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TURKEY : Winning Kurdish hearts and minds

How the AKP overshadowed Kurdish nationalism in Turkey’s southeast

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Since the beginning of the Republic, Ankara’s Kurdish policy has been based on the principle of “Turkification,” an authoritarian policy that has sparked violent reactions. But now, the AKP is accomplishing something that the state has never been very successful in doing: Winning Kurdish hearts and minds

DİYARBAKIR - Turkish Daily News

Hasan Uğur is a “haci,” a word used to describe pilgrims to the Kaaba, the Muslim holy shrine in Mecca. Like many hacis, he has a nicely trimmed beard and wears a kippa-like cap. After some comments in Kurdish and some prayers in Arabic, he kindly passes loaves of bread and dishes of goat meat to me and a dozen other men, who are all brothers, nephews or grandsons of Uğur, and are all sitting on the same carpet. This is one of the handful of houses in the Dalbudak Mezrası, a mini village tied to Ergani, a province of Diyarbakır.

While enjoying the generous hospitality of this large Kurdish family, in which all fathers have at least seven or eight children, my eyes are caught by a less friendly object hanging on the wall: An AK-47.

Don't think that Uğur and his relatives are members of a separatist group. No, actually they are fighting against a separatist group, a terrorist one, namely the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Uğur's nephew, Hacı Ulaş is a “village guard,” the name given to Kurdish locals who are armed and paid by the Turkish government since the mid 80s. The duty of the guards is to protect their villages from the attacks by the PKK terrorists, and to help the regular army during their counter-insurgency operations in the mountains. “Once, 50 of them came down from that hill,” says Ulaş, showing the steep mountain that scenically lies behind his village. “We resisted many hours with only eight men, until the army units came to help.” On the wall of his living room, there is an official certificate given by the Turkish military congratulating his brave and heroic effort for the homeland.

Ulaş is only one of the more than 50,000 village guards in Turkey, who are all Kurdish, but do not buy into the separatist agenda of the PKK and, instead, remain loyal to the Turkish state. But why some Kurds fight for Turkey while others fight against it? The old and wise Uğur has a clear cut answer. “They are anarchists,” he says, “they are all infidels.” His nephew agrees. “If someone doesn't recognize his God and his prophet,” Ulaş argues, “then he won't recognize his government.”

Islamic identity seems to be an important reason why Ulaş and his fellow village guards, and millions of other Kurdish citizens of Turkey, dislike the PKK, which claims to fight for the liberation of all Kurds. The PKK started as a Marxist-Leninist organization, and although it toned that initial ideology down a bit after the early ‘90s, it is still left wing and secular. The pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP), which some Turks consider as the political wing of the PKK, is again very secular in its rhetoric. Aysel Tuğluk, the co-chair of the DTP who got elected to Parliament in last Sunday's elections, recently argued in her article in the daily Radikal that Kurds don't “need to appeal to God” to solve their problems. For a godly Kurd, that is not the most attractive rhetoric in the world.

Respecting Kurdishness

In last Sunday's general elections, such Kurds flocked to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The AKP won a major victory in all of Turkey, to be sure, but its triumph in the southeast, where most Kurds live, was particularly astonishing. In Diyarbakır, considered as the base of Kurdish nationalism, the AKP's votes increased from 68,000 (in 2002) to 190,000. In Bingöl, another Kurdish city in which the PKK has been powerful, the AKP won an astounding 71 percent of the votes. In the whole southeast region – which some Kurdish nationalists call as “Turkish Kurdistan” – the AKP's votes exceeded 50 percent, while the DTP candidates could barely get 25.

Of course religious identity cannot fully explain why the AKP is so popular among Turkey's Kurds. Another reason is the AKP's more embracing attitude toward Kurdishness. Unlike “state parties” such as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the secular-nationalist Republican People's Party (CHP), both of which are totally absent in the southeast, the AKP emphasizes that it respects Kurdish identity. Erdoğan became the first prime minister in Turkish history to acknowledge, “the state made mistakes about the Kurdish issue,” and has repeatedly emphasized the Kurd's right to express their culture and identity. Under the AKP government, and also thanks to the EU process, Kurdish citizens gained the right to open language courses and official Turkish TV, for the first time in its history, broadcast in the Kurdish language.

That's why even the Kurds who vote for the DTP don't dislike the AKP too much. “The CHP and the MHP are fascists,” says a taxi driver in Diyarbakır. “But while I will not vote for AKP, I can't say that they are bad guys.”

