INTERVIEW: Mehmet Kurt on Kurdish Hizbullah in southeast Turkey

INTERVIEW: Mehmet Kurt on Kurdish Hizbullah in southeast Turkey

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Mehmet Kurt on Kurdish Hizbullah in southeast Turkey

Demostrators attend a 'Respect for the Prophet' meeting organized by the Mustazaflar Derneği (Association of the Oppressed) in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır in 2006. DHA photo

The support from the Kurdish Islamist party Hüda-Par for the shift to an executive presidential system in Turkey’s April 16 referendum was likely a small but significant factor behind the final narrow “Yes” result.

Hüda-Par was founded in 2012 on the ashes of the outlawed militant group Hizbullah (not to be confused with Hezbollah in Lebanon). Hizbullah is less influential than the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), but it has still been an important, often violent, force in southeast Turkey over the past few decades.

“Kurdish Hizbullah in Turkey” by Queen Mary University fellow Mehmet Kurt describes the shady origins and development of Hizbullah through the 1980s and 90s. It is enriched by the fact that Kurt has personal knowledge of the subject, having attended at a religious imam-hatip boarding school in Mardin where Hizbullah was influential. 

Kurt spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about his book (reviewed in HDN here). The conversation has been edited for clarity.

You attended an imam-hatip school in Mardin in the 1990s and stayed in a dormitory where Hizbullah had a strong presence. Talk about your background growing up and your interest in this subject.

I graduated from Mardin imam-hatip high school in 1999. Including secondary school I spent seven years in Mardin imam-hatip schools, including at a boarding school dormitory where Hizbullah-affiliated students were dominant. As a teenager it is hard to give meaning to what is happening and why there is such intense violence directed by religious students against other religious students.

I went on to study theology at university but it was not really a personal choice. After the Feb. 27, 1997 postmodern coup it was decided that imam-hatip students could only go on to study in university theology departments. But after theology school I changed track and studied sociology and anthropology. I thought my experiences growing up could contribute something. There wasn't any academic work on Kurdish Hizbullah, despite the fact that it is the second biggest Kurdish political group. There are several reasons for this. One is the fact that the group was underground for many years. There is also the issue of its attitude to outsiders, security concerns and questions about access. But for me being from the region, being able to speak Kurdish and Arabic, studying theology, being aware of Islamic terminology, and knowing many informants, I managed to speak to many Hizbullah members and former members. 

Hizbullah’s roots go back to the 1970s and local ideologue Hüseyin Velioğlu in the southeastern province of Batman. It developed in the 80s with influence from Iran after the Iranian Revolution and in the 90s its members were involved in all-out war with rival religious groups and with the PKK. Just talk a bit about the origins and development of Hizbullah in the 1970s and 80s.

Officially Hizbullah was founded in 1979 by five people including Hüseyin Velioğlu. He studied political science at Ankara University and during those years he was involved with some Islamist activists. But at some point he lost hope that he could do anything with Turkish Islamists so came back to Batman to form Kurdish Hizbullah in 1979. It was a revolutionary group influenced by the Iranian Islamic Revolution and supported by Iran throughout the 1980s. Back then there were many similar groups supported by Iran.

The political violence during the 1990s is another stage of this process. In the area where Hizbullah was active there was intense war between the security forces and the PKK. There were also many violent disagreements between different Islamic groups. Plus there was conflict between Kurdish Hizbullah members and PKK members. We should note that in the 1990s this conflict was supported, encouraged and manipulated by the Turkish security forces, JİTEM [Gendarmerie Intelligence] and the Turkish deep state. It resulted in the death of at least 1,000 people and deep communal harm in terms of social cohesion, trust in society, and Kurdish people killing each other. 

In the 1990s Hizbullah members who committed crimes were not really arrested or prosecuted by the Turkish justice system. But then in 2000 there was a police operation in a villa, in Istanbul's Beykoz. In that raid Velioğlu was killed and the Hizbullah archive was seized by the security forces. After about three years Hizbullah reappeared in the form of civil society organizations. Later its affiliates founded a political party, Hüda-Par, and they also have many NGOs, dormitories, newspapers, magazines, TV channels and economic interests. They also organize public events, like the Blessed Birth event celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. So now we can talk about this legal aspect of Hizbullah but there is still an active underground illegal part. 

