Unusual political figure now plays key role in PKK talks / Sirri Sürreyya Önder

ISTANBUL – Hürriyet Daily News – 29.4.2013 – Already known as a colorful name in the Turkish Parliament, Sırrı Sürreyya Önder now finds himself in the middle of the knife-edge task for crafting the negotiations for peace.

The Turkish public became familiar with Sırrı Süreyya Önder when he started writing daily columns in the mainstream media. After he entered Parliament representing the socialist bloc under the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), everybody knew he would become one of the most colorful members of Parliament.

He came under further spot light when he became one of the key people serving as an intermediary between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan, and the PKK’s wing in the Kandil mountains, as part of the current peace process.

Sırrı Süreyya Önder answered questions from the Daily News about both his life and the ongoing process.

Many think of you as an ethnic Kurd, but you’re not. What does this tell us about you?

I was born in Adıyaman, a region where Armenians, Assyrians, Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, and Circassians lived in equal proportion until 1915, when that balance was disrupted. I come from a Turkmen clan that has lived there for seven or eight generations. When you are born in such a place, you learn the ability to have empathy while very young. All the discrimination in life creates an awareness in you. I was able to observe the trauma that is created by the denial of identities, so I acquired the conscience of standing by the victims. My family was that kind of family as well. My father was one of the few communists in the city.

What else defines Sırrı Süreyya Önder?

My socialist identity. My father died and we fell into deep poverty. My uncles, who were one of the most important members of the Nur (brotherhood), took care of us and I received a religious education. My interest in religion did not decrease, but on the contrary increased after I became a socialist. I was 13 or 14 when I found my father’s books which were hidden. Reading is a passion for me, and after reading them I decided to become a socialist.

Isn’t there a contradiction between your socialist identity and your interest in religion?

They are not mutually exclusive. But I did not say I am religious. I am secular. The reference of my life is socialist culture, and I know that organizing life according to religious references is very troublesome.

Is it a prejudice to think in Turkey that socialism and religion do not go hand in hand?

Socialism is not interested in whether a person has a conscience of God or not. But the socialist mentality in Turkey has been affected a bit too much with Kemalism. Many things that are believed to reflect a socialist attitude are actually nothing but a Kemalist reflex. So when you scratch those people who are believed to be socialists you end up seeing a perfect Kemalist, and I do not have one tenth the sympathy for Kemalism that I have for religion.

What’s your problem with Kemalism?

It is vulgar engineering. It is an approach that comes from the top down. It had no benefit for this country whatsoever.

Can you tell us, basically, what your approach to religion is?

So long as there is the notion of death, there will be the concept of religion. The person who knows that he or she is mortal will need a harbor. That’s why religion is more widespread and more influential than all other ideologies. There can be two approaches: either to understand religion, or to object to it entirely. I am of those who are trying to understand religion, rather than fight against it like the Kemalists do.

You went to prison when you were 16. How this does affect who you are?

This brings a tremendous feeling of injustice. I went to prison because we were protesting against the Maraş events. What send me to prison was based on a total lie. When you are hurt, your spectrum of awareness increases. I looked around and realized everyone was in a similar situation. The state approaches everything that is not part of the status quo with an annihilation mentality. I decided that we had to take accounts with a history that has annihilated everyone who does not think like itself. I therefore became a real socialist in prison. After I passed the university exams and came to Ankara to study in the Faculty of Political Science, the Sept. 12 military coup took place. I was among those who resisted the coup. I was detained and sentenced to 12 years, which I served in the Ankara military prison.

Do you believe that you are now able to reflect all this experience in your political performance?

My whole political practice takes its shape from it. The whole aim of myself and the BDP is to protect the poor against the rich, the victim against the aggressor, the women against the men.

There was also your period in the film industry.

My interest in the art world was a result of poverty. After I left prison, as it was impossible to get a job in the public sector, I tried the business world, but I failed. I worked in Russia for a while, and in my spare time I started to write. That’s when I wrote the story of “International” [the movie Önder later directed]. On my return to Turkey I decided to turn it into a script and took courses from a prominent Turkish director. That’s when I decided I should spend my life as a writer. I am not a cinephile, but when [Turkish director] Atıf Yılmaz read it he told me to direct the movie too.

