For a century, Kurdistan, the Kurdish homeland, has been divided between four countries – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria – and, for most of that time, Kurds have faced racialised oppression in all four. Kurds helped establish the Turkish Republic, but were immediately excluded from recognition by a constitution grounded in ethnic nationalism. While non-Muslim minorities have largely fled the country to escape persecution, Kurds, who make up 1/5 to ¼ of Turkey’s population and are predominantly Sunni Muslim like the majority of the population, are not officially recognised as a separate group at all, though this hasn’t prevented them facing visceral racism. Kurds are expected to forget their own culture and language and transform themselves into Turks. Resistance to this forced assimilation is regarded as traitorous separatism and has always been brutally crushed, often through collective punishment.
Born in 1949 in a village in Urfa, Abdullah Öcalan, like most Kurds, experienced both economic hardship and ethnic persecution. When he became a student at the University of Ankara in 1970, studying first law and then social science, the politics of revolution and liberation was everywhere in the air. In Turkey, progressive movements were faced with government suppression, and clashed with counter-revolutionary groups that could rely on state backing, especially after the military intervention of 1971. Any form of peaceful democratic transition seemed impossible, and support grew for the adoption of guerrilla tactics, with some activists finding training with the Palestinians in Lebanon.
There was a developing recognition that the Kurdish areas were facing internal colonialism, but also fierce debates within left groups over the relationship between the struggle for Kurdish rights and the wider class struggle. Öcalan and his close comrades believed that, to avoid the Kurdish issue being side-lined out of the equation, they needed a movement that would explicitly struggle for Kurdish self-determination. They envisaged this as taking the form of an independent Kurdistan, which would be achieved through a Marxist-Leninist people’s war.
The first small group that came together in 1974 was known simply as ‘followers of Apo’. Öcalan has always been the undisputed leader of this movement, and Apo – meaning uncle – is still used to refer to him. They set themselves against, not only the state, but also the Kurdish landlord class. By the time this movement was transformed into a political party, the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, in 1978, it had already gained widespread support among the beleaguered Kurdish peasantry and growing Kurdish working class through clandestine meetings and discussions.
By 1979 it was clear that an even greater clampdown was on the horizon. Öcalan and other key leaders escaped to set up bases in Lebanon and Syria before the military coup of September 1980 began its reign of terror, but nearly 2000 suspected PKK members were among the tens of thousands arrested, beginning what became a formative history of extreme persecution and torture and extraordinary resistance.
In 1984, the PKK were ready to carry out their first co-ordinated guerrilla actions and launch their war of liberation. The response of the Turkish state was brutal, but the state’s indiscriminate violence served to make the Kurds even more determined. They took courage from the resistance shown by the prisoners and the actions carried out by the guerrillas, but they also learned, from the many meetings and discussions, how to resist the state’s colonisation of their self-understanding and recover pride in their Kurdish heritage.
The 1980s and 90s was a time of escalating violence, especially after 1987 when Turkey declared a State of Emergency in the Kurdish majority provinces. The state was determined to crush the Kurdish movement out of existence, but the indiscriminate brutality of Turkey’s security forces persuaded more Kurds of the need to resist and to support the movement that was standing up for their rights. A growing proportion of the Kurdish population was supporting the people who were fighting for their freedom, and increasing numbers openly celebrated their Kurdish culture, especially the spring new year festival – Newroz – which became the occasion for mass demonstrations of Kurdish solidarity.
When the guerrillas hit back at the state, the state came down even harder, increasingly resorting to collective punishment and extrajudicial killings. Thousands of Kurdish villages were razed to the ground with the excuse that they gave sustenance to the PKK, and also in order to effect major population change and make it harder for Kurds to lay claim to a geographical area. Villagers were told that if they didn’t want their homes destroyed, they must join the ‘village guards’ – state collaborators whose role is to inform on and attack their neighbours. Up to 4,000 villages were destroyed and over 3 million people displaced.
From the 1990s, Kurds in Turkey also attempted to channel their new-found confidence into support for pro-Kurdish political parties, which the Turkish government repeatedly closed down, as if to demonstrate the continued impossibility of a non-violent solution to what has come to be known as the Kurdish Question.
While a large part of the Kurdish population understood the PKK’s actions as a war of liberation against an alien and oppressive state that denied them the freedom to live their lives in dignity, this was not how they have been presented in the elite world of Western diplomacy. Turkey’s strategic importance, along with a categorical rejection of all left-wing movements, has ensured ready acceptance of the Turkish government’s portrayal of the PKK as enemies of civilisation and order, who can only be met with force. In the 1990s, when the Turkish military was burning thousands of Kurdish villages and forcing the displacement of millions of people, most of the weapons they used came from the United States. At Turkey’s request, American and European governments have branded the PKK as terrorists and effectively criminalised discussion of their cause.
