Who Speaks for Kurds?

By Kani Xulam – May 18, 2013

Abdullah Ocalan, the imprisoned leader of Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—who has bitterly fought Turkey for years—was suddenly and inexplicably allowed to address a Kurdish New Year’s Day (Newroz) crowd of one million. That traditional Kurdish celebration is usually marked by clashes between Kurdish fighters and Turkish soldiers. This year, it wasn’t.

From his prison cell, represented by two members of the Turkish parliament, a woman and a man, a Kurd and a Turk, Mr. Ocalan was voiced in Kurdish and Turkish: “Today, a new era is dawning. A new door is opening: we are moving from armed struggle to the democratic politics.”

I couldn’t help but be reminded of a Turkish saying, apparently, originally voiced by an attractive young woman, who was overtly courted, “Bayram değil seyran değil eniştem beni niye öptü,” which translates as, “It is not a party, and it is not a special occasion, so I wonder why my brother in law kissed me?”

The answer has nothing to do with beauty, but crudeness—the repulsive Imrali Island prison, a Devil’s Island hell-hole, whose hideous savagery was highlighted in the Hollywood’s blockbuster about its most famous inmate, Bill Hayes, in the film, Midnight Express. (Mr. Hayes, of course, should count his blessings that he was not assigned to the Diyarbakir Military Prison where he would have been tortured to death.)

A lot of Kurds, among them this writer, were less than impressed when the Kurdish leader offered a roadmap, Missak-i Milli, which translates as “National Pact,” and made a sympathetic reference to the “Islamic flag” as a way out of the age-old Kurdish struggle for freedom. He even declared a river in Kurdistan, the Tigris, as a sister of a river in Turkey, the Sakarya.

The origins and meaning of “National Pact” adopted by the old Ottoman parliament in 1920 may have faded over time, but Kurds certainly understood them to mean a respect for Kurdish way of life, while supporting the nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), the father of modern Turkey. In Ataturk’s interpretation of the covenant, the Kurdish lands that became part of Iraq and Syria belonged to the “Turkish homeland” and he strived hard to get them. England and France stopped him.

Has Erdogan now taken up where Ataturk left off, trying to gobble up new Kurdish lands under a new “Islamic flag” with the help of a Kurdish prisoner, an old Marxist, as a Judas goat? Is this the hidden part of the “peace” plan—the fine print in the devil’s contract—of the Turkish prime minister, the sultan wannabe of Turkey?

Words alone can’t change realities, as Shakespeare said of sweet smells and roses by other names. The Sakarya River still flows into the Black Sea and Tigris into the Persian Gulf. The order of nature does not change, any more than the path taken by nations. Turkey has spent $450 billion trying to destroy the PKK, killing 30,000 Kurdish fighters in 30 years, costing $15 million per person. The goal was to make Kurds look in the direction of Turks. They didn’t. Neither will attempting to fashion a phony, sanctimonious sisterhood of the Sakarya with the Tigris.

Notwithstanding my skepticism, I am all for peace (with justice) if it ever takes root. The violence that the Turks have inflicted on the Kurds and the little bit that we Kurds have inflicted on the Turks makes me wary of the future. Both peoples deserve a better future.

At least with a semblance of “peace,” the Kurdish divorce could take the path that was traveled in Czechoslovakia as opposed to Yugoslavia. The amicable relations that exist between Prague and Bratislava can be duplicated by Ankara with Diyarbakir. Turks who felt deeply for the sufferings of Muslim Bosnians in Bosnia don’t need to inflict the same on the Muslim Kurds in Kurdistan.

The “National Pact” turned out to be a tool in the hands of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) to disenfranchise the Kurds of their birthrights. The road it took left a trail of tears, blood and death. In 1937 alone, in Dersim, a Kurdish province, thousands of civilians were bombed from the air and many more were gassed in mountain caves.

The “Islamic flag” is another name for Turkish imperialism.

Both bode further ill for the Kurds.

The second President Bush leaned on the Turkish military to elevate Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the prime minister of Turkey. Will President Obama midwife Turkey’s expansionism into the Kurdish areas of Syria and Iraq when he meets with Mr. Erdogan in the White House?

If he does, some future Gibbon might note how the man from the “Land of Lincoln” started his political journey by promising “morality in politics” ended up introducing politics into morality and instead of uplifting humanity corrupted it to the delight of bigots in the Middle East and status-quo-huggers in Washington, DC.

* Kani Xulam is a political activist based in Washington D.C. He is the founder of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN) www.kurdistan.org .

Kani is a native of Kurdistan. He has studied international relations at the University of Toronto and holds a BA in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was recently awarded an MA by the International Service Program at American University. At the University of Toronto, he represented Kurdistan at the Model United Nations. In 1993, at the urging of Kurdish community leaders in America, he left his family business in California to establish the American Kurdish Information Network in the nation’s capital. He is the founder of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN)