It’s a crisp, clear evening on November 16, 2011. Twenty-nine year-old Mülkiye Demir couldn’t be happier as she speeds through the narrow cobblestoned streets of Istanbul’s central Beyoğlu neighbourhood on the back of her friend’s motorcycle.
Mülkiye is excited because tomorrow she’s getting married. She’s also happy because earlier that day she sold a large order of books at her job in the Mesopotamia Culture Centre, known by its Turkish acronym, MKM. The left-leaning MKM promotes Kurdish culture and its bookstore sells highbrow works of literature and political philosophy.
Suddenly Mülkiye and her friend are pulled over by an unmarked police car. She’s nervous because the police have recently been arresting a lot of people she knows, but she’s not scared because she knows she’s done nothing wrong. The police ask for their IDs and take them into custody without explaining why.
At the police station, Mülkiye tries to joke with the cops, saying she doesn’t want to miss meeting her friends at the movies later. The police strip her naked. They interrogate her. They tell her “We know what you’ve done,” insisting that the MKM, which has constantly been harassed by police since it opened in 1991, engages in “terrorist activities.”
Finally they bring the “evidence” against her, a photo in which Sebahat Tuncel, a well-known Kurdish women’s rights activist who came to fame as the youngest female member of parliament and the first person to be elected from prison, is seen whispering something into Mülkiye’s ear before a protest opposing violence against women.
Mülkiye is held for four days. She misses her wedding. She is humiliated, terrified and heartbroken.
* * *
Mülkiye eventually finds out that the customer who picked up the book order from her that day was suspected of being a member of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Simply by selling him perfectly legal books, she was accused of “aiding a terrorist organization.”
Later the man was exonerated after no evidence of PKK membership was found. Incredibly though, Mülkiye’s charges weren’t dropped, and she was sentenced to over two years in prison. Her sentence was deferred several times after she gave birth to twins and dislocated her hip, but her last deferment expired on May 19, 2014, leaving her in a kind of purgatory where she could be hauled off to jail at any time, or perhaps never. No one seems to know. And because it’s considered harmful to separate babies from their mothers, her twins (her husband is Turkish, and they named one child in Turkish – Özgür (freedom), the other in Kurdish – Lorin (melody) would be locked up with her, joining 353 other children in jail with their mothers in Turkey.
“Hopefully there will be a realization that this is a case that really shouldn’t have come to court,” Amnesty International’s Andrew Gardner told me during an interview last year. “But I think it’s quite a fragile hope.”
Mülkiye is Kurdish. Turkey’s Kurds, approximately one-fifth of the population, have been persecuted in countless ways at least since the establishment of the republic in 1923.
She was charged under Turkey’s draconian anti-terrorism law, the TMK, passed in 1991 during the savage war between the state and the PKK. It was used to convict 20,000 people, disproportionately Kurdish, between 2009 and 2013, including scores of journalists and Kurdish politicians, most often for activities having nothing to do with violence or terror.
* * *
I drink tea with Mülkiye one May afternoon last year at the MKM. She’s warm and calm, and her easy smile defies her traumatic experiences. She has a slender frame and fine features, and speaks Turkish with a slight Kurdish accent. I ask her how she can be so seemingly light-hearted about her situation.
“Because [as a Kurd] you are subjected to so much pressure and experience so many difficult times over the years, you get used to the situation to the point that it’s just funny,” she tells me.
Mülkiye has been detained more than once, and has friends who’ve been tortured and relatives who’ve been killed. “[My situation] is something familiar and ordinary,” she shrugs.
Mülkiye insists upon her innocence, and I ask her why and how this could have happened. “It’s enough to be a part of MKM and to be Kurdish,” she says. “It’s a sentence that has been meted out against this organization and its stance, ideology and philosophy.
“The justice system is something mechanical, devoid of reason, conscience, humanity and morality,” she says. “It’s a system incapable of determining right from wrong or knowing who’s guilty and who’s innocent, that allows the guilty to roam free while locking up the innocent and that allows murderers with blood on their hands to walk free […] yet incarcerates someone for two years simply for selling books. As such, I find this system and those that defend it to be inhumane.”
