In Taksim Square, Where Are the Kurds?
Posted by Jenna Krajeski
The New Yorker
One evening last week, just before six, members of the proKurdish Peace and Democracy Party (B.D.P.) gathered in front of the high iron gates of Galatasaray High School, in Istanbul. They planned to march to Taksim Square, about half a mile away, where they would join a mass of protesters. In the square, a range of groups have joined together against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and their political and ideological diversity has been held as evidence of Erdoğan’s sweeping unpopularity. But, with some notable exceptions, Kurds, usually Turkey’s most robust anti-government protesters, had been absent.
Kurds make up about twenty per cent of the Turkish population, and are the country’s most organized dissenters. The B.D.P. is a largely grassroots party, experienced in quickly mobilizing large groups for demonstrations. Kurds are accustomed to police brutality, tear gas, unwarranted arrest, and voicelessness. When I first saw images from the protests in Istanbul—silhouettes in front of billows of tear gas and police stacked like dams around protesters—I thought of Diyarbakir, the city in Turkey’s southeast that is the political heart of what many Kurds hope will someday be an independent Kurdistan. The police violence around Taksim Square came as no surprise to anyone who knows how demonstrations in Diyarbakir often end. But this time, it wasn’t Kurds marching.
Their absence was beginning to irk some protesters. “They always look like they are part of the leftist movement, but this shows they have a different agenda,” Osman, a government clerk, told me. “They protest on the basis of ethnicity, but they are in Turkey, too.” To protesters like Osman, the pro-Kurdish party is beginning to look pro-Erdoğan. Many think that the Kurds ought to realize the value of gaining support, and sympathy, from the Turkish public in the square.
Osman’s dismay reflects another reality: the Gezi Park protesters need the Kurds. “The lack of Kurdish participation weakens the opposition,” Murat Somer, a professor at Koc University, told me when we met, later that evening, in Taksim Square. “It weakens the democratization of the protests… Kurds are the most organized political group, and the least hierarchical. They have a lot of experience. They have seen first hand the iron fist of the state.”
At Galatasaray that evening, there were a few Kurdish women in loose white headscarves. They are the Saturday Mothers, a group that gathers once a week to protest the disappearance of Kurdish detainees, usually family members. In western Turkey, they are seen as proponents of Kurdish separatism; for many Turks, there is little difference between peaceful Kurdish protesters and groups like the P.K.K., which has a history of terrorism. Osman told a story about a previous Saturday Mothers protest in Istanbul: “Two secular women walked past and said, ‘I would kill them if I could.’ ”
Nearby, two Kurdish men stood smoking cigarettes and holding yellow B.D.P. flags. Later, others would set up a small camp in Taksim that also had pictures of Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the P.K.K., who is in prison for his party’s campaign of violence. One of them told me that Kurds had waited to march because it was a “sensitive period,” referring to ongoing peace negotiations. But he had seen nationalists in the square promoting Ataturk, who Kurds consider an oppressor, and it seemed important to come in order “to show that they didn’t start the protest.”
Orhan Aslan, a young Kurdish restaurant worker, was less conciliatory. “We don’t trust the nationalists,” he told me. “They are trying to make Kurdish people join the protests, but we don’t feel like we are part of it.” He spoke with pride; for the first time, he felt Kurds had something that Turks wanted. “If Kurdish people really joined the protests, the government would have a problem,” he said.
There is distrust on both sides. Even though the B.D.P. has progressive views (on the environment, and on the rights of women, the L.G.B.T. community, and minorities) that mirror those of Turkey’s left wing, their association with the P.K.K. makes Turks nervous. Furthermore, secular Turks worry that, if the peace talks proceed, Erdoğan’s religious party will get stronger with Kurdish support. “People feel threatened that, together, the A.K.P. and the B.D.P. will dismantle ‘Turkishness,’ ” Somer told me. “A lot of people don’t know how to support both Turkish identity and diversity.”
On Wednesday, a few hours before the protest was scheduled to start, I visited the B.D.P. offices in Tarlabasi, a poor neighborhood adjacent to Taksim. The office is across a narrow street from a police station, where gates protect armored vehicles and riot police protect other riot police from angry passersby. I talked to Neyzat Yeziz, the office director. Yeziz was joining the rally that evening, but not even he was sure where the Kurds would collectively end up. “Over the last ten years, the government has tried to suppress many sides of Turkey,” Yeziz said. “The only group they couldn’t control were the Kurds.”
Some Kurds are bitter that, throughout years of media censorship and police brutality aimed at Kurds, no one has protested in their defense. Ramazan Tunc, an economist and co-founder of Diyarbakir’s Mesopotamia Foundation, wrote to me in an e-mail: “The Kurds faced gas bombs in any democratic protest, but the people in the west of Turkey did not hear the voice of their brothers in the east or did not want to hear.”
Perhaps the experience in Taksim Square will change that, too. Osman, the government clerk, for all his frustration with the Kurds, suggested as much. He told me, “Turks are now saying, ‘Who knows what was actually going on in southeast Turkey?’ ”