Erdoğan said Thursday at a campaign event in Siirt, referring to the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.

“What do they do now? They say, ‘You cannot pray behind the state’s imam; gather elsewhere.’ The Friday prayer is about being together. They try such things to break our togetherness,” the prime minister said.
Time will tell if the AKP will have any success maintaining its strong base of more religiously-inclined voters in the southeast. Kurds are indeed more conservative, especially outside the major cities, and the AKP fared well in 2007 parliamentary elections, capturing as much as half the vote even in the Kurdish nationalist stronghold of Diyarbakir. However, those victories were diminished in March 2009 local elections, and the BDP's new efforts to woo these voters from the AKP and shed its perceived strict secularist credentials could allow the Kurdish nationalist party to make serious inroads this time around.

As to Dersim, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, engaged in similar electioneering efforts, has asked for a state-led commission of inquiry into what happened. Kilicdarolgu is himself Alevi, and his comments follow a remarked turn for the CHP. Last year, after denouncing fellow CHP party member Onur Oymen for insulting remarks Oymen made justifying the Dersim massacres, Kilicdaroglu was forced to back-down. However, Baykal's resignation as party leader and Kilicdarolgu's recent ascendancy to the party's top leadership position (in particular, his defeat of former Secretary-General Onder Sav, who was close to Baykal), have drastically changed CHP's role in the political scene.

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