Turkey's Anti-War Diva

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Bulent Ersoy

Better known for her tabloid love affairs, plastic surgery and husky voice, transsexual Turkish diva Bulent Ersoy makes the unlikeliest political activist. Yet she has caused a storm of outrage by becoming the only public personality to speak out against Turkey's invasion of northern Iraq. So pervasive is the nationalist climate that Ersoy has been vilified for declaring — on a national TV equivalent of American Idol, where she is a judge — that if she had a son, she would not have sent him to fight this war. She is now under investigation for being "anti-military".

Ersoy is widely popular, but the response to her declaration has been bellicose. Turkey's TV watchdog said it has been inundated with calls protesting Ersoy's comments. Officials at the Star TV channel are said to be contemplating dropping her as a judge on the show. An Istanbul prosecutor has begun an investigation into her remarks on the grounds that they could put people off military service, compulsory for men over the age of 18. Many of those killed in Iraq have been conscripts. (This is not the first time Ersoy has been on the wrong side of the military: she was banned from performing for several years following a military coup in 1980.)

When she delivered her remarks on the air, Ersoy immediately got into a fight with a fellow celebrity judge, the singer Ebru Gündes, who countered that were she to have a son, she would have no hesitation in having him "fight like a lion." "Martyrs killed in action do not die, the country will never be divided," she said. Ersoy retorted that there was no point taking refuge in clichés.

Turkey's military has said it has killed 230 PKK rebels in the current operation while Turkish losses stood at 27, but the casualty reports cannot be independently confirmed. The conflict has killed up to 40,000 people since 1984.

The U.S., mindful of upsetting Iraq's only fairly peaceful region, is urging Turkey for a quick end to the invasion targeting separatist Kurdish rebels based in the mountains of north Iraq. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in Ankara today, called for the operation to be over shortly and for the government to address the economic and social concerns of its Kurdish minority, which complains of cultural and other restrictions as well as deep poverty.

But his call appears to be falling on deaf ears. Turkey is awash in fervent nationalism — newspapers are emblazoned with military heroics and jingoistic slogans. The government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is loath to upset a cozy alliance with the far-right Nationalist Action Party, which helped it push through a recent law allowing headscarves in universities. Although thousands of Kurds in the southeast have taken to the streets in recent days to protest the invasion, there has otherwise been virtually no public opposition (with the exception of Ersoy's comment) to the invasion. A political solution to the Kurdish issue appears a long way off.

Since November, the U.S. has been providing military intelligence to the Turkish army, helping target air strikes. Now that the Turkish army is engaged on the field in north Iraq, it may not want to pull back quickly. Ankara is deeply suspicious of the regional Kurdish government there, which it accuses of supporting the PKK. It is also concerned that the largely autonomous region may seek independence, in turn fomenting similar demands by its own restive Kurdish population. In response to Gates' remarks, the Turkish military did not set a timetable for withdrawal. "Short-term is a relative notion. Sometimes it is a day, sometimes a year," Chief of Staff Yasar Buyukanit said after his meeting with Gates.