CEFTUS Insights Interview with Abdurrahman Kurt
London, September 2013*
Abdurrahman Kurt is former AKP MP for Diyarbakir and member of the Wise People Commission on the Kurdish peace process.
Our discussion with Abdurrahman Kurt began with his political background. He described how, like many others in the region, he did not use to vote. Faced with Turkey’s ‘deep state’, most people in the East of Turkey were cynical of politics and did not believe in its transformative potential. He described how the eve of the AK Party saw him take to the ballot box, voting for the first time in his life in the 2007 elections which brought him to government as an MP.
The Kurdish Issue
“Think about it, in the past, we firstly had to argue that Kurds existed whenever we spoke about the Kurdish issue in Turkey, but today, we are arguing for equality for Kurds…”
CEFTUS Insights: In Turkey you are known for a number of things, aside from being a politician: your work with the government, your recommendations on the Kurdish issue and the Prime Minister’s confidence in you. Your commentary and analysis are said to influence the government’s policies on the Kurdish issue. Considering that the Kurdish issue is understood and defined quite differently by all parties, I would like to ask you how you define the Kurdish issue. We all know that when definitions of issues differ the solutions often differ too…
Abdurrahman Kurt: Firstly, thank you for your comments, which are quite assertive. While I know that the party values me, it is true that they also get frustrated with me. This is in part a result of my views on allowing education to be carried out in the students’ mother tongue. However, despite some differences, I have good relations with the party.
The government and I have different views on the Kurdish issue. For a long time, I have defended the rights of the religious community against the unjust treatment that they have encountered at the hands of the state, because I am religious as well as being a Kurd.
At the same time, even when the pious community were unfamiliar with the Kurdish issue, I, with others, defended the rights of Kurds against the injustices that they were facing. We were probably the first group to organise ourselves on this issue in Turkey.
My stance on the Kurdish issue isolated me from much of the religious community. At that time the pious community were relatively insensitive towards the Kurdish issue. This was in part due to the fact that many of the people who spoke up about the Kurdish issue were known to be non-religious and even anti-religion.
Even though both groups faced discrimination by the state, their opposing stance on religion meant that there was antipathy between the two groups. Some left-wing Kurds tried to position themselves against the pious community, but this position was too close to that of the state. Therefore, we could not take part in that, either. That is to say, we could not adopt the left’s Islamophobic and ultra-secular discourse or the discourse of the pious community, which was similar to state’s anti-left-wing stance. We remained outside, which ultimately made us produce our own discourse.
CI: So you are saying that there is an identity dimension to it…
AK: In my view, religion is not about performing daily prayers or fasting. Religion preaches that you behave in a certain way, for example to be fair towards other people. This has a direct implication upon the rights of women, different ethnicities and children.
Although I am speaking about theology, there is a connection to the issue at hand. There is an ethnic discrimination in the story of Moses. The circumstances in that story are very similar to the Kurdish issue. Moses Alayhi s-salām comes from a minority clan, but he grows up in Pharaoh’s palace. Pharaoh chooses to claim that he is the Lord of the minorities as well as his own people… He tyrannizes the lives of his own people and minorities by dictating their lifestyle, however, the minorities, for being a minority, suffer more from his tyranny. This is the difference between the Kurds and the Turkish Muslims in Turkey.
We theorised this a long time ago, which was unusual then… My bond with the Kurdish issue goes back a long way. Today, the regime has two main targets; one is Islamic fundamentalism (irtica) and the other is separatism.
CI: Is it fair to say that the threat of Islamic fundamentalism is no longer so great, but that the fear of separatism is still very much alive?
AK: What is and what is not considered to be a danger is open to discussion. Take the reform laws, for example. The reason why Cemevis remain closed is because we cannot amend the reform law on dervish lodges. Although there is still no legal procedure with regards to wearing headscarves, the pious community is more content with the government when it comes to this issue, because they trust the government to make the necessary amendments when they acquire more power.
Although we have not achieved much in relation to the Kurdish issue, there is still confidence that those who are currently in the government will act sympathetically towards the Kurdish issue and will try their best to find a solution because both the religious people and the Kurds have suffered at the hands of the state.
Not all Kurds have such confidence, though. In the past the pious community viewed the Kurdish issue through an anti-communist lens (a stance which was produced by the regime). However, things have changed. Think about it, in the past, we firstly had to argue that Kurds existed whenever we spoke about the Kurdish issue in Turkey, but today, we are arguing for equality for Kurds…
CI: So then this is about intentions, the government actually wants to achieve this goal, but cannot do so as it fears that such action could unbalance the dynamics within the country?
