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How Martin Luther King Jr.’s Inspiring Words Resonate with a Speech from the Edirne Prison in Turkey

When listening the 10 minutes speech of Kurdish Opposition Party (HDP) leader Selahattin Demirtas, which was prerecorded from the prison in Edirne province aired on Sunday by state owned television channel called TRT (Turkish Radio and Television cooperation), I thought it might have some similarities with famous speeches of “I have a dream” or “letters from the Birmingham prisons” by Martin Luther King (MLK hereinafter).

Selahattin Demirtas, 45 years old, charming and magnetic Kurdish politician, former co-leader of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) runs for the presidential candidate for upcoming elections. He was reluctant to run but his party and vast majority of the Kurdish population convinced him by sending him messages and letters.

A Speech from Edirne Prison

From the Birmingham jail, in which MLK was imprisoned because he participated in non-violent demonstrations against segregation, he wrote a lengthy letter to the religious leaders who thought Luther incites violent demonstrations. ‘I have a dream’ speech is the one of the famous speeches in 1963 which raised awareness of inequality, racism and hatred in America.

Comparing with strong statements and messages in both, “I have a dream” and ‘Letters from Birmingham’, I found many commonalities with “ Edirne Prison speech of Mr. Demirtas.” I don’t intend to compare “Negro” as Martin Luther referred African Americans in his speech with “Kurdo” identity which wanders in Demirtas mind but as Luther said “Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The urge for freedom will eventually come” Demirtas reaffirms that he would use the elections as a moral and just means to overcome the crisis Turkey has. MLK himself consistently preached about the “Nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”

Both underlines that oppressed people has no ethnic, religions, and race and can’t be confined to any geography such as Birmingham and Edirne are not really far away from each other to resonate the world.

Both are the men of their people. Even though they are from different time of period, circumstances and countries, the vision they both have are comparable in many ways. Examples below offers a comparable synthesis of quotations of MLK’s letter from the Birmingham jail and I have a dream with Demirtas’s Speech from Edirne Prison.

Resistance through non-violent means

Martin Luther Junior believed in resistance by means of non-violent demonstration against “the evil system of segregation”, Demirtas believes in elections and power of people to vote against “the fear of atmosphere” in which no one can feel safe.

In Demirtas speech, one can understand Turkey’s current political slopes, designed courts, injustice system, lack of rule of law and degrading human values. The speech that will occupy the literature as “Demirtas prison speech” in many ways was historical and shows the brutal political environment in Turkey. He taught on states’ perception towards minorities, towards human rights violations and the importance of electoral and parliamentary system and the results and effects of a one man rule.

“I have a dream” demonstration as Luther rightfully described “going down in to history as a greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nations”. Demirtas speech will also go down in the history as an unusual black spot in the history of Turkish politics.

Demirtash and MLK both tell us why they are in the jail with their own words. One writes in 1963’s, the other utter it in 2018. Both should be considered as “a concern of legitimate” to address to their “oppressed people” and against the oppressors what Martin Luther described “disturbers of the peace.” Both motivated their people as MLK hails them” sublime courage”, Demirtas defined the “ bright future of the Turkey.”

They both had to greet and welcome their friends from the prison, one from the Birmingham, the other from Edirne prisons.
Demirtash said, “I have to address to you from the prison in Edirne due to the injustice.”

Similarly Martin Luther “Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”

Demirtas meant “White Turks” when referring to AKP, as in Luther’s Birmingham letter, he many times said he is disappointed with “Moderate whites.” Many of the moderate and liberal Turks for Demirtas are blind, deaf and dumb to the injustice and oppression. As MLK concluded them as, “I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people”

In his 10 minutes bold and daredevil speech, Demirtas called the ruling party- “handful of bullies” to Turkey “on the edge of the cliff,” like Luther defining the Mississippi, “a sweltering of injustice and “with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification.”

Demirtas said “due to the injustice, I have to address you from the prison and this upcoming election campaign is going be a shameful episode in our Turkey’s political history” like the injustice of segregation politics in Alabama and Mississippi.
The only reason I am here is that AKP is afraid of me.

