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Turkey's Kurdish Party Looks to Religion to Boost Political Profile

After suffering defeat in last year's general election to the Islamic rooted AK party, Turkey's main Kurdish party is turning to religion in its battle to re-establish itself as the region's main political power. But there are concerns about the direction the movement is going. For VOA, Dorian Jones has this report from Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey.

At a public meeting of the Democratic Society Party or DTP, in Diyarbakir, leaders address their supporters.

Standing at their sides are religious elders. The retired Imams, while religiously conservative, are staunch supporters of Kurdish nationalism. But in last year's general election they didn't give their traditional support to the DTP. That lack of support coincided with a victory for the Islamic rooted AK party, which stood on a platform of Islamic solidarity. Head of Diyarbakir's religious elders, Zait Citiran, says the DTP had to be taught a lesson.

He said the DTP made a great mistake not understanding that 97 percent of Kurdish people are Muslim and have Islamic sensitivities and he says that is why they lost last year's general election. But he says the DTP mayors and members of parliament are now going to mosques to pray and they are inviting religious elders to their meetings. Citiran says he and the religious elders are now pleased to support the DTP.

But there are concerns about this embrace of Islam by political leaders.

Publisher and writer Kawa Nemir has devoted his life to the struggle for Kurdish rights both politically and culturally. He believes many of the gains of the last few decades of the Kurdish movement are at risk.

"We have a literary political movement of modernizing Kurdish society and modernizing Kurdish literature for the last 30 years," said Nemir. "There has been a guerrilla war , also there has been a legal movement, legal struggles, and at the beginning it was leftist, it was Marxist. There were some liberals, some villagers, some progressive people. Intellectuals were supporting that movement. Secularism was very important for the Kurdish movement. But now this movement is being more religious day by day. Fifty years ago it was conservative , but it had started to change but now there is a reverse."

The Friday sermon at the Olu Cami, Diyarbakir's main mosque, is a tirade of anti-Semitism particularly aimed at Israel. It says Jews are murderers of Palestinian children and are agents of the devil.

Kurdish nationalists are traditionally sympathetic to Israel because of its support for the semi autonomous Kurdish state in neighboring Northern Iraq.

The Friday sermon, according to head of the DTP in Diyarbakir, Nectar Atalay, is just another example of the Turkish state and the ruling Justice and Development Party, using religion to undermine his party's support.

He says they are always trying to use religion against the DTP, saying the DTP is an atheist party. He says they especially attack the DTP for the prominent role of woman in the DTP movement and that many of the women don't wear head scarves. Atalay says the DTP is now being more successful in showing the people that it is a party of faithful people that respects Islam.

Last March, tens of thousands of people attended a meeting to celebrate the birth of Mohammed. It was organized by supporters of the DTP in the neighboring city of Batman. The increasing embrace with Islam, is causing particular concern among woman.

The DTP has a strong secular tradition and commitment to woman's rights. It has a 45 percent quota for positions for women in the party.

Sîlan Eser, is a popular singer in Diyarbakir and a leading official in the DTP. She is the modern face of the party. Eser says while she understands the motives behind the party moving towards Islam, she thinks it is a dangerous game.

Eser says the recent move toward Islam by the DTP does not bode well for women in the party. Up until now, she says, the DTP movement has been very positive for women and has always challenged conservatism in the region.

She says that's why women make up the majority of the party activists. Eser says these women will not allow Islamic ideals to become too powerful in the party and, she says, women will protect all the achievements they have won.

Supporters of the party's stance towards religion are arguing it is a question of fighting fire with fire. But critics are warning that people who play with fire invariably end up with burnt fingers. For the Kurdish movement it could well be the women who suffer first.