INTERVIEW: Local rivalry key to understanding Turkey’s Kurdish question

INTERVIEW: Local rivalry key to understanding Turkey’s Kurdish question

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Local rivalry key to understanding Turkey’s Kurdish question

Party members stand during the second general assembly of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) at Ahmet Taner Kışlalı Sports Hall in Ankara on Jan. 24, 2016. AFP Photo

Turkey’s Kurdish issue is often framed simply as “Turkish military vs. Kurdish militants.” Since the collapse of the peace process last summer, hundreds of soldiers, militants and innocent civilians have been killed and hundreds of thousands of locals displaced from their homes. Since 1980 tens of thousands have died and swathes of southeastern Anatolia have been militarized.

While there is no doubting the ferocity of clashes between the state and militants, internal Kurdish dynamics are also key to understanding how the issue will develop. Those dynamics are the subject of “Rival Kurdish Movements in Turkey: Transforming Ethnic Conflict,” an interesting new book by Mustafa Gürbüz, a policy fellow at George Mason University and adjunct lecturer at the American University in Washington DC.

Gürbüz focuses on competition between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), pro-Kurdish political parties, the outlawed Islamic Kurdish militant group Hizbullah, and the Gülen movement. He spoke to HDN about his book (reviewed here) and about how Turkey’s Kurdish question can return from the brink amid the current surge in violence.

INTERVIEW: Local rivalry key to understanding Turkey’s Kurdish questionThe book explores how competition in civil society and civic institutions transforms conflict, forcing various Kurdish actors to moderate and try to build their reputation as non-violent actors. Explain what you found doing the research for the book.

I suggest going beyond the idea of the "Turkish state vs. Kurds." I look at the local dynamics between other actors, analyzing complex local engagements. Civic society competition and the culture of local competition can provide institutional mechanisms in which various Kurdish actors see their best interests lying in reputation-building as non-violent actors, instead of waging violence. 

Of course one could ask a legitimate question about why competition should be through non-violence - why not “outbidding” through violence instead? Why not competing through attacks on the Turkish state? After all, this is the case for the rivalry between Hamas and the PLO, for example, or between al-Qaeda and ISIS. But such outbidding through violence is mostly observed in the "emergence" period of revolutionary groups. It was seen in the PKK's early years, but not today. 

The nature of the contender groups in the local context also matters. The PKK has competed with the non-violent Gülen movement, for example. In this context of competition it could destroy the PKK's credibility if it uses too much violence. The book also looks at the case of [outlawed Kurdish Islamic militant group] Hizbullah. Hizbullah is much weaker than the PKK, so why would it now try to outbid the PKK in violence? In fact it has been non-violent activism that has contributed to the revival of Hizbullah from the ashes in recent years.

In the book you describe how this non-violent civic competition takes many forms. In the competition for public support ethnic nationalists soften their approach to religion, while religious groups with links to Hizbullah start to utilize “Kurdish” themes. What are some practical examples of this happening on the ground?

A striking example is the competition over Kurdish Islam. The ethnic-focused political parties started to use Kurdish imams in the 1990s. Back then the PKK's engagement with Islam was more likely to be just a short-term political or tactical shift. But it transformed into a longer term political strategy. It was explicit in Öcalan's writings and in the peace message that he gave in 2013 at the start of the peace process between the PKK and the Turkish state. There was an increasing expression of religion used by the Marxist PKK revolutionaries. 

On the other hand, it is interesting to see the language of Hizbullah changing. This was a kind of reaction to the PKK's outreach to Islam. Hizbullah activists claimed the authenticity of Kurdish Islam, but through ethnic and symbolic nationalism. It placed a new emphasis on itself as "Kurdish" as well as "Islamic." One striking example is the figure of [20th century Kurdish Sunni Muslim theologian] Said Nursi. The revolutionary Kurdish movement and Hizbullah both employed Said Nursi in an interesting way. The PKK discourse transformed him into a revolutionary figure and the Hizbullah discourse turned him into an Islamic and ethnic Kurdish figure. These two narratives contesting Said Nursi was also a message to the Nursi-inspired Gülen movement, because Said Nursi was long seen as the Gülen movement's intellectual figure.

So a local dynamic over Said Nursi symbolism was an expression of competition over Kurdish Islam in the region. 

How was the unprecedented performance of the Peoples’ Democratic Party [HDP] in the June 2015 general election and the collapse of the peace process in the weeks afterward related to this question of internal Kurdish dynamics? Many people have remarked on a possible rivalry between HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş and the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.

We first need to put Öcalan into context. As a captured leader of the PKK movement, Öcalan has been striking a balance between the radical flank of guerrilla leaders in the mountains and the political leaders in Kurdish parties. So Öcalan as a balancer is an opportunity for the state; officials can negotiate with him in a way that they cannot do with guerrilla leaders. 

The peace process was seen as an opportunity for Kurdish politicians to emphasize non-violent engagement and emphasize how they are supporting peace, supporting a united umbrella of a democratic Turkey that fits in with the "democratic republic" thesis of Abdullah Öcalan. The successful election campaigns of the HDP after two years of ceasefire and a peace process were the fruit of this engagement. Look at the numbers: It doubled its vote from 6.5 percent to 13 percent in June 2015, getting the attention of the Turkish left and many conservative Kurds. This success gave unprecedented reach and influence to young leaders like Selahattin Demirtaş and Sırrı Süreyya Önder, who gained prominence because they were increasingly perceived as reasonable actors for a permanent peace. 

