Democratic Multiculturalism vs. State Violence in Turkey: an Interview with Former Mayor Abdullah Demirbas

Abdullah Demirbas was born in 1966 in the city of Diyarbakir (or Amed), Kurdistan. From 2004 until 2012, he served mayor of Diyarbakir central Sur District, which has been largely destroyed in recent months by Turkish military assault. While news of Sur’s destruction spread globally via social media, its profound cultural and historical significance is less widely known. For thousands of years, Diyarbakir has stood as the cosmopolitan heart of the Mesopotamian region. Sur is the city’s oldest neighborhood, with official records dating the city back to over 3,000 years, however local experts suggest that it is far older. Before its destruction, Sur was a lively and colorful place with narrow streets, cool shade, thick stone walls, narrow passageways, and luxuriant gardens. As a richly articulated living history, Sur shattered the stereotype of the Middle East as intellectually backwards and culturally empty.

During his tenure, Demirbas led social and cultural projects to renew Sur and preserve not only its material and architectural legacy, but also the livelihood and culture of its inhabitants. He helped establish the Council of Forty, a multi-faith forum across Amed’s religious communities, as well as a civil monument to the Armenian genocide, the only one of its kind in Turkey[1]. In 2012, Demirbas was forcibly removed from his office and arrested for using the Kurdish language in a municipal proceeding. Earlier this year, he relocated from Amed to Istanbul, where he teaches philosophy and politics in a local public school.

In the following interview, Demirbas and I discuss the history of Sur, as well as the recent waves of state violence, repression and the threat of civil war in Turkey. It was conducted remotely over two sessions and with the help of a translator. The text is edited in some places for length and clarity.

Can you tell me about Amed before 2004?

When we [the BDP] took over in 2004, it was not in a very good condition. It was actually a devastated place, abused, but during those ten years time, we did many restorations, such as the restoration of churches, mosques, and synagogues; including an Alivi mosque and a Yazidi temple. We made plans to preserve Sur, which had never been done under previous governments or mayorships. Our plan was to rebuild Sur as it was before the 1930’s era, with resemblance to the original one. We also constructed multicultural institutions in order to merge Diyarbakir’s many cultural roots.

While we were doing all of this planning and reconstruction, we attended to our own democratic values and made sure the people were joining in and giving their opinions on these issues. We asked the people, we asked the NGOs, as well as the architects’ chambers and chambers in related fields. So we went to the Council of 40, and we made the plans consulting with them.

Can you say more about the Council of Forty? This is a religious council?

Yes, that’s right. This is a unique council in Turkey. It exists with gender equality, and ethnic and religious equality as a priority. There are Armenian, Syrian, Kaldani, Alevi, even Turkmen representatives from different opposing views. If we have to summarize, we were trying to make it so that Sur meets its own historical roots. Because it is estimated that Sur is historically over eight or nine thousand years old and over thirty-three different cultures exist there. Sur is the main body of Diyarbakir, making Diyarbakir a multi-cultural, multi-identity, and multi-vocal city. But this multi-cultural culture and diversity was denied with the foundation of the Turkish Republic, which consists only in a single nation, a single language, and a single religion. So we wanted to rehabilitate all of these diverse fragments which have been under the shadow of destruction and keep them living for the future.

The philosophical part of this is believing that the world is a flower garden; that there are different flowers, different colors, different shapes, and we have to “live and let live” in that world. That’s our perspective, and we wanted to make it a reality. We also wanted to give a model of peace to the Middle East, because the Middle East is constructed of different linguistic, religious, and racial groups. We plan to make Diyarbakir, and especially Sur, the center of Middle Eastern peace.

Could you tell me about the monument to the Armenian Genocide?

We constructed a genocide monument, for the first time ever in Turkey, in 2013. In our opening speech, we declared that we have shared the pain of genocide, so it won’t be lived again. In order to continue its existence, the Turkish state has pushed different religions and different ethnicities against each other. This is a divide and conquer approach. However, our approach is that there have been mistakes in the past, and we have to face these mistakes, apologize for them, and look forward together.

We know that some of our ancestors, Kurds, during the Armenian genocide, were used as tools in these massacres by the Turkish state. We apologized by constructing this monument, and we asked the Turkish state to apologize to Christians, Armenian Christians, Assyrian Christians, Yezidi Kurds, Jews and Alevi, and also Muslim Kurds as well. If we can face the past correctly together, we can face a true future together, and we can live together. That’s the reason why we constructed the genocide monument.

How did the municipality address the liberation of women?

We had for the first time in Turkey female management, and there is a Council of Women as well inside the municipality. As we say, women are half of life, so we want to have women joining in life with freedom. Because women are half the population, we want them to take their rightful place.

While I was running the administration of Sur, in 2005, we made a decision that if a worker of the municipality is abusing his wife, the city will cut the salary of the man and give it directly to the female. If he then continues abusing his wife, we are going to ask his leave the job and take his wife into that job. I and if the man has two wives, we fire him and take the first wife into the position. We also gave salary bonuses to the parents who educate their daughters in school.

