Monday, 30th October 2017

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In secular Turkey, revival of 'radicals'

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By SUJAN DUTTA
  • Published 21.12.10
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“The Asia to Gaza Caravan” (top) driving through the Turkish “Kurdistan” on way to Diyarbakir; women at a pro-Palestine rally to welcome the caravan near Tabriz in Iran. (Sunil Kumar)

Bazargan (Iran) to Diyarbakir (Turkey), Dec. 20: “I love al Qaida. I love Taliban.”

The words ring out of a Kurdish school student from a Diyarbakir suburb. Inside the bus that he has just boarded there is a stunned silence. But his unsolicited proclamation echoes as if it is bouncing off the snow-covered mountains of Chandir Dagi through which we are driving.

Mazlum Alkin’s understanding of both love and the al Qaida is arguable. He is all of 16 years old. He sports an early beard. But he is assertive and easily the most vocal of the teenagers who board the bus just outside Diyarbakir in south eastern Turkey, the unofficial capital of “Kurdistan”.

The bus is carrying Indian participants of the “Asia to Gaza Caravan” that is making an overland journey to the Gaza Strip to deliver humanitarian aid and sympathy.

Mazlum is tempered somewhat by 15-year-old Nesibe Fidantek. She is Kurdish too but she speaks only Turkish. And a pidgin English. She interprets what her friends say and moderates the comments. She says she likes Bhuvan, the character essayed by Bollywood star Aamir Khan, in Lagaan, “because he is so handsome”. Bespectacled Nesibe wears a black gown and a colourful headscarf, unlike girls in Iran, which we have just left, who are mostly draped in black from head to toe.

“We do not love America and Israel, we love Hamas and Hezbollah,” she says.

The youth on the bus are holding Palestinian flags and banners of the IHH, the Turkish non-government organisation that mobilised the Mavi Marmara, the vessel that was one of the “Freedom Flotilla”, raided by Israeli commandos in May this year. Nine activists were killed in the raid, among them Ali Haydar Bengi of Diyarbakir. (A group of US Congressmen alleged the IHH was an al Qaida front. They withdrew the allegation after failing to produce evidence.)

Bengi was a 39-year-old father of four. After he was killed, his wife said “he always wanted to be a martyr”. He studied Islamic theology in Cairo’s Al Azhar University, Egypt, and ran a telephone repair shop in Diyarbakir. In the town’s Istasyon Square, in front of the Sumer Mosque, where a public meeting is held an hour later, men, women and children are holding portraits of “Sehid Bengi” (martyr Bengi) as they shout death to Israel and America.

Inside the bus before it reaches the square, Mazlum cuts Nesibe short. He wants to know if the passengers on the bus think like him.

“What do you think of Taliban?” he asks an Indian journalist.

“Taliban in Afghanistan?” the Indian asks, taken aback somewhat by the question.

“Yes, yes, Taliban Afghanistan,” Mazlum clarifies.

“I think it is fundamentalist,” the Indian replies.

“Fundamentalist? No, no. Radical Islam,” Mazlum shakes his head.

Despite their youth, Mazlum’s assertions — and Nesibe’s moderations — are a measure of the depth of the Islamist revival in secular Turkey’s eastern provinces where the secessionist movement for a separate Kurdistan packs an insurgency in it. Only last month the Turkish Army deployed special forces in the mountains of Chandir Dagi through which the caravan is driving after crossing the border from Bazargan in Iran.

In the drive through the border from Bazargan, after the Turkish immigration and customs checks, two Blackhawk helicopters circled near the glaciated twin peaks of Mount Ararat — where, legend has it, Noah’s Ark finally rested — and disappeared behind the hills to land at a base that is not visible. A convoy of flat-bed army trucks with armoured personnel carriers and a tank drive in the opposite direction, towards the border. Photography is prohibited, the police escorting the caravan say.

On the Iranian side of the border that is clearly defined here by a ridge of barren and curving low hills there is little presence of a uniformed armed force. It is easier to get out of Iran than to get into Turkey. A member of the caravan, an Iranian-American named Azam Azaditabar Carlton, who is based in Bangalore, is pushed back by the Turkish border guard into Iran across the two-feet “no-man’s land”. Turkish intelligence has flagged her. It is not explained why.

Red, blue and white container-laden trucks snake downwards from the border gate that is on a “saddle” in the ridge-line of hills on the Iranian side. Iran conducts most of its trade over land through this entry/exit point, probably among the most contentious in history because it marked the boundary between successive Persian, Byzantine and Ottoman empires.

In Dogubayazit, the first Turkish town, 35km from the border, at the base of Mount Ararat, that we reach after high golden-brown flatlands populated by herds of sheep, Lutfu Ozyilmaz, a financier from Ankara, says “no Turkish-Kurdish issue, only Turks, we are all Turks”.

But at the reception in the town, and in successive streetside public programmes, only the Palestinian flag is waved by the people who have been rallied by the IHH. The IHH is reputed to be the largest non-government Islamic organisation. Its propaganda against Israel is targeted at both the Turkish and the Kurdish population.

Indeed, its chairperson Bulent Yildirim (a former socialist), says that since the Mavi Marmara killings, its campaign has not only strengthened Prime Minister Recip Tayil Erdogan (and worsened Turkey’s diplomatic ties with Israel) but has united “all sections of the population”. Waving the Turkish flag in areas that are claimed by “Kurdistan” would only alienate the people.

But evidence of the discord is plainly visible in the tops of the Shaitan (Devil) Hills that we cut through before we drive over the watershed of craggy rocks on the right and smooth hills on the left in the sleet and the snow. The red Turkish flag with the star and the crescent flutters at watchtowers that dot the crest and in the sandbagged stations of the armed gendarmerie.

Back in Zahedan, Iran, which we have left nearly 3000km behind near the tri-junction with Pakistan and Afghanistan, Palestine is used to maintain a stability between Shias and Sunnis in the Sistan and Balochestan province. Here, in Turkey, Palestine is a slogan that is raised in the hope that it will create a rapprochement between the Turks and Kurds, both Muslim.

The effort gets reduced somewhat by the political re-tooling of a religion because it makes 16-year-olds proclaim undying love for deadly outfits. Ancient borders swept by snow and lashed by winds raise flurries that fog bends on the road.