“I have been held here for more than 20 months lawlessly,” he said. “I was put in prison because of the political pressure and there is no impartial judicial process for my trial applied.” The only reason I am here is that AKP is afraid of me.”

“I am innocent, the only thing they find to imprison me were a couple of my words in my speech as most of you have listened, there is nothing but AKP is afraid of me.” I will be soon acquittal from all accusations, as long as the jurisdiction won’t heed to ruling party but to the rule of law.”

‘Since I am not convicted of any crimes, prisoning me is a slight violation of the constitution which aims to change the public perception about me.’

But remember that he said and quoted from Seyid Riza who said “I hadn’t coped with your deceptions and machinations which grieved me but I had never obeyed you, so that grieved you.”

Demirtas said, he will also deal with their lies.

Seyit Riza was a Kurdish political and religious leader of Zaza origin. He rebelled against the state oppressing Kurdish population in Dersim also known Dersim Rebellion in 1937. He probably said this statement before he was hanged up. Demirtas must have influenced by his disobedience to the states assimilations and oppression of Kurdish people. Seyit Reza is seen as a hero and symbol of courageous by many Kurdish youth today. He is buried in the middle of nowhere as its grave still unknown today.

Dersim is known a place of brutality of the state in Turkey that well nuanced in MLK justice prescription “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Demirtas states that Erdogan, using states funds, carries out a matchless smear campaign against him.

“They tied me up here and rallying around curbing the truth about me to public. Because they don’t want to lose the power, extravagant, and luxurious life, AKP doesn’t hold back openly slandering and vilifying me.”

He said. “I have hard times to understand those who lost their morality and conscience. They think they are qualified to run the country.”

As MLK said, “in the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not “seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.”

“If I was the only one who face this bullying and injustice, I would not see any point talking about myself but each of you every day experiences this injustice and oppression or witness what is going with others you are victim of cruelty.”

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere

Luther knew that the injustice is a snowball. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” As Demirtas put forwards the brazen tyrannical actions will arrive at the every door and everyone will eventually taste it. “I hear and see that your life is turning into tragedy” the tragedy will be culminated in inexplicable numbers “if you vote for a single man” he said.

“There is fear, hopeless and despair to be falling on the most people. There is a rampant alarming of polarization, separations and tensions.”

Erdogan artfully and cunningly categorized people in to political camps to gain more. Martin Luther would say to him, “never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.”

Demirtas well-articulated the consequences of this polarizations of Erdogan. “Unlike Martin Luther’s outside agitator,” Erdogan is the “inside agitator.”

“Neighbors are being afraid and suspicious of their neighbors, brothers are being afraid and suspicious of their brothers” beside this, unemployment, poverty, inflations and irregular in currency make life unlivable.”

“While AKP leads their luxurious life happily in palaces, mansions and villas, millions are deprived of basic need such bread,” sounds like when MLK pained the picture of excruciating pain of many people in Alabama and said “society must protect the robbed and punish the robber,” through the just law he depicts.

“For their personal interests, they bless the death inside and outside with their warmongering politics and risking our children.”

“Of course, elections are crucial decision process in democratic system, the vote you cast will elect your representative to run the country and making juridical laws. In the decision we take is not for today but it is for our tomorrow, children and grandchildren.”

“As our nation is going toward an important intersection, you will decide which direction it will choose.” He warned people not to elect AKP, if they do as an implicit endorsement to injustice and face a mire consequences “with 81 million people.”

Demirtas said, “If that one man is chosen, he pinpointed what Turkey will become a country of a one man rule. He significantly underlines the separation of powers’ functions will basically be paralyzed and jeopardized.”

“He said, “the destiny of the nation will be between two lips of a single man,” referring Erdogan.

The destiny in MLK words, “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.” Literally, Demirtas lamented what awaits us is in Luther words, “whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Thus, Demirtas begs people to vote, otherwise absent vote will be in favor of Erdogan regime. He doesn’t only call his party constituents or grassroots team but send a clear message to AKP followers as well, believing in the fundamental right of the people, “we know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.”

