Kurdish Islamist Nationalists: New Actors in Turkey’s Kurdish Politics

In the 7 June 2015 general elections in Turkey, nearly all components of Kurdish nationalism supported the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP). Particularly noticeable among them were Kurdish Islamist nationalists from such religio-political formations as Med-Zehra, Nubihar, Öze Dönüş Platform and Azadi. For the first time in republican history, Kurdish Islamists acquired publicity as the Islamist segment of the Kurdish national movement and created an Islamic political discourse that severely criticized the notion of Islamic fraternity as the Islamist mask of assimilationism. The emergence of Kurdish Islamism, its Islamic narrative, its secession from the ruling AK Party and its crystallization as the Islamist wing of the Kurdish national/ist movement have produced new challenges for Kurdish as well as Turkish politics.

In the 7 June 2015 general elections in Turkey, nearly all components of Kurdish nationalism supported the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP). Particularly noticeable among them were Kurdish Islamist nationalists from such religio-political formations as Med-Zehra, Nubihar, Öze Dönüş Platform and Azadi. For the first time in republican history,  Kurdish Islamists acquired publicity as the Islamist segment of the Kurdish national movement and created an Islamic political discourse that severely criticized the notion of Islamic fraternity as the Islamist mask of assimilationism. The emergence of Kurdish Islamism, its Islamic narrative, its secession from the ruling AK Party and its crystallization as the Islamist wing of the Kurdish national/ist movement have produced new challenges for Kurdish as well as Turkish politics.

Introduction

“Though we are essentially Muslim, We are first Kurdish,” therefore “first Kurds and Kurdistan, then Islam” has become a kind of underlying motto of the centrifugal line of Kurdish Islamist nationalists. They consider the discourse of the Islamic fraternity in the context of the Kurdish question as the Islamic face of assimilationism, and point to the need to equate the Kurds’ right to a nation-state with that of Turks on moral grounds. The prioritizing of Kurdish Islamist nationalists of the Kurdish question, or better, the cause of Kurdistan, under the common denominator of “Kurdishness” over the espousal of an Islamic posture neutralizing national identities presents a crystal clear contrast to the position of the AK Party, which favors an integrationist approach based on the notion of Islamic fraternity.

Islamic Fraternity: Blessing or Curse?

Interestingly, during the Kurdish peace process in Turkey (2009-2015), Abdullah Öcalan, the jailed leader of the Kurdistan Workesr’s Party(PKK), referred to the notion of “Islamic fraternity” and a “common history” between Turks and Kurds as a facilitating grounds for the peace. In his Newroz message of 22 March, 2013, he asserted that “the Turkish people who experience the old Anatolia as Turkey must know that their co-living with Kurds throughout centuries is structured by the law of fraternity and solidarity. In the law of fraternity there is no room for conquest, denial, negation, and forced assimilation, and must not be.”

The Ocalan message was welcomed by all the parties. Recently, this stance was qualified by a renown Kurdish leftist politican, Tarik Ziya Ekinci, who argued that the discourse of fraternity is an enslaving one. Kurds are not brothers of anyone nor they want to live as brothers of any people. The only thing they demand is equal and due citizenship.

Kurdish Nationalism and Islamism

Sociopolitical developments since the beginning of the 1990s, together with the AK Party experience in power in the post-2000 years have led the religious segment of the Kurdish people into new quests for a reformulation of the linkage between political power, Islam and Kurdishness. This quest is reflected on two reactive pillars: 1) A state of alert against the policies suggested by the AK Party government regarding the solution of the so-called Kurdish question; 2) A dubious  perception that not only the AK Party but Turkish Islamists as a whole are not in a good position to resolve the issue due to their survivalist mental map: “Either you must divorce from Turkish statist Islamism or stop talking to us about Islamic fraternity”.

Islamicity and Islamists in the Kurdish Question

The Kurdish question was spelled out and debated publicly with all its ramifications for the first time in republican history during the reign of the AK Party governments. Thanks to the AK Party, Islamists, be they Turkish or Kurdish, started discussing the question in its entirety in various sociopolitical environments. During the 1990s, the political discourse of Islamist circles was dominated by the motto that “Islam/Islamic brotherhood is the solution.” Hence, if Islamists could take over power, the question would be resolved on the basis of brotherhood. However, the Kurdish question has not been resolved in the aftermath of Islamists’ takeover of political power. According to Kurdish nationalists of all kinds, as historical subjects, the AK Party’s religious political cadres have proven that their mindsets were shaped under the influence of the Turkish/Kemalist state. Islamic brotherhood assures the rights of non-ethnic brothers in moral terms. Nonetheless, this concept has been misused and contaminated by political powers. Yavuz Delal, a prominent figure of Kurdish Islamists and a member of the Azadi initiative, argues that the Kurdish issue unmasked Turkish Islamists because “Turkish Islamists are not Muslim on the Kurdish issue; therefore Kurds cannot trust them in this regard.” The discourse of brotherhood means the substitution of Muslimness for Kurdishness. Just as secular Turkishness could not suppress Kurds via their “Turkification”, religious “Turkishness” would not be able to do it via “Muslimization”. Living under the same state cannot be tied to “Muslimness”. If citizenship does not have any religious relevance, then Kurds have the same right to be a Kurd while simultaneously holding Muslim identity.

