In Tak­sim Square, Where Are the Kurds?

The Kurdish Globe - - NEWS -

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?’ ”

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