Category Archives: Islamic State

Charlie and me – Islamophobia, racism, freedom of expression and equality in France

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It’s difficult to write frankly about Charlie Hebdo – it was difficult to do so in the aftermath of the massacre and it’s only a bit easier now. In France there was shock, of course, a kind of solidarity and, let’s be honest, a lot of self-righteousness. But the French don’t have the monopoly on self-righteousness, as the debate on Charlie abroad has shown. I think the experience has much to say about France – and the world – today.

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Tributes to police officer Ahmed Merabet, killed protecting the Charlie Hebdo staff Photo: Azurfrog/public domain

Do I have to say I was horrified by the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the murders in a kosher supermarket that followed? Maybe I do. It’s easy these days to find oneself accused of holding opinions one doesn’t hold and entertaining sympathies one has never entertained, of advocating when trying to analyse (for the record this piece doesn’t aspire to neutrality).

Last January Charlie Hebdo suddenly found millions of passionate defenders – many of whom had clearly never read it or, so far as the more famous among them were concerned, only done so in search of grounds for legal action. Of course, they had the right to be angry at the violence and to defend their perception of freedom of expression. But it was exasperating to be lectured on the nature of a paper one had once read regularly in formulations culled from press coverage rather than formulated from personal experience.

Then the debate took a different turn, in the English-speaking world at least, and I got exasperated with critics who had also clearly never read Charlie. No, anglophone friends, the paper is not entirely devoted to Islamophobic and racist bile. While there’s no defence for some of its cartoons – Riss’s latest on Aylan above all – others were satirising the attitudes many of you believed they were propagating. Like lots of things in life, it can be good and it can be crap.

Here’s my confession of a Charlie reader who gave up.

When I came to France 22 years ago I soon discovered Charlie Hebdo. And I loved it.

The schoolboy humour naturally struck a chord, me being a Brit. The politics was anarcho-leftist-Jacobin, which mostly suited me. And it is true that its contributors mocked everyone, although not equally, as some of the never-read-its claim. Not very much humour on the Holocaust, happily. And lots of scurrilous attacks on the Front National and its then leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, also happily.

But, after a while, it seemed to change.

There were more and more sneers at Islam. I didn’t analyse how many cartoons and articles were devoted to each religion or set of political beliefs – I just stopped reading it – but Islam seemed to me to be becoming an obsession and I found it a distasteful one.

After the Charlie attacks a TV journalist became a French YouTube hit by showing that Charlie Hebdo’s covers over a given period of time featured few cartoons attacking Islam. This quite literally superficial analysis has no pertinence whatever.

Firstly, there was plenty on Islam inside.

Secondly, as former Charlie Hebdo contributor Olivier Cyran pointed out in 2013, attacking a minority religion, associated with an immigrant-origin population that is disproportionately underprivileged,  is not the same as attacking the Catholic church, “which had – and still has – newspapers, MPs, lobbies, salons and enormous property holdings”.

Catholics, one might add, never have their very right to live in Europe challenged, nor is their religion declared foreign to European culture, despite its provenance.

I can’t put a date on when I gave up reading Charlie. Cyran says it took a radical turn for the worse after 9/11. And he tends to blame Philippe Val, an ardent supporter of Israel who was later appointed director of Radio by Nicolas Sarkozy (not so iconoclastic as all that, eh?), and Caroline Fourrest, a hypersecularist who is rarely absent from TV, radio and the written press these days, thanks to her support for gay marriage, her opposition to hijab and her penchant for sniffing out Salafist conspiracies.

On RFI, January 2015: How will the Charlie Hebdo attacks change France?

On RFI, January 2016: One year later, how have the Charlie Hebdo attacks changes France?

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An idealised version of a sans-culotte during the French revolution, Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)

But this hypersecularism is not unique to Charlie. It is very widespread in France – in its arrogant rejection of religion and the religious it was a sort of New Atheism avant la lettre.

It turns out that secularism is one of those container words that you can fill up with any number of meanings, like Liberté, égalité, fraternité or democracy, for that matter.

And, when a term becomes a sort of dogma, no longer examined critically, it lays itself open for exploitation by all sorts of cynical demagogues and authoritarians manqués. We know that from the history of religion, don’t we?

You can see secularism as a truce between non-believers and believers – you keep religion out of my state and I’ll keep my state out of your religion – or you can see it as a more aggressive measure to keep religion completely out of the public eye. That view tends to segue into an apparent desire to wipe religion off the face of the earth. In which case it’s not really secularism, is it? It’s state-sponsored atheism, which hasn’t worked very well.

France’s 1905 law on religion is in fact the first of these alternatives – a more aggressive anti-clerical faction lost the argument – but many French people interpret it as the second, with a tinge of the third, increasingly so these days.

When I first went to Turkey, to cover the 2007 parliamentary elections, some supporters of the secular parties used the French term laïcité to distinguish what Mustapha Kemal Atatürk had put into practice in Turkey from mere secularism.

Like the French version, Turkey’s secularism was born from a violent rupture with the past.

It was an attempt to break the hold of religion on the minds of the masses and end habits regarded as backward according to the Young Turks’ identification of modernity with Europe.

You can understand this zeal in the context of the French revolution. The revolutionaries needed to break the power of a Catholic church that was a powerful part of the ancien regime and, if we bear in mind today’s revelations of clerical child abuse in countries where the church went unchallenged, there must have been an awful lot of residual bitterness over priestly abuses of power, which may explain the violence of some anti-clerical exactions.

