By Sibel Utku
ANKARA, (AFP) - Turkey might have voted to broaden minority rights as part of its efforts to join the European Union, but singing in Armenian, Greek and Kurdish can still send nationalist tempers into a frenzy. Sezen Aksu, Turkey's top pop singer, this week caused a row after singing folk songs in Armenian, Greek, Hebrew, Kurdish and Turkish during a weekend concert attended by 20,000 people in the western city of Izmir.
An Armenian church choir, music groups from the Greek and Jewish communities and a children's choir from the mainly Kurdish southeast accompanied her on stage.
The mainstream press hailed the concert as helping to promote tolerance in Turkey. It followed the Turkish parliament giving its green light last month to doing away with bans on broadcasts and courses in Kurdish, in a bid to bring its legislation in line with EU expectations.
But one general was not happy. Hursit Tolon, a regional commander of the army, which still wields significant influence in Turkish politics, criticized the
timing of the show.It took place on Victory Day, August 30, a day commemorating a decisive 1922 battle when Turkish forces defeated Greek invaders occupying western Anatolia.
The far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP), the only group that opposed Kurdish cultural rights in parliament, quickly followed up on the general's remarks and accused Aksu of propagating separatism. "I will advise her to go Greece and Armenia to give those concerts," said MHP member Mehmet Gul.
The controversy comes at a time when the European Union is closely watching how Turkey will implement recently-adopted democratic reforms before it decides whether to enter into talks over Turkey joining the European Union. Turkish fears of seeing the country divided are deep-rooted and date back to the end of World War I when victorious allied forces invaded large parts of what is today Turkey. Fears grew in the past two decades after a Kurdish rebellion in the southeast, which claimed more than 36,000 lives.
"The MHP are the real separatists. Not wanting people to sing together is equal to not wanting them to live together," Hrant Dink, editor of the Armenian-language Agos daily, told AFP.
And a Kurdish writer, Seyhmus Diken, said that "what matters is that such a concert was held and welcomed by the majority." Culture Minister Suat Caglayan threw his support behind Aksu and accused her critics of "racism."
But the controversy seems to have discouraged the singer, who might cancel her next show scheduled for September 19 in Istanbul. Organizers told AFP Thursday the concert "could be cancelled," not because of the criticism, but because of "heavy rainfall in Istanbul."
Liberals called on Aksu to go ahead with the concert. "Come on Sezen, the overwhelming majority of Turkey is behind you," the mass-circulation Hurriyet daily said. "If not why did parliament approve the EU harmonization laws?"