As Kurds and various peoples of Mesopotamia are braced for celebrating another Newroz this spring, its spiritual and semantic connotations bear significant relevance to our current democratic predicament in Turkey and how to pull out of it.
Newroz literally means New Year in Persian, but sociologically and culturally speaking, it refers to the renewal of the earth after a period of death during long, punishing winter. As the planet begins to get warm and people across the region scramble to cultivate the land with the first seeds of the season, Newroz marks the human faith in the earth’s recurring blessings after a succession of death and resurrection.
This cycle of life and death, despair and hope naturally broaden our imagination about the prospect of renewal even after a long winter. This is no exception when we dare to harbor hope, however dim or feeble, about Turkey’s democratic rebirth, not just for one segment of society but also for all of us.
As someone who grew up in the eastern province of Van, the tragedy of Kurds was not something that I learned from a Ph.D. study abroad or from books that offer a narrative in stark contrast to the official history textbooks by the country’s education system about the protracted Kurdish conflict. Still, despite my location’s proximity during my childhood, I somehow grew up in a sheltered environment (during high school years) with a little detachment from the conflict surrounding my hometown.
As more and more I engaged, apart from my duties on the basketball court, in civic activities to promote human rights in Turkey (and across the world), I painfully came to realize that I did little for the cause of my suffering Kurdish brothers and sisters. When peril hits you, you realize the plight of others who endure the same experience and pain. What befell hundreds of thousands of people during the post-coup crackdown has beset Kurds for nearly a century since the republic’s foundation. The brutal persecution of the post-coup era was an eye-opener for me.
Needless to say, the tragedy of Kurds is not independent of the historical course of modern Turkey. The republican ideals of equality and democracy had been compromised from the beginning by shaping the new state on an exclusive definition of citizenship that rested on an ethnic understanding of Turkishness. This led to the century-long denial of Kurds’ distinct identity and their cultural, linguistic rights. For a Kurdish father, giving a Kurdish name to his son/daughter would amount to a criminal offense that would land him behind bars as late as in the 1980s.
Turkey’s novel EU reforms during the 2000s cleared the ban’s last vestiges on the Kurdish language and other cultural rights. This period of progress for the peaceful settlement of the longstanding Kurdish question, however, has been set back by the steady reversal of those hard-won gains. Today, singing a Kurdish song at a public event (as happened in Tunceli) would cause imprisonment. This is really heartbreaking.
Perceiving Kurds’ suffering through the lens of the armed conflict (between the Turkish security forces and the Kurdish militants) only distorts the essence of the problem. It also dissuades many Turks of compassion from empathizing with the persecuted Kurds. I was beholden to the same mindset in the past; I made the same mistake.
Now, I separate the Kurdish question from the deadlocked armed conflict (although they are not completely two distinct, unrelated phenomenon). My renewed support for Kurds’ rights never means an endorsement of the armed cause of the militants. I state this in advance to ward off any charge of separatist sympathy. (I have none.) What sustains Kurds’ plight is the fragmented nature of Turkey’s opposition. The regime’s success lies in no small account in the shrewd deployment of the divide-and-rule tactic by perpetually keeping the opposition divided along different lines. Not just for Kurds but for all of Turkey, we must assemble our energy together to restore democracy back.
Newroz means a new start to everything, even after a long period of darkness and tyranny. True to the spirit of tradition, we must grasp the call of Newroz for a democratic rebirth in Turkey by supporting all persecuted groups, regardless of any ethnic and social background. Freedom is not free. We can only achieve it by unity with a sustained fight for human rights and democracy. The recognition of what Kurds went through and what others endure now would be a good start building a common cause for democracy during this Newroz.