An additional factor is the AKP's policy toward northern Iraq. Most Kurds in Turkey sympathize with their relatives south of the border, and that's why they are firmly against any military incursion into northern Iraq. And it is no secret that in recent months, while the Turkish military has been arguing for an “operation Iraq” and opposition parties such as the CHP and MHP were cheering for that, the AKP government resisted the war mongering.

‘The protector of the poor'

Besides all these identity issues, the AKP also won hearts and minds in the region by the effective and successful services it brought to the people. Since 2002, the year the AKP came to power, both the central government and the municipalities run by AKP mayors seem to have done a good job. About 1,100 villages, which had no running water before, now have it. Hundreds of new schools have been built and the students get their textbooks for free. For very poor families, there is additional financial support for their children's education. The government built thousands of new and cheap apartments for families that were living in shantytowns. Abdurrahman Kurt, who is the head of AKP's Diyarbakır branch and just became an MP last Sunday, has visited thousands of families, asked them about their needs, and then organized charity networks to take care of them.

“This is not just about giving out,” Kurt's assistant adds. “It is the first time for many of those families that someone prominent knocks on their door and cares about them. They feel respected and cared about, a feeling which was absent in this region for decades.”

The AKP's success is also more notable when compared to the performance of the DTP mayors. Kurt notes that the DTP mayors are interested more in ideological matters then in taking caring of the city. They also lack the experience of the AKP mayors in governing. “We are the only alternative to Kurdish nationalism,” says Kurt. “We are the party of whole Turkey.”

A different path

It seems that the AKP is accomplishing something that the Turkish state has never been very successful in doing: Winning Kurdish hearts and minds. Since the beginning of the Turkish Republic, Ankara's policy has been based on the principle of “Turkification”: Converting Kurds into ethnic Turks by banning their language and culture, and imposing a whole new identity. This authoritarian policy has sparked violent reactions from Kurds, the latest one being the terrorist PKK.

Perhaps the military garrison in the middle of Diyarbakır is very symbolic. It has a huge wall on which Atatürk's famous motto is written in equally huge letters: “How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk'.” Yet, there is a very high and fortified barbed wire fence around this wall, to protect it, apparently, from those who are not that happy about this whole Turkishness rhetoric.

On the other hand the AKP's Diyarbakır headquarters was full of cheerful men, women and children on election night, which were all Kurdish citizens supporting this “party of whole Turkey.” Their spirit seems to be the best chance that Turkey has in order to handle and solve its 80-year old Kurdish question.

A liberal governor

In the recent years another actor in Diyarbakır who helped in winning hearts and minds is the “vali”, i.e. the governor, of the city, Efkan Ala. In Turkey each city elects a mayor for itself, but Ankara appoints a governor who rules most of the official institutions in that city. And since the governors are appointed by the center, they are generally seen as solemn figures who represent the state, but not the people.

Ala (42) is a different vali, though. He is widely respected in Diyarbakır, even among the Kurdish nationalists, as a man of the people. Appointed by the AKP government in 2004, he distinguished himself as a liberal and open-minded governor who established dialogue with all segments of society. During my visit to his office, he outlined a very liberal political philosophy, which included quotes from Karl Popper and emphases on civil liberties and pluralism. “Most people in this region are only looking for a more open and democratic Turkey,” Ala says, “and when they are treated with respect, they respond with acceptance.” There will always be some marginal Kurdish nationalist, according to Ala, but the state will gain the support of most of the Kurdish citizens when it accepts “Anglo-Saxon type of liberalism.”

Hasan Uğur

As a devout Muslim Uğur despises the PKK terrorists whom he calls “infidels.” He has never seen Ankara or Istanbul in his life, and the only international trip he ever took was to Mecca, as a pilgrim to the holy Muslim shrine. He prays for the well being of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the continuance of the AKP government, which he thinks is the best that Turkey ever had.

Adem Akar

Akar is a “hammal,” i.e. a man who earns his life by carrying loads on his back. He, like many other Kurds in Ergani, has voted for the AKP which the calls “the protector of the poor.” His son had a surgical operation last year, and he benefited from the healthcare system created by Erdoğan's government. He says the AKP's local networks also take care of the poor and the needy.

Hacı İsa Biçer

Biçer is a veteran civil servant from Ergani's Salla village. He has been deeply offended by the Turkish military's “secularism memorandum” that was issued on April 27, in effect, to block the presidency of the AKP's Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül. “Gül is the most worthy person in this country,” he says. “They say his wife wears a headscarf. So what? We are a Muslim nation.”


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