She tells me about the nearly 17,000 faili meçhul, – “unsolveds,” – a term so common that people in Turkey understand it to mean faili meçhul cinayetler – unsolved murders – usually political killings especially common during the blood-soaked 1990s. About 40,000 fell during the war between the government and the PKK, and as many as 4,000 villages were incinerated or forcefully evacuated, creating millions of internal refugees, their lives shattered. Hundreds of Kurdish nationalists were assassinated by shadowy death squads almost certainly supported by the state, and thousands of prisoners were tortured. Yet no one has officially taken responsibility for these killings, no one has apologized to the thousands of widows and orphans, to the entire swathes of the population now suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. “That’s what Kurdistan is,” Mülkiye says with bitter resignation.
Soldiers shot her dad in 1994 for listening to music by legendary Kurdish nationalist singer Şivan Perwer. Like many Kurds in Turkey, Mülkiye’s family used to bury Perwer’s cassettes to hide them. After her father was shot, they fled their hamlet near Batman in Turkey’s southeast. She found work in textile factories from the age of 13 to 24.
İdris, a manager and musician at the MKM, sits down and joins us for tea. He talks about the scorn many Turks still reserve especially for Kurds. “When I first came to Istanbul, I was on the bus, talking to my mother in Kurdish. A woman turned to me and said, ‘How can you speak Kurdish? This is Turkey. You can’t speak Kurdish here.’ But if I had spoken French, she would have liked it, or if I had spoken English, she would have respected me.” He points out the absurd fact that on flights to Diyarbakır, where the overwhelming majority of people are Kurds, the announcements are in Turkish and English, but not Kurdish. They tell me about the daily discrimination Kurds experience in many parts of Turkey. It can be hard to find a job or apartment, or for a Turkish woman to marry a Kurdish man.
Do most Turkish people know about the state oppression of the Kurds, I ask, about how bad it was and in many ways still is? My interpreter, a young Turkish philosophy graduate student named Duygu, interrupts: “Ask me that question! No!”
* * *
“Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.”
– George Orwell, Looking Back on the Spanish War
In early August 2015 a video started making the rounds on Turkish social media. It showed a security forces commander roaring at Kurdish civilian detainees prostrated on the concrete ground, their hands bound behind them, telling them they’ll see the “power of the Turk.” “What did this state ever do to you?!” he shrieks, completely missing the irony, and asking a question that many Turks genuinely don’t know the answer to.
A few weeks earlier, a young, well-educated Turkish woman who was helping me translate a recording guffawed upon hearing my interviewee say that the state has repressed the Kurds. “That’s not true,” she declared in an almost amused disbelief. She simply had no idea, a product of a still nationalistic educational system, media and political culture that refuse to acknowledge and deal with the past. The long roots entangling this system run deep, going back to the very beginnings of the republic.
* * *
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, demigod-like hero of World War I and the War of Independence that immediately followed, founded the Turkish republic in 1923. Atatürk and his followers established a cult-like, authoritarian Kemalist ideology defining national identity along ethnic (Turkish) lines. This followed broken promises of Kurdish autonomy made by the Turkish leaders in gratitude for the major Kurdish role in expelling foreign powers from their land during the War of Independence.
The all-encompassing state adopted a policy of official non-recognition of Turkey’s culturally distinct Kurds, composing around one-fifth of the population, and erased all semblance of Kurdish culture. Teaching, publishing and even speaking Kurdish in public were banned. Parents were forbidden from giving their children names with the outlawed Kurdish letters Q, W and X. Southeastern town names were Turkified, and prominently displayed everywhere was one of Atatürk’s famous quotes as a not-so-subtle reminder: “Happy is one who calls him/herself a Turk” (pronouns in Turkish are genderless). In neighbouring Iraq, Iran, and Syria, Kurds were also denied their rights, but only in Turkey, despite being more democratic than its neighbours, was their very existence denied.
Foreign Minister Tevfik Rüştü Aras illustrated the prevailing prejudice in 1927 when he said, “[Kurds’] cultural level is so low, their mentality so backward, […] they will die out, economically unfitted for the struggle for life in competition with the more advanced and cultured Turks.” In 1930 Minister of Justice Mahmut Esat Bozkurt said, “I believe that the Turk must be the only lord, the only master of this country. Those who are not of pure Turkish stock can have only one right in this country, the right to be servants and slaves.”