Demirtas sees the way out from the gridlock through the election, he called out every citizen should go to vote. He said, he is calling out especially young and women to take care of the ballots and vote, because of them he announced his candidacy and trust them wholeheartedly.

By the time Erdogan again would be elected, Demirtas counts several issues that Turkey might face. ‘These are not my forecasts or predicts but for several years, we have been experiencing the injustice in daily basis. The important powers in branch of legislatures, executive and judiciary will be exclusively controlled and there will be no institution left to monitor and implement the check and balance mechanism.”

“While the rest of the world will enjoy the democracy, Turkey will be isolated in an archaic system of government. And he name the one man rule government as “a government of repressive, autocratic and undemocratic.”

“The all achievements of the parliamentary system will be demolished in a single night and there will be no institution left to apply when you face injustice and persecutions.”

“When you have a complaint or a problem, there will be no court or any governmental institution to apply and give you the response. Everything will be designed to a single man’s desires and interests.”

“You will feel suffocating, suffering breathing in despotic and autocratic regime. What we have been going through is a “teaser” of a one man regime. However the perilous part of the movie has not been started yet.”

He is hopeful for the future, suffering from the same. “We are the victim of broken promises,” a reality that disappointed Martin Luther as well. Demirtas takes refuge in people of faith.

“You are the guarantee of the bright future of Turkey, as long as you don’t give into the threats and injustices” for motivation people he warns saying. As Martin Luther was full of hope, “I have no despair about the future. I have no fear about the outcome of our struggle in Birmingham, even if our motives are presently misunderstood. We will reach the goal of freedom in Birmingham and all over the nation, because the goal of America is freedom.”

“Do not be discouraged that AKP’s power, which uses all mechanism of the state, media and bureaucracy, still have empty rallying ground. It is not hard to respond them democratically which, demonize people with humiliations and think they can easily bring the people to their knees.” He urges public to take heed from his speech because he says:

“We want democracy and freedom.” ‘Your vote will decide whether you will have an atmosphere of fear or not on 24 of July, I don’t doubt that your decision will be on the par with democracy and freedom” voicing out his strong belief in the electoral system.’

Demirtas reaffirms that he is going to use the elections as a moral and just means to overcome the crisis Turkey has. MLK himself consistently preached about the “non-violent demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek.”
In his closing minutes, Demirtas said. I am feeling well if you are good out there, and I am free here if you are free out there. He further challenged Erdogan saying, ‘Not 20 months, even though they keep me her for 20 years, I will still not give in to the oppression. I am going to resist them for you here, for the peace, democracy and freedom and never will obey them.’

‘Those who think they can frighten us with prison, cell or death are scared of their own shadow. Let’s leave them to their fears.’

“We are going to run to the brightest sun hand in hand.” Demirtas says, “we are the people.”

Demirtas says, “we are Kurdish, Turkish, male and female, Alevies and Sunni, beyond these “We are human being”. He finishes his speech by recalling the oppressed figures such as religious leaders, poets and activists in a poetic way. With the exact same message, Martin Luther King J. said, “in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Demirtas concludes his remarks with, “we are going to ride out the storm audaciously for our nation and future of our children, we will not obey them who threaten us with capital punishment”, don’t vote for the dark, fear and nightmares but vote for a chance to the bright, hope, tranquility, security and peace.
“Let us not wallow in the valley of the despair” as MLK said, “we can’t turn back.” “We are not a single man, there are plenty of us and we will not be afraid of a one man.”

Demirtas, Selahattin “Speech from Edirne Prison” Turkish Radio and Television Cooperation 18 June, 2018.
King, Martin L., Jr. “I Have a Dream.” Speech. Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D. C. 28 Aug. 1963.
King, Martin, L, Jr. “ Letter from Birmingham Jail” Aug, 1963.

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Abdulmelik Alkan
Abdulmelik Alkan
Abdulmelik Alkan is a doctoral researcher focusing on Foreign Policy Analysis, South Caucus, diaspora and ethnic minorities.
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