By Kani Xulam
March 26, 1996
Hillary Rodham Clinton is on a tour of five countries for ten days. Among the places she is scheduled to visit is Turkey. While in that country, she is going to give a speech on the coexistence of secular governments and religious societies.
A better topic for a speech in Turkey would be an address on the coexistence of peoples. A talk on the virtues of tolerance coupled with the need to lift the restrictions on the freedom of speech and freedom assembly would be a more fitting message for the peoples that make up Turkey, primarily the Turks and the Kurds. Perhaps they would learn to accommodate one another.
But it looks like Mrs. Clinton asked her hosts what they would like to hear. And the politicians in Ankara still hurting from their recent losses to the Islamic Welfare Party asked the First Lady to tell the citizens of Turkey to be modern with the emphasis on the secularism. No one has come to as close to oblivion as they have. They want the First lady to help.
It is a great plot in an equally fitting spot. The secular Mrs. Clinton delivers the coexistence speech at the Topkapi Palace, the White of House of theocratic Ottoman Empire for over 500 years. The Turkish leaders could then tell to the Turks, see, you could be secular and modern too, just like the First lady. One wonders if the Turks will take their guest and her entourage to the Harem section of the Topkapi Place. There hundreds of primarily European women were kept in seclusion as concubines. If a nything, feminists should protest the choice of the spot for Mrs. Clinton’s address.
Were Mrs. Clinton to chose to address the 58 million citizens of Turkey on the virtues of coexistence the ideal spot for the occasion would be Ankara Prison. That symbol of Turkish injustice towards the Kurds has now four duly elected Kurdish parliamentarians languishing behind its bars. Among them is a woman, Mrs. Leyla Zana, who was elected to the Turkish parliament in 1991 and who now serves a 15 years jail sentence since 1994.
The Kurdish question in Turkey now ranks as the country’s number one crisis. At issue is an antiquated constitution that legalizes the forced assimilation of the Kurds. Turkey, home to some 15 million Kurds, has laws that equate the cultivation of the Kurdish language as a crime. The framers of the Turkish constitution wanted to create the “modern Turk.” That meant everybody who lived in Turkey irrespective of his heritage or cultural needs had to assume a new identity, that of a Turkish nationalist.
There are Kurds who have assimilated at early age and now are now respected Turks. Some have even made it to the top positions in the administration of the government. The Turks who are opposed to the idea of giving any civil or cultural rights to the K urds are quick to cite the names of these few lucky Kurds supposedly to make the point that discrimination is not a practice in the land administered by the Turks.
For the advocates of the Kurdish rights, discrimination is not the problem. They want political rights, civil rights, cultural rights, language rights, in other words, the rights to a heritage that is meaningful for them which they would like to cultivate and impart on their posterity as a gift.
Leyla Zana was one of those advocates. She was a Kurd by birth and wanted to remain so by choice. She was born in a Kurdish village in 1961 and would probably have been a refugee now had she not married Mehdi Zana, who in 1977 became the mayor of Diyarbakir. Since then things have never been the same for her.
In 1980, the army seized power in Turkey. Thousands of Kurds who were demanding their political and cultural rights were thrown into jails. The mayor of Diyarbakir was a known Kurdish activist. Sensing the danger, he fled but was caught before he could leave Turkey. He was kept in jail for 13 years on a charge that he had spoken an illegal language, his mother tongue, Kurdish, with his constituents.
Leyla Zana came of age in those turbulent times. A mother of two children, the wife of a noted Kurdish activist, she entered the political fray, for her husband and for her people. That meant learning Turkish which she did in her trips to the Western Turkish cities where her husband was kept in prison. As she saw her husband deteriorate in health and in spirit, her resolve to become a Kurdish advocate grew. In 1991, when she ran for a seat in the Turkish parliament, she almost always drew the largest crowds ever assembled in the Kurdish regions of Turkey.
Leyla Zana and her friends served in the Turkish parliament for only three years. In those years, she lost a fellow Kurdish parliamentarian to the bullets of gunfire. Together with three of her colleagues, they are now serving a 15 year sentence in the infamous Ankara Prison. Six others fled the country seeking political asylum in Europe. Still others got death threats which compelled them to switch parties or be dismissed from their jobs because they refused to be silenced.
The Kurdish question refuses to go away. Since 1984, some 30,000 people have died in the Turkish state’s effort to crush Kurdish aspirations. 2,650 Kurdish villages have been destroyed. 3 million Kurds are now internal refugees.
Because Leyla Zana seeks a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question, she was awarded the 1995 Sakharov Peace Prize by the European Parliament. She was also among the finalists for the Nobel Peace Prize for the same year. A visit by Mrs. Clinton to Mrs. Zana would mean doing the right thing. It would mean validating an advocate of democratic change and giving the forces of peace in the country the recognition needed to carry on their difficult yet essential task. In Turkey, peace, order and the human dignity are in demand; Mrs. Clinton should not fail to deliver these gifts.