AK: I cannot easily express the government’s aims in this area, but there are certainly some differences between what I would like and what the government aims to do. The reason for this is that I have been a victim of both injustices. However, both sides have different perspectives due to their different backgrounds, so it is natural that they do not think the same way as me. The point is that they are well meaning and they are the ones who can solve this problem and achieve the goal of bringing peace. There may well be many aspects that we could criticise, indeed there are, because politicians are not what we pious people might describe as ‘prophets’. If you ask me what we should do, I would suggest positive opposition and a constructive approach without preventing people from exercising their rights.
CI: I now would like to talk about the peace process. News about the ceasefire, the PKK laying down its arms and the government’s steps towards peace have been welcomed by the public. I was in the region, I visited many cities and I could feel the festive air all around. However, soon after, we saw a change in both sides’ attitudes, in particular, threats from both sides following the PKK’s decision to suspend its withdrawal. The government’s stance of not acknowledging the opposition’s actions and going ahead with its own plan…
AK: That is not what the Prime Minister’s attitude was.
CI: But, if we speak frankly…
AK: Ok, let’s be frank. As an insider, I can say that there are three tiers of the agreement and it started with Ocalan’s proposal. When Ocalan said “I would like to step in. If you let me I can stop the clashes. I can first withdraw the militia as I did in 1999. We can then resolve this issue with negotiations”, the government, at first, did not believe it. I remember that we broached the subject and the Prime Minister said that they wouldn’t even listen to Ocalan. That was because of the Silvan incident, and a reluctance to start yet another ‘peace process’ that was in no way guaranteed to succeed. This is not the first process. The Prime Minister said “we have tried this 7 times and they have let us down 7 times”. We persuaded him that by not listening to Ocalan now, the tension between the government and the PKK would only increase. The first tier of the agreement is to establish a ceasefire and to arrange a withdrawal. The second is democratisation and the third is normalisation. Since the start, PKK has refused to withdraw. Those are the facts, if we are speaking frankly.
“Despite Kandil, Ocalan managed to stop the strikes with a meeting with Mehmet Ocalan and that is how the negotiations began. There might be hesitations. There was a ceasefire promising withdrawal, but the government acted selflessly here…”
CI: But do the negotiations not suggest that democratisation and withdrawal will simultaneously occur?
AK: No. These are all attempts to avert the negotiations. Check the TV records from that day and you will see that the Prime Minister stated that “they should withdraw first and we will step forward”. They first said they were withdrawing, but 90% of them are still active at the borders. Then they asked why the Heron UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) were still being used. Well, they were observing what was going on.
Let us be realistic about what has been happening. First of all, the whole process started despite Kandil. How did it start? The hunger strike began in prisons over which neither Kandil nor Imrali had control. Whilst the language used by Kandil showed his desire to drive the strike as far as it could go, Ocalan wanted to step in. The BDP (Peace and Democracy Party) made attempts to stop Ocalan from doing so. Have a look at Mahmut Ovur’s piece published on the 1st November. A BDP Mayor phoned and asked me to intervene to save the lives of these people in prisons. Mehmet Ovur, in his piece, mentions an AK Party official. At first, I didn’t realise that he actually meant me, but in the negotiations I noticed that I was the only AK Party official, so it must’ve been me to whom he referred. KCK-BDP people tried to prevent Mehmet Ocalan from going to Imrali, but the hunger strikers let it be known that they would only quit if Ocalan asked them to do so. However, Kandil insisted that Ocalan did not. Despite Kandil, Ocalan managed to stop the strikes through a meeting with Mehmet Ocalan and that is how the negotiations began.
There might be hesitations. There was a ceasefire promising withdrawal, despite the fact that the military has made 50 requests for permission to take action against insurgencies in some places. In this way, you can see that the government acted selflessly in agreeing to the ceasefire. Undoubtedly the military will recall these denied requests for permission to take military action at some point in the future. Despite this, the government took these risks and began the process.
Let me tell you something else; I should say that I have had clashes with my party on the topic of the Kurds and their rights, so this is not party propaganda. We are talking about good intentions. What is happening now is that both sides are casting blame at each other after the news of suspension of the withdrawal. The reason is that they do not want to enter the election period without arms. They lack self-confidence on this issue. The second reason is that they would like to keep maintain a strong military capacity, because of the ongoing conflict in Syria. They would like to ensure Ocalan’s is in a strong position, so that he can come forward if and when there are problems. This is the third reason.
We cannot blame the government on this matter. What we can blame the government for is their stance on issues such as education in the mother-tongue. Why is education in the mother-tongue a red line for the government? Or why isn’t the election threshold lowered? I think these are the issues that we should confront the government with! However this is a political process anyway… See what Ocalan has said…
CI: Did the government agree to withdraw its weapons?
