North Africa, West Asia

Death & politics: the burial of a Kurdish woman in Turkey

How can two communities co-exist on the ground, when their deceased cannot rest together underground? Why are cemeteries politicized and polarized?

Semuhi Sinanoglu
4 October 2017
DVIDSHUB/Wikimedia Commons.Public domain.

Kurdish women and children visit the grave site of a loved one in a cemetery where approximately 500 Kurdish men and boys who were killed during the early years of Saddam Hussein’s regime. The remains were brought from the mass burial site near Bussia, Iraq, and given a proper burial where they are now in Barzan, Iraq. DVIDSHUB/Wikimedia Commons.Public domain.On September 13, Aysel Tugluk, the deputy chair of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), tried to bury her mother, Hatun Tugluk, in a cemetery in Ankara, Turkey, by her mother’s will. Unfortunately, she could not.

Tugluk had to receive special permission to attend the funeral since she was among the thirteen members of the pro-Kurdish party, HDP, who have been have been detained on terrorism-related charges in Turkey. This trend of an authoritarian crackdown on democratically elected officials has exacerbated since the declaration of a state of emergency in 2016.

During the funeral, a mob approached the cemetery while chanting slogans that they would not allow "terrorists" to be buried there. Tugluk decided to take the deceased to Tunceli, her home city, for protection since the mob had even brought a tractor to remove the body after burial.

This virulent attitude is not an isolated case in Turkey – in an interview, Sırrı Sakık, a well-known Kurdish politician, revealed how he was not able to bury his sister in Gölbaşı Cemetery, Ankara, next to his wife, for a similar reason. A politician from Nationalist Action Party, a far-right conservative party, allegedly complained that the Ankara Municipality had allowed a "terrorist" to be buried there, alluding to Sakık’s wife.

These incidents urge us to raise vital questions about co-habitation. How can two communities co-exist on the ground, when their deceased cannot rest together underground? Why are cemeteries politicized and polarized?

The politics of death

Cemeteries have always been a field of contestation over cultural and political issues. Cemeteries can be construed as a manifestation of different cultures, ethnicities, religions, and sects. Through cemeteries, various socio-cultural groups claim and accentuate their existence in a particular geographical location. Therefore, these cemeteries are usually subject to political opposition, and even vandalism.

In July 2017, residents in Saint-Apollinaire, Quebec, Canada rejected a proposal with a razor-thin margin in a referendum to establish a Muslim-run cemetery – a project that the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec City pursued. A month later, Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume announced that the center would buy land near Notre-Dame-de-Belmont cemetery for burials of the Muslim community. However, following this announcement, Mohamed Labidi’s car, the president of the Islamic Cultural Centre of Quebec was set on fire – the last in a series of hate crimes that target the center.

Disputes over cemeteries also take place in Europe. Municipalities usually own cemeteries across Europe, and most of them are run according to Christian burial practices. For instance, Muslims living in Denmark struggled for years to establish a Muslim cemetery. Although it was possible for Muslims to be buried in Lutheran churchyard cemeteries, the clash between Christian and Islamic burial customs was only one of the obstacles that Muslims faced, and unfortunately, the relevant methods were not adjusted based on Muslim rituals.

Eventually, in 2006, the first Muslim cemetery was approved after many years of negotiating between the government and Muslim organizations. On the other hand, unfortunately, on a couple of occasions Muslim cemeteries were vandalized and desecrated in different towns in Denmark.

These incidents reflect exclusionary worldviews intertwined with Islamophobia that became entrenched in Europe and North America, which is also related to the rise of conservative far-right parties. In certain countries, though, this was also an integral part of identity politics and government efforts to eradicate a socio-cultural group.

For example, in Bulgaria, in 1985, the government swiftly implemented assimilationist policies against ethnic Turks that also comprised of outlawing Muslim religious ceremonies and even destroying Muslim cemeteries.

Cemeteries have always been contested and politicized areas. Their political nature reveals itself either through xenophobic vandalism or a government’s persistent efforts to eradicate them. They are not just demarcated based on denomination but also ideologically. Hence, the marginalized and disadvantaged groups have been justifiably struggling for exhibiting their right to social existence, ironically through the foundation of their cemeteries.

Living together

The culture of co-existence within communities of different socio-cultural backgrounds has become a rare commodity. A recent Pew Research analysis suggests that at least one-in-four in each country polled in Europe has an unfavorable opinion of Muslims in their country.

A Chatham House survey found that across ten European countries, an average of 55 percent agreed that all further migration from mainly Muslim countries should be stopped.

A similar trend against co-existence with Kurds as equal citizens in Turkey can be observed as well. The findings of “Research on Social-Political Trends in Turkey” conducted by Kadir Has University indicates that while in 2015, 53 percent of the participants wanted the resolution process to restart, in 2016 this decreased to 31,4 percent.

Another survey conducted by KONDA, a research and consultancy firm, exhibits that 41 percent of respondents oppose the idea of Kurds serving in the higher-ranks of the military, and 43 percent do not agree with Kurds running for presidency in Turkey.

As Turkey has been sinking into an abyss of political oppression and violence and enduring an authoritarian crackdown, Kurds have been the ones who suffered the most.

The people of Diyarbakir’s old city Sur, mostly populated by Kurds, were eradicated amidst the clash between PKK and the military. Kurdish politicians were arrested and jailed, including the leader of pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Lynching has become a standard practice. The independence referendum in Kurdistan region of Iraq has also aggravated hate crimes & discourse against the Kurdish population in Turkey.

The death of politics

Given the state of emergency in Turkey, people have become more and more timid in expressing their political ideas and concerns. It is almost impossible to engage in a meaningful political conversation in Turkey due to the fear of being excluded, lynched or sentenced to imprisonment.

Everything is politicized now because of polarization cultivated through toxic and exclusionary nationalist-conservative discourses. This polarization has accumulated to a level that a Kurdish woman cannot bid farewell to her deceased mother in the Turkish capital city. This marks ‘the death of politics’ as we know it since politics can be defined as a set of transformative conversations to explore meaningful ways of co-habitation.

In her inspirational movie titled “Et maintenant, on va où,” the queen of Lebanese cinema, Nadine Labaki narrates the story of a remote village populated by Christians and Muslims. A young man is killed in crossfire while riding his motorbike outside a village. As the village was drawn into sectarian violence, the women of the village come up with an idea. One day, Christian men find their wives dressed in Muslim attire, and vice versa, asking their husbands, “Would you kill me, too?” In the end, the villagers were indecisive about which cemetery they should bury the deceased young man – in the Christian or Muslim cemetery, wondering, “Where do we go now?”

Cemeteries do not have to be avenues of ‘culture wars’ or political contestations. They are resting places for our loved ones, sacred locations where we pay our respect to the deceased, express our condolences to their relatives. These are places where we are supposed to show compassion and kindness.

Without a doubt, this is a matter of life and death. 

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