When various Kurdish tribes rebelled against the repressive measures in several uprisings in the 1920s, they were crushed. During a Kurdish Alevi Zaza uprising in ferociously independent Dersim in 1937-38, perhaps tens of thousands of people (official figures say 13,160, renowned historian David McDowall says 40,000, and still others say as high as 70,000) were slaughtered by government forces, with accounts of women and children locked into caves and suffocated by oxygen-sucking fires lit at the entrances.
The attempt at cultural genocide often reached absurd lengths. Kurds were referred to as “mountain Turks,” a lost Turkish tribe who had forgotten their language. A military service book from the 1980s erroneously explained the etymology of the word ‘Kurd’ as an onomatopoeia for the crunching sound boots make on snow during the harsh winters in the Kurdish southeast. Authorities attempted to change green traffic lights in some Kurdish cities to blue, since green, yellow and red are the Kurdish national colours. The Kurdish-Persian New Year festival, Newroz, which holds special significance for Kurds as a celebration of their culture, was suddenly proclaimed an ancient Turkish holiday by the state in 1991, which spelled it Nevruz without the forbidden Kurdish letter “W,” in a failed effort of Turkification. In the 1960s President Cemal Gürsel, himself possibly of Kurdish origin, praised a book claiming Kurds were in fact originally Turkish (according to fantastical Kemalist theories, virtually all peoples are actually of Turkish descent), and helped popularize the phrase “Spit in the face of whoever calls you a Kurd.”
Many Kurdish youngsters who grew up in villages where no one spoke Turkish would later be beaten and ridiculed by their Turkish teachers for not speaking the national tongue, which is from a completely different linguistic family. Many were encouraged by their parents to hide their Kurdish identity, or allowed themselves to become Turkified, embarrassed by their culture, which was often portrayed in films and television shows as backwards.
One day a Turkish friend sympathetic to the Kurdish movement told me that a Kurdish accent can sound antipatik – unpleasant, to Turkish ears. “Kiro” is a word used to make fun of Kurds, meaning uncultured, backwards. Studies show that Kurds are still one of the groups feeling the most alienated and discriminated against. In a 2011 interview with Crisis Group a lawyer from Diyarbakır said, “I was brought up believing it was horrible to be Kurdish, to speak Kurdish. Kurdish meant ‘rough, peasant.’ People were trying not to be Kurdish. People stopped talking Kurdish to their children, so that they wouldn’t suffer the same thing.”
Countless have been so deeply assimilated that they can’t speak Kurdish, especially in western Turkey where about half of the country’s Kurds live. Most of those who do speak one of the primary Kurdish languages (or dialects, depending on which linguist you ask) in Turkey, Kurmanji and Zazaki, are effectively illiterate in the language because they don’t formally learn it in school, and because the written and spoken forms are very different. Others don’t even know they’re Kurdish. Because of this history of Turkification and because students don’t study Kurdish history and culture, many nationalists will insist there’s no difference between the two cultures, a sort of “you’re one of us (whether you like it or not)” kind of attitude that a lot of Kurds find extraordinarily patronizing and offensive.
Those Kurds who can speak Turkish without an accent and hide their Kurdish identity can live their lives without discrimination. Many have reached the top levels of success in virtually every sector of society. But even those at the top echelons have been persecuted when they dared to speak the unspeakable.
Kurdish nationalist singer Şivan Perwer, whose cassettes got Mülkiye’s father and countless others shot or worse, fled Turkey in 1976, not returning until 2013. In 1988, superstar İbrahim Tatlıses was asked to sing a song in Kurdish one evening. His response: “I am a Kurd, but the laws ban me from singing in Kurdish” – merely the statement of a simple fact – earned him an indictment for “separatist propaganda,” his second such charge. In 1999, guests at a televised awards show threw their cutlery at legendary half-Kurdish singer Ahmet Kaya and sang a Turkish nationalist song after he told them he wanted to record a song in Kurdish. He later fled to Paris due to constant death threats, and was charged in absentia of spreading separatist propaganda. As recently as 2010 and 2015 other singers were also sent to prison on terrorism-related charges for their Kurdish-language songs.
The scholar İsmail Beşikçi, essentially the only prominent ethnic Turk to support the Kurds for many years, spent 17 years in 13 different prisons between 1971 and 1999 for daring to write about the Kurds as a distinct culture.
