The KCK -PKK’s Politico-Ideological Discourse Towards Islam: A Replica of the Kemalist Model?

The KCK-PKK’s essentialism regarding Islam has long targeted sheikhs and aghas, the traditional loci of powers in the Kurdish environment.

Abstract

The KCK-PKK’s essentialism regarding Islam targeted sheikhs and aghas, the traditional loci of powers in the Kurdish socio-political habitat. This essentialism has been qualified due to structural changes happened over time in the socio-political milieu coupled with the democratizing impact of participating to the political game. With the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party(AK Party), the KCK-PKK shifted its political discourse regarding Islam by aligning it with “the real” and “the true” Islam. The essentialism of KCK-PKK’s discourse abandoned the antagonistic stance against Islam by first adopting an instrumental approach to forming a Kurdish Islam, and then espousing a conciliatory position viewing Islam as an integral element of the Kurdish movement provided that it becomes functional as a justificatory tool. Despite all this, the KCK-PKK’s politico-ideological discourse is not free of the sporadic signs of secularist antagonism towards Islam. 

The KCK-PKK’s ideological discourse towards “the Islamic factor” is determined by its cognitively secularist Kurdish essentialism. Islam is considered to be a progressive force in its Arab, Persian and Turkic articulations thanks to the creation of national Islamic movements geared to their national zeal. In case of the Kurds, however, Islam remained an alien element to the Kurdish essence and was turned into an agent of foreign domination by i.e. Arabs, Persians and Turks respectively. In this chain of exploitation, the Kurdish native element is represented by the Kurdish local notables, aghas and public religious leaders, sheikhs and sayyids. What emanates from this description of Islam as a non-national and foreign entity to the Kurdish essence is that Arab, Persian and Turkish Islam has perpetrated the Kurdish plight by obstructing the development of their national consciousness, and of a national Islam adapted to the Kurdish national character.

Controlled by the use of the naked force of the PKK in a Jacobin fashion, the nationalization of Kurdish essence has been predicated on the secularist conception of the Kemalist Enlightenment

Interestingly, this characterization of the role of Islam in a national Kurdish society is thoroughly in line with the Kemalist comprehension, which argues that Islam was the primary cause of the lack of the national consciousness among Ottoman Turks. Secularist Kurdish elites, like Kemalist elites, considered Islam to be responsible for the late development of their national consciousness and thus being the primary cause behind their scientific and national underdevelopment. The Kurdish people, in this narrative, are in imminent need of the secular enlightenment and the development of a national selfhood in order to save themselves from backwardness and foreign domination. The traditional religious beliefs prevalent among Kurdish people are mocked and shamed.

In view of all this, the traditional Kurdish elites should be cast out and to replaced by the transcendent secularist cult of leadership formed around the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan. Kurdish women should be liberated along the lines of national emancipation based on the negation of the family. That is why both leaders of the PKK and its political extensions have sporadically claimed that they possess an important common denominator with the Kemalist ruling elites, reflected in their insistence on the secularization of Kurdish society. Controlled by the use of the naked force of the PKK in a Jacobin fashion, the nationalization of Kurdish essence has been predicated on the secularist conception of the Kemalist Enlightenment.

The PKK’s program of constructing an emancipated Kurdish national selfhood aims at the assimilation of the Kurdish people and Islam on the one hand, and creates a space of opportunity through which the Kemalist and PKK elites may be aligned through secularist brotherhood on the other. It is evident that PKK’s ideological discourse towards Islam is pragmatic enough to permit the existence of legitimate room for the instrumental use of Islam in order to nationally naturalize it. This position shows the PKK’s “assimilationist” policies towards Kurdish people.

The essentialist definition of Kurdish religion points to Zoroastrianism as the native and national religion of Kurds, and Yezidism as the surviving residual of it.1 Islam in this  portrayal is an intrinsically alien religion for Kurds. Mehdi Zana, one of the former mayors of the city of Diyarbakır and a renowned Kurdish nationalist repeatedly declared that Zoroastrianism is the national religion of the Kurds and that Islam has had a retarding impact on the development of Kurdish national feelings.

According to Zana, the adoption of Islam by Kurds was a forced imposition, and not legitimate by implication.2 The Kemalist narrative of history has an equivalent of this discourse based on the glorification of the pre-Islamic past as more “national” and “native”. Murat Karayılan, the leading figure of the PKK, in his book The Anatomy of a War: The Military Line in Kurdistan (Bir Savaşın Anatomisi: Kürdistan’da Askeri Çizgi) argues that unlike other societies who built up their own national version of Islam, Kurds did not make their own version of Islam, the result of which was their Arabization via the institutions epitomised by the Sheikhs and Sayyids.  Thus Kurds socially experienced a radical break from their essential national ideology and became strongly entrenched within foreign domination.