And afterwards you wrote articles, first for daily Birgün and then for daily Radikal. Were you always in touch with the Kurdish political movement?

My ties never broke. They started in my childhood, my prison years. Most of the prominent people of the Kurdish movement are my childhood friends.

How did you find yourself in one of the most critical positions in the peace process?

The BDP is a coalition and I represent maybe not everyone in it, but the socialists. When [the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s jailed leader] Abdullah Öcalan called me, he took this representation into consideration.

But you were also accepted by the state.

I don’t think it has anything to do with being accepted by the state. Öcalan wanted to meet the BDP co-chairs, but when this was vetoed he gave them a list of 11 people, which included me. He warned the state about not vetoing this list, so the state was obliged to send us.

Are you surprised to see where we stand today?

I wrote about it. Anyone who could do a political reading was able to see that we would evolve to this point.

Yes, but not long ago the government had a very aggressive attitude.

We knew it was not going to work. Kurds are a people that have learnt resistance. They have not bowed down and the government understood it could not go on with what it called the security concept. Kurds have brought down seven or eight other governments. Some believe the real motivation behind the prime minister is his wish to become president. The Kurds made it impossible for the government to rule. Besides, what’s wrong with discussing the presidential system?

Some fear Turkey could become more authoritarian.

This is absolutely stupid. People are lazy when it comes to thinking. Kurds have fought against authoritarian regimes, why would they tolerate another authoritarian regime?

They could enjoy freedom in their autonomous region while the rest of the country suffers under authoritarianism.

Those saying that cannot even pass the political science class. They are not curious, they are not researching. We want autonomy for all 25 regions in Turkey, we are not asking for autonomy for Kurds only. More local administration means weakening authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is the centralization of power, whereas autonomy is the spreading of power to the grass roots.

What will happen from now on?

The statement of withdrawal means that there is no obstacle to passing onto the second phase. This is the process of full democratization. It has two dimensions. One is rewriting of the Constitution, the other is to annul all the fascist articles in the laws. This is the most crucial part of the overall process, because if this takes place then it will finish with the laying down of arms

It is probably the most difficult phase as well.

It depends on the attitude of the political parties. The framework is the universal principles of law and fundamental human rights, why would the CHP [opposition Republican People’s Party] object to it?

You assume it will be the CHP that will make it harder, rather than the government?

We have come so far with the government in this process. If they don’t abide by the process they will have to bear the consequences. The government has committed itself.

Do you believe the AKP has the democratic mentality to deliver full democratization?

There is a protocol for democratization and the AKP has stated that it will abide by that protocol. If it does not do so, then we will talk about it. The Kurds have kept their promise. I would not want to use a concept that might be perceived as a threat in a peace process, but democratization is in the interest even of those who want to be more authoritarian.

Do you think the EU has played a role in where we stand today?

No. It has remained totally insensitive to Kurds.

But for years they have put pressure on Turkey for cultural rights, don’t you think the EU has played a role in the transformation of Turkey?

They can’t even heal their own wounds. What I am saying is that whatever they have done was not a remedy to the problem.

Where does the U.S. stand on the process?

The United States is asking for a more active role. I have that impression from the BDP circles and I know that they are putting pressure on the government, as I am sure they are not at the table.

Why does it want to be more active?

Because Kurdish peace would determine the fate of the Middle East. It would be naive to think the U.S. will remain idle to anything related to the Middle East.

How does the U.S. evaluate the process?

There is nothing that shows they are obstructing it, but they want to take it under their control.

There is a perception in Turkish public opinion that the U.S. helps Kurds.

Kurdish guerillas were annihilated by U.S. intelligence. The U.S. ambassador said they had suggested an al-Qaeda type assassination [for the Kurdish leadership]. I am really curious about how that perception has taken root in Turkey.

What is the U.S.’s problem with Kurds then?

The Kurds want to break up the system that the U.S. is managing through monarchies in the region.

Do you think the process has come to a point of no return?

I want to say so, but I’m still not in the position to say it. My principles are not to hide anything and not to lie to the Turkish people.

What do you think about the AKP and Erdoğan?

There are two ways. Either it will use this to build on its own hegemonic structure and face the fate of the previous governments; or it will use it for full democratization and do something very respectable in Turkey’s history. We will understand which course will be taken in a matter of months.