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MUSTAFA AKYOL >The stupidity of banning Newroz

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Newroz (or Nowruz, according to your preferred spelling) is a “feast of spring” celebrated throughout the countries of the Middle East and Central Asia. In Turkey, though, it has been celebrated only by the Kurds, and that is why it has always been a problem. 

Until the mid-1990s, this problem was none other than an official ban on Newroz celebrations. For the Turkish state wanted to erase Kurdishness from the face of the earth, and Newroz was one of the manifestations of that outlawed identity. For years, therefore, Turkey’s southeast became the stage of feast-celebrating youngsters, and the police and gendarmerie trying to stop them.

Only in 1995 did the Turkish state begin to realize its sheer stupidity, and set Newroz free. For more, it even adopted the feast officially, as governors and officers began to jump over fires, practicing the very Newroz tradition that they had suppressed until the previous year. 

But in 2012, this year, yet another stupid ban on Newroz came from the Turkish government. It was not about the feast itself, but about its date. The Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is passionately pro-Kurdish and pro-PKK, wanted to organize the celebrations on March 18, a Sunday, in order to gather more people in fields and squares in Istanbul, Diyarbakır and elsewhere. But the Interior Ministry, headed by İdris Naim Şahin, whose level of Turkish nationalism has become nationally notorious, insisted that celebrations would be allowed only on Newroz’s usual date, which is March 21.

Yet the BDP insisted on its preferred date, so Istanbul and Diyarbakır became the stage of clashes between the police and BDP supporters. Angry protestors attacked buses and broke windows while police used tear gas and sticks. One protestor even got killed.

For the Turkish majority, the violence unleashed by the pro-BDP protestors was evidence that “these people are indeed barbarians and terrorists.” Hence many believed that it was only right for the government not to have allowed Newroz events on Sunday. 

However, things would have probably gone quieter had there been no ban in the first place. Had the government said, “people can celebrate Newroz on the date they want and in the place they choose,” revelers would probably have been less provoked and thus more peaceful.

To me, this shows that the main dynamic of the Kurdish question, which has poisoned Turkey for decades, is still unchanged: Kurdish nationalists raise political demands, the Turkish state finds them too much, then Kurdish nationalists go violent, and the Turkish state suppresses them, saying, “You see, they are violent.”

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, to its credit, wanted to break this vicious cycle by taking bold steps for reform and initiating covert dialogue with the PKK in 2009. However, this has not worked well, for the AKP’s reforms were not enough to win over all Kurds, and the PKK’s political ambitions were too much for Turkey to accept. (The organization wants a totalitarian one-party state in an autonomous southeast.)

Hence, in its third term, the AKP has resorted to a policy of less reform and more security. Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin, a relic from Turkey’s most authoritarian days, seems to be tailored-made for this job, with his caricature take on “state authority.”

But this is a very dangerous road, which will only exacerbate the problem. The gap between Turkey’s Turks and Kurds is gradually deepening. If these dynamics continue, we might wake up one day to see that the majorities on both sides do not really want to live together. And then no “state authority” can hold Turkey intact. 

March/21/2012

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