Violence was part of its modus operandi all along. It aimed overthrow the secular regime and establish a Sharia-based state. Could you just explain the central role that violence played in Hizbullah over the years.

Hizbullah was engaged in political violence and was utilized by different sources for many years. Although its aim was to overthrow the secular regime in Turkey, it almost never targeted any state institutions or officials. Its violence was initially aimed at other Islamist groups and later at PKK members and other leftist secular groups. So we should question whether Hizbullah's modus operandi actually complied with its activities. My answer would be no, as it never really attacked the state.

One of the most common claims made about Hizbullah, particularly of course among its adversaries during the 1990s, is that it was set up by the secret intelligence services to use against the PKK. What do you make of that claim?

I don't claim that Hizbullah was founded by the state, but definitely the state benefited from its presence in the region in the 1990s. It basically turned a blind eye to what Hizbullah was doing. We can see a kind of unspoken alliance. After studying this group for many years I can say the state benefited from Hizbullah's presence while Hizbullah also benefited from the conflict in the region, which helped it expand its networks and reach more people.

We need to think about how different paramilitary groups operate elsewhere in the world. Of course there are many ways. Usually state institutions do not interact with these groups directly but they have mediators in the intelligence agencies and local people to infiltrate into groups through certain members. The PKK was considered by the Turkish state to be the biggest threat in the 1990s, and at a time like this other groups benefit from this situation. For example at the moment we can see an expansion of Hizbullah activities despite the fact that many other NGOs are being shut down by emergency decrees in Turkey. 

Adding fuel to the claims of state collusion is the fact that the security forces only really started focusing on Hizbullah in the late 1990s. There was a police raid in Istanbul that killed Huseyin Velioğlu in 2000, after which thousands of Hizbullah members were jailed. Talk about what happened in the early 2000s. 

Specifically from 1991 to 1996 there was a conflict taking place between the PKK and Hizbullah. After 1996 there was a ceasefire between them and they didn't attack each other. PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan was arrested in 1999, and by that point Hizbullah was no longer a useful tool for the state. There was an increased intensity of operations against Hizbullah after this date. In 2000 after Velioğlu was killed and the Hizbullah archive was seized by the state, we saw reports of all kinds of violence and torture conducted by Hizbullah. 

The 1990s are a dark period of Turkish history. There were many unsolved murders and operations committed by JİTEM and the deep state. Considering all these dynamics, it makes sense how Hizbullah fits in and how the state benefited from it. Hizbullah also likely felt it needed an ally in order to survive in the region after Iran stopped supporting it. Violence between the PKK and Hizbullah was considered a kind of war of survival by Hizbullah. Being a smaller group than the PKK, it probably felt it needed to be more violent to create fear among people so it wouldn't be touched.

It’s still unclear why the operation took place in 2000. But sooner or later it was going to happen, as Hizbullah was no longer useful for the state. After the raid, based on the archive they seized, the security forces were able to locate many more Hizbullah members across the country. There was a huge wave of arrests and detentions of tens of thousands of Hizbullah members and leaders. Some had not really been involved in any violence. But over 300 people were arrested on accusations of killing more than one person. Most of them are still in jail today.

In the years since that crackdown we have seen the emergence of legitimate, legal groups that carried the inheritance of Hizbullah forward. Could you describe this process?

After 2000 there was no chance for Hizbullah to continue as an underground organization. Its archive was seized and all of its ranks were known by the state. But at the same time, especially with Turkey's EU membership application, we saw the emergence of more civil society groups. Small Islamic circles and Islamist groups started to organize their activities through legitimate civil society groups. Hizbullah-linked people first emerged again as the Mustazaflar Derneği [Association of the Oppressed] but later they initiated many different civil society organizations. They decided to open a political party in 2012, earlier than they had planned, in response to the closure of the Mustazaflar Derneği.

The greater political mobilization in the region was a result of the greater civil society aspect. It was not really specific to Hizbullah alone. Of course, they have also benefited from the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), as a conservative party. Basically for the first time Islamic communities and Islamist groups who previously preferred to stay unknown and underground gained confidence to legalize their activities and appear openly in public. This gave them the opportunity to reach more people.

