Turkey Pulse

In Turkey, it's all about the beard

Article Summary
Kobani riots have turned the beard into a contested area between Islamophobia and phobia of the Islamic State.

On Oct. 13, Turkish newspapers reported that men in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey are going to barbershops in record numbers to get a clean shave. Having a beard, according to the reports, is seen as a symbol of affiliation with the Islamic State (IS). A tweet made the rounds on multiple accounts stating: “If today no Kurd is scared to speak Kurdish, but Kurds are scared to wear a beard, that means there is pressure from the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party], not the Turkish state, on the people.”

Facial hair has long been a contested issue for men in Turkey, where different styles of beard and mustache can signal different sociopolitical viewpoints. According to Islamic traditions, growing a beard is considered Sunnah, or recommended, for adult men. Muslim men are told to differentiate themselves from nonbelievers and not trim their beards because it is considered effeminate. However, according to Turkish legal code, with only a few exceptions, it is forbidden for government employees to grow a beard. Yet, the accuracy of the news that "record-breaking numbers of men" are going to barbershops is unclear.

Nurcan Baysal, a columnist with the T24 daily and a resident of the southeastern province of Diyarbakir, told Al-Monitor: “I do not think this news is accurate. Around here, many men wear beards, and neither Kurdish Hezbollah nor IS members are concerned about hiding their identity. To the contrary, they approach women without a headscarf, asking why they are not covered.” None of the members of Huda-Par — a Sunni Islamist Party — that Al-Monitor contacted had shaved their beards. A member of the People's Democracy Party (HDP) from Istanbul, a young woman with a Kurdish background, told Al-Monitor, “Now that we watch IS videos, frankly I am scared of men with scruffy long beards.”

Kobani protests in Turkish towns between Oct. 7-10 left hundreds of people injured and 42 dead, including two police officers, Thousands of buildings and cars were set on fire. During the protests, conservative Muslim groups throughout the country, along with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, argued that bearded men have automatically become targets. It was, however, about more than the beard, according to Zeynep Bozdas, the foreign relations adviser of Huda-Par. Bozdas tweeted Oct. 13: “They view anyone who has a beard, who attends mosque or religious school as IS members. Their concern is not IS but Islam.” Huda-Par is a political party established in December 2012 in an effort to legalize Kurdish Hezbollah. Kurdish Hezbollah has been fighting against the PKK, seen as the armed wing of the HDP, since 1996.

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Bozdas told Al-Monitor, “After the HDP called on the people to take to the streets in support of Kobani, our party paid the highest price. Our members were lynched. They were not just merely killed but tortured. A victim, Yasin Boru, was a minor, 16 years old. He was out distributing meat to the poor as a requirement of the Eid al-Adha celebrations. His corpse was unrecognizable. Our members became targets as the crowds were led to believe that Huda-Par supports IS, although we had clarified several times, we do not support IS. IS has excommunicated (tekfir etmis) us, and we have official statements explaining we do not support their activities.”

Bozdas concurred that bearded men were targeted in particular. She said, “That is why two foreigners were also lynched. It is difficult to understand because neither the beard nor the hijab are creations of IS. They have been around for centuries and cannot be discarded just because of IS. I cannot understand why the beard is alien to these guys now, maybe it is the conservative values of Kurds they want to take away?”

On Oct. 15, Inca News Agency, known for being pro-Jabhat al-Nusra, reported that the PKK killed and robbed a Saudi and a Syrian who had beards, knowing they had no links to IS. The news alleged that PKK members said: “They have beards, let’s kill them and we can say they were members of IS.”

Huda-Par spokesman Sait Sahin told Al-Monitor, “It was peculiar that these riots started right after the HDP co-chair, Selahattin Demirtas, returned from his Washington trip. It is in the PKK’s ideology to join forces with Zionist and imperialist forces to battle Islam. That is why we had such a horrible massacre. They have been preparing this group to take to the streets for a while now. They have singled out those with beards and hijabs, targeting observant Muslims deliberately.”

Huda-Par’s chairman, while highlighting the group's lack of connection to IS, said that the “PKK serves the purposes of Israel.” This was an important point that was emphasized by media that supports the Justice and Development Party (AKP), as anti-Israel sentiment holds strong in Turkey.

Indeed, during the protests, both Huda-Par and HDP members struggled on social media to warn against the “fake accounts” spreading news on their supposed behalf. Both the HDP and Huda-Par were critical of the AKP government’s lack of ability and effort to track down the perpetrators.

The AKP’s reaction to the events and the miseries of the Kurdish groups was perplexing. For example, Vice Prime Minister and AKP legislator Emrullah Isler tweeted Oct. 8: “What was the crime of the kid who was lynched? Those who killed him are worse than IS. IS are murderers yes, but at least IS does not torture.” Another AKP legislator, Ismail Safi, tweeted Oct. 7: “IS is the only one who understands the language of barbarians like you.”

Since the end of the riots, the AKP has vehemently blamed HDP Chairman Demirtas and the PKK for the casualties and the financial cost of the disturbances. However, intriguingly, when HDP legislator Adil Zozani explained in the Turkish parliament how Kurds in general, and the HDP specifically, were the victims of these riots and asked the AKP to establish a special commission to investigate all of the killings during these street events, the AKP did not welcome his suggestions. Zozani clearly stated that the HDP would like the perpetrators to be caught. He explained in detail that the initial blame assigned to the PKK for being “police murderers” had been proven wrong. Zozani’s speech was cut off multiple times by angry AKP members of parliament.

In a similar line, after the riots ended, pro-AKP media launched a campaign to label the PKK as anti-Islam. Selahattin Gezer of Millat Daily wrote Oct. 17: “The peace process cannot continue with the party of massacre, the HDP. They have not an ounce of humanity left, so they should be taken out of the picture and the peace process should be carried with Kurds who are believers.” Gezer suggested that Kurds be taught Islam and rehabilitated. In addition, should anyone again take to the streets wearing masks, “their hands and feet should be broken.”

As the pressure intensifies on the peace process and the Kurds, Selma Irmak, an HDP legislator, told Al-Monitor, “We have to erase the causes of tension between Kurdish groups so there is no room for provocation. Further democratization of the country and progress on the peace process are keys to success. Now, we should no longer lose time by finger-pointing at each other, but focus on how to resolve the existing problems.”

Yet, it is difficult to gauge whether the HDP’s pleas for communication are sufficient. Also, the targets of fury may extend beyond those with beards. On Oct. 16, Samil Tayyar, a male AKP legislator, was held back with difficulty from attacking a female Kurdish colleague who was giving a speech. If AKP members are eager to physically attack Kurdish women in front of the cameras in the Turkish parliament, how hopeful can we be about calm on the streets?

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Found in: turkey, selahattin demirtas, protests, kurds, justice and development party, hijab

Pinar Tremblay is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse and a visiting scholar of political science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She is a columnist for Turkish news outlet T24. Her articles have appeared in Time, New America, Hurriyet Daily News, Today's Zaman, Star and Salom. On Twitter: @pinartremblay

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