Leyla Zana, a Sakharov Prize-winner and the first Kurdish woman to win a seat in parliament, committed the outrageous atrocity of speaking a single sentence of Kurdish during her oath in 1991 – “I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people.” Eventually her parliamentary immunity was stripped and she went to prison for a decade.
Following the grim 1980 military coup that pulverized all semblance of dissent and further radicalized the burgeoning Kurdish nationalist movement, Law 2932 banned the speaking of Kurdish languages even in private. The junta’s new constitution made it illegal to claim that minorities existed in Turkey, or to “protect [or] develop non-Turkish cultures and languages.”
In the 1980s the PKK began a rural insurgency against the Turkish state that moved into the cities in the 1990s. Their organization was highly authoritarian and their tactics were brutal and remorseless. They slaughtered hundreds of teachers, newspaper vendors, civilians and unarmed soldiers, bombed tourist sites, recruited child soldiers and executed deserters.
The state’s tactics were no less ruthless. In October 1993 the military virtually obliterated the town of Lice, indiscriminately murdering civilians in revenge for the mysterious killing of a Turkish brigadier general. Similar atrocities had unfolded the year before in Şırnak. Government-supported armed groups such as the Islamist Hızbullah and ultranationalist Grey Wolves also killed many Kurds during the bloody 1990s. Gendarmiers forced villagers in Yeşilyurt to eat feces in January 1989. Scores of the very few brave journalists who dared to write about the conflict were assassinated by shadowy state-linked groups.
“In the 90s and early 2000s there was systematic torture in places of detention,” Amnesty’s Andrew Gardner told me during an interview about Mülkiye. “At some points in the 90s there were more reports of enforced disappearances occurring in Turkey than in anywhere else in the world.”
* * *
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Turgut Özal, himself half Kurdish, became the country’s first leader to openly acknowledge and discuss the “Kurdish issue,” and helped to partially end the ban on speaking, singing and publishing in the formerly prohibited tongue. His pro-Kurdish reform package was scrapped after he died under what some consider suspicious circumstances.
After the PKK’s leader and personality cult icon Abdullah Öcalan was captured in 1999 and thrown into the island prison İmralı, the group’s strategy and tactics softened. Öcalan acknowledged making mistakes in the past, the goal of an independent state was abandoned in favour of some form of autonomy, and the militants stopped targeting civilians.
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, it hugely accelerated reforms that had already been in motion. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became the first head of government to acknowledge a “Kurdish issue.” “I know how my Kurdish brothers have suffered,” Erdogan told a rally in Diyarbakır, the largest city in the southeast, in 2011. The party aimed to redefine national identity based on citizenship rather than ethnicity, moving towards “weak recognition” of the Kurds. Emergency rule in the war-torn southeast was lifted, and bans on Kurdish names and letters, as well as teaching and broadcasting in Kurdish, were ended. Perhaps the AKP’s greatest achievement was the Peace Process, though the PKK deserves half of the credit. Because of their pro-Kurdish policies and their ostensibly pious values, millions of Kurds, who tend to be very socially conservative, supported the AKP.
At the 2013 Newroz celebration, Öcalan declared an end to the violent portion of the Kurds’ struggle, saying “a door is opening from a process of armed resistance to a process of democratic politics.”
It’s now possible to walk down İstiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main pedestrian thoroughfare, and hear street musicians singing in Kurdish (though the word “Kurdistan” is still quite “toxic” to Turkish ears). In cities in the southeast, often full of buses with Turkish tourists from the west now, one can even buy hats and shirts emblazoned with this toxic word and the Kurdish national colours. Many people living in Istanbul, hosting more Kurds than any other city in the world, defiantly answer “Kurdistan” when I ask where they’re from. I couldn’t have imagined such things nine years ago during my first stay in Turkey, still dominated by ultranationalist Kemalists.
However, Kurdish culture is often officially promoted in an anodyne, folksy way, which many find patronizing. The Kurds are begrudgingly allowed to practice their ‘quaint village culture’ so long as they bend over backwards to acknowledge their fealty to the Turkish state and the party that has “hegemonic control” over it. Those who are ‘political’ and support the Kurdish movement are still marginalized and seen as troublemakers and terrorists. It recalls the so-called Good Muslim Bad Muslim rhetoric seen in Western societies – “‘Good’ Muslims were those who either collaborated with the colonial enterprise or accepted the values and customs of the dominant power. The rest, the ‘bad’ Muslims, those who ‘resisted’ religiously, culturally or politically, were systematically denigrated, dismissed as the ‘other’ and repressed as a ‘danger.’”