AK: The government did not actually agree to this. When Ocalan expressed this wish, the government merely agreed to speak with him. Did you ever actually hear the government agree to negotiate on this issue? What is Bekir Bozdag saying? He is saying: we will do what we set out to do. The problem is this; I think we should criticize the government on the Kurdish question, but not on combat. Why shouldn’t we criticize the government on combat?
Ocalan has a very clear statement regarding the 21st March issue; we should remember that the main axis of the agreement rests on this statement: he said, “we have ended the phase of armed struggle. We are entering a phase of civil politics and democratic struggle.” Here it is significant to recognize that Ocalan ended the armed struggle, he is not calling an end to the struggle altogether. He is aware that the problem has not been solved. He is aware that it will be difficult to reach a settlement on every topic. The Kurdish question cannot be solved in one day. Why not? Achieving absolute equality to the extent that I wish requires time.
Mr. Demirtaş states that 99% of the Kurdish problem is that of education in the mother tongue, however, I do not agree with this. The Kurdish problem is not just about education in the mother tongue, it is a problem of equality. It is a matter of equality in the government’s perception of ethnicity. It could also be called a problem of being a nation. If the state gives up on the concept of nation, altogether, in the way that it identifies itself, then you could give up on it, too. However, this is a matter of equality, meaning this is an issue of not being second class. There is a significant problem if you are under someone else’s disposition regarding your own rights. This problem cannot only be defined by language.
The Kurdish question is a much broader problem. I must say here that this issue should no longer be pursued through armed struggle. Democratic and political means are now open and through these channels, legal arenas could be expanded to obtain concrete results. This will be beneficial for all peoples in Turkey.
CI: Are the democratic channels really open? I feel the need to ask about the KCK case…
AK: They are open. When I say the democratic channels are open I do not mean that everyone is entirely free. Ten thousand members of the KCK are in jail, many victims of the 28th February military intervention are in jail, women wearing headscarves still have no legal recognition… I can’t say that all these issues have been fixed, but all I can say is that the means are now more available. Despite the old tutelage regime (vesayet), the AK Party could come to power using these means and these means and channels are still being expanded. Everyone agrees on the need to expand these means and channels, however, opinions differ on how to expand them. In the past, when ethnic differences were denied and the government pursued a policy of assimilation, the state exercised its coercive power to maintain the status quo. However, the use of force is no longer justified. Therefore, by saying that democratic means are open, I did not mean that we have achieved democracy. Democracy has no end…
“Gezi is the Turkish version of the coup in Egypt”
CI: At this point, I would like to move on to another important topic; Gezi protests. I have been following you on social media and I’ll ask a very simple question; what is Gezi?
AK: Firstly, Gezi is not just one thing. I do not believe that its occurrence was innocent, I believe it was planned. There is a generation called the Y generation and they are not aware of anything. What is Gezi for whom? For a girl with a headscarf, Gezi is about being insulted, harassed. For a young member of the Y generation, Gezi is about raising one’s voice against the government interfering with their lifestyle. For white Turks, Gezi is about bringing down the AK Party. We need to look at the meaning of Gezi from the point of view of who you are asking about…
CI: I would like to find out what it means to you.
AK: For me, Gezi is an attack on my house. It is about the daughter in law of a mayor being attacked in Beşiktaş. It is that the daughter of one of my minister friends was forced to drop her baby from her hands. It is that the wife of my MP friend was attacked.
CI: But if you refer to these, I could mention that Gezi is the death of five young people. It is the death of Ahmet Atakan last night in Antakya. What you are talking about is the anger of the streets. However, what is the background of Gezi?
AK: Of course… It is the massacre of Ali Ihsan because of this hooliganism. For some romantics, the background of Gezi is trying to make an Engels out of Koç. This is one dimension to it. On the other hand, Gezi is a movement supported vehemently by the White Turks as a means of expressing their hatred of the AK Party. Let us separate such intentions from the people who died on the streets. Those people are also victims. However, behind the surface of the deaths of innocent people, Gezi is the Turkish version of the coup in Egypt.
CI: What happened in Egypt was organized and planned. However, if we observe the first three days – which we all have, as I’m sure you did as well – Gezi was a reflection of people’s reaction to the police violence on the streets. Once the reaction was manifested on the streets, confidence increased and the protests developed.
AK: Everyone – including us – supported the criticisms of the police violence. However, after being faced with the other dimensions to these protests, our attitude changed. Those who attacked us with their neo-nationalist flags wherever we went as the ‘Wise People’ commission in the past have begun to appear side by side with BDP’s flags. What brought them together? The BDP flag was also organized by the HDK (People’s Democratic Congress), because there was an immense backlash against Gezi by the BDP constituency. I went to Van where our brothers from BDP welcomed us in a picnic arena. Everyone there was outraged by Gezi. However, under the HDK framework, some people went to the protests with BDP flags, with an aim of pretending to have a brotherhood between Gezi and Lice.
