On June 19 a court in the city of Diyarbakir in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey acquitted three young boys of charges of terrorist propaganda after a choir of which they were members sang a song in Kurdish at a World Music Festival in San Francisco.
The three boys, aged 15, 15 and 17 at the time of the alleged offence, were members of the Yenisehir Municipality Children’s Choir, which had traveled to California in October 2007 to give a series of concerts. Before they left Turkey, Yenisehir Deputy Mayor Sefik Turk spoke of his municipality’s pride at being able to give children from one of the most underdeveloped regions in the country the opportunity to travel to the United States. “They are going to meet new cultures from other nations,” he enthused. “Despite all the difficulties, we have managed to create an opportunity for a children’s choir to represent Turkey in the US” (Ihlas News Agency, September 29, 2007).
The choir’s conductor, Duygu Basar, was equally enthusiastic. “We have been practicing for two years,” she said, promising that they would reflect Turkey’s rich multicultural heritage by singing a song in each of eight different languages: Russian, English, German, Armenian, Syriac, Hebrew, Kurdish and Turkish (Ihlas News Agency, September 29, 2007).
For the song in Kurdish, Basar chose “Ey Reqip” (“Hey, Guard”), a popular anthem written by the Iraqi Kurdish poet Yunis Reuf (1917-1948) in 1938 while he was imprisoned in Iran.
When the Yenisehir Municipality Children’s Choir returned to Turkey they were all taken in for questioning on suspicion of violating Article 7/2 of Turkey’s Anti-Terrorism Law, which makes it a crime to “make propaganda for a terrorist organization or its aims.” The inference was that by singing a Kurdish anthem, the choir was conducting propaganda for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed terrorist organization that has been waging an insurgency for greater rights for Turkey’s Kurds since 1984. The fact that the children had also sung a patriotic Turkish song, “Canakkale Marsi” or “Canakkale Anthem”, which refers to the Ottoman Empire’s successful repulse of the Gallipoli landings during World War One, was quietly ignored.
As they were over the age of 15 at the time of the alleged offence, the three boys acquitted on June 19 were tried in an adult court. If they had been found guilty, they would have faced up to five years in prison. Six other members of the Yenisehir Municipality Children’s Choir, all of whom were under 15 at the time of the concert, still face charges in a children’s court. Even though the verdict of June 19 suggests that they too will be acquitted, it would be unrealistic to suppose that they will be unaffected by the trauma of being interrogated and then having to appear in court; particularly as the result of what, when they left Turkey, must have appeared to be the adventure of their lives.
The case has once again demonstrated that despite the easing of some restrictions, any use of the Kurdish language, particularly if it can be construed as espousing Kurdish nationalism, can potentially result in prosecution in Turkey. Municipal officials in the southeast of the country are still frequently prosecuted if they use Kurdish in an official communication. On March 8 municipal officials in Diyarbakir decided to protest by marking International Women’s Day with posters printed in Chinese (Independent News Network, March 6).
Perhaps most bewildering is that the Turkish authorities do not appear to understand that the often draconian suppression of Kurdish language and culture can be counterproductive; inviting ridicule and opprobrium abroad and serving as a gift for organizations such as the PKK, which use it as a recruiting tool and a justification for their campaigns of violence. There can be no doubt that the judicial persecution of children for singing a song has made a greater contribution to PKK propaganda than the song itself could have ever done.
But, for the moment at least, there is no indication of a change in official attitudes. On June 19, the Turkish media reported that the Turkish General Staff (TGS), which has traditionally regarded the preservation of a homogenous national culture as being a security issue, had initiated a campaign to purge the Turkish used in military establishments of foreign loanwords such as “brunch,” “fast food” and “restaurant.” Posters have been pinned up in military camps exhorting everyone to “Speak our beautiful Turkish” and calling for an end to the use of the letters “q,” “w” and “x”. (Radikal, June 19) It is unlikely to be a coincidence that these letters are found in the Kurdish alphabet but not in the Turkish one. Quite how far the TGS will take its own advice currently remains unclear, as it frequently encourages Turks seeking reliable information to visit its official website, www.tsk.mil.tr.