Small is beautiful in Turkey

Why the arrest and imprisonment of a former mayor is a matter of importance.

Abdullah Demirbas helped organise the rebuilding of an Armenian Church in the Diyarbakir, writes Dabashi [Julia Buzaud/flickr]

As the grand masters of the world, presidents Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping chief among them, were busy pontificating, lecturing, strategising and commanding the chaos of our world into yet another fictional order, far from New York, a young Kurdish idealist was suffering in the dungeons of the Turkish state.

Who is Abdullah Demirbas and why does his fate matter?

According to reports, “On August 9, Abdullah Demirbas, the former mayor of the Sur municipality in Diyarbakir, was arrested by Turkish authorities … [and] a list of charges were filed against him.”

Before his arrest and incarceration, Demirbas was the mayor of the Sur municipality in Turkey – and in that capacity, he was no stranger to Turkish authorities’ displeasure with his politics and policies.

An unusual mayor

Witness – Vendetta Song

As a mayor, he had initiated projects to bring his city together, heal its wounds, alleviate its despairs, and brighten its hopes.

He helped organise the rebuilding of an Armenian Church in the city, and on the occasion of the re-opening of the church, he addressed the Armenians who had gathered there: “Welcome, my brothers and sisters! We are very glad to see you in your own country – your own city!”

Mayor Demirbas went much further than that; he did what no other Turkish official has dared to: “He presided over the official inauguration of the Monument of Common Conscience on September 12, 2013, that was erected in Diyarbakir. During those ceremonies, in the name of the Kurdish people, he apologised for the atrocities committed against the Armenians and Assyrians. While visiting Providence [in the US state of Rhode Island], in 2013, he addressed the Armenian community at St Vartanantz Church, and laid flowers at the Armenian Genocide Monument there.”

So much tolerance, patience, understanding, and grace are unbecoming to this world.


by ”Abdullah

dependent on it. Politicians failing to act or to take a stand will be complicit in the death of our children. The children are our future. Where will be if we continue on the current path?”]

But this is not all Demirbas did. According to a profile done on him by the New York Times back in 2008, “Tucked among a cluster of alleyways in his district, several ancient structures remind visitors of the Armenians, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Jews and other groups who once populated a neighbourhood that is still known locally as the infidel quarter. Demirbas … has drafted a proposal to undertake a major renovation of the area and its monuments.”

Most unforgivable in the eyes of the Turkish authorities, however, was: “For printing a children’s book and tourist brochures in Kurdish,” according to the same profile, “Demirbas was accused of misusing municipal resources. For giving a blessing in Kurdish while officiating at a wedding ceremony, he was accused of misusing his position … and for proposing that his district should employ Kurdish-speaking phone operators and print public-health pamphlets in Kurdish, he was accused … of aiding a terrorist organisation.”

All of these and similar projects were based, as he describes in this interview, on a study he had done on the demographic composition of his city upon becoming mayor.

The Turkish authorities would tolerate no such vision of Sur, or by extension, their homeland, against all the historical evidence that Turkey has always been the proud domain of a deeply and thoroughly cosmopolitan culture. As punishment for these deeds, Demirbas was summarily arrested and jailed between 2009 and 2011.

Wounded cosmopolitanism

As of late 2011, Turkish newspapers were reporting that he was “suffering from a serious disease and was advised by doctors to receive medical care abroad.”

The fate of Mayor Demirbas throughout his political career has oscillated between official persecution by Turkish authorities and widespread support and enthusiastic endorsement of his policies by his own constituency.

He restores Jewish and Armenian buildings, and he publishes books in languages his constituency can actually read to their children. He believes his city manuals of instructions about safety and security of his consistent must be in languages they understand. The plague of Turkish (as Arab, Persian, or Hindu) ethnic nationalism cannot stomach that.

Also read: Kurdish nationalism will shape the region’s future

In an interview back in 2011, Demirbas had said: “At the end of the day, at the end of this life, we are all mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and children. It is time we realise that so that we can stop seeing each other as the enemy, for the well-being of us all [is] dependent on it. Politicians failing to act or to take a stand will be complicit in the death of our children. The children are our future. Where will be if we continue on the current path?”

In his book, Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered (1973), the eminent British economist Ernst Friedrich Schumacher was among the first economists who warned the world about the unsustainability of the globalised capitalist economy, and argued persuasively for smaller scale economies in which measures of justice and equanimity can be more immediately measured, observed, and implemented.


As the world around him is falling into pieces by precisely the grand strategists of grand bargains negotiated through the broad brushed, machismo of world leaders, quietly in the dungeons of Turkey, one visionary mayor – suffering from his own poor health and others’ ignorance and apathy – marks the way out of this mess: just like the rest of our humanity is at the mercy of one brand of imperial hubris or another. For him too “small is beautiful”, and he practises his politics “as if people mattered”.

Demirbas is not an ethnic separatist. He is a cosmopolitan Kurd. In a detailed profile on him and his vision of his homeland in the New Yorker, we read: “Diyarbakir became a city of wounded cosmopolitanism, its minorities – Christians, Jews, Yazidis – greatly diminished.”

Demirbas is that wounded cosmopolitanism, suffering in the dungeons of Turkey very much the same way our larger dreams of this world are ailing under the boots and bombs of world conquerors left and right, delayed and deferred on the bloody battlefields, presided over now by one warlord or another.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.