On March 8 thousands of people gathered in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakir to celebrate "Mevlud’a Muhammedi" (birth of Mohammad), the Prophet Muhammad’s 1,458th birthday. The event was organized by Ikra-Der and other Islamic associations that have formed a organization called Prophet Lovers’ Union, which is largely controlled by Kurdish Hezbollah (KH), a militant Islamist organization founded by Huseyin Velioglu with the goal of establishing a Kurdish Islamist state. To achieve this, the KH adopted a three-stage strategy: 1) propaganda (teblig)—radicals strive to persuade the people to adopt Islamic religious practices, establish an Islamic state and administration, live in accordance with Islamic rules, and struggle to safeguard the Islamic way of life; 2) community (cemaat)—communities are restructured in accordance with Islamic rules and practices; and 3) the jihad—an armed struggle to safeguard the Islamic way of life.
In 2000 the leader of Kurdish Hezbollah, Huseyin Velioglu, was killed by the police in a shootout in Istanbul, and 6,000 members were arrested. (Velioglu, a graduate of the prestigious Faculty of Political Science and Public Policy at Ankara University, founded the KH in 1979). Since 2004, however, the KH has abandoned its armed struggle and reinvented itself as a charity organization to help the needy. Since then, the KH has formed nonprofit organizations, associations, a press center, and radio stations. It publishes magazines and newspapers, has established a news agency, runs several web pages and bookstores, built shopping markets, and conducts various trade activities. The KH has recently organized a number of public events that have attracted thousands of participants. The Mevlud’a Muhammedi event was one of them.
Since the 1990s the week in which Mohammed was born has been celebrated as "happy birthday week," and a large number of people throughout the country participate in the activities to celebrate Mohammed’s birth. A common way of observing it is to send text messages to friends and relatives. The event on March 8 was the first organized celebration to be attended by thousands of people. The Turkish press gives varying estimates of the crowd, ranging from 35,000 (Vatan, March 9) to 70,000 (Sabah, March 10). The head of Ikra-Der, who organized the event, claims that 250,000 people were there (www.hurseda.com, March 11). The correct figure is more probably to be between 70,000 and 100,000 persons.
This celebration was different from other recent public events. For example, on March 7, a day before Mevlud’a Muhammedi, the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) organized a celebration for International Women’s Day. The Turkish media reported that 5,000 people participated in the event (Hurriyet, March 11). On February 21 Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan went to Diyarbakir to deliver a speech as part of his party’s election campaign. According to press reports, 50,000 people went to hear him speak; but political observers in Diyarbakir told Jamestown that they estimate that this number was much lower, possibly as high as 30,000 people.
The DTP and the AKP are the two largest political parties in the region, and local election will be held in less than two weeks. Diyarbakir is a hotly contested city; and both parties hope to win the support of those at the Mevlud’a Muhammedi event, which had twice as many people in attendance as the DTP and AKP events combined. On March 7 public transportation was free for those who wanted to go to the DTP’s International Women’s Day event. On February 21 the AKP also rented public transportation to bring people to hear Erdogan deliver his speech. On March 8, however, there was no free public transportation. People came to the event at their own expense.
The gathering was an "apolitical" event. Local imams delivered speeches in Kurdish and Turkish about Mohammed’s birth and life, read the Koran, and later involved Islamic musical groups who sang religious hymns (ilahi). Except for Palestinian flags, there were no political party banners; and no political slogans were chanted (www.hurseda.com, March 9). What was political about the event, however, were the date and location, which reflected the hidden competition between the DTP and Kurdish Hezbollah. March 8 was chosen as the date and Istasyon Square, the biggest square in Diyarbakir, was designated as the venue. Normally, pro-Kurdish parties have celebrated International Women’s Day on the official day of March 8. This year March 8 was especially important for the DTP because the provincial elections will be held on March 29. The DTP planned to turn the March 8 event into a major public gathering; but because Kurdish Hezbollah had already reserved Istasyon Square, the DTP was forced to hold its Women’s Day event a day early, on March 7. This was a major setback for the Democratic Society Party.
Political observers in Turkey seemed surprised at the size of the crowd at the Mevlud’a Muhammedi gathering. It is, however, no surprise to see how Kurdish Hezbollah has recovered since the 2000 events. The KH’s Cagri FM radio station broadcasts in Diyarbakir and launched a Koran reading campaign on the Internet to celebrate the week of Mohammed’s birthday. In a 10-day period the listeners of Cagri FM read the Koran 306 times; Surah Yasin (a 15-page verse in the Koran) was read 29,000 times; and people recited salavat-i serif, a short prayer to Allah and Mohammad, 4.370 billion times (Ilke Haber Ajansi, March 11). This level of participation in response to a local radio station indicates that the KH appears to have deeply penetrated Kurdish society and that KH members remain extremely devoted to the organization’s cause.
It remains to be seen whether the KH will adopt its jihad strategy again when it feels that it has enough community support. For the time being, however, the Mevlud’a Muhammedi event once again demonstrated the KH’s strength. It was expected that the KH would nominate candidates for the Diyarbakir and Batman municipalities, but the organization has changed its strategy to support the AKP in those cities, perhaps because the AKP candidate in Batman is said to have had informal relations with the KH in the past. In the upcoming election KH support for the AKP against the DTP should increase the ruling party’s Kurdish votes in the region.