Diyarbakir Kurds rally to show support for Prophet Muhammad

About 50,000 people took to the streets of the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir on Jan. 24, in support of the Prophet Muhammad in the biggest rally in Turkey since the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

al-monitor A girl and her mother are pictured during the rally in support of the Prophet Muhammad in Diyarbakir, Jan. 22, 2015. Photo by Fréderike Geerdink.

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turkey, protest, prophet muhammad, peace and democracy party, peace negotiations, kurds in turkey, kurdistan workers party, charlie hebdo

Jan 25, 2015

Tens of thousands of people rallied in Diyarbakir, the biggest predominantly Kurdish city in Turkey’s southeastern region, on Jan. 24 to honor the Prophet Muhammad. Speakers at the event, "Lovers of the Prophet Platform," told the crowd, "Nobody can insult our religion and our prophet and then hide behind freedom of speech."

But was there more to it than religion alone?

On the cold but sunny afternoon, Diyarbakir’s centrally located Istasyon Meydani turned into a sea of green, red and black flags with Islamic slogans in Arabic script. Men and women rallied separately, with the women wearing either headscarves or the black chador, often with a green ribbon tied around their heads with Arabic text declaring, "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet."

The crowd grew fast from a few thousand at the beginning of the rally to about 50,000, making it the biggest rally in Turkey in support of the prophet since the Charlie Hebdo attacks on Jan. 7 in Paris. The masses repeatedly shouted "Tek bir!" (Only one!), pointing one finger in the air, a sign Islamists use to show they believe there is no God but Allah. Also the slogan, "May the soldiers of the prophet terrify the nonbelievers," was chanted.

There were inspiring songs about the prophet and speeches in both Turkish and Kurdish. All the speakers denounced the insults against the prophet by the satirical French newspaper and the publication of some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet. Molla Osman Teyfur, deputy leader of the small Islamist party Huda-Par in the town of Batman, was one of the speakers who vowed "to cut the tongue that spoke against the prophet."

Mucahide Bayram, 20, and her friend Nuran Guler, 21, told Al-Monitor they were participating in the rally to "finally say enough is enough." Bayram said, "The prophet is more sacred to us than anything else. The cartoons in France were not the first insults against the prophet. Now the time has come to demand a stop to it, before the insults get further out of hand."

Bayram and her friend denounced the murders of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. "Murder is against Islam and can never be a solution. So I ask myself why the murderers were killed by the French police. Weren’t they entitled to their right to defend themselves before a court? Games are being played there, I'm sure of that," Bayram said.

None of the participants Al-Monitor spoke to could explain why the rally in Diyarbakir became so massive; they all chose to speak only of religion. Diyarbakir is known for its overwhelming support for the Kurdish political movement, represented by the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The governing Justice and Development Party also has a lot of supporters in southeastern Turkey. Since early 2013, the state and the PKK have respected a cease-fire in the 30-year war, and talks have started between the two parties to reach a lasting peace.

Huda-Par, one of the rally's supporters, was until now considered only a splinter group. In the last local elections in March 2014, Huda-Par won more than 3% of the votes in only four southeastern districts, the highest in Batman (8.1%).

Interestingly, the legal complaint made against the Charlie Hebdo cover picturing the prophet came from Diyarbakir and was filed by local lawyer Erzan Ezgin. In an interview with Al-Monitor on Jan. 22 at his office, where a huge photo of Ezgin shaking hands with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was displayed, Ezgin said, "I support freedom of expression, but as we have seen in Paris, it can lead to loss of lives. Then the cartoons were published in Cumhuriyet as well, and people went there [to the newspaper's office] to protest. Something had to be done to stop the provocation and possible deaths because of this issue in Turkey. That’s why I went to court."

After Ezgin’s complaint, the Charlie Hebdo cover picturing the Prophet Muhammad was banned in Turkey.

Cemil Unsal, head of the committee that organized the rally, told Al-Monitor that defending the prophet is especially important in Diyarbakir since "this is a city of the prophet," pointing out that, according to him, in and around the city "some 500 friends of the prophet" are buried.

But there is more to it than that. The establishment of Huda-Par in 2013 did not come out of nowhere; it has links with the Turkish Hezbollah, a group generally believed to be behind state-orchestrated murders in the 1990s, when the war between the state and the PKK was at its bloodiest.

The enmity between Turkish Hezbollah and Huda-Par on the one hand and the Kurdish political movement on the other has recently led to violence in the region. In early October 2014, 37 people were killed in the southeast, most of them in Diyarbakir, in violence between the two groups. The recent unrest in the town of Cizre, close to the Syrian border, in which six people were killed, is believed to have started with aggression between Huda-Par members and PKK supporters. During the rally on Jan. 24, groups of men were heard shouting "Biji Hezbollah," Kurdish for "Long live Hezbollah."

Cengiz Aktar, political scientist at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul, believes the rally was connected to these domestic developments. Hearing about the huge numbers of people attending the demonstration, he told Al-Monitor in a phone interview, "It’s astonishing that this movement has grown so fast in the southeast. How could they gain such visibility in such a short time? Which force is behind this? It’s hard to answer that question, but I think Charlie Hebdo was used as an excuse to take to the streets and make this rally a show of force."

Aktar connected the massive rally to the peace process, saying, "This conservative religious voice will demand to be heard in the future of the peace talks. This may change the balance."

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