This caused deep fractions within the Kurdish community and prevented its unity.3 This narration is a direct emulation of Kemalist protestantism. Karayılan considers the Naqshbandi Sufi Order, the most powerful order among Kurds because its Kurdistani branch was founded by the Kurdish Sheikh Mawlana Halid, as a power network within Kurdish society established by foreign hegemonic states in the guise of religion. Naqshibandism, he says, is one of the prime barriers to the development of national thinking among Kurds because of its links first with the Ottoman, and later the Turkish state, which turned it into a collaborationist power belt dominated by imperialism.4 What emanates from this essentialist description of Islam is the following: Islam is perceived as an imposed alien force not adapted to the national creed and hence amenable to the intrusion of foreign domination through Naqshibandism.

This essentialist “Trojan horse Islam” discourse prevailed in the PKK’s ideological discourse during the 1980s. During this period, the PKK’s major rivals in Kurdish society were the tribal chiefs and leaders of Sufi orders (shaikhs): basically, Naqshibandism. Therefore, calling for national resistance in line with its socialist credentials, the PKK targeted these two groups. This discourse was also nurtured by Kurdish nationalist poetry exemplified by the Diwan poetry of a former Kurdish mullah. Islam was described in Cigerxwhin’s poems as a malign tool in the hands of the reactionary twins, ie., aghas and sheikhs. The 1980s is characterized by a purely ideologically determined discourse against Islam. Sunni Islam’s legitimatory stance towards the existing political order, i.e., the Turkish state, and its integratory function by promoting Islamic fraternity between Kurds and Turks through discouraging Kurdish ethnic nationalism led the PKK to adopt a radically confrontational position towards Islam and its traditional perpetrators in Kurdish society, ie., sufi orders.

This is why Öcalan describes Islam in this juxtaposition as a Trojan horse of the Turkish state, seemingly Kurdish but in reality a source of Turkish domination over the Kurds. According to Öcalan, religious dogmas are the major obstacle obscuring the correct interpretation of the world by Kurdish people.5 Thus, in the 1980s, the PKK tried to identify Islam with the Turkish state and traditional Sufi orders were conceived as an agent of the Turkish state in order to carve out a legitimate place for itself among the Kurds on the one hand, and to delegitimize and reduce the role of Islam in Kurdish society, on the other. These twofold targets made the PKK a more powerful secularizing force than the Kemalist state in Kurdish society. Thanks to appealing to nationalist feelings via a decolonizing socialist discourse, the Kurdish people were secularized to an extent that the Kemalists never achieved. The so-called emancipation of women in the form of their subjectivity, non-marital roles and military engagement is a case in point.

In the 90s, with the downfall of  the Soviets and the rise of Kurdish Hezbollah as a new and powerful politico-military agent led the PKK to adopt a more conciliatory language towards Islam. The PKK ceased to identify itself as a Marxist-Leninist movement and set out practicing a more gentle, tactically motivated, and opportunistic language about Islam in order to coopt its Kurdish popular base by defaming Hezbollah while expressing respect for Islam. This instrumental discourse had two components: to identify Hezbollah with the Kemalist state and to portray it as its agent, and to keep the PKK’s base of support away from the impact of Hezbollah. In this conjuncture, Islam became treated as a sociological reality rather than something that could be fought and replaced.

The PKK discourse regarding Islam during the 90s, while the movement still professed its allegiance to true laïcité, suggested that Kemalist laïcité had been hypocritical in allowing the existence of the Directorate of the Religious Affairs and resorting to the help of Sufi orders and other religious groups to break the Kurdish national resistance.6 The PKK in its relevant discourse draws on “real laïcité” as opposed to the practices of the Kemalist state and true Islam as opposed to the Islam of Hezbollah. The real laïcité showed Kemalist hypocrisy which revealed itself also in Kemalist backing of the radical secularism represented by the 28th February 1997 military coup by memorandum. The PKK’s real Islam was depicted as the Islam of the age of the prophethood (Asr-ı Saadet). This Islam was revolutionary and anti-imperialist by nature, inherited  from the line of Ali and his supporters. In the final analysis, Öcalan suggests the use of Islam against western imperialism,7 ironically a stance shared also by Kemalism. In Öcalan’s writings Islam is now portrayed as a revolutionary force compatible with the PKK’s national socialism. Thus the PKK becomes the remanifestation of the Islam of the Asr-ı Saadet in Kurdistan.8 This discursive change is not only an indication of an ideological commitment but rather a pragmatic consideration dictated by the aforementioned conditions.

