Propaganda warfare with the outlawed PKK

Propaganda warfare with the outlawed PKK

“Look at the position of Kurdish women,” a friend of mine living in the United States told me last year. “They impressed the American public with all those pictures of women fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL],” he added. 

Listening to him, I realized that the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its armed wing in Syria, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), won the hearts of Americans not only because they were the most effective military force on the ground fighting ISIL but also for posing as a benevolent, secular movement with women enjoying the same status as men.

“But you must certainly know that in reality Kurdish women enjoy no rights at all,” I told him. Having lived almost all his life abroad, he was not aware of that.

Then I recalled the funeral of the prominent Kurdish politician Şerafettin Elçi in 2012.

Everyone in the southeastern district of Cizre was out on the streets that day and the city looked gender segregated, with men on one side of the street and women on the other side. I was the only woman in the courtyard of the mosque where the religious ceremony was going to be held. While having a conversation with a civil servant who was there to pay his respect to Elçi, whom he knew from his years as a student, he told me that Turks and Kurds were different, and as an ethnic Turk, one of the first things he told me to prove his point about the difference was how women had almost no rights in the Kurdish community.  

When I went outside of the mosque, I saw the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP as it was called at that time) delegation approaching. Men were on the sides of the street while most women were on the doorsteps, roofs and windows of their houses, but the cortege was headed by the prominent male and female figures of the BDP, like Osman Baydemir, Aysel Tuğluk, and Sırrı Sakık, who were walking arm in arm and shoulder to shoulder. I am sure the sight of female Kurdish leaders walking side by side with their male colleagues had an impact on the women standing on the roofs.

Fast forward to 2015, the BDP’s successor, Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), registered a huge increase in its votes and got a record 13 percent in the June general elections. At least one third of its votes most probably came from ethnic Turks who until then did not sympathize with the Kurdish movement but voted strategically to curb the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) presence in parliament. The HDP’s environmentalist rhetoric as well as policies based on gender equality, like the introduction of the male and female co-chairing of any position whether in parliament or the municipalities, did appeal to many urban democrats, too. Women were at forefront of the Kurdish political movement.

They were also at the forefront on ground in the fight against ISIL. I recalled how they made it to the front pages in magazines like Paris Match during clashes in Syria’s Kobane in 2014.

What made me recall all of this is a recent book written by Fikret Bila on the ideology of the PKK.

PKK’s currently imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan opted each time for an ideology that would secure him some kind of international support, the book argues. In the Cold War period, it was Marxism-Leninism which secured him the support of the Soviet bloc, as Turkey was in the rival NATO bloc. After his apprehension, he upheld European values like democracy as he had applied to and was awaiting a decision from the European Court of Human Rights. After 2004, he endorsed an ideology based on concepts like ecology and gender equality among others.

“The Syrian Kurdish YPG’s attritional ground campaign against ISIL has garnered it flattering coverage in many Western media outlets. Brave, photogenic young feminist ecowarriors contrast sympathetically with barbaric jihadists. In the wasteland of the Syrian war, the Kurds’ apparently socialist, feminist, ecological project has also won admiration in the West,” wrote William Armstrong in his review on Bila’s book.

Did Öcalan foresee that the PKK will become to be seen as a secular, democratic savior against the radical fundamentalists? Did he predict that posing as a gender-equal organization will serve as the best propaganda tool in the West against ISIL’s practices against women reminiscent of the dark ages?

Obviously, Bila argues that Öcalan’s ideology, which is only propaganda, does not match with practice and that while posing as an ecologist, gender-free democratic organization, the PKK has a totalitarian structure and foresees the establishment of a totalitarian state.

While waging an intensive armed struggle against the PKK, the Turkish government is also faced with propaganda wars, which it needs to take seriously.

In view of the news that the Turkish state-owned Halkbank, whose deputy general manager is under arrest in the United States, has signed a $125,000-a-month contract with a U.S. lobbying firm; I wonder to what degree Turkish taxpayers’ money is elaborately used in the propaganda warfare with the PKK.