Post-Ottoman Turkey, too, had to replace a regime of which religion was an integral part  and create a state capable of standing up to the Islamic clergy, although, if we look at Turkey’s current political and social condition, we would have to conclude that it has been a mitigated success.  The largest secular party, the CHP,  seems to have recognisew this and is revising its hardline position.

But where is the relevance for France today?

When right-wing Catholics and assorted bigots turned out en masse to oppose the Socialist government’s same-sex marriage law – singularly failing to mobilise Muslims, by the way, despite some efforts to do so – there were few appeals to secularism. Indeed, right-wing politicians who have seen fit to call for pork-only menus to be served in school canteens were happy to play fast and loose with the god-botherers.

Because, excuse me for stating the obvious, it’s all about Islam. Nobody thought to ban “ostentatious signs of religion in schools, until a couple of Muslim girls turned up in hijab. (In that debate, which is now being recycled as a debate on cover in universities and workplaces, there is a strange confusion between those in authority and those over whom authority is exercised. Of course teachers should not proselytise, they represent the state, but why shouldn’t their pupils manifest religious convictions? Is it even realistic to expect them not to? In this respect the French are as prudish about religion as the British are about politics.)

On RFI i 2010 France’s burka bill, background to a bitter debate

That explains why many right-wing ideologues can one minute invoke Europe’s Christian or Judeo-Christian roots and the next pose as ferocious defenders of secularism, just as many of the political successors of the late 19th-century and early 20th-centur anti-Semites are now ardent defenders of Israel.

This form of secularism has become an assertion of the superiority of the Occident over the world it once colonised, tinged with class hatred, given that many of its exponents will happily mix with well-off, “integrated” persons of foreign origin, but like to whip up fear of a lawless mass in the banlieue.

Of course, Muslims are equal in France. Secularism applies to everybody just as “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread”, to quote Anatole France.

As Emmanuel Todd says in Qui est Charlie? – the book that earned him the singular privilege of a reply from the prime minister in the august pages of Le Monde – they face a pressure to conform from people of Catholic culture, who tell them “I have the right to blaspheme against my former religion, so you have to the duty to blaspheme against yours.”

The feeling of cultural superiority takes a distinctive form in France and has infected the left in a way it has not, in my experience, infected the British left.

To go back the two decades to my arrival in France I was struck by how in our globalised world – less globalised then, but still – national attributes continued to exist.

In my new home appreciating good food and drink was not considered elitist snobbery, it was not generally considered necessary to make room for other people when walking in the street, the arts were considered important enough to merit a slot on TV news bulletins, the customer was very definitely not always right, intellectuals felt under no obligation to pretend they were not intellectuals … and every French person was a bit of a patriot.

No matter how left-wing and in principle internationalist they were, they treasured in their hearts a certain conviction that French culture was superior to all others.

Of course, we all assume to some degree or other that what we’re used to is the natural order of things and I know that my new friends often found me quaintly British.

But I think France is the only country where former interior minister Jean-Pierre Chévènement could found his own little party to propagate a bizarre leftish form of nationalism, where the hard-left candidate in the last presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could this year wax indignant about the Corsican regional council taking an oath “in a language I don’t understand” and where Prime Minister Manuel Valls … well I was talking about the left, so let’s leave Manuel Valls out of it.

It’s partly the fault of the French Communist Party, which at the time when it was France’s biggest party in terms of membership took the popular front accommodation with nationalism very seriously, played a heroic role in the resistance to German occupation, which inevitably led to a certain nationalist, even xenophobic, contagion, and after the war just couldn’t get out of the opportunist habit.

And, of course, there’s the revolution, without which the modern world would not exist.

The legacy of the revolution legitimises popular revolt. The slogans of the revolution represent a promise that is sufficiently vague to serve as justification for the established order and rallying cry for those who wish to overthrow it. The revolution has served as example, case study and inspiration for every generation of revolutionaries since.

And its centralist, nation-building aspects sometimes morph into the secular ultimatums, sneering and prejudice that find expression in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, which, despite its affection for the slogan “No god, no masters”, seems to have found it easier to come to an accommodation with the latter than with the former.

Because, despite the naughty words, the routine impertinence, the tits, bums and dicks, Charlie Hebdo is a bit of a court jester these days.

Viewed from the banlieue, as academic and journalist Andrew Hussey points out, Charlie is part of the establishment.

“What is seen in the centre of Paris as tweaking the nose of authority — religious or political — is seen out in the banlieues as the arrogance of those in power who can mock what they like, including deeply held religious beliefs, perhaps the only part of personal identity that has not been crushed or assimilated into mainstream French society,” he wrote in the New York Times after the attacks.

Indeed, one of the main reasons that Islam is resurgent is that the left has lost the leadership of the anti-imperialist and antiracist struggles. Secular nationalist and left-wing anti-colonial movements degenerated into corrupt dictatorships or neo-liberal democratic plutocracies. Mass socialist parties voided themselves of their class content.

The spectre haunting the world today is the spectre of fundamentalist jihad, violent, divisive, frightening, supported by a tiny minority of Muslims but filling a demand created by the arrogance of the West and the inadequacy of the left.

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War with PKK, assaults on media freedom and clampdown on dissent to continue after Erdogan’s win in Turkey’s election

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Turkey’s election this month may have been pushed out of the spotlight by the attacks in Paris and Bamako but the surprise result will have a long-term effect, not just on the country itself as an increasingly authoritarian president gathers more power into his hands by legal and illegal means but also internationally, since Isis is on its doorstep and active on its soil. You can’t ignore Turkey and you can’t ignore the Kurds, including the PKK – officially terrorists to Washington and Brussels – and its sister organisation the KYD – among the few effective allies in the fight against the armed Islamists.

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A woman votes in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir on 1 November 2015

Voxpops on polling day indicate a landslide for the HDP in Diyarbakir.

“And why? Because of the democracy of the HDP,” explains the first person we ask, a student called Suna, who is translating for international observers. “Because I find them serious about all of the problems of Turkey … Now I’m not happy to be in this country because of this government and I want them to go.”

‘’HDP, HDP, HDP, PKK, HDP, PKK!” chants Mehmetcik, a pensioner, at another polling station, going on to chide us for the duplicity of the great powers, who betrayed their promise of an independent Kurdistan after the breakup of the Ottoman empire.

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A statue of a weary traveller heading for Diyarbakir and a showcase of musical instruments at the city’s arts school, a polling station for the day Photo: Tony Cross

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Taner, an electrical engineer who has come back to vote from Iraqi Kurdistan, where he’s working, used to support the AKP. “Then we saw that they had a very exclusive way of governing. So we saw that the situation was very bad and we understood that this way of governing is very bad.”

True, a few people refuse to say how they are voting and some are reluctant to express their opinions because of police officers hovering near the entrance to polling station.

For my report on polling day in Diyarbakir for RFI click here 

The result is astonishing.

The AKP wins an absolute majority and, while the secular nationalist CHP’s vote has held up, the HDP’s has fallen, as has the right-wing national MHP. The AKP has gained a seat in Diyarbakir.

Police and special forces are everywhere as we make our way to the HDP’s Diyarbakir offices.

A roadblock looms ahead of us in the dark, forcing us to change our route. As we drive down a wide streets, a group of young men is lined up against a wall, special forces’ guns trained on them. Another special force members has his gun in the face of a driver, who is half in, half out of his car.

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Youths light a fire on the road outside the HDP headquarters in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Groups of youths are hanging around the street, leading to HDP HQ. We park at a distance and, as we approach, they collect branches and rubbish and set it alight.

An excitable kid of no more than 16 berates journalists in Kurdish. He looks at my recording equipment and, although he seems unclear as to its function, says that I shouldn’t show it to the police.

Inside the offices no one wants to be interviewed. Young activists seem to be in shock at the result.

From a balcony we watch the youths outside drag rubbish and tyres onto the road and set them alight, creating a roadblock that doesn’t stop the traffic – the cars just drive around it – but does attract the police, which seems to be the purpose of the exercise.

A few rounds of gunfire echo through the surrounding tower blocks.

The police fire teargas, which floats into the building before people shut the windows, and a police water cannon arrives.

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A police water cannon retreats after being attacked by youths in Diyarbakir Photo: Diyarbakir

The kids, very young but apparently well-practiced in tackling these lumbering monsters intifada-style, scatter and then regroup behind it, coming up close where the water can’t reach, and stoning it.

They do this persistently and with some effect. Eventually it leaves, to cheers from the HDP office, then a special forces armoured car turns up and the police water cannon returns. Someone fires several rounds into the air from a dark corner just off the road.

As the kids disperse, some of them surround a photographer and start shouting at him. They believe he has photographed them with their faces uncovered – most of the time they’ve had scarves and hoodies hiding their identities – and are extremely unhappy about the prospect of them being published or falling into the hands of the police. An HDP activist goes out and places himself between them and the photographer, calming the kids down and bringing him into the building.

As we leave an HDP MP, Ziya Pir, does comment on the result. The rise in violence pushed some voters into the arms of the AKP, he believes, and the HDP leadership lulled their supporters into a sense of false security by predicting a rise in the vote.

The rest of the town is calm, if gloomy. Customers in restaurants watch PM Davutoglu deliver a triumphant victory speech at AKP headquarters in Ankara.

For my report on Diyarbakir after the result became clear click here 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s gamble has paid off. His AKP doesn’t even have to find a coalition partner, although it doesn’t have a sufficiently large number of seats to change the constitution, as Erdogan would like, in order to transfer power from the prime minister to the president and, incidentally, let a number of AKP MPs and hangers-one off the hook in several corruption investigations.

The violence that has flared up with the end of peace talks with the PKK and attacks by Isis seems to have driven a substantial number of voters into the arms of the AKP, attracted by Erdogan’s tough-guy image and his increasingly nationalist and Islamist rhetoric. That would account for the MHP’s decline, the AKP has stolen its USP, while adding a dose of assertive Islamic identity. Maybe some HDP voters were demoralised or frightened by the revival of violence, although nobody indicated that was the case at the polling stations or on the street.

Erdogan and his acolytes waste no time in making the most of their triumph. The day after the vote police raid the premises of the weekly magazine Nokta, seizing all copies of the latest issue as it rolls off the presses.

The cover, which read “Monday, November 2: The Beginning of Turkey’s Civil War”, was deemed an incitement to crime.

A previous issue of Nokta was seized for insulting the president and making propaganda for terrorists because it published a montage of Erdogan taking a selfie in front of the coffin of a soldier killed fighting the PKK.