* * *
Last year, the AKP started to lose the Kurdish vote, mostly as a result of its policies in Syria, where the Islamic State and the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) are at war. The AKP supported jihadist groups fighting the PYD and refused to allow Kurdish fighters to cross the border from Turkey to help defend the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobani against IS (and teargased Kobani supporters). Erdoğan, catering to nationalist voters, infuriated millions of Kurds in October when he declared with typical temerity that the PKK and ISIS are the same, despite their opposite ideologies and very different tactics.
For the same reason, Erdoğan has at various times, including in March 2015, bizarrely gone back on previous statements and declared that there is no Kurdish problem. “For God’s sake, what don’t you have that we have? You have everything,” Erdoğan said to Kurds in March, insisting they have equal rights with other citizens.
Is that true, I asked Emma Sinclair-Webb of Human Rights Watch. “Very broadly, no,” she told me. “When it comes to Kurds, undoubtedly there is discrimination.” So what do the Kurds want? First, peace. A renewal of peace talks, on equal footing, with the PKK. They also want an end to the absurdly high 10 per cent threshold for entering parliament, mostly designed to keep a Kurdish party out, a degree of self-government in Kurdish regions, an end to the use of anti-terrorism legislation to arbitrarily target Kurds and some sort of accountability for the state’s past atrocities.
But perhaps most of all, they want to be able to learn Kurdish in public schools, which is now forbidden. As the legendary Kurdish writer Yaşar Kemal said, “It’s 90 per cent language. If you solve this it’s mostly done.”
* * *
Following the general elections in June, everything fell apart. Kurds rallied around the progressive, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which miraculously smashed through the 10 per cent threshold, denying the AKP the majority it needed to call a referendum on the presidential system that would increase Erdoğan’s already formidable powers.
A couple of weeks later, an IS-linked suicide bomber obliterated 32 people in the Kurdish border town of Suruç, who were on their way to help rebuild Kobani, just kilometres away. The PKK held the AKP accountable and claimed responsibility for the killings of two policemen in their apartment the next day, thereby starting a new fruitless war. The unelected caretaker government responded with renewed arrests and strikes on PKK targets, killing several civilians in the process. Both sides declared the Peace Process over.
Worst of all, the AKP, almost certainly still controlled by “neutral” president Erdoğan, began a campaign of intimidation and persecution against their only real threat, the party that dashed their election ambitions, and the last best hope for peace in Turkey – the HDP. Full of human rights activists, women and all stripes of minorities, it’s the only major party that earnestly stands up for progressive values (despite a very conservative Kurdish base), marginalized peoples and minority rights, and has repeatedly denounced the violence of both the state and the PKK. AKP officials have opened criminal investigations and demanded parliamentary immunity to be lifted for many HDP members, and 1,375 have been taken into custody.
Since the chances for a coalition government are now exceedingly small, a snap election will likely take place in November, and the HDP will probably make it into parliament again. That is, if the AKP doesn’t crush it first. Meanwhile, every morning Turks and Turkey-watchers alike take a deep breath and check the news to see what fresh hell has spawned. Most of my smartest Turkish and Kurdish friends have withdrawn from the news and politics, utterly disillusioned. Many think about leaving their beloved country.
* * *
Last year I had the pleasure of sitting down with one of my favourite Turkish writers, Ece Temelkuran, in Istanbul. She expressed the same gloomy attitude I encounter regularly from the country’s best and brightest, saying Turkey is now an authoritarian state.
“There is no law in this country anymore and there is no sense of law […] It’s chaos,” she tells me in a café in one of Istanbul’s bohemian central neighbourhoods. “Only power rules.”
She warns that the poisonous political situation seeps into everyday life, and people are becoming apathetic and withdrawing into their isolated social groups.
“There is this deep sickness in society,” she says. “We are closing down, emotionally, mentally, and socially. Everybody is retreating.”
Click here for my story for al Jazeera English about Mülkiye.