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Erdogan’s Islamic credentials no longer a winning hand among Turkey’s Kurds

The ruling party’s increasingly strong alliance with nationalists has dampened support among the country’s Kurds.
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BISMIL, Turkey — On a recent morning, young couples gathered for the inaugural class of a newly built, government-run “marriage school.” A woman wearing a black Islamic-style headscarf flips open a laptop as she prepares to lecture the soon-to-be newlyweds on Islamic piety. It is a critical pillar of conjugal life, they are told.

Earning a certificate from the school has become mandatory for anyone planning to marry in Bismil, a nondescript town of 120,000 people surrounded by verdant fields in the predominantly Kurdish province of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey.

“When we applied for our marriage license, we learned that we had to graduate from this school in order to get married,” explained Mahsun Bilgin, who is planning to tie the knot with his fiancee in May. “I have no idea what they will teach us,” he added with a nervous laugh.

“We had an imam-officiated wedding, but when we sought to get formally married, registry officials said ‘you either attend the marriage class or we won’t do your paperwork,’ so here we are,” volunteered another aspiring groom. Like the rest of the couples approached by Al-Monitor for comment, he declined to identify himself by name and said he was here against his will.

Officials say the aim of the school is to reduce divorce rates and spiraling domestic violence.

Speaking at the inaugural lesson, Bismil’s state-appointed “kaymakam,” or district governor, Hamza Turkmen said, “We want to raise healthy generations” and “convey the religious, legal and health dimensions of marriage.”

Critics riposte that with its electoral fortunes hinged on Kurdish votes, Turkey’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) government is seeking to salvage its withering popularity by fanning religious feelings among the Kurds and casting its local opponents as anti-Islamic, just as it is doing nationwide.

State-sponsored boarding schools for Quranic studies for girls — and for children of both sexes between the ages of 4 and 6 when they are more likely to master the Arabic text, for example — are mushrooming across the region. Diyarbakir boasts the third largest number of Quran students in Turkey after Istanbul and Ankara, with 45,999 enrolled in Quranic courses according to an October study.

A marriage school teacher counsels aspiring couples on the importance of religion and mutual respect on Jan. 28 in Bismil. (Photo by Yilmaz Kaya)

Bismil, along with the districts of Silvan and Ergani in Diyarbakir, are soon to get their own girls’ Quran school. Their construction will be financed by funds allocated to the Diyarbakir Fire Department, the opposition Birgun newspaper revealed in a Feb. 17 scoop.

“Through this [policy, the government] wants to serve certain interests, to imprison women at home, to define their roles on the basis of ideology and religion,” said Sukran Bulut, a local leader of the opposition pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). “They are telling women, ‘you will be subservient, wash dishes, raise children. …' This is their basic mentality.”

Emine Aksahin, a primary school teacher in Erimli village in Diyarbakir, concurs. “Religious foundations and fraternities are getting all the support from the government. Children are instructed to go straight to Quran studies after school and little girls encouraged to cover their heads,” she told Al-Monitor. “Religion is a very powerful force here, and the state is exploiting this to the maximum. Low-income families are the more vulnerable to such pressure,” Aksahin added. “But it’s not going work.”

Martin van Bruinessen, a Dutch anthropologist and leading authority on the Kurds, agrees that the impact of the growing number of Imam Hatip, or clerical training, schools and Quranic courses is far from clear.

“I visited a place just outside Diyarbakir that formally was a [Quranic course] under the [Mufti’s office], but that in practice was a traditional-style madrasa where students studied classical [Sunni] Shafi'i fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] books in the old-fashioned style in the afternoon and evening, while in the morning they visited an Imam Hatip school so that they would have a diploma that promised a salary while cultivating a religious habitus that is different from the one prescribed by the [state-run Religious Affairs Directorate] Diyanet," he said in emailed comments to Al-Monitor.

Islamic and Kurdish identities have long been intertwined among Turkey’s estimated 16 million Kurds, many of whom adhere to Sunni Sha’afi branch mentioned by Bruinessen. As such, in order to draw Kurdish votes, parties across the ideological spectrum — including the nominally leftist and secular HDP — need to appeal to one sentiment or the other and ideally to both.

Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an armed campaign against the Turkish state since 1984, figured this out in the mid-1990s. He deployed loyalist imams to win over Kurdish villagers even as his men preached Marxist-Leninist ideology, which has since been ditched.

Ocalan, who hails from Halfeti, a conservative district in Urfa, is no stranger to Islam. According to Ismail Arslan, a Kurdish politician and Ocalan’s classmate and fellow boarder between 1966 and 1968 at the Tapu Kadastro lycee in Ankara, the PKK boss went through a religious phase before delving into philosophy. “He was very religious; he would observe Ramadan fasting and perform namaz prayers in the front row. We would pray together,” Arslan recalled in a 2012 interview with this author.