The complexity of the issue lies here. In a way the PKK has had a monopoly over Kurdish politics for some time, so the shift to multivocality within pro-Kurdish organizations is not easy. Traditional players are being replaced by a variety of actors under the forces of social competition. The issue is now going beyond Öcalan. Öcalan has become a symbolic figure while the guerrilla forces and pro-Kurdish politicians have more of an ability to play the game. 

So I feel that the PKK guerrilla leaders are now engaged in a major internal competition to claim the HDP's electoral victory last summer. They claim it was their own victory, but actually it was an unprecedented challenge to PKK hegemony. 

Still, I was in Diyarbakır on the day of the June election. Kurdish youths were chanting the slogans of guerrillas and I didn't hear the name of Demirtaş. I guess it was a message that the youth organizations, the core activists, remain under the influence of more radical flanks. There is a competition going on and those slogans were a clear message to me that this electoral victory would be claimed by both the politicians and the guerrilla forces. 

Today of course Turkey’s southeast is once again shaken by violent clashes and the ruling AKP is talking about lifting the immunity of HDP deputies. What’s the prospect that Kurdish actors can get back into the dynamic of non-violent civil society competition?

There are two things to address in this question. One is about how to approach these links between moderate parties and radical flanks. The second is about reviving civic competition, in which the AKP is also an actor.

Regarding the first issue, we need to understand that this problem is not peculiar to the Kurdish case. In general, revolutionary movements develop a two-fold strategy. On the one hand they maintain a strong guerrilla force to wage violence against the state; on the other hand they aim to build institutional bases in civil society through political parties and non-violent organizations. In my book I argue that increasing institutional activism in the civic sphere enables revolutionaries to build both legitimacy and institutional credibility. When they gain credibility they get benefits from this tactical shift towards moderation. As they benefit more, they see their interests lie more in non-violent activism. Also their institutional resources - personnel, money, material resources - are transformed.

So the issue needs to be seen as how we can make the radicals get engaged; how to make them understand that their best interests lie in non-violent activism. My argument is that we need to develop a smart strategy. Strategic engagement appears to be key to transforming ethnic conflict.

Let me put it this way: The PKK did not have to make an Islamic opening. Likewise, Hizbullah was not forced into publishing pro-Kurdish journals. These strategic moves were not necessary but the larger context encouraged these actors' decisions. Ideological movements are often reluctant to pursue these broader engagement strategies because of their deep concern about keeping the purity of their ideologies. But these movements took courageous steps to make strategic engagements. Such steps could be extremely important in the final outcome. Moderation can emerge in the field of civic competition.

The other issue is about how civic competition can be revived after the violence of the past few months. There are major challenges to reviving the peace process because there are the same faces, the same people, and there is an increasing mistrust between the parties. But the first step now should be seeking a ceasefire - even just a tactical one. Conflict transformation literature teaches us that a small tactical step can sometimes turn into a big strategy. The second critical thing will be the emergence of strong political leaders, moderate voices such as Demirtaş and others. I call this upcoming era a "post-Öcalan" era in Kurdish politics. They now have a more charismatic voice among Kurdish youth and Turkish leftist youths and this is an important asset. 

But Öcalan is still this totemic figure. All activists constantly invoke him and even for these new generations his word is still an order. Even though some have only ever known him behind bars, he still has this enormous symbolic importance.

How Öcalan plays the game is important. He needs to balance between the two. I expect that if there is a ceasefire coming it will be through the channel of Öcalan. Because that's the only channel that the pro-Kurdish politicians and the guerrilla forces can utilize, as well as the state and the AKP leaders. But what about local dynamics within the HDP or within the guerrillas in the mountains? What about changes in the situation in Syria and the PYD, which are also shaping the wider region? All of this is really beyond Öcalan.

The situation in Syria is growing in importance for Turkey's Kurdish issue. How has it shaped the issue up to today and how will it shape it in the future?

The Kurdish issue has become a global phenomenon with the Syrian war. Over the next decade, I expect these global and local dynamics to enable Kurdish actors to express their self-determination points more clearly. They will be emboldened and more powerful in terms of discourse and in terms of resources to claim the right of self-determination. If we look at the cantons of the Syrian Kurds across Turkey's border, they are now increasingly perceived as a legitimate local government by the international community. Turkey may not accept it but this is the case. In Europe and the U.S. this is a big shift. 

After the fight against ISIS, it is very interesting to see there are local and global implications to the “secularism” of Kurds. The “secular self-determination” claim has gotten Western elite support in the wake of the radical Islamic threat. I expect Kurdish ethno-nationalism to become symbolically and resourcefully more powerful than ever before. It's entirely possible to see de-facto autonomy among Kurds in Syria - like the initial phase of the [Kurdistan Regional Government] KRG in northern Iraq. In the Turkish context this would have consequences, which could lead to the southeast becoming more independent in its governance - at least at local levels. But European-style federalism? There are big challenges to that. Holding a plebiscite as happened in Scotland seems unlikely. Such an official change in Turkish policy may only be seen after a formally independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

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