Under AK Party rule, a radical discursive shift occurred in the political language of the PKK, reflecting itself through the emphasis on the word “democracy”. The fact that its leader was kept in jail was a crucial factor in explaining this change. Since the Kemalist establishment was taken as the main locus of power within the state apparatus, the AK Party as the new incumbent party in the government was labeled as being pro-tariqat (sect) and accused of being deceitful political Islamists detrimental to the secular nature of the state. The democratizing reforms in the field of religious freedom, especially the removal of the ban on the use of headscarf, were not endorsed by the PKK, and the Party for a Democratic Society (DTP), the PKK’s then-legal political extension.9 The parliamentary members of the party repeatedly invited the secular forces to consider them as allies against political islamists on the issue of laïcité. They stressed that both they and the Kemalist establishment held common feelings against the political Islam allegedly represented by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).10 This anti-headscarf discourse has changed over time, and  the Peoples’ Democratic Party(HDP) nominated female candidates who wore the headscarf during the two general elections held in 2015.

When it became evident that AK Party was not a guest but an incumbent in power, and that it would take steps for the democratic resolution of the Kurdish question through the so-called “Democratic Initiative” in late 2009, the KCK-PKK softened its oppositional stance towards the AK party; a reflection of this shift was seen in the reluctance of the PKK to align itself with the Gezi Protests of 2013, an environmentalist protest against the decision of the Metropolitan Municipality of Istanbul to build a shopping center in Taksim Gezi Park, which later turned into an uprising against the AK Party government during the summer of 2013. In line with the ups and downs of the so-called settlement process, the PKK used Islam as an instrumental element for Kurdish nation building. Despite the KCK-PKK and their legal political extensions occasionally carrying out Islamophobic actions,11 they resorted to civic Friday prayers held outside official mosques and led by imams unaffiliated with the state, and even recited the Friday sermons in Kurdish, a Kemalist type practice aiming at secularizing Islam via nationalizing it.12 The PKK employed Islamic concepts like mümin, münafık, and inkarcı, the contents of which they defined by their instrumental needs in their politico-ideological writings.13 This conciliatory approach towards Islam found an echo in the November 2015 election campaign of Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party(HDP), which included references to the Medina Agreement and Said Nursi, the renowned Kurdish Islamic scholar.14

The mission was to create an alternative Islam to Saudi and Iranian Islams and to carve out a legitimate place for Kurdish nationalism within the Islamic frame of reference.

The Democratic Islamic Congress, the peak of the KCK-PKK’s “instrumental warm feelings” towards Islam, was held on May 10-11, 2014 in Diyarbakır on the orders of Öcalan. In his message sent to the Congress, Öcalan addressed his “believing brothers” and gave them a mission. The mission was to create an alternative Islam to Saudi and Iranian Islams and to carve out a legitimate place for Kurdish nationalism within the Islamic frame of reference. The Congress was opened with the recitation of the Quran. The multicultural political discourse was justified by reference to the Medina document of the Prophet’s time, which regulated the rules of co-existence and co-defense against aggressors between the Muslim and Jewish communities in Medina city through the joint agreement of the parties.  Thus the Islamic axis turned out to be a common denominator of the peace process shared both by Öcalan and the AK Party leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.15 With the mass support of Kurdish Islamists in the June 7, 2015 general elections, an Islamic component seems to have been added into the amalgam of the PKK-KCK’s politico-ideological baggage, the consequences of which, however, remain to be seen.

It suffices here to state that the Kurdish nationalist movement now has a strong Islamic support base in its grassroots and has to compete for the religious Kurdish vote with the ruling AK party. The volatile nature of the electoral support lent to the HDP in the two subsequent general elections of 2015 has made the HDP vulnerable to the religious Kurdish vote. In the process of becoming a Kurdish mass movement, the KCK-PKK leadership can no longer sustain an overtly anti-Islamic discourse. Consequently, we may expect Kurdish nationalist credentials to be increasingly justified in instrumental Islamic terms. This instrumentalism in the medium term may turn out to be a structural indigenous element of the KCK-PKK political discourse vis-a-vis the rivalries represented by Kurdish Hezbollah, the Sufi orders, and the AK Party in the social and political sphere.


