How a Kurdish mayor pushed for tolerance in Turkey

Now in exile after being persecuted by Ankara, Abdullah Demirbas has propelled a vision of coexistence in Turkey that includes Armenians, Jews, Kurds and other minorities.

 ABDULLAH DEMIRBAS (second L), then-mayor of the Sur municipality, meets employees during an event ahead of International Women’s Day, in Diyarbakir, Turkey, 2013. (photo credit: Mehmet Engin/Reuters)
ABDULLAH DEMIRBAS (second L), then-mayor of the Sur municipality, meets employees during an event ahead of International Women’s Day, in Diyarbakir, Turkey, 2013.
(photo credit: Mehmet Engin/Reuters)

Israel uses three languages on its street signs; Hebrew, English and Arabic. That may be something most people take for granted when walking or driving around the country. For Abdullah Demirbas, a former mayor of the important Sur district in the city of Diyarbakir, the symbolism behind the signs is an indication of how Israel is a democracy that respects the language used by the Arab-speaking minority

He contrasts this with the struggles in Turkey to have Kurdish language exist alongside Turkish.

“Even though the Turkish state says it has democracy, you are not allowed to speak your own language. I have been here for 10 days and I saw all this [signs in Arabic and Hebrew]. My impression here is that if Turkey did just 1% [of what we see in Israel] then we would have peace in Turkey and be happy; but in Turkey they deny us and according to them we do not exist,” he says, referring the status of Kurds. 

“In Turkey as a Kurd, I cannot have an education in the Kurdish language. Recently, Turkey permitted a one-hour elective class ftaught in Kurdish – but they don’t have Kurdish teachers.”

Demirbas was once a rising star in Turkish politics, as a popular mayor from the Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir in eastern Turkey. He traveled to Israel recently and sat down with the Magazine to discuss the initiatives he once championed there. 

 DEMIRBAS TODAY: ‘I wanted everyone to have an education in their mother tongue.’  (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN) DEMIRBAS TODAY: ‘I wanted everyone to have an education in their mother tongue.’ (credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)

A student of sociology and later a teacher, Demirbas was often subjected to persecution for his work; he describes being banished into exile and twice purged from his position of employment. “The reason is because I was Kurdish and I was a dissident. I wanted everyone to have an education in their mother tongue. I wanted them to be able to learn in Kurdish; oppressed people like Kurds are not allowed to study in their mother tongue.”

In 2005, he was elected mayor of an important neighborhood in the city of Diyarbakir. He initiated a project to be more inclusive of minorities in Turkey. “In Turkey there is only one [official] line, everyone is Turkish and everyone is Islamic, and everyone should identify with the Turkish culture and mentality. However, I do not accept this rule. 

“Turkey as a country has many languages, cultures, religions and many communities.” 

He notes that as mayor he sought to provide access for people using six languages; Kurdish, Armenian, Assyrian, Hebrew, Arabic and English. The city’s history goes back thousands of years and he says it has 33 different cultures that make up its historic diversity. Like many areas in the Middle East and Europe, the former diversity of previous eras has been erased or nationalized in the name of the modern nation-state of Turkey.

DEMIRBAS SAYS that his initiative to be more inclusive of minority languages led to him being removed from his position by the government, with a trustee was put in his place. 

“Turkey removed me as the elected mayor and placed someone in my position. This is against democracy... They were supposed to have elections in six months but they didn’t have an election for two-and-a-half years and kept the state appointee in charge. The authorities didn’t respect their own rule. Would a democratic state act in this way?”

In 2009, he was elected again with 66% of the votes, improving upon his 2004 election results of 54%. But the government in Ankara would not stop targeting him. “In 2009, the Turkish state decided to put me in prison. According to the Turkish state we are all terrorists. 

“I was legally elected with 66% of the vote, how can we be called terrorists? We never touched a weapon. I was in prison and was sick and had chronic health problems and I was released in 2010 due to public pressure.” Despite repeated arrests, he continued his work for multiculturalism in Turkey.

 CASTING A ballot during the municipal elections in Diyarbakir. (credit: Sertac Kayar/Reuters) CASTING A ballot during the municipal elections in Diyarbakir. (credit: Sertac Kayar/Reuters)

One project he supported included the restoration of religious sites, including a mosque and Chaldean, Catholic, Armenian, Gregorian, Jewish, Alawite and Yazidi religious sites. “The proposal was to show to the world and demonstrate that the holy places can live in coexistence.” 