The situation over the border in Syria has also had an impact, with the emergence of ISIS and the de facto autonomy of Kurdish areas in northern Syria. A lot of the Turkish citizens who have crossed to fight as jihadists in Syria are actually of Kurdish origin. How has the war in Syria affected balances in southeast Turkey.

The civil war in Syria and the proxy war in Syria has definitely had a big influence on the radicalization of all kinds of Islamist groups, not only in the southeast but across Turkey. But it has had more of an effect on Hizbullah than others. Hizbullah has preferred not to get involved in the war in Syria, but it has lost hundreds of young members who disagreed with this passive attitude. These members have peeled off and gone to participate in other radical groups like ISIS and al-Nusra, as well as their affiliates in Turkey. 

A key figure is Abu Hanzala, who organizes religious classes, has a YouTube channel, magazines, journals, and has been detained several times on accusations of being the ISIS leader in Turkey. Recently he was released. Abu Hanzala is the son of one of the former Hizbullah leaders, and many former Hizbullah members are now gathering around him. It is not just them but other radical groups. 

I would say that the Syrian war has been a milestone for the radicalization of Islamist groups in the Middle East. And obviously the general understanding of Islamism has arrived at the point where it hasn't been able to provide a solution to political problems. Especially after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and after the failure of the Arab Spring, basically Islamism lost ground. This led to a more radical form of Islamism. 

Today Hizbullah is kind of stuck in between. Should it take sides with the violent tendency, or should it stay away and focus on legal-political activities? It has mainly chosen the second. But during the Kobane protests [in October 2014] PKK supporters attacked Hizbullah-affiliated civil society organizations and brutally murdered some young members of Hizbullah like Yasin Börü and others. This led to bigger tension between Hizbullah and the PKK, which we saw during the June 2015 election process. Hizbullah-linked groups killed several PKK supporters in Diyarbakır. So we see potentially very dangerous tension that resembles 1990s political violence.

What kind of differences are there in social background between PKK sympathizers and Hizbullah sympathizers?

The Kurdish region is the poorest part of Turkey. It's generally true that Hizbullah members, especially in the beginning, were more typically from villages and the countryside. But they expanded their networks and especially after the legalization of their activities they took on a more urban face. Also most Kurdish people live in cities these days.

At the same time, the division between the PKK and Hizbullah was a result of local tensions. For example, a village or a tribe may support the PKK while others who have disagreements with them became Hizbullah sympathizers because of this disagreement. The opposite is also sometimes true.

The book is full of vivid first-hand accounts from former Hizbullah members. It’s obviously very difficult to get access to these people and we don’t hear these kind of voices elsewhere. How difficult was it to find them and what was it like getting them to speak?

Of course I had difficulty reaching some people. I got some references and connections but I didn't really tell them right away that I wanted to do an interview. Instead I let them get to know me, to learn what I was doing, and to build rapport as a personality. I visited them at work, had tea with them, spoke with them about general subjects, and then saw whether they wanted to speak about Hizbullah. This was very time-consuming but in the end I was able to speak to around half of all those who I reached this way. Obviously these are largely untold and unheard stories. These people don't have a space to share their experiences, especially the former members of Hizbullah who now regret their participation. 

Many are very confused and think they have wasted their lives, wishing they could have made better choices. Some of them gone through a big trauma and have even become ultra-secularists. I've heard that some even now have more sympathy for Christianity, or have lost their beliefs entirely.

One of the most original parts of the book is the section on novels and short stories. It turns out that Hizbullah members have written a huge amount of fiction that was circulated within the group. You read a lot of this stuff during your research. 

A lot of it is lightly fictionalized and based on members' perception of what has happened in the past. It's a reflection of their human experiences. Many decided to write these novels and stories after the legalization of their activities, while some have written in jail. These works give a great reflection on how they perceive their past, seeing what they include and what they leave out of the narratives. For example in most of these novels, violence is basically excluded from the narrative, unlike the violent reality of the 1990s.

The novels and stories have also been useful as materials to mobilize and recruit people, emphasizing themes of the Islamic cause, devotion and sacrifice. I enjoyed reading these texts as a window to see their writers' perception of other people: For example how they perceived the PKK, Jews, secular people, or leftist people. You can see how they demonize these "others" but when it comes to themselves they present themselves as angel-like personalities who devote their lives to the cause. 
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