Why Turkey's Kurds are ever more edgy
While Kurds are testing the limits of legal reforms that grant more freedoms, an uptick in attacks from separatists threaten to erode gains made by the ethnic minority.
Mohammad Isiktas, only 13 years old, is prepared to take on the Turkish state so he can legally use his Kurdish middle name.Skip to next paragraph
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He is still forbidden from having Demhat, which means "the time has come," on his ID card. His younger brother will also go to court, to use his Kurdish name, which means "freedom."
While Turkey's Kurds have seen some limited reforms, this family's pending fight is emblematic of the legal limits the ethnic minority still face.
Application of new laws that permit limited use of Kurdish, such as ending the ban on Kurdish names and allowing 45 minutes of Kurdish TV broadcasts a day, are being challenged by zealous state prosecutors fearful that such minority rights will undermine the Turkish republic.
So change has come only fitfully to southeast Turkey, where separatist guerrillas of the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) and Turkish forces fought a vicious war throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
"I want peace between Turkey and Kurds, between police and the PKK," says Mohammad, his dress shirt buttoned to the neck. "For that reason I want both names, Mohammad and Demhat, as a combination of these two: the [Turkish] police and [Kurdish] fighters."
"In the past, because of high pressure, we were afraid of learning our own culture," says Makbule Tanriverdi, the boys' mother. "But now we are more self-confident and brave because of that hard struggle period."
Still, after five years of relative peace, expanding self-rule, and easing language restrictions, there has been a resurgence of PKK attacks and Turkish military action, which threatens to spill into northern Iraq and erase these modest changes.
The PKK is increasing attacks on Turkish soldiers and is blamed by officials for a string of bombings against civilians. Public support is high for a military invasion against PKK bases in northern Iraq – the US and their Iraqi Kurdish allies are accused by Turks for giving the PKK safe haven.
The US and European Union labels the PKK a "terrorist" group for targeting civilians. Turkey has backed up threats by boosting troop strength along the border.
But even as Kurds test the limits of EU-inspired legal reforms that grant more cultural rights, they say the renewed bloodshed stems from a lack of creativity on both sides.
The PKK, for example, did not disarm after the 1999 capture of its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, who vowed in court to "give up the armed struggle" and "dedicate my life to bringing Kurds and Turks together." Earlier this month, the imprisoned PKK leader warned that invading Iraq would spark a broader Turk-Kurd war and risk "losing all Turkey."
For its part, the state ended a brutal state of emergency marked by extrajudicial killings, destruction of villages, and torture. "They did not internalize those changes, so they were token moves," says Osman Baydemir, the mayor of Diyarbakir. Like local Kurdish officials across southeast Turkey, home to some 15 million ethnic Kurds, he is facing a number of legal cases.
Still, a Kurdish political party exists with many PKK sympathizers among its ranks, and some 30 members hope to be voted into Turkey's parliament in July 22 elections.
Development and other economic projects have borne little fruit or not materialized, however, leading to 60 percent unemployment in this city alone, and feeding what Mr. Baydemir counts as the 29th Kurdish rebellion – the one launched by the PKK in 1984.
"From the end of 2005 onwards, there has been a remarkable regression of cultural rights," says Baydemir, whose broad desk is watched over by a portrait of Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. "Currently there is no trace of the positive atmosphere from 2000 to 2005."
The result is clear in the number of legal court cases brought against local officials and Kurds, who daily test the limits of the law. The mayor and municipal council of Diyarbakir's Sur district, in the old city, were recently sacked for voting to use Kurdish to spread information about local services ranging from tourism to trash cleanup.
Baydemir's most recent case is prosecution for printing New Year cards in Turkish, English, and Kurdish. Some non-Kurdish officials who received them sent them back. The case was not brought because Kurdish is banned, the prosecutor explained, but because the letters X, W, and Q exist in Kurdish but not Turkish, so their use violates a law protecting Turkish letters.