1.  Murat Karayılan, “İslamiyetin Kürdistan’a Girişi,” (the Entrance of Islam to Kurdistan) Bir Savaşın Anatomisi, Kürdistan’da Askeri Çizgi (The Anatomy of a War: The Military Line in Kurdistan), p. 30-34.

2.  “Mehdi Zana: Kürtlerin asıl dini Zerdüştlük,” (The Real religion of the Kurds is  Zoroastrianism)http://www.zaman.com.tr/politika_mehdi-zana-kurtlerin-asil-dini-zerdustluk_522250.html, accessed on 27 February 2016.

3.  Karayılan, “İslamiyetin Kürdistan’a Girişi,” Bir Savaşın Anatomisi, p.30-34.

4.  Ibid., “Nakşibendi Tarikatı’nın Kürdistan’da etkileri,”  p. 42-44.

5.  Abdullah Öcalan, Kürdistan Devriminin  Yolu(Manifesto) (The Road to Kurdistan Revolution(Manifesto)(Köln: Weşanen Serxwebun, 1993), p. 25.

6.  Abdullah Öcalan, Din Sorununa Devrimci Yaklaşım (The Revolutionary Approach to the Question of the Religion), 3rd.ed. (Weşanen Serxwebun, October 2008), p. 73.

7.  Ibid., p. 78.

8.  Abdullah Öcalan, Demokratik Devrimde Halk Serhildanları(Popular Uprisings in the Democratic Revolution), Vol.1 (Bilim Aydınlanma Yayınları, n.p., n.d.), p. 117.

9.  Öcalan sees this liberty as a blow to women’s freedom. See Azad Badıki, “Kürt Halkının Önderi Abdullah Öcalan’ın  07.04.2004 Görüşme Notları:” p. 18.https://rojbas1.files.wordpress.com/2011/10/gc3b6rc3bccfme-notlarc-4b-2004.pdf . In line with the anti-headscarf position, DTP did not support the constitutional change removing the headscarf ban. See “Türbanın Çözümüne DTP’den Destek Yok,” Hürriyet, 17 January 2008.

10.  See “DTP’li Vekilden Tuhaf Açıklama: Bazıları Hala 1400 Yıl Önceki Hükümlerle Hareket Ediyor,”http://www.zaman.com.tr/politika_dtpli-vekilden-tuhaf-aciklama-bazilari-hala-1400-yil-onceki-hukumlerle-hareket-ediyor_624922.html accessed on 27 February 2016.

11.  For instance, the Yenişehir Municipality of Diyarbakır Metropolitan City under the rule of the Democratic Peoples’ Party (HDP) prepared public billboards depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a child abuser. This created much public anger expressed by the Diyarbakır Ulu Camii Preacher Sait Yaz in his Friday sermon. The municipality apologized for the poster and removed it. For the sermon see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lbp5BwWSfc0b For the event its backlashes, see http://www.timeturk.com/yenisehir-belediyesi-nden-ilk-aciklama/haber-74814 andhttp://www.haber7.com/guncel/haber/1621829-diyarbakirda-asilan-afise-afisli-tepki accessed on 27 February 2016.

12.  http://www.gazetevatan.com/apo-posterli-cuma-namazi–371482-gundem, accessed on 27 February 2016.

13.  See KCK Leadership Council, “Önderlik Gerçeğini Doğru Kavrayalım ve Önder Apoyu Özgürlüğüne Kavuşturalım” Serxwebun,No.: 385(2014), p. 24. The use of concepts with religious connotations like martyrdom, funeral prayers, a ceasefire declaration during the month of Ramadan in 2010, and labelling the resistance against oppression as a religious duty all reflect the instrumental use of Islam for national purposes. See for exemple, “Zulme Karşı direniş ibadettir,” Özgür Gündem, 22 September 2015,

Karayılan, “Preface,” The Anatomy of a War, p.9,  and Safin Hamed, “Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) number two leader Bozan Tekine….”  Getty Images. 14 Aug. 2010. eLibrary. Web. 15 Feb. 2016.

14.  http://haber.sol.org.tr/turkiye/demirtastan-said-nursili-aciklama-peygamberimizin-medine-sozlesmesi-referanslarimizdan24 Ekim 2015.

15.  http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/tr/originals/2016/02/turkey-erdogan-new-kurdish allies.html#ixzz40RN1WtH3

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