Tens of thousands of Kurds are taking part in an increasingly potent act of civil disobedience that has become a focal point of an increasingly bitter election contest between the governing Justice and Development Party and Kurdish nationalists in Turkey’s restive Kurdish southeast.
In Diyarbakir, the region's main city, every Friday since March Muslim worshipers have boycotted prayers at state-controlled mosques to hear sermons in their native Kurdish, conducted in front of the city wall.
“We are Kurds. This is our native language, the language that our parents taught us. Let us speak this language in the courts, in the mosques,” one worshipper said. “Until we are no longer forbidden to speak Kurdish in our mosques, we will do our prayer on the street.”
A crowd of exuberant worshippers applauded the man. Those attending represented a cross- section of society; young, old, rich and poor. In a region where acts of civil disobedience are rarely tolerated, dozens of police, backed by armored vehicles, looked on, but did not intervene.
Kurds make up an estimated 20 percent of Turkey's 70-million population. Until the late 1980s, the Kurdish language was banned. Under successive governments, restrictions have slowly been eased in education and broadcasting, but Turkish remains the only official language in mosques.
Diay-der, a group of retired Kurdish imams and Islamic scholars, launched the boycott to change that status. Diay-der head Zahit Cirtkuran says that the protest started after Diyanet, the state body that controls and administers the Islamic faith, including the appointment of Turkey’s imams and the writing of sermons, ignored their appeals for reform.
“Instead, the government sent 10,000 new imams to this region who have no connection to this land,” Ciftkuran charged. “So, it's a kind of religious assimilation."
The protests appear to have enraged Prime Minister Erdoğan, whose Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) presents itself as the defender of religious freedom. But the AKP is engaged in an increasingly bitter battle for votes with the country's Kurdish rights movement.
Erdoğan devoted most of his speech at a June 1 rally in Diyarbakir to lambasting the protest.
"They refuse to pray behind an imam appointed by the state. But they are not religious. They see Apo [Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the banned PKK or Kurdistan Workers’ Party] as a prophet,” fumed Erdoğan. “They are cheating you. Let’s teach them a lesson."
The ferocity of the attack can be explained in part by Erdoğan's bid to secure the support of Turkish nationalist voters, who are deeply opposed to Kurdish rights. But it caused dismay among many Kurds, including some senior Kurdish members of the AKP.
"I think the prime minister was wrong. I personally support the protest. I think it is positive as [using Kurdish in mosques] is a basic right," said Muhammed Akar, deputy head of the AKP in Diyarbakir.
Akar is an influential member of Diyarbakir's powerful religious community, and related to Sheik Said, the leader of a failed Kurdish Islamic revolt in the 1920s against the Turkish republic. In this traditional and conservative society, such lineage carries weight.
Akar argues that while the fight for Kurdish rights was dominated in the 1980s and 1990s by the PKK’s Marxist ideology, a profound change has since occurred. Religious movements are now championing the Kurdish campaign for expanded rights, he notes.
"Four or five years ago, I was fearing that there would be a clash between secular nationalist and religious Kurds, but, instead, for the first time Kurdish nationalism has come together with religion,” Akar said. “There is now a resurgence in Kurdish religious demands and the state and mosques cannot keep up."
The synthesis is most obvious in the parliamentary candidates supported by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). In the 2007 general election in which the party was defeated by the AKP, many BDP candidates were linked to the PKK. This time, the BDP has diversified its selection, including liberals and key religious Kurdish figures.
In Diyarbakir, two out of six BDP-supported independent candidates are powerful members of the religious Kurdish movement. One of those candidates, Altan Tan, a longtime Kurdish activist and rival to the PKK, says that Kurdish politics have finally caught up with the times.
"Yes, they say they are socialists, but they also say that we don’t think like we did 20 to 30 years ago,” Tan said of the BDP. “All the world has changed. The Soviet Union has gone. So we should change. Now we are thinking as a Kurdish nationalist movement.”
Prime Minister Erdoğan has committed himself to introducing a new constitution after the June 12 election, but has given few details about it or whether the changes would address Kurdish concerns.
In the meantime, the Diyanet is believed to be under pressure to head off ethnic Kurds’ Islamic demands, including by allowing the use of Kurdish in some mosques. Last week, an illuminated mosque ceremony (kandil) celebrating the conception of the Prophet Mohammad was conducted in Kurdish in Diyarbakir's main mosque, the Ulu Cami.
"It was a beautiful evening. Some of the old men were crying, as it was their first time to hear mevlid [poems about the Prophet Mohammad’s life] sung in their language,” recounted muezzin Omer Kilic, who sang the ceremony. “It's a start.”
Local AKP official Akar, however, warns that any post-election failure to address Kurds’ concerns could put Turkey’s long-term political stability at risk. "If there is a disappointment, the whole idea of integration will end. Separation and conflict will come to the fore,” he said. “If I am seeing this, the prime minister, the state should see this as well. The danger that is lying ahead is a nightmare."
Dorian Jones is a freelance journalist living in Turkey.