Death of Grup Yorum singer Helin Bolek

Against the death cult

Activist and musician Helin Bolek, member of the popular group Grup Yorum, died at the beginning of April after nearly nine months on hunger strike. She fell victim both to oppression at the hands of the Turkish state and a hostile cult of martyrdom present on the Turkish and Kurdish left, argues Tayfun Guttstadt

As in much of the rest of the world, the 1960s and 70s saw the emergence of a powerful youth movement in Turkey, organised primarily around socialist and communist groups. These revolutionary movements would shape Turkey and its politics of the 1970s and 80s.

Millions took to the streets beneath red banners bearing various slogans to demand that humanity be liberated from capitalism. The aim was revolution, even if it cost lives – or so the motto went.

Formed in 1985 in fury at the violence and injustice of the coup regime, the music group Grup Yorum provided the soundtrack to this approach to life. Their simple, succinct melodies, often inspired by Anatolian folk music but Europeanised in terms of instrumentals and aesthetics, and their concise messages went straight to the hearts (and ears) of their listeners. Morale-boosting slogans, condemnation of ubiquitous injustice, romantic resistance hymns and calls to join the fight were central to their sound.

The Turkish state had little understanding for the revolutionary movement generally and little tolerance for Grup Yorum themselves. Countless people were imprisoned, tortured, or disappeared without a trace, primarily during the post-coup regime, but during other periods, too. These included members of Grup Yorum.

A soundtrack of hope

A number of revolutionaries, of both Turkish and Kurdish heritage, as well as Sunnis and Alevis went into exile, mostly to Europe. Here, too, Grup Yorum’s songs remained an undisputed soundtrack of hope, expressions of longing both for their home country and a better world to come, and they also included drinking songs for gatherings in smoky club rooms. Numerous amateur singers would cover Grup Yorum’s songs at solidarity concerts and vigils on sparsely furnished stages, the audience always singing along, cheering with gratitude.

Grup Yorum concert held in Istanbul on 28.06.2015 (photo: Imago/Seskim Photo)
Revolutionary pathos, anthems of resistance, and calls to fight against capitalism and imperialism: the ideological scope of those influenced by Grup Yorum is surprising. This was partly due to the group’s swift response, reacting to current events with new songs, as well the simple, romantic world conjured up by their lyrics

For a long time, it was possible to be imprisoned in Turkey simply for listening to Grup Yorum’s songs, which were something of a call to enlist in the underground struggle. Large numbers of school-age children and students were prosecuted when their inquisitive teachers found the cassettes, argued to be a danger to the public, in their possession. Parents were concerned to hear the forbidden tunes emanating from the bedrooms of their previously innocent-seeming children. Songs praising members of the DHKP-C, which regularly carried out attacks on the military and police and which remains banned today, were of particular concern.

Between utopia and populism

Since Turkish nationalists also viewed themselves as being part of a propagandised battle of the people against imperialism, Grup Yorum’s decision to sing in a number of Turkey’s minority languages (primarily Kurdish, Zazaki and Laz) made them enemies of the nationalist Left too.

The ideological scope of those influenced by Grup Yorum is surprising. This was partly due to the group’s swift response, reacting to current events (such as the arson attack in Sivas in 1993) with new songs, as well the simple, romantic world conjured up by their lyrics. The common struggle of oppressed peoples against capitalism and imperialism is a motif which unites people of a range of political convictions in Turkey.

2010 provided an opportunity to observe the actual size of Grup Yorum’s audience. These were the most liberal years of the Republic, with the then relatively new AKP making unfathomed freedoms possible in their fight against the old establishment. Grup Yorum performed in the Besiktas stadium in one of the most central locations in Istanbul alongside numerous prominent guest musicians; it was the best-selling concert in Turkey’s history. Only free concerts have enjoyed higher numbers of attendees. The group’s free concerts also saw hundreds of thousands of attendees, with one in Izmir in 2015 numbering over a million.

The motto they employed for their Izmir concert also revealed something about the group’s tendency towards a populism capable of slipping seamlessly into glorified nationalism. The concert was held in the name of "an independent Turkey" – normally postulated by nationalists who believe that Turkey is controlled by Washington or Wall Street and view ‘the true sovereignty of the people’ as necessary to do away with all of society’s problems and contradictions. The "war of liberation" waged under Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from 1919-23 was also intended to create an independent Turkey, but was in fact a project which sought the Turkification of Anatolia.

This populism is not the only problem with the group’s ideological foundations. In common with many other extreme ideological currents in the Middle East, they indulge in a cult of martyrdom which regularly demands tragic victims and will go on to demand more if these ideals continue to be preached to a youth seeking a way out of real or perceived powerlessness, as well as clear answers for its understandable anger at the miserable circumstances the world finds itself in.

Stop the death cult!

This cult of martyrdom unites Islamists and the PKK, Turkish nationalists and revolutionary socialists – despite all other, often crucial differences. Death is stylised not as an avoidable evil, but as the highest level of honourable struggle.

From jihadists, who hope to blow themselves straight to paradise, to the call "Sehid Namirin" (‘Martyrs are immortal!’) heard at Kurdish demonstrations, to the Turkish nationalists who wave their flags, declaring that the martyrs will never die and the fatherland will never be divided (the slogan generally bandied about following the deaths of soldiers killed fighting the PKK declares "Sehitler Olmez, Vatan Bolunmez"), there is less of a gulf between these groups than they might realise.

Right-wing MHP activists give the Grey Wolf salute (photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Across ideological boundaries: the cult of martyrdom unites Islamists and the PKK, Turkish nationalists and revolutionary socialists – despite all other, often crucial differences. Death is stylised not as an avoidable evil, but as the highest level of honourable struggle

And just as those grieving fallen soldiers must ask themselves whether the Turkish nationalism and militarism that they hold dear might be just as much to blame for the deaths of these fresh-faced young men who die in the mountains of southern Anatolia, the Turkish and Kurdish Left must also question their own cult of martyrdom.

Helin Bolek, the activist and band member of Grup Yorum who recently achieved such tragic notoriety, is being hailed as a heroine in these circles, held up as a paragon of steadfastness in the face of injustice. Turkish fascism is to blame.

And it’s true: Bolek faced great injustice. In 2016, the Kurdish singer and other musicians were arrested and imprisoned on charges of ‘promoting terrorist propaganda’. The cultural centre where she was involved was shut down and a ban was imposed on the group’s performances.

Dying to strike

In order to protest the charges, the conditions in prison, all-round oppression and the ban on the group’s performances, Bolek and one of her colleagues embarked upon a hunger strike on 17 May 2019. This unspeakable form of protest – together with self-immolation – is something of a tradition for some on the Turkish and Kurdish left, though to date it has almost never helped them to achieve their aims. And even if it had, this deadly self-sacrifice would still be worthy of condemnation – be it for a higher cause, for the fatherland or for a "Fuhrer".

A few weeks before her death, Helin Bolek and her colleague were taken into hospital by state authorities, but they refused any medical aid. Helin Bolek has been praised by many for this gruesome act of suicide – in Turkey, Northern Iraq, Iran and Germany too. Criticism of this cult of death and rigid ideology has been limited, evident only from the numerous announcements that lacked any hint of sympathy.

Every death is one too many. The Turkish and Kurdish left must stop sending their members to the slaughter like soldiers in the military. Now is the time to bring the fight for freedom and justice back to what matters most: life.

Tayfun Guttstadt

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu

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