“Islam, madrasas and Sufi orders helped the survival and continuity of Kurdish identity in the absence of an independent Kurdish state on the one hand and slowed down the emergence of a stronger Kurdish nationalism on the other,” observed Serhun Al, an assistant professor at the Izmir University of Economics, in a 2019 essay.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who shot to power in 2002 promising to usher in full-blooded democracy, has navigated this paradox more successfully than any other. His AKP courted religious sentiments. But the party struck a refreshingly agnostic stance on Turkish identity that has been shoved down Kurdish throats for decades.

Riding on the back of the AKP’s strong economic performance, the strategy paid off. In the 2007 parliamentary elections, the AKP swept 40% of the vote in Diyarbakir, the Kurds’ informal capital and a bastion of Kurdish nationalism. In local elections held in 2009, the AKP bagged nine of the metropolitan mayoralties in the 16 Kurdish dominant provinces. That same year, Erdogan became the first leader in Turkish history to authorize direct talks with the outlawed PKK and acknowledge that the state had committed “errors” in its scorched earth campaign against the militants in the southeast.

The AKP’s gains began to unnerve the HDP. But it did not last long. In 2015, Erdogan’s Kurdish opening slammed shut. Across the border in Syria, the PKK’s Syrian wing, with US backing, was establishing an autonomous statelet. “Dreams of expanding Kurdish control from northeastern Syria all the way to the Mediterranean Sea were ignited, and the PKK saw the biggest surge in recruitment in years,” said Roj Girasun, co-founder of RAWEST, an independent research outfit based in Diyarbakir.

“What happened in Syria triggered the ‘survival of the state mentality’ in Ankara,” said Al in a telephone interview with Al-Monitor. Fears that the Syrian Kurds’ success would reignite separatist feelings amid Turkey’s own prompted Erdogan to ditch the peace process amid a growing nationalist backlash.

Erdogan teamed up with Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the far-right Nationalist Movement party who is viscerally opposed to any concessions to the Kurds. A 2½-yearlong cease-fire with the PKK collapsed and repression of the HDP and its supporters resumed. The crackdown intensified in the wake of the abortive coup against Erdogan in 2016, as thousands of alleged PKK supporters, including lawmakers, academics and journalists, were put behind bars.

The AKP remains the second most popular party after the HDP in the Kurdish heartlands in part because its other rivals do so poorly. Another reason for its sustained edge is the vast web of patronage networks spun through state tenders and more generally the instinct among some to gravitate toward whoever rules. Mehmet Kurt, a lecturer at Yale University and Marie Curie global fellow at the London School of Economics, calls this “a colonized mentality,” which leads some Kurds “to see benefit in aligning with the powerful of the time.”

Yet the AKP is, according to most pollsters, incontestably in decline, above all in the southeast. A December 2020 survey conducted in the four largest Kurdish majority cities by RAWEST found that the AKP would garner 22.7% if elections were to be held today. (It scores around 30% plus nationally according to various other polls.) Eighty-five percent of the respondents were ethnic Kurds and 46% self-identified as Muslims first, Girasun said.

“Of course the AKP is losing blood among the Kurds. Look at what happened in Istanbul,” said Aksahin, the schoolteacher. She was referring to the 2019 municipal elections that saw the AKP lose control of Istanbul and Ankara for the first time when the HDP backed the opposition’s candidates.

Girasun reckons that a further 2.5 million Kurds will be eligible to vote by 2023 when the next parliamentary and presidential elections are due to be held. Erdogan will need to lure as many of them as he can to avoid another Istanbul-style Waterloo.

“Islam isn’t a free pass for Erdogan. The reason he won Kurdish hearts and minds is because he was sincerely trying to fix the Kurdish problem,” observed Al, the Izmir-based academic. Between 2013 and 2015 (when the mutually observed cease-fire between the government and the PKK was in place), there were almost no deaths in the region. It was like heaven,” Al reminisced.

However, the mood was already starting to sour as the Islamic State attacked the Kurds in neighboring Iraq and Syria and thousands of jihadis poured in, apparently unhindered, through Turkey. By the fall of 2014, they had encircled Kobani, a Syrian Kurdish town on the Turkish border, and Erdogan seemed pleased. “Kobani is about to fall,” he declared. Erdogan’s words unleashed an orgy of violence as Kurds spilled into the streets across the southeast to air their fury. Some 46 people, most of them HDP sympathizers, were killed as demonstrators clashed with police between Oct. 7-12, according to Turkey’s Human Rights Association.

The Syrian Kurds' heroic fight against IS had created a deep sense of pride and unforeseen unity among the Kurds. Religious conservatives in the HDP sent out feelers to Huda-Par, the radical religious party set up by members of the now-defunct Hizbullah, an armed Kurdish group that has no relation to its Lebanese namesake. Throughout the 1990s, at the peak of the army’s war against the PKK, Hizbullah had, with covert state backing, waged its own blood-drenched fight against the rebels. Following Ocalan’s capture in 1999, the government decided that Hizbullah had outlived its usefulness. Its leader was killed in a police raid the following year.

