Ahmet Turk, co-mayor of Mardin

Ahmet Turk, co-mayor of Mardin

Published by Al-Monitor on November 22, 2016

Ahmet Turk is a man with posture. He appears to be the embodiment of nobility and dignity. His noble personality comes with his feudal background; he is the scion of a Kurdish landlord and tribal chiefs in a vast land along Turkey’s frontier. While his dignity gives the impression that it comes from within rather than its being part of his Kurdish aristocratic ancestry, the combination of both creates a very charismatic leader.

Even his surname, in a sense, makes him unique and a center of attraction. Turk is an ironic surname for a Kurd who dedicated his life for Kurdish rights in his struggle against the Turkish state. Still, it also suggests that the destiny of the Kurds is inseparable from that of the Turks in Turkey.

With his growing age — he is 75 — and his ever-graying hair, mustache and eyebrows, Turk has earned the image of a wise man. Yet he has not taken care of his body as well as he could have; he is a very heavy and incurable chain smoker despite having health problems that have included surgery. For him, lighting cigarettes one after the other is a form of comfort. It is a kind of a necessary relief from the permanent tension that has been his fate his entire life.

He was the oldest and longest-serving Kurdish politician in the Turkish parliament. He was first elected in 1973, from a center-right Turkish party. He was elected from Mardin six times, has been involved in Turkish social-democrat politics and from the mid-1990s on he emerged as the fatherly figure on the Kurdish political scene. He has been the chairman of a number of Kurdish political parties — they were banned one after another — until 2011. That is the last time he was elected to parliament. In 2015, he left Ankara politics to serve Mardin as its mayor.

He was removed from office a week ago by the national government as part of the crackdown that began following the failed coup attempt in July. On Nov. 21, he was detained and not allowed to meet his lawyers for five consecutive days.

During a long conversation in Mardin in 2009, on a terrace of a hotel overlooking the seemingly infinitely stretching northern Mesopotamian plains toward Syria, he recalled his memories of the intense torture he was subjected to in the notorious Diyarbakir prison during military rule. He was as serene as ever. I could not control myself and interrupted, crying at him, “Are you out of your mind? What are you doing now?” He looked at me with puzzled eyes, “What do you mean?” I told him, “Listening to your saga of almost 30 years ago, I cannot understand it. For a person like you who has undergone such things, you either had to take the mountains or you had to leave politics forever and opt to become an obedient non-person. But you are still active in politics despite the pressures, insults and threats.” He just lowered his eyes and continued his stories about the Diyarbakir prison with his characteristic calm voice.

He has so long been a household name in Turkey — participating in the legitimate political sphere and legal political institutions as a voice of reason for ending the violence in regard to the Kurdish question — that his detention shocked the widest segments of society.

Hurriyet columnist Ahmet Hakan described Turk as the most peaceful, most inclusive, most anti-violence, most moderate and wisest figure of the Kurdish political movement, and the one most likely to compromise. “His detention will not help but to increase our hopelessness and pessimism further,” Hakan added.

“Hopelessness and pessimism” in regard to what?

The answer is in regard to resolution of the Kurdish conflict through peaceful, political means; that is, through negotiations. A conservative pen considered to be Islamist could not help but ask in a newly launched website: “Ahmet Turk is detained. Fine. But with whom will you talk to resolve the Kurdish problem?” The article was accompanied by a photo of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Turk from the year 2009; that encounter had symbolized the “Kurdish opening” when the Erdogan government had started an initiative to resolve the Kurdish issue.

The detention of a larger-than-life figure such as Turk is precisely the manifestation of Erdogan and his government’s choice that Turkey is no longer interested in resolving its Kurdish issue through negotiations with the Kurdish political movement.

The detention of Turk is a dramatic link in the chain of moves that began with the arrests of the co-mayors of the Kurdish political and cultural center Diyarbakir and reached very dangerous magnitudes with the arrest of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas and 10 deputies of the party that constitutes the third-largest bloc in the Turkish parliament. The nearly 50 remaining deputies have been removed from parliament and are not involved in legislative activities. Mardin HDP Deputy Mithat Sancar claimed that Demirtas’ life is in danger. Demirtas has been moved to Edirne prison, in Turkey’s westernmost town on the border with Bulgaria. This also is where most of the Islamic State suspects are imprisoned.

The detention of Turk is not only a final link in the chain of the crackdown on Kurdish political figures, it is a further insult to injury for the Kurds.

A Kurdish civil rights activist from Diyarbakir, Nurcan Baysal, wrote that Turk represents many things simultaneously for the Kurds. Above all, he represents the memory of the Kurds of the history of their struggles. “To detain him is to detain the Kurdish people’s long history [struggling] for their rights,” she concluded.

The symbolism of Turk’s detention is the display of the determination of the Erdogan regime in Turkey to end the demands represented by the Kurdish political movement, once and for all. The Kurdish political movement is a rubric used to define the political spectrum ranging from the Kurdish insurgency represented by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to those elected representatives of the Kurds in the Turkish polity.

An example of this is the arrest of Demirtas, arguably the most shining and popular young political figure in Turkey who had competed against Erdogan in the presidential elections in 2014 and who led a pro-Kurdish party past the 10% threshold that allowed it to be seated in parliament in the general elections of 2015. Detaining Turk, the most veteran and peace-loving Kurdish political figure, is tantamount — if a comparison can be made to the Irish question — to totally wiping out Sinn Fein in terms of negotiations, and only facing off with the PKK (or, as it was in the Irish case, facing only the Irish Republican Army).

This has a dimension related to Syria as well. A few days ago, a deputy from the ruling Justice and Development Party who wanted to remain anonymous told me that there is a strong commitment to see the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) wiped out on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey.

Turkey’s Kurdish political movement is closely related to the PYD and YPG in Syria. They interact. And while Turkey’s government is suppressing its own Kurds, it also is seeking to crush the PYD, which the government sees as a Syrian extension of Turkey’s Kurdish movement.

Especially now, following the detention of Turk, reviving the peace process with the Kurds in Turkey is no more than a pipe dream.

Turk’s detention perhaps even means that Turkey’s Kurdish question has entered into the gravest episode in its long history.