CI: The BDP did not really join the Gezi in masses. There were only individual participations in central locations like Istanbul.
AK: Let me tell you this. The people did not allow it, and the BDP did not resort to it, because of the desires of the people.
“Are you allowed here in the UK to protest after five in the afternoon? Can you give me an example of any democratic country? What are the restrictions? They have occupied the streets for a month and protested.”
CI: Of course there were manipulators, external forces and dark forces intervening, however, can we still not say that Gezi was the reflection of democratic anger on the streets?
AK: You could tell this story by portraying what is happening today as tyranny to someone who lives outside of Turkey, however, that story would not work for us. Because we lived through the tyranny of this regime. Back in the day, we could not even pass by a police station… Now all stations are covered with CCTV. Not one unresolved murder is allowed. Turkey passed a law in the European Court of Human Rights which ensures that if a member of the police force is found guilty by the ECHR, the individual rather than the state will have to pay the amount of compensation to the ECHR. Does this not show the good will of the state against injustices? The state is very much in control of this, please do not underestimate. I am not saying that we have reached heaven or Nirvana. However, we are very aware of where we have come from.
CI: We are progressing, we are stripping Turkey of its old pro-status quo rulers, of the old tutelage regime, we agree on this.
AK: In the past, it was impossible to get a statement from a corporal. Breaking the tutelage regime is not as easy as it sounds. The tutelage regime was the mother of all problems. In Kurdish mythology, we call an entity that feeds on all problems ‘Dehak’. Dehak in Turkey is the tutelage regime. This party has killed the Dehak. This has been the most important parameter of opening up the system.
CI: One journalist made a very nice comment; yes, you have removed tanks off the streets, however now we have TOMAs (Vehicle of Intervention in Societal Events). Is this democracy?
AK: Are you allowed here in the UK to protest after five in the afternoon? Can you give me an example of any democratic country? What are the restrictions? They occupied the streets for a month and protested. None of the democratic countries would allow this. Everyone is commenting, even the religious sections are criticizing our party, and we do need criticism. As I said, we have a long road ahead of us.
CI: The government has created an opposition for itself…
AK: And the opposition has brought together all those who were cross with the party. Once they were taken seriously and called into a meeting (by the government), they objected to everything, saying don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t construct the airport. Well, you come and rule the country. This party has come to power with votes; the demands and objections of the opposition thus become an insult to my vote. It is an insult to my will; this is how I interpret it. If you are strong and righteous enough you would not occupy the PM’s residency or ask the EU to intervene.
CI: I would like to remind you that there were calls during the Gezi Protests, stating that “democracy is not just the ballot box, you should acknowledge us too”
AK: Of course, democracy is not just the ballot box. The perception about the ballot box depends on the person and on what their intention is. I cannot agree with anyone who suggests that democracy is not the ballot box, but also proposes a coup.
CI: There are claims that Davutoglu is courting a number of different groups embroiled in the Syrian conflict – the PYD, the Free Syrian Army and even Al Qaida affiliated groups such as the Al Nusra Front. How true are these claims?
AK: Davutoglu has strictly expressed his stance against Al Qaida and Al Nusra. It is said that they are helping Al Nusra. I know that they are not helping them. In fact, I can be clearer. I am in touch with Salih Müslim’s brother. I am also in touch with his friends. We should first recognize that the rhetoric there has turned into Cold War rhetoric. Secondly, there is a lot of dark propaganda there. Thirdly, Turkey does not have good relations with Al Qaida.
In the initial stages of the conflict in Syria, when asked if Davutoglu was against the Kurds in Syria, he said “we are against the PKK, Al Qaida or any organization that holds arms. We are against terrorism”. It is significant to make a comment like this and labelling Al Qaida as an enemy.
The AKP has met with coordinators and bureaucrats because we have been trying to form a team to take aid there. I have not witnessed any such support for Al Qaida. I cannot speak for things I have not seen. How true is what we can see? Many pictures shown by the PYD turned out to be fake. We should be careful about the discourse of the war. The situation with the PYD is clear. I don’t know if I need to make it clearer…
CI: The PYD declared Northern Syria as an autonomous Kurdish region yesterday…
AK: Well, I would be pleased if that happened. I have been following the meetings since the beginning. However, the PYD should not try to formulate hegemony over there. Our Kurdish national conference is really important. Nevertheless, internal fights persist – look at what the Kurds are doing to each other. We have not been able to overcome the self-interested and faction-based mentality of the Middle East. If they are saying “we are trying to serve a society however we would like to monopolize this service” they should not serve in the first place. No government should be the government of the Turk or of the Kurd. This cannot happen. I should state this frankly – everyone must learn to acknowledge the Kurds as their equals.
*This interview was conducted before the 30th September Democratisation Package announced by the PM Erdogan.