Turkish prime minister Bulent Ecevit could hardly conceal his glee when he announced on February 16 that Ankara’s most wanted man had finally been captured. Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), had been arrested by Turkish Special Commandos and brought back to Turkey ‘to account for his deeds before an independent court.’ A jubilant Ecevit stated: ‘We promised you that Ocalan would soon be brought to justice. We have fulfilled our promise!’
The rejoicing of many Turks, who have waited 14 years for this moment, was overshadowed by an outpouring of indignation by most Kurds, expressed in large, angry demonstrations. At least 10,000 Kurds went on a rampage in Istanbul, setting fire to shops and public property, and overturning cars. Thousands of Kurds in Syria, Iran and in many western cities marched to express their outrage. The use of Molotov cocktails by some demonstrators, attempts at self-immolation and several incidents of hostage-taking in Europe alarmed western governments. The Israelis shot dead three Kurdish demostrators at their consulate in Berlin on February 17.
Britain had cynically fostered the growth of Arab and Kurdish nationalism to serve its own geo-political interests in the Middle East; when the British empire faded, the US continued the policy of supporting nationalist movements in accordance with its national interests. Western governments have found it useful at times to encourage and arm Kurdish groups, and then look the other way when their political goals change and there is no longer any compelling reason to rescue the Kurds from the brutality of the victorious nation-States in which they live as a divided minority.
The price of this Machiavellian policy, a steady stream of Kurdish asylum-seekers to the west, was not considered too high until the arrest of Ocalan. Now alarm-bells are ringing in western capitals as intelligence services go public with exaggerated claims of PKK activities among Kurdish refugees.
Most Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere are not members of the PKK, and Ocalan’s ruthless treatment of those who disagreed with him has led some Kurds to dub him the Pol Pot of Kurdistan. A marxist, who calls himself Apo (‘uncle’ in Kurdish) in imitation of the Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh, Ocalan would seem an unlikely hero among the generally devout, conservative Kurds of Turkey. However, Ocalan is admired and respected because his movement seems to be the only hope Kurds in Turkey have of gaining more equitable treatment.
When Mustafa Kemal abolished the Khilafah and established the secular State, Turkish nationalism rather than Islam became the basis of legitimacy of Turkey. Kurds were about one-third of the population, so the artificial nature of such a basis could only be camouflaged by rendering them practically invisible.
Turkish law prohibits broadcasts in Kurdish, and education in Kurdish, even for children who know no other language, is illegal. School-children are made to chant sayings of Mustafa Kemal such as: ‘What a joy it is to call oneself a Turk!’, a saying which is commonly displayed in public places as well, even in towns where the only Turks are military personnel.
Kurds face discrimination in education and in the work-force, and bear the brunt of the security forces’ brutal attempts to crush any resistance. Since Turkey’s creation as a secular State in the 1920s, Kurdish-majority provinces have been under martial law or a state of emergency for most of the time, and most government spending in the region is for military purposes. Journalists and others who object to such government policy are threatened, made to ‘disappear’, or even killed. Kurds who object to being invisible must be criminal. ‘Moderate’ Kurdish groups are quickly silenced, and Islamic groups generally prefer to stay out of trouble by avoiding serious discussion of the Kurdish question. In this way, Ocalan has become the only visible alternative for many Kurds.
The capture of Ocalan was made possible by the alliance between Turkey and Israel. At present, the Turkish government is facing a crisis. Economic mismanagement and corruption have led to spiraling inflation, while the increased involvement of youth in the Islamic movement, including the Fazilat Party (formerly Refah), some radical groups, and the Nursi Sufi orders is bringing into question the secular, nationalist principles upon which the State is founded.
Isolated from its Muslim and Middle-Eastern neighbours and feeling threatened by the growth of the Islamic movement, the Turkish generals have thrown themselves into the Israeli embrace. Israel sees Turkey as a non-Arab, secular strategic ally in the region. This alliance is not only directed against Arab States, but also against Iran and the Islamic movement. Turkey and Israel have a Treaty of Military Alliance, which provides for cooperation on security affairs affecting both countries.
The PKK-led insurrection in south-eastern Turkey, where Kurds are the majority, ties down about 250,000 soldiers and costs the Turkish government an estimated US$5 billion annually. Since it began, at least 30,000 people, both Kurds and Turks, have died, and more than 2000 Kurdish villages have been demolished. The Kurdish question has also been one of the main obstacles to Turkey’s admission to the European Union. Clearly, defeat of the PKK has been important to the Turkish government both for economic and political reasons.
However, it has taken on added urgency with the upcoming Turkish elections, scheduled for April 18 which polls indicate will be won by Fazilat. An Islamist victory is seen as a catastrophe not only by the Turkish generals, but by the US and Israel as well. The Turkish secular parties badly need to give the skeptical electorate some evidence that they are competent.
For this reason, the US and Israel have been assisting Turkey against the PKK. The first step was to force Ocalan out of his base in Syria last November. Backed by the US, Turkey massed troops on the Syrian border and threatened to attack unless he was expelled. Iraq, Iran and Armenia, regional rivals of Turkey who normally would have considered hosting Ocalan in order to gain political leverage, were also deterred by the evident US-Israeli support for Ankara. To prevent Ocalan from seeking refuge in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, the US convinced the leaders of the two main Kurdish parties there in September 1998 to sign an agreement that they would not shelter him.
Once Ocalan had been driven out of the Middle East, the cat-and-mouse game began. He went to Russia, but after two weeks there informed his followers in Europe that Israeli Mossad agents were pursuing him and that in any case, the American ambassador in Moscow was pressuring the Russian government to expel him. PKK representatives in Europe, who have close ties to the European leftist and social democrat parties, advised Ocalan to go to Italy.
When he arrived in Italy in January, he was welcomed by the prime minister, an ex-communist. As US pressure to extradite Ocalan to Turkey mounted, Italy sought but did not receive the support of the European Union. Ocalan’s flight to Greece was opposed by the US and Israeli ambassadors in Athens, and no other European country would receive him. Finally, he ended up in Nairobi, Kenya.
The question which Kurdish observers have failed to answer is why, when he was being pursued by Israeli agents, did he choose to go to a city which is the African headquarters of Mossad? Why would the Greeks advise him to take such a step, and why did they not obtain guarantees of his safety from the Kenyan authorities? These unanswered questions led many Kurds to believe that the Greeks betrayed Ocalan, while the Israelis and the Americans orchestrated the kidnapping. For this reason, demonstrators attacked Greek and Israeli embassies.
Ocalan’s arrest will probably boost Ecevit’s popularity with the Turkish electorate. Some Turkish politicians are hoping that his trial will enable Ankara to project itself as upholding the rule of the law, in order to strengthen its bid for membership in the European Union. Liberals in Turkey anticipate that the present controls on freedom of the press may be lifted if the Kurdish insurgency is finally quelled. The US, so concerned about minority rights and rights of political prisoners in countries ruled by ‘Islamic’ governments, considerately limited itself to supportive statements as the Turkish media issued pictures of Ocalan, handcuffed and blindfolded, being forced to stand by the Turkish flag.
It is likely that the PKK will be weakened with Ocalan’s departure. Internal rivalries, or splits may develop. It is possible that the Turkish government may consider granting some cultural rights to the Kurds if it feels that the Kurdish insurgency is over. However, the Kurdish question will never be resolved as long as Turkey remains a secular, nationalist State, for Kurdish nationalism is merely the result of and reaction to Turkish nationalism.
Muslimedia: March 1-15, 1999