In the three months running up to the elections, according to media freedom campaigners, 21 journalists, three media houses and one printworks have been attacked by mobs, some of them including AKP activists, 61 people – 37 of them journalists – have been charged with insulting a public figure, 19 have been charged with insulting the president and 168 articles, 101 websites and 40 social media postings have been censored.

There can be little doubt that war and repression will continue in the south-east and that tolerance will not be the watchword when dealing with opposition throughout the country.

For all my reports for RFI on Turkey November 2015 election click here 

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At the martyrs’ cemetery – death and destruction in a Turkish military security zone in Kurd country

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On the day before Turkey’s 1 November election I and my colleagues visited a vast “security zone” where the Turkish army has been fighting PKK guerrillas since the end of recent peace talks … and for years before they started. We saw fields burnt by military operations, a cemetery whose mosque was destroyed by soldiers, met a young man who appeared to be a guerrilla and the mayor of a village accused of collaboration with the state.

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Faik Magar and his wife on their way to Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Dicle, 31 October 2015

I don’t really want to talk to the man on the donkey – I want to press on to the village where NGO activists in Diyarbakir are supposed to have arranged contacts for us – but it turns out he has plenty to say.

“Look around you!” he says, indicating a huge plane nestling between mountains. “You can see for yourselves. All the land you can see to your left and to your right has been burnt. That’s what they call a security zone! Everywhere you can see there were vines and all our vines have been burnt. Even the houses that were on this land.”

He’s called Faik and he’s on the way to Diyarbakir with his wife because she is ill. Although she’s the one who’s ill, he’s riding the donkey, we comment afterwards, although we ourselves neglected to ask her name.

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A house destroyed by firebombing at Arikli, Diyarbakir province Photo: Tony Cross

The fields around us are bare. A house nearby has been destroyed. This area several kilometres north of Diyrabakir city, has been declared a security zone by the Turkish army and in July helicopters firebombed the area, destroying crops and homes, as Faik points out.

Although he doesn’t volunteer the information straight away, the firebombing followed a battle with PKK fighters in the nearby mountains and, apparently, the guerrillas dig tunnels in which to shelter, as did the NLF during the Vietnam War.

As we talk a helicopter flies overhead. As experienced radio journalists, we point out microphones in the air to record the sound. Experienced as he is in life in a zone of interest to the Turkish military, Faik tells us not to, in case they think we’re pointing weapons at them.

We press on to our destination – Sise in Kurdish, Yolçati in Turkish – driving through fields and past the occasional building.

After a couple of wrong turns we find an isolated farmhouse. But where is Sise?

Ebru Ökmen, the French-language interpreter and fixeuse working with my colleague Nicolas Falez, phones our contacts. Turns out where there.

A man comes to greet us. He’s Zeynel, the farmer’s brother, and he’s on a visit from Izmit, where he has lived and worked since leaving the area many years ago. There was a lot more to Sise then, he tells us, but it emptied after the military launched air raids and military operations against the PKK in 1993.

So the area has long experience of combat. According to the rights activists who sent us here, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Turkish state to pay damages for the effects of its operations in the 90s.

“Only people have no other way to survive still live here,” Zeynel says.

Last night there were two drone strikes on the mountains, he tells us. “We weren’t frightened, we’re used to it.”

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Mohammed (L), Zeynel (R) and a bag of watermelons (C) Photo: Tony Cross

Zeynel’s brother; Mohammed, arrives, pushing a wheelbarrow full of watermelons – the local speciality – ready to be kept in the cellar for the winter.

Ten days ago the military bombed the mountains six times. Local people found the bodies of eight PKK fighters afterwards and took them to the “martyrs’ cemetery”, where local guerrillas are buried.

“Twenty-four hours after the aerial bombardment the army arrived by road and placed mines around the cemetery and set them off,” he says.

“They claimed their were munitions hidden under the graves but it’s not possible that there would be munitions hidden in a cemetery,” he goes on. “They did it because they {the people buried there] were PKK. If there were weapons or munitions hidden it would be in the mountains, not in a cemetery.”

The army has taken advantage of the PKK ceasefire to attack the area, says Mohammed. He advises us to visit the cemetery, saying that there could be fighters there.

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Pestil sucuk dries in the sun on Mohammed’s farm Photo: Tony Cross

Before we leave he shows us around the farm. Rows of what look like sausages are drying in the sun. It’s not pork but walnuts wrapped in dried grape pulp. The Turks call it pestil sucuk (fruit pulp sausage). I first came across it in Georgia, where it is called churchkhela. My interpreter, Tayfik, tells me that Armenian women often sell it in Diyarbakir, where it is more widely available than in Istanbul, so this is apparently a Persian-influenced or Caucasian recipe.

One of Mohammed’s sons is in Kobané, the Syrian town seized by Kurdish fighters from Isis, IS, Daesh or whatever you prefer to call it.

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The “martyrs’ cemetery” at Sise Photo: Tony Cross

The central part of the cemetery, where the graves are laid out in neat, white rows, is intact. But there is wreckage on three sides of it. A lorry has brought a portakabin that is being installed by a group of about 20 people.

They are relatives of the fighters buried here and the wreckage is where they were camped out to protect the site from the army, they tell us.