Öcalan, however, has repeatedly shown the PKK to be ready to exchange force for negotiation – if ever the Turkish state is ready to engage with them. To this end, they have declared numerous unilateral ceasefires, but no Turkish government has so far let negotiations come to a conclusion.
Through the eighties and nineties, Öcalan himself was based in Syria and Lebanon. In 1998, during one of the PKK’s ceasefires, Turkey threatened to attack Syria if Syria didn’t expel Öcalan and the PKK. Öcalan left with the intention of pursuing his quest for a peaceful solution in Europe. Instead, an international conspiracy, led by the CIA and Turkey, ensured that five months later he was captured and handed over to the Turkish government. His initial death sentence was commuted to life without parole as part of Turkey’s attempt to qualify for EU membership. (For Öcalan’s time in prison, see Capture and Imprisonment.)
Turkish hopes that Öcalan’s capture would fatally wound the PKK and stall the drive for Kurdish freedom proved seriously ill-founded. They misjudged both the strength of support behind the movement, and its ability to evolve.
Turkey’s acceptance by the EU as an official candidate for membership, at the end of 1999, forced the government to repeal some of their most overt anti-Kurdish laws, but fundamental attitudes remained unchanged. Despite the PKK calling a ceasefire that lasted four years – and withdrawing their fighters to beyond Turkish borders into south Kurdistan/north Iraq, where the PKK had had a presence since the early 1980s – and despite numerous peace overtures on the part of the PKK, the Turkish government refused to consider any other approach towards them than violent obliteration.
Turkey’s rejection of a peaceful solution was strengthened by the decision of the European Union to list the PKK as a terrorist organisation – even as the organisation was implementing a ceasefire and looking for peace. This decision is facing a legal challenge, based on its lack of evidence.
The five years following Öcalan’s capture were a time of introspection and fierce debate within the movement. Reading, writing, and – above all – thinking in his prison cell, Öcalan remained at the centre of these debates. The crisis of his capture intensified arguments about the future for socialist liberation in the 21st Century. Öcalan developed criticisms of the party’s hierarchical structures and the Soviet Marxist tradition through which the PKK had emerged, and also of their over-reliance on seeking solutions through violence. Others found this change of approach hard to accept, while some wanted to abandon the revolutionary struggle altogether in favour of a more collaborationist politics acceptable to international powers such as America. In the course of this troubled period, many people left the party, but this allowed those who remained to come together around a new vision for a revolution that focused on changing society from below. Rather than confront state power directly, and risk reproducing its power structures, the movement aimed to transcend it by organising communities to take control of their own lives. Ocalan’s prison writings form the core of this new vision.
Led by Öcalan’s example, the PKK and the wider Kurdish Freedom Movement have shown an extraordinary ability to respond to changing circumstances, and also to learn from past mistakes. Öcalan used his time in prison to develop ideas and approaches that were already being discussed in the movement, and to articulate a new understanding of Kurdish freedom. The idea of a Kurdish state has been abandoned as only reproducing old problems. Instead, the movement calls for a transcending of the existing system of nation states and boundaries through the establishment of a parallel practice of grassroots democracy, which centres women’s freedom, peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups, and an economy based on creating thriving human communities in continuity with the natural world.
Everywhere Kurds live, there is strong and committed support for the Kurdish Freedom Movement inspired by Öcalan’s ideas, and for Öcalan himself as leader of the movement. On 1 September 2006, World Peace Day, the Confederation of Kurdish Associations in Europe presented the results of a signature campaign to demonstrate the widespread support for Öcalan’s leadership and so ‘contribute to the possibility of a political solution between the Turkish and the Kurdish side’. Kurds across the world were asked to put their name to the statement ‘I, from Kurdistan, recognize Mr. Abdullah OCALAN as a political representative in Kurdistan’. This was a campaign organised in the face of state oppression. In Syria, in Iraq, and especially in Turkey, volunteers were arrested and sentenced, and signature lists confiscated. Nevertheless, the organisers were able to demonstrate the public support of well over three million Kurds.
Attempts to put Öcalan’s ideas into practice in north Kurdistan/southeast Turkey have been repeatedly crushed by the state. Pro-Kurdish progressive political parties are banned, community organisations are raided, politicians and activists are jailed in their thousands. Attempts to declare regional autonomy in the Kurdish majority cities in 2015-16 were met by the unrestrained force of the Turkish military, leaving the cities in ruins.
However, the collapse of government control in northern Syria, opened up new opportunities in a place where the PKK had already fostered strong support.
Realisation of Öcalan’s ideas in Rojava – or what is now called the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria – generated a new international awareness, both of the Kurdish predicament and of Öcalan’s solution. The ideas and practices being promoted by the Kurdish Freedom Movement have been welcomed across the world as forming the basis not just of Kurdish freedom, but of a new form of free society. Their power lies in their demonstrable ability to develop mutually supportive freedoms that recognise the individual as part of a community.