[lg policy] Turkey: Kurds Boycott Mosques for Language Rights

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jun 9 20:02:09 UTC 2011

Turkey: Kurds Boycott Mosques for Language Rights
June 7, 2011 - 11:18am, by Dorian Jones

  Tens of thousands of Kurds are taking part in an increasingly potent
act of civil disobedience that has become a focal point of an
increasingly bitter election contest between the governing Justice and
Development Party and Kurdish nationalists in Turkey’s restive Kurdish
southeast.In Diyarbakir, the region's main city, every Friday since
March Muslim worshipers have boycotted prayers at state-controlled
mosques to hear sermons in their native Kurdish, conducted in front of
the city wall.

“We are Kurds. This is our native language, the language that our
parents taught us. Let us speak this language in the courts, in the
mosques,” one worshipper said. “Until we are no longer forbidden to
speak Kurdish in our mosques, we will do our prayer on the street.” A
crowd of exuberant worshippers applauded the man. Those attending
represented a cross- section of society; young, old, rich and poor. In
a region where acts of civil disobedience are rarely tolerated, dozens
of police, backed by armored vehicles, looked on, but did not

Kurds make up an estimated 20 percent of Turkey's 70-million
population. Until the late 1980s, the Kurdish language was banned.
Under successive governments, restrictions have slowly been eased in
education and broadcasting, but Turkish remains the only official
language in mosques.

Diay-der, a group of retired Kurdish imams and Islamic scholars,
launched the boycott to change that status. Diay-der head Zahit
Cirtkuran says that the protest started after Diyanet, the state body
that controls and administers the Islamic faith, including the
appointment of Turkey’s imams and the writing of sermons, ignored
their appeals for reform. “Instead, the government sent 10,000 new
imams to this region who have no connection to this land,” Ciftkuran
charged. “So, it's a kind of religious assimilation."

The protests appear to have enraged Prime Minister Erdoğan, whose
Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) presents itself as
the defender of religious freedom. But the AKP is engaged in an
increasingly bitter battle for votes with the country's Kurdish rights

Erdoğan devoted most of his speech at a June 1 rally in Diyarbakir to
lambasting the protest. "They refuse to pray behind an imam appointed
by the state. But they are not religious. They see Apo [Abdullah
Ocalan, the jailed leader of the banned PKK or Kurdistan Workers’
Party] as a prophet,” fumed Erdoğan. “They are cheating you. Let’s
teach them a lesson."

The ferocity of the attack can be explained in part by Erdoğan's bid
to secure the support of Turkish nationalist voters, who are deeply
opposed to Kurdish rights. But it caused dismay among many Kurds,
including some senior Kurdish members of the AKP. "I think the prime
minister was wrong. I personally support the protest. I think it is
positive as [using Kurdish in mosques] is a basic right," said
Muhammed Akar, deputy head of the AKP in Diyarbakir.

Akar is an influential member of Diyarbakir's powerful religious
community, and related to Sheik Said, the leader of a failed Kurdish
Islamic revolt in the 1920s against the Turkish republic. In this
traditional and conservative society, such lineage carries weight.

Akar argues that while the fight for Kurdish rights was dominated in
the 1980s and 1990s by the PKK’s Marxist ideology, a profound change
has since occurred. Religious movements are now championing the
Kurdish campaign for expanded rights, he notes.

"Four or five years ago, I was fearing that there would be a clash
between secular nationalist and religious Kurds, but, instead, for the
first time Kurdish nationalism has come together with religion,” Akar
said. “There is now a resurgence in Kurdish religious demands and the
state and mosques cannot keep up."

The synthesis is most obvious in the parliamentary candidates
supported by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). In the
2007 general election in which the party was defeated by the AKP, many
BDP candidates were linked to the PKK. This time, the BDP has
diversified its selection, including liberals and key religious
Kurdish figures.

In Diyarbakir, two out of six BDP-supported independent candidates are
powerful members of the religious Kurdish movement. One of those
candidates, Altan Tan, a longtime Kurdish activist and rival to the
PKK, says that Kurdish politics have finally caught up with the times.

"Yes, they say they are socialists, but they also say that we don’t
think like we did 20 to 30 years ago,” Tan said of the BDP. “All the
world has changed. The Soviet Union has gone. So we should change. Now
we are thinking as a Kurdish nationalist movement.”

Prime Minister Erdoğan has committed himself to introducing a new
constitution after the June 12 election, but has given few details
about it or whether the changes would address Kurdish concerns.

In the meantime, the Diyanet is believed to be under pressure to head
off ethnic Kurds’ Islamic demands, including by allowing the use of
Kurdish in some mosques. Last week, an illuminated mosque ceremony
(kandil) celebrating the conception of the Prophet Mohammad was
conducted in Kurdish in Diyarbakir's main mosque, the Ulu Cami.

"It was a beautiful evening. Some of the old men were crying, as it
was their first time to hear mevlid [poems about the Prophet
Mohammad’s life] sung in their language,” recounted muezzin Omer
Kilic, who sang the ceremony. “It's a start.”

Local AKP official Akar, however, warns that any post-election failure
to address Kurds’ concerns could put Turkey’s long-term political
stability at risk. "If there is a disappointment, the whole idea of
integration will end. Separation and conflict will come to the fore,”
he said. “If I am seeing this, the prime minister, the state should
see this as well. The danger that is lying ahead is a nightmare."


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