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Destruction of the Ziya Gökalp Museum (image via Ömer Çelik/Twitter)

When Turkey held its armed forces — and its citizen volunteers — back from intervening in the Islamic State’s assault on the Kurdish town of Kobani in Syria in early October, protests erupted. Among other places, on October 7, Varto, Muş Province — which was the stage for Christopher de Bellaigue’s history of the past century of conflict in the region — endured troubles yet again, as did Diyarbakır, Siirt, and Yüksekova (in Hakkari Province).

In a series of tweets, the Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ömer Çelik (@omerrcelik), insinuated that Kurdish nationalist demonstrators had burned a string of historic buildings in those towns and cities. But investigation into the targets suggests that events were murkier than supposed.


During the unrest, in which at least 34 people were killed, Zaman stated that “3,000 workplaces, 260 public buildings, 190 banks, 80 political party buildings, 556 vehicles and 30 private homes and associations were burned.”

Çelik stated that the ground floor of the Province Public Library in Siirt was filled with books, computers, and furniture for kindling and “burned with Molotov cocktails“; the Mordem Cultural Centre in Varto was left “unusable“; and the Ziya Gökalp Museum in Diyarbakır was “completely destroyed,” while “many books were burned” and 20 historic artifacts were “stolen from the museum store.”

Barbarians … attacked libraries, museums and books … The barbarians, incited by those who call themselves ‘politicians,’ burned the children’s library. They destroyed the cultural centre.” In addition, the Public Education Centre and the Evening Art School in Siirt and the Youth and Study Centre in Yüksekova were burned. Çelik insinuated that Kurdish nationalist activists were responsible.

Yet, the same week, a disparate range of violent groups variously burned statues of the secularist founder of the Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, offices of the Islamist-rooted governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), offices of the Kurdish opposition Democratic Regions Party (DBP) — which is still known by its old name, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) — offices of the minority opposition People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and offices of the Sunni Islamist Free Cause Party (Hür Dava). While circumstantial, the evidence does not point solely to Kurdish resistance to Islamic State violence and outrage at Turkish state inaction.

Ziya Gökalp Museum

A sociologist in the late Ottoman period and the very beginning of the republican period, Mehmed Ziya Gökalp was a complicated figure. Kurdish by origin, anti-Ottomanist and anti-Islamist, Gökalp also identified as Turkish and supported the Turkification of minorities. So, Kurdish nationalists may have burned it as a symbol of Turkification.

Still, since at least some within the governing AKP prefer Hüda Par to the anti-IS protesters, and since Hüda Par clashed with anti-IS dissidents, some suspect that Hüda Par burned the Ziya Gökalp Museum, which would have destroyed a symbol of anti-Islamism and discredited the dissidents.

Mordem Cultural Centre

At least one of Çelik’s examples, the Mordem Cultural Centre (Mordem Kültür Merkezi (MKM)) in Varto, could not have been imagined as a symbol of either Turkish nationalism or Islamism. It was valued as a site of Kurdish culture and a step towards cultural autonomy. It offered Kurdish (Kurmanji and Zazaki) language classes, and hosted cultural events through which the Kurdish community hoped to build a democratic culture.

The MKM was connected with the BDP and the HDP. It actively supported the Kurdish community cause of democratic autonomy. At the time, Çelik offered no reason why Kurdish autonomists or Turkish anarchists would have burned the MKM and, three weeks on, no reason has been presented.

In all likelihood, contrary to the official narrative, these events were as messy as the maelstrom of violence in which they took place, but only an investigation that recognizes all of the perpetrators and all of the victims will stand a chance of uncovering the truth.

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Sam Hardy

Sam Hardy is an archaeologist who researches the illicit trade in antiquities, the destruction of cultural property, and cultural heritage labour at times of crisis and conflict. He teaches in Rome and...