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The wreckage of shelters where relatives of the PKK fighters were staying at the cemetery Photo: Tony Cross

If we want to interview someone, we must wait for a “spokesman”.

He arrives a few minutes, later a short, quietly spoken but authoritative young man – he’s 22-years-old, he tells us later, adding that we can’t take his photograph and, at first, telling us not to record but relenting when we point out that this is for radio and that his voice will be dubbed by a translation.

He takes us through the graves to some more twisted masonry and metal – the ruins of the mosque, destroyed by the military who claimed it was an arms cache, he says.

A young woman joins us. She was present when the military arrived.

The relatives brandished the Koran and asked the troops how they could defile the cemetery if they were Muslims, the pair tell us. The soldiers responded by claiming that there were crosses on some of the graves and calling them Armenians, ie Christians.

“We were supposed to be offended but why should we be?” she asks.

Sensing that these two are more than just relatives of the deceased, I ask if the PKK ceasefire will continue after the election.

“That depends on the attitude of the AKP,” the young man replies. “If the AKP says it will continue to fight then obviously the PKK will defend itself. This is the policy of the presidential palace, not of the state. The people here are demanding peace. The mothers, whether they are the mothers of PKK fighters or soldiers, say that we must stop this war.”

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Place of death, Kobane – a grave in front of the ruins of the “martyrs’ cemetery” mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Some of the graves are freshly dug and awaiting headstones, presumably the fighters killed the other day are buried there. Others inform us that the place of death was Kobane.

To listen to my audio report from Sise for RFI click here.

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Men transport a solar panel at Tepebasi Photo: Tony Cross

A few kilometres away is Tepebasi, a village that overlooks a ravine whose rocky sides lead down to a reservoir made from a dam on the river Tigris.

A couple of men transport a solar panel on a donkey – what Lenin would have called  combined and uneven development – and a man with a rifle stands outside the mayor’s house. He’s Mehmet Bozkurt, and the mayor, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt, is his brother. The rifle appears to be for hunting, although the mayor, who soon arrives and invites us to sit in the sun outside his home, might need some protection.

Tepebasi is the home of the candidate for the ruling AKP in this election. Since the 1990s it has had poor relations with some neighbouring villages, whose inhabitants accused its people of being “village guardians”, a militia funded by the government and viewed as collaborators by the PKK and its supporters.

In the 1990s the PKK attacked the village and kidnapped some villagers for ransom, Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt tells us, as we eat figs and dried grape pulp from his garden and sip bitter Turkish tea.

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Tepebasi mayor Mehmet Yasar Bozkurt with one of his sons and his wife, whose name, again, I neglected to ask Photo: Tony Cross

The village receives government subsidies for the organic vines that produce the grape pulp but, despite the dam on its doorstep, sometimes suffers power cuts because the power goes to a nearby town first.

The mayor and his family are Zazas, a minority of a minority that speaks its own dialect of Kurdish. He has nine children – four boys and five girls – several but not all of them present as we speak, as is his wife, who hovers in the background as her husband speaks to us.

He won’t be voting AKP, he says. Not quite. It turns out that the AKP candidate’s uncle was squeezed out of the running and left the party to stand as an independent. He’ll be getting Mehmet Yasar’s vote, it appears.

Mehmet Yasar criticises both the government and the PKK for the breakdown of the ceasefire and presents a front of studied neutrality when discussing the conflict, citing a Kurdish proverb, “Keep your mouth shut in the day and the doors shut at night.”

To read my account for RFI of the visit to Sise and Tepbasi click here.

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The river Tigris in Dicle, Diyarbakir province, south-east Turkey Photo: Tony Cross

 

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Before the Paris attacks – IS’s dangerous liaisons in Turkey

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When I visited the devastated houses that were the scene of a Turkish police raid on hideouts of the Islamic State (IS) armed group it never crossed my mind that I would be visiting the scenes of IS attacks in Paris less than three weeks later. The Paris attacks cost at least 120 lives and have sparked a wave of sympathy across the world. IS has claimed more lives in Turkey – 135 in the Suruc and Ankara bombings, which appear to have been targeted because of their links to the Kurds, alone  – but, although those attacks received plenty of media coverage, there was not the same outpouring of grief worldwide. The story of the IS and the Turkish state is a complicated one, as I found on my visit to Diyarbakir, in the Kurdish-majority south east.

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The damage caused by a booby trap that killed two police officers and the police assault at the IS hideout in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir 29 October 2015

There’s a gaping hole where the house’s front door used to be. That’s where a booby trap went off, killing two police officers trying to enter and capture or kill the house’s occupants.

The windows are blown out, the interior is a charred shell, there are bullet holes in the walls and a hole in the garden where a jihadist detonated a suicide vest. The trunks of trees in front of the house are splintered and torn by shrapnel.

Seven IS fighters were killed and a significant haul of weapons and explosives seized in the this house and another nearby. They buildings in a residential area of the city served as an IS commando’s base in Diyarbakir.

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Police have done nothing to prevent access to the scene of the fighting Photo: Tony Cross

Although the raid was on Monday, the house still attracts the interest of a group of men and youths. There are no police present and the site had not been cordoned off, so kids and adults go in and clamber among the ruins, oblivious to the possibility that there might still be undiscovered explosives inside.

The police were not particularly diplomatic with Fatma, who live in the house next door, either. They told her and her family that they would fire on their house if they failed to leave the lights on before evacuating them and starting their assault.