Girasun observes, however, that Huda-Par, despite commanding but a fraction of the HDP’s popular standing, remains “a force on the Kurdish street.” It is embraced by Kurds as “our Kurdish party,” whereas the AKP and others are perceived “as guests,” he explained.

Mahsun Bilgin is pictured with his fiancee on Jan. 28 at the marriage school launch in Bismil. (Photo by Yilmaz Kaya)

Erdogan swiftly seized on the Kobani riots to ensure that any rapprochement between Huda-Par and the HDP, opposed in any case by secular leftists who prevail in the HDP, never crystallized. The HDP was blamed for the violence, and Yasin Boru, a 16-year-old boy and Huda-Par sympathizer murdered by pro-HDP protesters, became the poster boy of the government’s campaign to demonize the HDP.

“Before the 2014 Kurdish riots, we saw a platform emerge between the HDP and Huda-Par where their leaders could meet and negotiate. This inter-Kurdish dialogue was threatening to the AKP and the state,” said Kurt, who has closely studied Huda-Par and authored a rare and authoritative book on the movement in the English language called “Kurdish Hizbullah in Turkey.” The upheaval and the murder of Yasin Boru “put an end to this positive environment and revived old hostilities, creating opportunities for the government to drive a wedge,” Kurt told Al-Monitor in a telephone interview. Erdogan went on to strike a tactical alliance with Huda-Par that had already been germinated by the freeing of thousands of Hizbullah prisoners under various amnesties and other legal tweaks.

In return, the group supported Erdogan’s referendum on amassing full executive powers in 2017 and backed him in the 2019 presidential polls. Huda-Par is allowed to organize mass Islam-themed rallies, including its annual Prophet Mohammed’s Birthday event that attracts hundreds of thousands of people, even as HDP officials continue to be jailed for “crimes” such as reading out statements in public.

The government is now using the Kobani protests as justification for a slew of court cases against the HDP on the grounds that party leaders instigated and encouraged them. The AKP’s main target is former HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtas. His youthful charisma and cheeky wit helped the party win parliamentary seats for the first time in 2015 at the expense of the AKP’s ruling majority, another first. Demirtas has been in prison since October 2016 and faces up to 142 years over thinly supported terror charges, including his alleged role in the Kobani riots.

An unfazed Erdogan continues to argue that he must remain in prison even as the European Court of Human Rights, whose opinions are binding for Turkey, demands his release.

Meanwhile, the government continues to forcibly unseat and lock up HDP mayors over their alleged links to the PKK. It has installed scores of so-called “trustees” in their place, among them Bismil’s Korkmaz. They are zealously peddling the AKP’s Islamist agenda, but with a Turkish nationalist twist.

The shift is palpable in the systematic removal of all Kurdish-language signposting and the shuttering of women’s rights groups, which proliferated under HDP mayors. In Diyarbakir, a women’s center run by the HDP municipality, which provided daycare and laundry facilities for the poor, now houses the district Mufti’s office. Similarly, in Diyarbakir’s Kayapinar district, green space and a Kurdish-language kindergarten were seized from the local municipality and handed over in turn to TURGEV, a youth foundation run by Erdogan’s son Bilal and to the Diyanet.

The tone of the government-penned Friday sermons in mosques glorifying Turkey’s military assaults against Kurdish forces in northern Syria offers further clues, none more so than its controversial homily on Afrin, the Kurdish majority enclave in Syria that was occupied by Turkish forces in January 2018. “For the believer to engage in armed struggle to protect his faith, his being, his homeland, his survival, his freedom is the highest form of jihad,” intoned state-appointed imams as they exalted the “sherbet of martyrdom.”

All of this is making it harder for Huda-Par to justify its backing for the AKP.

“In Hizbullah discourse, nationalism — for which they use the term ‘ulusalcilik,’ which implies secularism and imitation of [the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk’s] nationalism — is incompatible with a proper Islamic attitude,” noted Bruinessen. “But Hizbullah at the same time rejects the Erbakan-style, neo-Ottoman nationalism because it tends to look down on the Kurds,” he added. Bruinessen was alluding to the late Necmettin Erbakan, Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister and the founder of Turkey’s broadest Islamist political movement Milli Gorus, or National View, from which Erdogan sprung.

“Erdogan and the AKP have carved an Islamist mission for the army — the Diyanet issues calls to battle. This is an insult to Islam; it's alienating people from Islam and the AKP,” said Sidki Zilan, a Kurdish lawyer and activist who defended Hizbullah detainees.

For a growing number of Kurds, Erdogan has come to embody twin evils: Erbakan’s neo-Ottoman paternalism and a cruelly anti-Kurdish state.

Yilmaz Kaya in Bismil contributed to this report.

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