According to the Kurdish Islamists, Muslims in Turkey either remained spectators or were indifferent to the suffering of the Kurds because they had been coopted by the nationalism of the Turkish state. The perspective of Turkish Islamists on the Kurdish question has been shaped by their nationalistic worldview. Their attitudes towards the Kurdish identity has become one of the underlying causes of the present position of Kurds in Turkey. Accordingly, while they treat Kurds as their coreligious brothers, they categorically reject the Kurds’ right to nationhood: “Muslims in Turkey are not Muslim on the Kurdish question.” They approach to the Kurdish question within the paradigm of the syndrome of the national survival that champions unity and solidarity without any recognition of ethnoreligious pluralism.  In their mindset, the recognition of Kurdishness may pave the way for separatism. They will never acknowledge Kurdishness as nationhood neither in the context of human rights nor of Islamic allegiance.

Kurdish/Kurdist Islamists are quite vocal in dubbing the ummah-based discourse of fraternity as a nationalist political language concealing the assimilation of Kurdish existence. To them, the discourse of Islamic fraternity ends up with the negation of the state of nationhood for Kurds, while the prerequisite of this discourse is the establishment of equality and justice inspired by the notion of equity. They raise objections to the use of the concept of ummah as a political discourse for Kurds, both on theoretical and procedural terms.

“Orphan of the Ummah

Kurdish Islamist nationalists justify their position through the notion of equal brotherhood, meaning standing on equal terms with Turks, Arabs or any other nation. Kurds are “the orphans of the ummah implying the prevailing discrimination against Kurds in the respective (Muslim) nation states in which they live. Islamic brotherhood needs to be qualified with concrete suggestions for the political status of Kurds and education in their mother tongue. Otherwise, Islamists are not eligible to speak on the Kurdish issue. Islamist intellectuals and groups are influenced by the official ideology and their perceptions are shaped by Turkish nationalism. They suffer from ignorance because they do not follow the literature on nationalism and the institutional evolution of nation states. It seems that their Islamic understanding is conditioned by the Mızrakli İlmihal – an Ottoman-era national-Islamic catechism. They use Islamic references such as Islamic brotherhood and ummah as if they comprise the vocabulary of French-style Turkish nationalism. Since there is no real counterpart of the idea of Islamic ummah in the present day nation-state system, the Kurdish right to national self-determination cannot be delegitimized on the grounds of Islamic unity.

Kurdish Islamist nationalists question the sincerity of Turkish Islamists in their activism for Palestine or Myanmar Muslims while there are suffering Kurds in their proximity. Their notion of fraternity embraces all Kurds, including non-religious Kurds that strive for the national cause, i.e., partisans of the Kurdish nation, including PKK. The Huda-Par position may be an exception here.

An Exceptional Position: Huda-Par

Although it is a Kurdistani formation, the Huda-Par circle does not share other Kurdish Islamists’ positions regarding the rejection of the involvement of non-Kurds in their organizations. They keep their ummah-centered perspective, though with a special focus on Kurds, and do not prioritize the formation of a Kurdish state as the preferred option for the political status of Kurds. Their motto is “Islam for Kurdistan”. In practice, however, they remain a Kurdish-only organization.

Islamist Critic of Islamist Kurdish Nationalism

The Islamist critic asserts that the political position of Kurdish Islamists on the Kurdish issue is purely nationalistic; they cannot accommodate Islamic identity. The discourse of Kurdish Islamists is perpetuating nationalist identity, and therefore, has a secularizing impact. The fact that the Kurdish people are an oppressed and weakened people (mustazaf) does not confer legitimacy to the nationalist solution of the Kurdish question. The discourse of the Islamic fraternity cannot be condemned to a religious variant of the official assimilationist discourse. It might have possibly been used as such; this state of affairs, however, does not decrease the value of Islamic fraternity for Muslims in providing the feeling of brotherhood going beyond national/ist boundaries. The political discourse adopted by Kurdish Islamists against non-Kurdish Muslim groups and opinion holders is insulting, divisive and breaks the ties of brotherhood. The Kurdish Islamists suffer from the Stockholm syndrome by applauding the secular socialist-nationalist Kurdish movement.

