Another spectacular Newroz in Turkey and Kurdistan has illustrated the ongoing power and relevance of Kurdish identity and the Kurdish freedom movement for the future of the country and the region, despite the heavy political and military pressure that Kurds have faced in recent years.
Millions of people attended Newroz celebrations in 72 cities across Turkey between March 15th and March 21st. These gatherings were organized by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and a coalition of other pro-Kurdish political parties and civil society groups.
In Diyarbakir, whose Newroz celebrations are said to be the biggest in the world, hundreds of thousands of people braved police violence and blockades to attend. Thousands more were prevented from entering the square where the event was held. Nearly 800 civilians were reportedly detained, many for no “crime” other than wearing traditional Kurdish clothing or Kurdish colours.
In Cizre and Nusaybin, Newroz 2022 marked 30 years since the Turkish army fired on peaceful demonstrators who attempted to celebrate the holiday despite bans on Kurdish cultural expression, killing dozens. Both cities also suffered renewed violence in 2016, when entire neighbourhoods were razed by security forces. Yet crowds there were impressive as well.
The events were not limited to Kurdish regions. In western Turkish cities like Istanbul and Izmir, where anti-Kurdish and anti-HDP violence has been on the rise in recent months, Kurdish communities were out in full force.
The theme for this year’s Newroz was “Dem Dema Serkeftinê”— “now is the time for victory.” Participants called for a peaceful solution to the Kurdish question and for the freedom of imprisoned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) founder and leader Abdullah Ocalan and all Kurdish political prisoners.
There are several takeaways from these celebrations and their political message that are important for understanding the role of Kurds in Turkey’s political future.
First, this Newroz made it clear that millions of Kurds refuse to compromise their identity. Despite continued efforts by the state to co-opt and assimilate Kurds and the existence of Kurdish voting blocs that reject ethnic interests in favour of economic or religious interests, Kurds who claim and celebrate their Kurdish identity are a major, well-organised political force.
The pro-Kurdish political tradition now embodied by the HDP is the legal political vehicle for their aspirations. Small conservative nationalist parties closer to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are constantly floated as an alternative or a challenge to the HDP. But none can mobilize millions to celebrate Kurdish resistance in defiance of the authorities like the left-wing Kurdish political movement can—and none will likely be able to do so in the future.
The holiday was also a demonstration of resilience. Kurdish Newroz is, at its heart, a celebration of resistance to tyranny. The legend behind the holiday tells the story of Kawa the blacksmith, who defeated an evil king and saved his people—said to be the ancestors of the Kurds—from annihilation. The parallels to real Kurdish struggles against authoritarian regimes could not be clearer.
This year’s Newroz came at a time when the repression of Kurdish politics has reached levels not seen since the 1990s. Dozens of democratically elected HDP officials remain in prison on politicized charges. Almost every Kurdish city that voted for a HDP mayor in 2019 is now ruled by an unelected state trustee. Inflammatory rhetoric from Turkish leaders has inspired deadly violence against HDP targets. The party itself faces closure—the same fate that befell several of its predecessors.
Advocacy for peace and the concrete steps many Kurds believe are necessary to achieve it—particularly a return to dialogue with Ocalan—are dangerous ideas to hold in this political climate. Kurds in Turkey, including elected officials, have been prosecuted and jailed for simple statements advocating talks or opposing war.
Despite this, however, Kurds came out to stand with the very ideas and leaders that have been criminalised. Rather than fear political repression, Kurds made it clear that they plan to overcome it once again.
Though new election laws may make this difficult, history shows that the Kurdish political movement has a talent for turning setbacks into victories. Kurdish voters can likely also tilt the balance between the government and the opposition, as they did in Istanbul in 2019—something both sides are aware of.
It is undeniable that the millions who celebrated Newroz will be consequential for Turkey’s future. Their demands, if put into practice, are radical enough to reshape not only the politics of Turkey, but those of the region. As the war in Ukraine exacerbates Turkey’s economic crisis and the government continues to lose popularity, they will only become more relevant for those seeking an off-ramp towards a more peaceful and prosperous future.