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Understanding Martyr Funerals in Turkey

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Abstract

This paper investigates martyr funerals in Turkey and aspires to understand the ways in which these funerals are constructed as stages for the performance of Turkish nationalism. The rituals as well as the meanings attached to these funerals create national solidarity among state elites, military officials and general public which glorifies death rather than question it. Martyr funerals mobilize people around the feeling of a shared grief and serve as platforms for the public display of nationalist feelings. The notion of martyrdom occupies a significant place in Islam. The Arabic word for martyr is “shahid” (pl. shuhada) and in Qur’an it stands for the word “witness”. Martyrs are those who sacrifice their lives in order to demonstrate the depth of their belief in Allah and who, as a result, we’ll be taken to heaven. In the Turkish context, the term martyrdom has gained nationalist and patriotic connotations where the term indicates sacrificing one’s worldly life to his/her country. The narratives of the War of Independence, which ended with the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, praises martyrs and glorifies the notion of martyrdom and reminds each and every Turkish citizen that without the sacrifices of forefathers there would be no Turkey today. Martyrdom is a broad category which includes not only soldiers and police officers lost their lives in armed struggles but also civil servants (teachers, doctors, etc.) killed while they were on duty. It’s the funerals of Turkish soldiers killed in armed conflict with the Kurdish PKK that form the focus of this paper. Several actors, including parents, spouses, children, neighbors, and close relatives, high rank army officers, and state officials, attend these funerals. In addition to relatives and neighbors who try to comfort martyr’s family, a wider public composed of people who have nothing in common, except a shared notion of Turkishness, participate in the funerals. Death mobilizes these people and creates a form of solidarity among them. Martyr funerals turn into a public stage where nationalist feelings are displayed as people wave their Turkish flags, chant, curse and promise for revenge. This paper examines this social phenomenon by analyzing its rituals as well as the meanings attached to these funerals by those who participate in it. It pays attention to the narratives that circulate in the media, and the speeches made by the state elites and military officials. It also aspires to understand the ways in which these soldier funerals strengthen the nationalist as well as the militarist discourses regarding the Kurdish problem in Turkey.