Because we believe that in order to achieve women’s freedom, they must have their own economic freedom as well, so we made projects of bringing women into the labor force. One of these projects is the Tandoori house project. In houses constructed by the municapality, women were making Tandoor bread, and they were selling this bread to the market and shops and gaining their own money. We also promoted the production of tomato, peppers, and eggplants on the rooftops of houses. They would be dried in the summertime and the women were collecting them. We also did this in order to empower organic agriculture, and use the original seeds of these products as well, like a seeding program.

Can you tell me about the war in Turkey? What is happening?

Because of the situation with the solution process, which ended last April, there is a huge conflict going on right now and Turkey is on the verge of civil war. Erdogan plans to be the president as well as the sultan, but because the HDP [Peoples’ Democratic Party][2] passed the election barrier on the 7th of June, they stopped Erdogan’s path toward the presidency and the sultanate. So he started the war for his vengence. The bombing in the Diyarbakir meeting just before the June election, the bombing of Suruj, and the murder of the two [Turkish] police officers, these were the triggers of the war. Because there was no third-party observer, the two sides do not trust each other and a scene of civil war has started in the streets.

But we are now discussing the answer more than the question, and it is worth talking about the question. The whole question is the century-old Kurdish question and the democracy question in Turkey. The goverment’s main strategy for Sunnizing the country, for creating a Sunni Muslim state, is expanding the war. Because of these dreams of dictatorship, they have caused great pain to the people, society, and to the environment. Already, over 300,000 people have had to relocate. Most of the cities’ structures and infrastructure have been destroyed. In Cizre and Diyarbakir, many world heritage sites have been totally demolished. The socio-economic balance, which was already very unbalanced, has been totally upended again. We can say this: that because of the dream of dictatorship, Erdogan has started a civil war.

Did the PKK have a role to break with peace process?

From the beginning, because there was no third party observer, both parties did not trust each other. Now that the solution process is becoming an “un-solution” process, the PKK has increased its attacks and violence.

What is the role of Abdullah Ocalan in the conflict?

Mr. Ocalan has been isolated since April 2015, not even his lawyers can visit him, so he’s out of the picture. And this is one reason for the violence, because he cannot intervene to make it stop. When Mr. Ocalan was in the picture, all of the violence had stopped. When the Turkish state ceased meetings with him, and isolated him, the violence with the state was also increased. Thus we can easily can say that if he was still involved in the solution process, this violence would not have happened. So its our wish to see him involved in this process again. 

How do the EU and USA see the isolation of Ocalan?

Currently they have not objected to it other than with a very weak voice. Because of public pressure, the CPT delegation [Committee for the Prevention of Torture, Council of Europe] met with him at the end of April, but they have not made the press release yet. And they only went to see his conditions, not to involve him in the peace process again.

The USA did not act as a mediator in this process, yet the USA is the only actor who can act as a mediator in this process. The US should act more efficiently, because the development of peace and democracy in Turkey will trigger stability in the Middle East region as a whole. And it will be better for the different ethnicities and beliefs trying to live together in harmony in the Middle East.

The Kurds and Mr. Ocalan advocate diversity and multiculturalism, multi-racialism, multi-religious-ism, and real secularisim. But the current state in Turkey is radical Islamicized and Turkified. They have supported at various times, ISIS, Al Quaeda, and other Islamic extremist groups. This scares the Shia, Armenians, Jews, Christiains, Alivi, who only have 600 of them left, and other ethnic and religious minorities beecause the current Turkish state does not tolerate difference. So our wish is that the EU and USA should pressure Turkey restart the peace process again.

When did this problem start for the Kurdish people?

For the past century, Turkey has had this problem. And the reason for this is Turkey’s official ideology, which holds that everybody in Turkey is a Turk; their language is Turkish, their culture is Turkish, and they are all Sunni Muslim, so all the cultural and racial and religious differences must be obliterated. In the last period of the Ottoman Empire, even Iranians and Assyrians were targets of genocide. After that, with the Republic, they started on Kurds in Dersim and the Republic of Agur. Because all of these people rejected this unitarian identity, they have been destroyed. Even without openly rebelling, but just by declaring they they are not the same. None of these problems have been solved.

What is the solution to the current situation?

First of all, we should have a new constitution which is liberal, democratic, and for universal civil rights in Turkey. In this constitution, all the different ethnic and religious and gender-based differences should be accepted. Everybody should have the right to be educated in their mother language. All the religions and beliefs in Turkey should have the right to be represented openly. The protectorate system, which is only used Kurdistan, should be abolished, and the state should face its past, its bloody history, and apologize to the Armenians, Assyrians, Greeks, Kurds, Jews and Yazidi, as well as Alivi Turks. In fact, the solution in making a new constitution can be seen as meeting the EU’s constitutional demands.

Is there anything you would like to add?

The final thing is that we ask the intellectual community, academicians, and all of international public opinion to pressure Turkey both institutionally and culturally to stop this violent process and return to peace. They should support our policies of environmentalism and gender and sexual equality, because we believe firmly, especially in female independence is the main pillar of freedom in society. And second, multilingualism should be favored in the state.

Eleanor Finley is a PhD student at the University of Massachusetts doing dissertation work on the Kurdish Freedom Movement and ecology. She is also a member of the Institute for Social Ecology in Central Vermont.


[1] The monument has since been destroyed.

[2] HDP and BDP share the same ideology and are allied. However, HDP function at the national level, while BDP is focused on the North-Kurdistan region.