The “Other” Side:

A Sampling of Current Opinions about Leyla Zana drawn from a talk by the Prime Minister of Turkey

No matter how impartial reporters may try to be, their work is tempered by the circumstances of the time as well as their personal reasons for writing about a specific topic; therefore, it seemed important to hear and try to understand some of the other current opinions on Zana in order to more accurately portray her.

On Friday, January 30th, 2004, the Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, came to Boston as part of an effort to repair US-Turkey relations damaged by the politics surrounding the US-led war on Iraq; his talk on democracy in the Middle East at the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government drew crowds of Turkish-American immigrants, scholars and businessmen, the curious, and a small but vocal group of protesters. When interviewed, those present expressed a broad spectrum of opinions on Leyla Zana and her actions.

“She is a terrorist,” immediately replied Huyla, a Turkish attendee, upon being asked if she had heard of Zana. She then went on to passionately explain, with her male escort translating, that she knew for a fact that Leyla Zana is a supporter of the PKK; Zana’s [former] political party, the Social Democratic Populist Party, she claimed, is the part of the PKK under a different name. It was clear that Huyla had been strongly affected by the PKK’s terrorist activities; “any beautiful place, they destroy it,” she said, referring to the destruction of so many parks, hospitals, schools, and other public buildings by the PKK; she blamed the PKK for the Armenian genocide, and said that they didn’t even spare their own people from their terrorism, massacring thousands of Kurdish villagers who refused to join the PKK and attempting to frame the Turkish military for the atrocities. Terrorists like Leyla Zana, who [supposedly] urges separatism for the Kurds because of politics, deserve to be in jail, Huyla said; when asked about the controversial law [recently repealed] banning the speaking of Kurdish in public places and other such oppressive laws, she said that they were necessary to keep Turkey whole. The Kurdish people are Turkish people, after all, and while they don’t have their own country, they are now getting recognition and equal human rights.

In his speech, the eloquent Prime Minister Erdogan certainly seemed to agree with that last statement, and spoke of moving on from past mistakes and building a glorious future for a progressive Turkey, a theme that clearly resonated deeply with the majority of the audience. “I have to underline one thing,” he said; “You cannot serve humanity by itching these wounds and by trying to create animosity among people. In a world that we expect peace to be globalized, these are explosives that threaten peace.” He emphasized the unity of Turkey as necessary for a better future. Into such an atmosphere of unity for the good of all came Leyla Zana, with her tactics of civil disobedience to draw attention to and improve the human rights of Kurds.

Another Turkish attendee, who did not wish to give his name, completely disagreed with such actions of civil disobedience; he wasn’t interested in political disputes, he claimed, but if Leyla Zana wanted to change the law, she should do it legally by being elected and getting the constitution changed. 30% of the Turkish people's representatives are Kurdish; their voices are certainly being heard. Peace can only be gained if people obey all the written laws; otherwise there is only chaos. “She broke the law, and [therefore] was sued by the government and sent to jail.” According to him, it doesn’t matter whether or not the laws were just in such a case; “she took this as a violation of human rights,” and an insult, but wearing the headband was still against the law, as was speaking in Kurdish at the inauguration. He offered several analogies to the United States to better illustrate his point; for example, US senators would not suddenly start speaking in Spanish when taking their oaths at their inaugurations, because it is understood that it is neither the time nor the place for that, and people would not be able to understand what was being said if it wasn’t in English. There are always two sides of the story, he said, and one must wonder why people discriminate and make Leyla Zana out to be so special, when other Turks have been sued under the same grounds. Out of respect, Turks aren’t allowed to wear the Turkish flag on t-shirts or headbands, so why should Kurdish people be any different? And as for the idea of separatism, well, would Americans allow New Hampshire to suddenly secede from the US? What about the American Civil War? “It is the same in Turkey.”

The man also shared his opinion that the Kurdish people were partially responsible for the ‘so-called’ Armenian* genocide in 1914, since the Kurds, the Armenians, and the Turks killed and were killed alike by the thousands. Since then, he continued, the international community has been pulled into the issue, but they are often misinformed. He offered as an example those outside the building, protesting [in the bitter January cold] as he spoke, saying that most of them were probably about fifteen years old, and therefore talking about events that happened thirty-eight years before they were born. He questioned how well they did their research before jumping into complicated issues headfirst. When asked if there might be some sort of resolution to the so-called ‘Kurdish problem,’ he replied that Prime Minister Erdogan would be able to change things for the better.

Sima Baran, a Harvard undergraduate of Turkish dissent, said she understood the Turkish government’s position, and that the solution for the Kurds would lie in economic development. According to her, many Turkish-Americans do feel that the Kurds should be allowed more freedom; she then went on to talk about the significant role of religion and the effect of Iraq on the way the Turkish people treated their Kurdish neighbors. She did not have any opinion on Zana.

Two other people interviewed, Kate and her friend Eddie Manning, had never even heard of Zana before being asked, much like the rest of their fellow Americans; Eddie commented that the Kurds were in a “tough situation,” though both were unsure if the Kurds ought to have their own separate country; they were, however, adamant that the Kurds deserved to have equal rights, such as the right to legally speak their own language, and the right to retain their general culture and customs.

Outside the crowded building, multiple chants by about forty protesters, led by one Sardar Jajar, could be heard for several blocks:

“Free Kurdistan!”
“Free Leyla Zana!”
“Erdogan is another Saddam!”
“Hands off Kurdistan!”
“Stop genocide!”
“Stop bombing Kurdish villages!”
“Genocide of 1915, recognition will be seen!” and so forth.

Their signs were covered with similar slogans, on a variety of topics. While the protesters were happy to give out pro-Kurds, anti-Erdogan flyers and have people take pictures, the police acting as security for the event politely requested that the protesters not be interviewed because it blocked up the sidewalks. It is obvious from their chants and pro-Zana signs that the protesters are among those who think that Leyla Zana is a hero, and a victim of the 'unjust' Turkish courts.