‘Kurdistan’ and the art of self-censorship in Turkey

The denial of Kurdish identity is so entrenched in Turkish public life that the word “Kurdistan” is viewed by the state as an indicator of links to outlawed Kurdish political groups

Recent reports shed light on the extent of censorship and self-censorship in Turkey’s publishing and entertainment sectors, with references to Kurdistan being removed or toned down in works ranging from the 2005 film “V for Vendetta” to Ottoman explorer Evliya Celebi’s iconic 17th-century travel book “Seyahatname.”

The Turkish state’s advocacy of nationalism, which is deeply at odds with the country’s minority populations, particularly its largest ethnic minority, the Kurds, is at the heart of this propensity for censorship, experts said.

This has led to serious contradictions between Turkey’s official version of history and -- besides the scholarship widely recognised around the rest of the world -- documents and artefacts from its own imperial history.

Thus, the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians during World War I, which is recognised as genocide by most scholars and many countries, is dismissed by Ankara as self-defence amid the chaos of war, said Turkish writer Perihan Magden, who has faced multiple lawsuits for her work.

Similarly, the state’s official history and some iterations of nationalist Turkish scholarship have, at times, denied the existence of a Kurdish ethnicity, describing the people instead as “mountain Turks.” The word “Kurd,” this reading of history explained, comes from the sound of footsteps in thick mountain snow.

This denial of Kurdish identity is so entrenched in Turkish public life that the word “Kurdistan” is viewed by the state as an indicator of links to outlawed Kurdish political groups, as a recent court case showed.

Depending on setting and context, the word can be either a geographical term referring to the contiguous Kurdish majority areas of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey or a political objective, referring to a long-envisioned independent state.

Ankara’s logic seems to be that any person who uses the word “Kurdistan” must support the creation of an independent Kurdish state, the initial objective of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has been fighting an insurgency in Turkey for 35 years. In recent years, the PKK has shifted to a demand for equal rights and Kurdish autonomy.

In the south-eastern province of Batman, a suspect used the word while giving testimony. This led to the prosecutor asking for “membership in a terrorist organisation” to be added to the charges and requesting the highest possible sentence.

When defence lawyer Sirin Sen objected, stating that “Kurdistan” referred simply to a geographical area, the court demanded a defence from her, as well.

Meanwhile, senior figures in the ruling Justice and Development Party use the word when it suits them, as the party’s candidate in this year’s Istanbul mayoral election, former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, did to win over Kurdish voters. This was a stroke of luck for Mehmet Sanri, who was on trial for using the word himself. The charges were dropped on the basis that government officials had used it.

“If Mr Yildirim hadn’t said the word ‘Kurdistan,’ I would have been punished or that’s how it seemed to me,” said Sanri.

Others have not been so lucky. Avesta Publishing in Istanbul has faced a slew of lawsuits for printing books that include the word “Kurdistan.” The fear of similar legal action led to self-censorship among translators, said Avesta editor Abdullah Keskin.

Even though, according to Turkish law, it is the publisher or editor who would be legally responsible, Turkish translators hesitate to translate the word.

“Some of them do it out of fear, others because they hold the same beliefs as the state. There are even some who have written books trying to prove that Kurdistan doesn’t exist,” Keskin said.

“We don’t make any compromises. So, if a work from 100 years ago uses the word ‘Kurdistan,’ we stay true to what it says,” he added. “There could be a number of things that our readers won’t like. We’ve approached them in the same way, because hiding the truth means deceiving your readers.”

Avesta has published texts on Kurdology, some of which Keskin described as including parts that could cause the company problems. Most other publishing outfits show less respect for the original text; Keskin recalled a book by Iranian thinker Ali Shariati in which “Kurds” was replaced by “Turks.”

“You’re not changing Shariati by doing that. The truth sooner or later will come out,” he explained. “This isn’t a case of freedom of expression, it’s a historical reality. Kurds are the local people of this area. They’ve lived there for centuries and everyone from Western travellers to [Turkish authors] Orhan Kemal and Yasar Kemal have called it Kurdistan.”

The name was used 800 years ago by a Sultan Sencer of the Seljuk Turks and only came to be the subject of censorship in waves starting with the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in the 1920s, Keskin said.

In the mid-19th century, the late years of the Ottoman Empire, references to a Kurdistan region had not yet been proscribed. Ottoman documents displayed at a recent exhibition showed that one of 77 boats owned by an Istanbul ferry company was named “Kurdistan.”

Writer Huseyin Siyabend noted that books and academic works had sought to marginalise the cultural effect of Kurds by attributing fine works of art and craftsmanship created in Kurdistan to other ethnicities -- silverwork to Jews, masonry to the Assyrians, architecture to the Armenians and Kurdish works to Turks.

“We must come to terms with the narrative regime still ongoing today that pushes aside Kurds’ contributions to humanity, Islam and self-knowledge, that neglects Kurds’ history and legacy, and seeks to deny them any historical legacy besides that of the ‘noble savage’,” said Siyabend.

This censorship aims to create a new and improved state version of history, Siyabend said. The state published studies detailing the beginnings of the Turkish people, their grammar, geography and ethnography and, in doing so, created distorted texts that depict a world without Kurds yet have become foundational to the state.

The intentional alterations follow a pattern of “denial, destruction and assimilation” policies that have been levelled against Kurds in Turkey, said Ali Duran Topuz, chief editor of Turkish independent news site Gazete Duvar. He described the alterations to Turkey’s history as part of the country’s “Kurdophobia.”

Maaz Ibrahimoglu is a Turkish writer.

This article first appeared on ahvalnews.com and is republished with permission.