Fatma didn’t have much to do with her young neighbours, their main contact being when they put up a tarpaulin in the garden and she asked them to take it down because it interfered with her family’s satellite TV reception.

“We didn’t expect Islamic State to be our neighbours!” she comments.

The pink house around the corner is in almost as bad a state of destruction and also excites the interest of neighbours, both adults and children.

Sinan, who is taking photos on his smartphone, lives in a block of flats over the road.

His family was woken be the fighting.

“Of course I was frightened,” he says. “My children woke up and they were frightened.”

Before the attack, the occupants, all young Kurdish men, gave lessons in religion to local people.

“I didn’t go and I didn’t send my children,” Sinan says.

To read my report of IS in Diyarbakir for RFI click here.

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Children explore the ruins of one of the houses raided by police in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

The government and the security forces insist they are taking the threat from IS seriously and are even issuing alarming reports of possible further attacks.

Police told the media today that a commando of 10 women, four of them foreign, is at large and planning suicide bombings. They are said to be part of the Dokumacilar group, to which those who were living in these also belonged.

Yesterday Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu slammed Selahattin Demirtas, the leader of the left-wing, pro-Kurd HDP, for accusing him of legitimising IS.

His office says that 285 IS suspects have been arrested in the first nine months of 2015.

But he quickly changed the subject to the Syrian Kurdish YPG, an armed group allied to the Turkish PKK that has proved the most effective force in fighting IS, most famously by recapturing the town of Kobane.

The military have bombed the YPG recently and Davutoglu says that is justified because they represent a threat to Turkish territory.

An indication that he and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are more worried about armed Kurds than armed Islamists came when Ankara agreed to join US-led air strikes on IS … and then proceeded to bomb PKK positions in northern Iraq, having broken off peace talks with the guerrillas following the inconclusive 7 June election.

The government is believed to be worried that the autonomous area, known as Rojava to the Kurds and established by the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD), could serve as an example to Kurds in Turkey, as, indeed, it has. Autonomous zones have been declared in parts of Diyarbakir itself, as well as in towns like Silvan, since the peace talks were broken off.

The HDP and other opposition parties accuse the government of more than sitting on the fence, however.

They claim that it has helped the armed Islamists in Syria – firstly the al-Qaida-linked al-Nusra front and then IS – party because a part of the electorate and membership of the ruling AKP sympathises with them ideologically and partly as a counter to the Kurds.

Evidence of the state’s complicity appears to have been brought to light in 2013 when a convoy heading for Syria was stopped and searched.

It was found to be carrying arms and agents of the secret services, the MIT.

The five prosecutors and one military commander responsible for stopping the convoy were rewarded for their vigilance by being charged with seeking to overthrow the government and revealing state security information.

A secrecy order has meant that their trial, which began earlier this month, is being held behind closed doors.

Kurdish activists believe that the state facilitated two bombings – one in Suruc in July that killed 33 young left-wingers and injured 104, the other at a peace rally in Ankara on 10 0ctober that killed 102 and injured 400 – for which IS has claimed responsibility.

“There are hundreds of cameras in Ankara. They knew there was going to be a demonstration. Why wasn’t there any protection?” asks HDP youth activist Cuneyt Cihan.

On the day of the Ankara bombing, after Erdogan called it an attack on Turkish unity and equated it to PKK attacks on Turkish police and soldiers, Demirtas came right out and accused the state of involvement.

“This attack is not targeting our state and national unity, it is perpetrated by the state against the people,” he said

Davutoglu is in town to officially open the airport – now we know why it’s operating although not exactly fully functional in all details – and hold an election rally.

“Turks and Kurds, brothers,” he has the crowd shout in a fine example of Erdogan’s conception of unity. “The separatists are traitors!”

When I came here in 2007, many Kurds found the AKP readier to listen to their discontents than the secular MHP and CHP, whose nationalist agenda had vigorously supported a dirty war in the south-east while in power.

The AKP had no Kemalist axe to grind and a certain amount of support among conservative Muslims in the region. And its supporters among the rising bourgeoisie of central Anatolia were keen to do trade with the European Union and eventually to join it and so ready to concede to concede to its criticisms of Turkey’s human rights record.

Two things appear to have changed.

Firstly, Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian, casting himself as the heir to the Ottomans, whose legacy in the field of minority rights leaves a little to be desired.

Secondly, ending the peace process seems to have been a calculated attempt to heighten a feeling of insecurity and rally the nation around a strong ruler – himself, in this case.

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AKP Diyarbakir regional councillor Nejla Uysan Photo: Tony Cross

That’s not an analysis that shared by AKP regional councillor Nejla Uysan when we meet her at the party’s regional office on Friday.

“The government and the state doesn’t support Daesh. Definitely not!” she declared. “This is a barbaric organisation and, as Muslims, how do you think we could support such an organisation.”

She accuses the PKK of breaking the ceasefire and claims that the “liberated zones” punished the local population.

But she surprises me by saying that she thinks her party should work with the HDP.

For my written and audio accounts of the AKP in Diyarbakir for RFI click here

“Why don’t you think (we) will not share?” she asks in response to my surprise. “We are living in the same city. We can share everything.”

Not the party line, so far as I know.

For an audio report on the AKP in the 2007 presidential election click here.

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Why did IS attack Paris?