In a sense, his initiative was a precursor to some of the important interfaith and coexistence work we have seen in the aftermath of the Abraham Accords. “I think the Abraham Accords is a vital project to promote peace and friendship and bring animosity to an end in the Middle East,” he says. He notes that his initiatives included invitees of various communities to attend each other’s holidays, such as Muslims visiting Christians and vice-versa. 

This didn’t always succeed, as the initiative failed to find a rabbi and Jewish community to participate in the exchanges – because some minorities were still hesitant to take part in these first steps of multiculturalism. “We asked the chief rabbi for support. We did do this with the other communities so that they would host each other.”

THE COEXISISTENCE initiatives included 40 representatives of different groups that exist in Turkey, from Muslims and various Christian sects to Jews and Yazidis. 

“We wanted all these diverse groups to work together and govern the city.” 

The work brought recognition for these initiatives. This included a push at the time for recognition of the Armenian genocide, a mass killing of Armenians the Turkish state has long denied. In 2015, the 100-year anniversary of the beginning of the genocide, Reuters profiled this work as “Turkey wrestles with centuries-old Armenian massacres.”

The work of the pioneering mayor led to meetings with Pope Francis. An invitation to visit him was also offered, inviting him to visit the city and see its new coexistence initiatives. 

“I told the pope that these groups come from the [symbolic] garden of Kurdish Diyarbakir to meet the pope. I said: Life is like a garden of flowers. In this garden each plant exists with its own color and they all coexist. In this garden it is more beautiful because it is diverse. But the Turkish state says this garden is either black or white. But I say as a teacher of philosopher if there is only one color we will be blind. 

“Diversity is beauty. Peace can occur only if this beauty coexists. This is democracy when these diverse groups are represented.” 

The former mayor notes that in 2015, Pope Francis officially visited to Turkey and invited Demirbas to come to Istanbul. “In 2016, I met Pope Francis again. For all those reasons and because of all the projects I began, they [the Turkish authorities] wanted to put me in prison for 300 years. The state declared me a terrorist due to these activities. In 2019, I didn’t have any opportunities and couldn’t run in the election and I escaped to Switzerland.”

THE FORMER mayor was lucky to have escaped. 

Turkey has become more authoritarian over the last decades under the ruling AKP party. There had been a limited opening to Kurds and other minorities in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Kurdish language lessons were first allowed as electives in 2012, for instance.

The government of Turkey went from denying the existence of Kurds to some limited engagement. However, the last years have seen increasing crackdowns on all kinds of dissidents across Turkey, including former allies of the ruling party. In addition, Ankara has increased its role in Syria, and millions of Syrians have become refugees in Turkey, fueling more tensions. Lastly, a coup attempt in 2016 led to massive purges in the country.

Demirbas says his activist role working with minorities led him to be persecuted by the state. Turkey often calls dissidents “terrorists” and he notes that he was put on an official list of people targeted for assassination by the government. Turkey has been known to rendition dissidents from abroad and in 2013, three Kurdish female activists were killed in Paris. “We were on this death hit list and were supposed to be killed. Swiss authorities provided me protection. The reason they wanted to put me in prison for hundreds of years was because of the multi-religious and diversity I wanted to establish.”

The former mayor says that Ankara could learn from the diverse history of Turkey. Diyarbakir is like Jerusalem in its historic diversity; yet, the government has instead tried to use minorities against each other. He points to historic tensions between Armenians and Kurds as an example of “divide and rule” tactics. “They pit us against each other.”

He says that the groups in Diyarbakir historically lived in peace and points to Jewish-Kurdish ties as an example. “I had many Armenian friends; there were also Jews in this council of 40 representatives, and they also had a sister city with Sur in Israel, which is Meveseret Tzion. The mayor of Meveseret invited us here and he visited Diyarbakir. But the Turkish state said we are not allowed to have this connection. The state said we cannot have this cooperation. We wanted this Kurdish-Jewish cooperation. 

“We also had this sister city in Armenia but the Turkish state did not allow us to continue this partnership.” 

Demirbas was invited to Israel in 2015 where he gave a talk at Tel Aviv University. He has been invited to conferences and other events, and in this context came in April of 2022.

Ankara has now shifted dramatically from the early 2000s when the AKP party pretended it wanted to bring democracy to the country; to seeking to transform Turkey into a far-Right country dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The mayor says that some of those who had hopes for democratization now have been left out in the cold. 

