That is the Kurdish name Abdullah Demirbas, the former Turkish mayor of a district in the predominantly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, assigned his daughter at birth, roughly 25 years ago.
It was a subtle act of defiance not lost on the Turkish government, which has previously banned or discouraged the use of the Kurdish language. It’s part of a larger effort to quell the Kurds’ fight for their own state in the southeast; the ethnic group accounts for roughly 20% of the Turkish population.
It got so bad at one point, the government was suing people merely for using the letters W, Q and X in official correspondence, as those letters are only found in Kurdish and not in Turkish, the New York Times reported in 2008.
Demirbas, 49, has been consistently persecuted by the government for his attempts at ethnic inclusion — which he would prefer instead of an independent state — as they are discordant with the country’s official policy. The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, in power since 2002, has had a habit of dealing with dissenting minorities through aggression or suppression.
“The total amount of years they’re asking for me is 200 years in prison,” Demirbas told Mic from his home in Diyarbakir, several days after being released from his latest prison stint.
“This administration is pressuring and asking for me to be exiled for the work I have done in regards to [creating a] multilingual municipality and multicultural municipality,” he said.
He has more than a dozen ongoing cases filed against him by the government and was released due to ill health on the condition he does not leave his city. However, he suffers from severe deep-vein thrombosis and needs to travel to Istanbul for treatment.
“If I didn’t have the public pressure from the friends in America and as well as the political pressures [from supporters at home], I would probably be dead today,” he said. “So, in this regards, I would like to express my thanks.”
Mic reached out to AKP’s headquarters in Ankara and Diyarbakir office for a comment, but did not get a response. Mic also contacted the Turkish Consulate General in New York and the Turkish embassy in Washington, D.C. — both failed to respond by the time of publication.
Peaceful pushback: Over the years, the central government has brought cases against Demirbas for a miscellany of offenses.
In 2007, he was charged after speaking Kurdish while officiating a wedding; accused of abusing municipal funds because he approved the publishing of a children’s book in Kurdish (a considerable number of his constituents speak the language); and for suggesting there should be pamphlets on public health printed and phone operators who speak in Kurdish, he was initially charged with “aiding a terrorist organization,” the New York Times writes.
“They have removed me from my work as a mayor,” Demirbas said. “One of my projects, that I named it ‘Cultural Streets,’ [involved the] restoration of one mosque, one church and one synagogue and a Yazidi [Kurdish religious minority] house, to fix and get the restoration done on the same street. Our mission, our job, our intention was that multicultural and multiethnicity and -nationality folks could live together in one street.”
The former mayor firmly believes resolution to the Kurds’ discontent could be found in the government’s recognition and inclusion of the minority. “Now, in Turkey, there is an official ideology: one language, one religion, one ethnicity and one state,” he said. “I am not against one single state ideology, meaning that I would like freedom and democracy in the one state that I have currently.”
“But I am against one-nationality ideology, because in Turkey everybody… of course, officially they look Turkish,” he said. “In reality, in Turkey, there are Turks, Kurds, Armenians and some other small minorities. Now, I think there should be different kind of ethnicities and different kind of nationalities living together freely.”
Demirbas said his sentiment applied across religious boundaries as well: “I want these different kinds of beliefs to live together.”
“I’m a person that believes in democracy and freedom,” he said. “And I am solving problems with peace. I am the kind of person that believes different [people can] live together. And I am going to continue on the struggle for my peoples. But, unfortunately, I have pressure.”
What does the Islamic State group have to do with all this, and what does this mean for Turkey’s future? The AKP enjoyed a majority rule in Parliament since it first came to power in 2002. But in the June 7 general election, while they received more votes than any other party, it failed to secure a parliamentary majority.
The ensuing inability of the winning parties to form a coalition government has resulted in a snap election to be held this Sunday, when Turkey will decide whether it wants more or less of the party that’s radically changed the country over the last 13 years.
Supporters of the party credit it with economically revitalizing the country. Before AKP came to power in 2001, Turkey’s GDP growth rate was -5.7%, according to the World Bank. By 2004, however, the growth rate had jumped to 9.4%.
But critics fear that should its notoriously autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, founder of the AKP, gain a simple majority on Sunday, he will use it to establish authoritarian rule and further Islamize the country.
“The election is still in the balance, but inside Turkey, the campaign has widened the fault lines between Kurds and Turks, secular and Islamic, Sunni majority and Alevi minority,” the Independent writes. “Abroad, the results may determine the degree to which Turkey becomes further embroiled in the civil war in Syria and Iraq.”
Turkey’s government has had a convoluted relationship with Syria and Iraq, its two volatile neighbors to the south currently plagued by Islamic State insurgents. While the AKP officially denies ties with the extremist group, a wide range of people, from regional specialists to Islamic State leaders, have loudly accused the government of aiding the group when Syrian President Bashar Assad first came under international censure in 2011.
“We used to have some fighters — even high-level members of the Islamic State group — getting treated in Turkish hospitals,” Abu Yusaf, an Islamic State commander, told the Washington Post in 2014. “And also, most of the fighters who joined us in the beginning of the war came via Turkey, and so did our equipment and supplies.”
“The AKP and the Turkish government under the AKP was the midwife of ISIS [the Islamic State group],” David L. Phillips, a Turkey specialist and director of the Program on Peace-Building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights, told Mic.
Given that the Islamic State group and AKP have common enemies in Assad and the Kurds, the relationship was seemingly advantageous to Turkey at first. “I think Turkey helped to create a monster and now it can’t control ISIS,” Phillips said. “It may have buyer’s remorse, but it plays a huge responsibility for supporting jihadis and radicalizing the battlefield in Syria.”
Kurds resented Turkey’s refusal to either help Syrian Kurds defend themselves from persecution by the Islamic State group or allow Turkish Kurds to cross the Turkish-Syrian border and help them fight, Foreign Policy explains, making their relationship all the more contentious.
The Turkish government might, in the big picture, be doing itself more harm than good by persecuting politicians like Demirbas who advocate for inclusion and peaceful reconciliation. Radicalism and refugees permeating its borders threaten its political stability.
Phillips invoked the words of modern Turkey’s secular founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, warning if the government can’t make peace domestically or with its neighbors, the country is in danger of unraveling: “Atatürk’s slogan was ‘Peace at home and peace abroad.’ Turkey has neither.”