chapter  3
21 Pages

Mobilising the Kurds in Turkey: Newroz as a myth


From the 1990s onward, Turkey has witnessed the phenomenon of Kurdish nationalism becoming a mass movement. Demonstrations on 21st March – the Newroz Day, which is accepted by the Kurds as their traditional New Year – has shown this new phenomenon in a very apparent way. Indeed, these demonstrations have come to be platforms through which Kurdish identity demands have been expressed. The intensity of the clashes between Kurdish demonstrators and security forces during such demonstrations has given rise to the acceleration of the debates on the Kurdish question. Interestingly, since 1991, this festival has also come to officially be celebrated by the Turkish state under the name of Nevruz. During these state sponsored celebrations, the propaganda that Newroz is actually a ‘Turkish’ festival has been systematically promoted. Thus, the clash on the ideological significance of Newroz between Kurdish nationalism and state ideology became manifested in a clash about the spelling of the word (‘Newroz’ vs. ‘Nevruz’). According to Voloshinov (1973: 23), ‘signs’ serve as an arena for social struggles. Newroz, as a sign, became an ideological battlefield indeed. This chapter argues that the reason Newroz turned out to be a site for ideological struggle lies in the fact that it signifies the existence of a separate Kurdish identity in Turkey. In fact, Newroz, as a myth, has a crucial role in the construction of the Kurdish political identity. The aim of this chapter is to analyse the role of Newroz in the process of mobilizing Kurds and their claims for a separate identity in Turkey. This study is conducted through two related lines on the issue of the con-

struction of Kurdish identity. Newroz is taken as a myth utilized in the process of the construction of national identity. The ‘legend of Kawa’ constitutes the central ingredient of the myth of Newroz, which functions as a myth of origin or revival and enables the imagination of a Kurdish national unity (Anderson 1991). The term ‘invented tradition’ seems very suitable in the case of Newroz. Hobsbawm (1983: 1) uses the term as ‘a set of practices normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms

of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past’. History becomes part of the fund of knowledge for the ideology of the nation, state, or movement for novel purposes. Such appropriation of history is not what has actually been preserved in popular memory, but what has been ‘selected, written, pictured, popularized and institutionalized by those whose function it is to do so’ (Hobsbawm 1983: 12-13). Within this context, myths are tailored for nationalism, which is actually a modern phenomenon, to prove the persistence of nations. To note that Newroz is an invented tradition is not sufficient to grasp the

ways in which it is constructed and appropriated. This study also approaches Newroz as an ideological apparatus utilized for constructing a counterhegemony against the hegemonic culture. Newroz is an element of commonsense neglected or excluded by the hegemonic culture. This aspect of Newroz enables it to be a tool for the building of a counter-hegemonic discourse, by the help of the Kawa legend that puts emphasis on the notion of ‘resistance’. Williams (1977: 113) attributes the very possibility of counter-hegemony to the openness of any hegemonic process: ‘The reality of any hegemony, in the extended political and cultural sense, is that while by definition it is always dominant, it is never either total or exclusive. At any time, forms of alternative or directly oppositional politics and culture exist as significant elements in the society’. The openness of any hegemonic culture lays in its very construction. From

a whole possible area of past and present, Williams suggests, ‘certain meanings and practices are selected for emphasis and certain other meanings and practices are neglected or excluded’ (1977: 115). Tradition plays a key role in the articulation of hegemony or the ‘historical and cultural ratification of a contemporary order’ (1977: 116). Tradition is more than an inert historicized segment but it is an intentionally selective version of shaping a past in connection with the present. Hence tradition operates in the process of social and cultural identification. The selective tradition in the sense of hegemony both makes it as a powerful and vulnerable process. In the words of Williams:

It is a very powerful process, since it is tied to many practical continuities – families, places, institutions, language – which are indeed directly experienced. It is also, at any time, a vulnerable process, since it has in practice to discard whole areas of significance, or reinterpret or dilute them, or convert them into forms which support or at least do not contradict the really important elements of current hegemony.