The critic goes on by recalling the issue of the historicity of political subjects including Islamists. Kurdish Islamists tend to position themselves outside the legacy of Islamists in Turkey. Instead of rejecting this legacy of which they are a part, however, they must reckon with it. Muslims in Turkey as a whole are the victim of the Kemalist political system. The subordination of Kurds is an intrinsic part of this picture. Therefore, the claim that Muslims have remained indifferent to the agonies of the Kurds are baseless. A Kurdish state solution is not what Muslims necessarily need for the solution of the so-called Kurdish question. The problems caused by the logic of a certain nation/state cannot be remedied by the establishment of another one. Instead, this would lead to the reemergence of the vicious circle of what nation states lead to in terms of human pluralism and national self-identity.

Conclusion: Finger or Nail?

Musa Anter, a political activist and “wise man” of Kurdish nationalism, once said that “Turks and Kurds are intertwined; they cannot be separated”. The metaphor of “finger and nail” has been widely used by Turks and Kurds alike to stress why they must live together. Nowadays, Kurdish nationalists raise their finger of objection and argue that this state of affairs is not endurable because Kurds are always considered the nail and Turks the finger. Whenever the nail has grown, it has been cut down by the Turkish state. Kurdish-Islamist nationalism seems to add a new weight to this notion of “need for dissociation of finger and nail” and become well entrenched into the political scene as a centrifugal force.

1 http://tr.euronews.com/2013/03/22/abdullah-ocalan-in-mektubunun-tam-metni/ (Accessed: 5 October 2015)

2 http://www.ilkehaber.com/haber/tarik-ziya-ekinci-kardeslik-soylemi-kolelestirici-33857.html

3 For a succint summary of the rejection of the discourse of Islamic fraternity implying the recognition of Kurdishness as antithetical of Islamic identity see, among many others, Mücahit Bilici, “Kardeşlikte Zorlama Yoktur,” (There is no Compulsion in Fraternity), Taraf Daily, 17August 2013.

4 Mazlum-Der İkinci Kürt Forumu 17-18 Kasım 2012 İznik-Bursa (Ankara: Mazlum-Der, 2013),p.261.

5 Mazlum-Der İkinci Kürt Forumu, p.9.

6 Ibid, p.242

7 Mücahit Bilici, “Türklüğün Şartları Üçten ikiye İndi: Kültürel Anayasa ve Kürtler” (The Terms of Turkishness have Decreased from Three to Two)

    http://hurbakis.net/content/turklugun-sartlari-ucten-ikiye-indi-kulturel-anayasa-ve-kurtler, (Accessed:

    30 November 2012).

8 Sociologist and columnist Mücahit Bilici uses the appellation of “zimmi” (the protected) for the position of Muslim Kurds vis a vis Turkish Islamists. See his piece ““Kürtler zımmi midir?” (Are Kurds Zimmis?) in Taraf Daily, 21 September 2013.

 

9 For a sharp criticism of adherents of Turkish Islam using Islam as a nationality imbued with Turkish identity in order to hide their negation of Kurdishness or as a precondition for recognition of Kurds as “religious brothers”, see Mücahit Bilici, “Türklüğün Şartları Üçten ikiye İndi: Kültürel Anayasa ve Kürtler”

    http://hurbakis.net/content/turklugun-sartlari-ucten-ikiye-indi-kulturel-anayasa-ve-kurtler, (Accessed: 30 November 2012).

 

10 The phrase used in the title of the book by the Egyptian writer Fehmi Şinnavi, İslam Ümmetinin Yetimleri Kürtler (Kurds: the Orphans of the Muslim Ummah). Trans. Recep Perçinli (Istanbul: Şura, 1997).

11 See the interview with the head of the Nubihar Association, lawyer Raif Ayçiçek, http://komanubihar.org/kurmanci/?p=161 (Accessed: 14 May 2014).

12 See the views expressed by the representative of the Nubihar Association, Muhyeddin Kaya, in Kurdish Forum organized by Mazlum-Der, “Tanımlama Ekseninde “Kürt Sorunu” in Mazlumder 2. Kürt Sorunu Forumu, p.103.

13 Ibid., p.104-5.

14 See Hamza Türkmen, “Türk İslamcı, Kürt İslamcı Olur mu?” http://www.haksozhaber.net/turk-islamci,-kurt-islamci-olur-mu-2-17688yy.htm  (Accessed  16 February 2014).

15 See Sibel Eraslan, “İslamcılar Kürt Meselesinden Sarf-ı Nazar Ettiler mi?” (Have Islamists Declined the Kurdish Question as an Issue?), Star, 12 October 2011.

16 Hamza Türkmen, Açılım Politikaları, Kemalizm ve Müslümanlar (Democratic Opening, Kemalism and Muslims) (Istanbul: Ekin:2010), p.79-85.

17 Sibel Eraslan, “İslamcılık Antoloji mi, Birikim mi?” (Is Islamism an Anthology or Accumulation?), Star, 14 October 2011.

18 Hamza Türkmen, “Türk İslamcı, Kürt İslamcı Olur mu?”( Can There be Turk Islamist or Kurd Islamist?), http://www.haksozhaber.net/author_article_detail.php?id=17652  (Accessed: 21 April 2013.

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