Erdoğan continues repression of Kurdish political and cultural rights

The year 2020 has been especially difficult for Turkey’s already embattled Kurdish population.  President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) continue to imprison Kurdish activists and overturn the democratic will of Kurdish voters at an alarming pace, putting the future of Kurdish political and cultural aspirations in a dire position.

As COVID-19 continues to ravage the country, Erdoğan and his allies have cynically used the crisis as a smoke screen to double down on the Kurds, removing elected mayors and banning public displays of Kurdish culture and language.

Turkey’s restrictions and disregard for its Kurdish minority, which makes up roughly 20 percent of the population, is not new. Although Erdoğan eased some of Turkey’s systematic anti-Kurdish laws in the mid-2000s, he later went on to walk back many of his reforms in a bid to cater to the ultranationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), a party with which he is in a ruling coalition. This dynamic became especially pronounced in the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup, which resulted in an intensification of Ankara’s operations against the Kurds both at home and abroad. The ruling government has curtailed Kurdish language, literature and culture on trumped-up charges ever since.

The last year has been particularly difficult for Turkey’s Kurds. Of the 65 mayors elected in last year’s local elections for the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party (HDP), Ankara has forced out or detained 59, replacing them with loyal AKP trustees. The large-scale crackdown on the HDP has led its co-chair Mithat Sancar to raise concern that the government will pressure the Constitutional Court to enact a total closure of the political party.

Erdoğan ultimately aims to equate the HDP with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – a Kurdish militant group that has waged an armed conflict with the Turkish state for nearly 40 years. Now the HDP, its leaders, its members and its supporters are in danger from the AKP-led government.

In September, police arrested 82 HDP-affiliated figures on the false charge of taking orders from the PKK to “incite a rebellion” during the October 2014 Kobane protests, in which security forces killed 31 Kurdish protestors. Meanwhile, in Hakkari, police arrested Leyla Güven, a former deputy from the HDP and one of its most popular figures, on dubious charges of aiding the terrorist actions of the PKK. Their arrests are part of the wide net cast by the AKP in its battle against local and state governments with ties to the HDP – and the charges of association with the PKK show that Erdoğan is magnifying his efforts to paint the HDP as identical to the PKK.

Erdoğan’s desire to crush Kurdish political aspirations also reaches into the cultural sphere. Most recently, the governor of Istanbul’s Gaziosmanpaşa district halted the production of a Kurdish-language play in Istanbul on the grounds that its content would “disturb public order”. This is one of many examples of the government utilising outdated laws to suppress the Kurds’ basic civil rights.

The mounting pressure is also forcing residents of predominantly Kurdish areas such as Diyarbakir to hold underground Kurdish language classes in order to avoid reprisals from the government. Higher education is also under attack. Turkey’s Council of Higher Education (YÖK) has banned students from writing their dissertations in Kurdish. Diyarbakır’s Dicle University has also backtracked on its use of Kurdish language as a medium of instruction, with the university insisting that it never offered courses taught in Kurdish, despite the claim by former academic Selim Temo that Ankara has changed the language of instruction from Kurdish to Turkish.

Kurdish media, like other media outlets critical of Erdoğan, has not fared well under the AKP. As of Oct. 6, the popular Iraqi Kurdistan-based news website Rudaw is banned from operating in Turkey as a result of a controversial social media law passed, further stifling platforms critical of the government. Ankara also heavily censors books in Kurdish or about Kurdish history. In 2018, the Turkish courts banned the distribution and sale of nine Kurdish books detailing the history and struggles of the Kurds on the grounds that they were spreading “terrorist propaganda”.

Erdoğan’s draconian anti-Kurdish measures leave no room for doubt that the lifting of restrictions on Kurdish culture or politics that he enacted earlier in his rule was purely a political ploy. His alliance with the MHP and near total adoption of their anti-Kurdish outlook exposes the limits of Kurdish political and cultural rights in AKP-ruled Turkey. Although Turkey’s Kurdish minority aspires to enjoy the same rights and freedoms as other Turkish citizens, the Erdoğan government’s systematic repression of even the most basic of their demands will only exacerbate the Kurdish conflict.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

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