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A woman pays tribute to victims at the Belle Equipe restaurant in Rue Charonne, 11th arrondissement Paris Photo: Tony Cross

The Islamic State (IS) armed group has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s bloody attacks in Beirut and Paris. Since I live in the Paris area, I’ll comment on the question many people are asking – why these attacks on the French capital?

  • The targets appear to have been chosen by people who knew Paris well. Two teams from “crusader” countries- France and Germany – were playing at the Stade de France, the statement said, and President François Hollande was present. The attackers did not manage to mix with the crowd, however, limiting deaths to the attackers and one bystander. “Hundreds of idolaters gathered in a festival of perversity” were at the Bataclan, according to the statement, and dozens paid the price.  The other targets were in areas full of bars and restaurants, where crowds were guaranteed and where the likely victims were guilty of the sin of enjoying life in ways not approved by fundamentalists of any stripe. The statement says there was an attack in the 18th arrondissement, which there wasn’t, so a member of the commando could still be at large. IS says that all its victims were “crusaders”, although it obviously can’t know their identities, whether they were customers of bars and restaurants, staff or passersby. Not does it know how many of the victims were Muslims, which some of them almost certainly were.
  • IS seems to be stepping up attacks abroad as it comes under pressure in Syria and Iraq, with the loss of Sinjar and air strikes on its positions. Shia were targeted in Beirut, presumably because of Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria, and one reason for targeting France was probably its recent decision to join air strikes on IS in Syria (one shouldn’t forget that the French army has been fighting jihadists in Mali and the Sahel for some time now and has intervened in Muslim-Christian violence in the Central African Republic). French leaders’ statements about “acts of war” might imply that the country’s military involvement will become more intense, possibly with ground troops being sent in. That might not displease IS, which wants a confrontation with “Rome” at Dabiq, to fulfil an “end-times” prophecy.
  • France’s interpretation of secularism, as represented by Charlie Hebdo and the the public reation to this year’s massacre there, as well as by measures by successive government, particularly the banning of Islamic headscarves in schools, angers fundamentalists but also alienates many Muslims, who are not tempted by violence or even Salafi-style rigour.
  • France has the largest Muslim population in Europe – although we’re not allowed to know its exact size due to France’s interpretation of secularism. A tiny minority is tempted by violent fundamentalism, partly for religious reasons, partly because of the social exclusion they have experienced in France.  The government estimates that more than 500 are fighting in IS’s ranks and has boast s of almost certainly killing some of them in air strikes. Others can’t get there, partly because of a clampdown on people wishing to go by the French authorities, leaving them available to murder at home. Only eight suicide-attackers were needed to commit Friday night’s carnage. More attacks are entirely possible.
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A TV repoter outside the Bataclan, where there was the heaviest death toll on Friday night Photo: Tony Cross

Update 17.45 Paris time

I’ve just visited the scenes of three of the attacks.

Despite the declaration of a state of emergency, police and military presence seems fairly restrained. There were far more TV crews that security forces members outside the Bataclan, although the scene was heavily cordoned off.

There and in the rue de Charonne, people are arriving with flowers to lay at the scene or lighting candles. Since the government has banned all public gatherings, there will be no Charlie Hebdo-style demonstration, for the moment at least, and the mood doesn’t seem to be at quite such a pitch – more shock, less indignation.

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“Death to the illiterate barbarians” this handwritten poster declared Photo: Tony Cross

A couple of shops in rue de Charonne have hung up French flags – one also has a piece of paper bearing the #PrayforParis hashtag, a no doubt well-intentioned but curious choice given that a fair proportion of the victims and their families undoubtedly don’t believe in God while the attackers invoked his name to perpetrate their murders.

So a certain amount of nationalism. The crowd at the Stade de France apparently sang the Marseillaise – but what do we sing about when we sing the Marseillaise?

Someone has stuck a rose into bullet holes in the front of Sushi Maki restaurant, next to La Belle Equipe. And, since hate engenders hate, a piece of paper bears the legend “Death to the illiterate barbarians”.

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Liberated areas, military repression and Kurdish politics in Diyarbakir before Turkey’s 2015 election

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Diyarbakir is the largest city in Kurdish-majority south-east Turkey. The region has seen the PKK’s guerrilla war and successive governments’ harshly repressive responses. I first visited the city during the 2007 presidential election and talked to political and rights activists who still had vivid memories of the dirty war, as well as the era when the Kurdish language and culture suffered severe discrimination. I returned in 2014, when a peace process was under way and the city seemed to be becoming a better place to live. Some of the improvements have lasted but this year the city has seen military repression of liberated zones and shootouts between police and the Islamic State armed group.

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Hasan Pasa Hani, Diyarbakir, a former caravanserai that now houses restaurants and coffee shops Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir, 28 October 2015

My work in Diyarbakir gets off to a slow start. I get up at 4.30am to catch the flight from Istanbul, only to find that it has been put back an hour and the airline hadn’t bothered to tell me. My SMS to my fixer, Tayfun, fails to go through, so he has been waiting for an hour when I arrive … not a good start

We land at Diyarbakir’s spanking new airport, which isn’t actually quite ready yet. No problems on the runway but when we go to hire a car they can’t give me a receipt because there is no electricity to run their printer.

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The café in Diyarbakir’s market area where I met Abdullah Demirbas and Kevin Miller Photo: Tony Cross

Once we start work we wait for ages in a charming courtyard café for Tayfun’s contact in the left-wing, pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to turn up. He is supposed to introduce me to the former mayor of this part of Diyarbakir, the historic centre, and that means even more waiting.