“He [Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan] used and cheated us and his aim was to establish an Islamic Turkey, his hidden agenda was that he was not honest. He was a fundamentalist Muslim. He used democracy to achieve this. Today, wherever there are radical Islamist ideas, he has backed ISIS, Hamas and the Ikhwan-Brotherhood. Actually, one reason he attacked us is because we were against this... [we] told him that if he wants democracy then why do you remove us from our position?”

Demirbas says that because he and his friends struggled for democracy and diversity, they suffered persecution. Today the HDP party – the left-leaning party that many Kurds vote for – has 67 members in parliament. 

“In almost all cities in Kurdistan the HDP have one or two representatives. Millions of people go on the streets and identify themselves as Kurdish. They are aware of the social development. The Kurds show that what they want for themselves they also want for their neighbors. Kurds want equal rights for Assyrians, Jews, Turkmen and others.

“In our society we also see the importance of emancipation of women. We believe the emancipation of women is important in life but the Turkish state does not accept this,” says the former mayor. Many HDP members have been imprisoned and persecuted by the state.

 A TORAH is brought to the Great Synagogue during its post-restoration ceremony in Edirne, western Turkey, 2015. This was the first synagogue to open in Turkey in two generations. (credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS) A TORAH is brought to the Great Synagogue during its post-restoration ceremony in Edirne, western Turkey, 2015. This was the first synagogue to open in Turkey in two generations. (credit: MURAD SEZER/REUTERS)

IN ADDITION, the current regime’s anti-Kurdish policy has led to increased involvement in Syria and northern Iraq. Ankara claims in each instance to be “fighting terrorism” and claims it is targeting the PKK. A brutal conflict inside Turkey in 2015 between the government and the PKK accelerated these clashes, especially after the 2016 coup attempt. “Turkey does not want the development of [the unofficial Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria known as] Rojava. Because Rojava is a model for peaceful coexistence in the Middle East, the Turkish do not accept this. Turkey thinks that if the Kurds in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran cooperate and make peace, then Turkey can’t invade more places. If the Kurds succeed then radical Islam will decrease,” says Demirbas.

“The situation is also connected to Israel. This is relevant for the safety of Israel,” he continued. “Because the development and success of Kurds means the success of peace and freedom, as Kurdish success in peace and liberation would block radical extremism in Iran and Turkey. 

“I believe that a free Kurdistan is important and relevant for Israel. If the Kurds don’t hold their power in Rojava, then Iran would take that area. Also, the same can be said of Islamic fundamentalism; it would have taken Rojava and Basur [southern Kurdistan]. For this reason the success of the Kurds and the freedom of Kurds is important for the whole Middle East.”

He says that the role of Kurds in the region is pivotal, and due to this the success of the Kurds in Syria is essential. Kurds in Syria helped play a key role defeating ISIS in 2017 as well as in stopping the genocide of Yazidis in 2014. 

“It’s important that Rojava receive recognized status; this is important for American and British and Israeli interests. The lack of status for Kurds is a huge problem. Powerful states should support Rojava by recognizing its political status for three reasons – because Kurds battled against ISIS and defeated this extremism; because it has a democratic system – the model we want to introduce when I was mayor. There are multiple languages and religions and all are recognized. This model of the 40 representatives exists in each canton. 

“And the third reason is that Kurds support emancipation of women. Rojava supports development and emancipation of women.” 

He says that the strength of Kurds in Syria, the area called Rojava in eastern Syria, is crucial for blocking Iran’s influence in the region. “To prevent these fundamentalist groups, we hope the international community will support freedom and unity of Kurds in Rojava and Basur. That would undermine Iranian influence as well. The freedom of Kurdish areas is a win-win for everyone.”

Demirbas also highlights the importance of Jewish-Kurdish relations. Today Kurds and Jews can work together, including on combating antisemitism. “We want Kurdish people and all groups to have a strong relationship with the Jewish people. Neither in history nor now did we have animosity. I believe this is a holy friendship. The Jews suffered a lot, but I believe that [throughout] history Jews never suffered under Kurds. 

“The Jews, given their own extreme pain, are the only people who understand the pain of the Kurds in [the] present. We want this relationship to improve much more.”

Being in Israel has also given him new perspectives on slander against the Jewish state. “Recently I attended a small event and it felt like I was in Kurdistan, because of the warmth of people. What I wanted to implement in Diyarbakir I see here [already]: the signs in three languages. Turkey claims Israel is an apartheid state but I see Israel promotes language and education in Arabic; it’s just a lie what Turkey is saying. 

“For this reason, I wanted to implement this multilingual project in Diyarbakir  – but I see it here.” ■