The café is playing distinctly unturkish music, accordions feature in some tracks, meaning that if I record an interview here listeners are liable to suspect I conducted it in Paris and am only pretending to be in south-east Turkey.

After chatting for a while it finally occurs that our contact would actually make quite a good interviewee.

He is a Kurdish-American who has a Turkish name but prefers to be known as Kevin Miller. He has served in the US military and is to stand for Congress, the first Kurd to do so, but has come to Turkey for the election and its aftermath.

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Kevin Miller with collaborators at the former Armenian house he is restoring Photo: Tony Cross

Kevin takes us to see a former Armenian house in the old city that he is restoring in order to establish a research institute. Concrete has been chipped off Diyarbakir’s dark basalt and lighter stone with Armenian inscriptions and traditional wood interiors are being constructed, although recent rainfall has done some damage.

Then we take a walk through Sur, Diyarbakir’s old city.

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A street in Sur where Kurdish youths dug trenches and erected barricades Photo: Tony Cross

A streak of rubble scars a narrow street that joins another one that is similarly disfigured.

This is where young Kurds dug trenches and erected barricades to keep police and other representatives of the Turkish state out of a two-kilometre-square “liberated area”, arming themselves with what weapons they could lay their hands on.

A Kurdish assembly was organised and sat in a historic building nearby.

Graffitied on the walls are the initials “PKK” for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party guerrilla movement that has been fighting first for a Kurdish state and later for autonomy since 1978 but also “YDG-H”, for the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement, which a PKK leader recently admitted has escaped PKK control.

The YDG-H seems to have taken seriously a change in the line of the PKK and its Syrian allies, the YKD, that has meant renouncing Maoist-influenced centralism and encouraging bottom-up “administrative autonomy” in defiance of the state, establishing self-administer areas as the Syrian Kurds have done in the region, known to the Kurds as Rojava, that they have liberated from the Islamic State armed group and Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The Turkish government responded forcefully.

Ten days ago it sent 4,500 special forces into Sur, deploying snipers and heavy weapons in the narrow streets and declaring a 24-hour curfew.

In five days of fighting 15 people are reported to have been killed and one wounded and dozens arrested.

The building where the assembly met is now a charred ruin, despite its Unesco-protected status.

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The former seat of the Kurdish autonomous area’s assembly after the military offensive Photo: Tony Cross

To read my account of my visit to Sur for RFI click here.

The government has used similar tactics, including the use of snipers who are alleged to have targeted civilians to enforce curfews, in the towns of Cizre, where 22 were killed, 21 of them civilians, and Silvan, parts of which are now reported to be in ruins.

We do finally get to meet the former mayor.

Abdullah Demirbas has been arrested three times, twice this year and once in 2009, and is late for the interview because he had to report to the police station.

He was in jail for eight months in 2009 and was finally released on health grounds. He spent two months in prison pending trial for “financing the PKK” earlier this year and was released after he suffered a stroke and a campaign for his release won the support of US Secretary of State John Kerry.

But he doesn’t know the reason for the latest one because it was declared a state secret.

About 1,000 HDP members and 18 mayors belonging to its municipal wing, the BDP, have been arrested in the government crackdown that followed the end of the peace process with the PKK.

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Former mayor of central Diyarbakir, Abdullah Demirbas Photo: Tony Cross

“The 7 June election result was a disaster for the government,” he comments. “They didn’t get what they wanted. Of course, there was a price to pay and the people have paid the price. It was the breaking of the ceasefire and the restarting of the military operation.”

Demirbas accuses the government of cheating when it agreed to join US-led airstrikes on IS because it also launched air strikes on PKK positions in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Anyway, Erdogan and his friends have aided and supported IS in the past, he says, and are terrified that the areas liberated by Kurdish fighters in Syria will inspire Turkey’s Kurds to emulate them.

“In Rojava the Syrian Kurdish people making democratic autonomy by themselves is not something that is wanted by this regime,” he says. “Because they don’t want this, everyone knows this regime is supporting [Al Qaeda affiliate] Al Nusra and IS. Many people are coming through Turkey from Europe and the rest of the world, everyone knows that they are joining this group. Despite the decision that they were going to bomb and make operations against IS with coalition forces, Turkey has attacked the PKK but not attacked IS.”

To read more of my interview with Abdullah Demirbas on RFI’s website, click here.

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Eyse Gokkan of the HDP-aligned women’s group KJA Photo: Tony Cross

Earlier we drove out of the city centre to meet two HDP activists, Cüneyt Aslam, a youth leader, and Eyse Gokkan, of the women’s group, KJA.

They, too, accused the government of complicity with IS, Gokkan stressing that the Islamists – from the AKP to Boko Haram in Nigeria – share an anti-women agenda.

“There are documents showing that the Daesh terror organisation is being supported by the Turkish government, that weapons are being sent to this organisation by the government,” saidAslan, referring to IS by the Arab acronym Daesh. “The government is making an environment for this group to expand and kill us.”

As we drive past one estate, I noticed Turkish flags draped on the sides of several blocks of flats, a bit of a surprise here.

These estates are occupied by police officers and their families, Miller explained.

More on my visit to Diyarbakir during Turkey’s October-November general election campaign to follow.

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