CEFTUS Insights Interview with Altan Tan, Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) MP

October 2013

The Democratisation Process

“Some people say that the democratisation process began with Ocalan’s letter to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on 26 September 2012.”

CEFTUS Insights: We recently had an interview with former Justice and Development Party (AKP) MP Abdurrahman Kurt, who says he was directly involved in the government’s negotiations with the Kurdish militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). According to Mr Kurt, the AKP initiated a democratisation that would solve Turkey’s Kurdish question, and it was only afterwards that PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan asked to be included in the process. Is this really the case?

Altan Tan: No, that is not the case. Some people say that these negotiations began with Ocalan’s letter to Tayyip Erdogan on 26th September 2012. Like I said, and I am choosing my words carefully, I would like to emphasize that ‘some people say’. They say that Abdullah Ocalan analysed the shifting politics of the Middle East and Turkey in this letter. They claim that Ocalan said to Erdogan if developments in the region take an unexpected turn, foreign and domestic powers would seek to eliminate both Erdogan and himself. Ocalan is said to have suggested that this outcome could be avoided by working together to democratise Turkey. In other words, Ocalan is alleged to have suggested democratising Turkey, solving the Kurdish issue and paving the way for Kurdish politics [instead of violence].

CI: So, the process began with Ocalan.

AT: That is what has been claimed. And following that, it is publicly known that the process began with the involvement of Mr Hakan Fidan, the chief of Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT). So, what was discussed? In short: the PKK would first suspend its armed struggle. It would then withdraw militants from Turkey. Simultaneously, the AKP would work to democratise the country, write a new constitution and abolish illiberal laws. The PKK would ally with Turkey and western countries rather than Syria, Iran and Russia in helping to reform the region, in creating a new Middle East. And what happened? The PKK kept its promise and ceased its armed struggle. There with no PKK-realted deaths last year. But has Tayyip Erdogan kept his promise? Has he achieved a new constitution? No. Has he announced a serious democratisation package? No. It could then be inferred that what Erdogan wishes to achieve is not to solve the Kurdish issue completely, not to write a new constitution and not to eliminate Kemalism [the Turkish-nationalist ideology ascribed to Turkey’s modern founder, Ataturk], but to save himself. There are three upcoming elections [over the next year]: local elections, presidential elections and parliamentary elections. Erdogan is pursuing politics to serve his immediate interests, without caring about long-term concerns.

“Erdogan can easily say ‘I have not promised anything and have not negotiated anything.’”

CI: Kurds appear doubtful about the process and Ocalan’s role in it. Are Kurds questioning whether Erdogan has made guarantees to the PKK and Ocalan?

AT: Erdogan often boasts that there is no third party to the negotiations and no foreign involvement [to hold Turkey’s government accountable]. It is a ‘domestic’ peace process.

CI: And there is no written agreement between them?

AT: No, there is no written contract.

CI: Could this damage Ocalan’s reputation among Kurds?

AT: In politics, you should be applauded when you achieve something, but questioned the moment you fail to achieve. This would apply to anyone. You know, in Britain, Churchill lost the first elections after WWII. De Gaulle, the legendary president of France, lost a referendum [in 1969] and that ended his political career. Now here, there is no protocol for the negotiations held at Imrali [the prison where Ocalan is held]. There is no documentation, no witnesses and no evidence. Therefore, Erdogan can easily say “I have not promised anything and have not negotiated anything”. That is what he currently says. And there are no documents to substantiate what he will assert or deny tomorrow.

CI: The issue is how Ocalan came to this point.

AT: All doors are closed for Ocalan now. There is only one potential exit—that is the door to his cell and Erdogan holds the key to that door. Ocalan might think that the more he can pry open that door the more he can actively engage in politics. And that is wrong because he does not have any opportunity to speak to or meet with any group or body aside from Erdogan. In other words, he cannot communicate with America, the EU, the UK, Germany or Syria, Russia, the Gulen Movement, the Kurdish people, the Turkish people, or intellectuals. He has no means of meeting anyone. Ocalan, if you look closely, always expresses his wish to meet other groups because it would give him the chance to listen to other views and establish a dialogue with other parties. But there is only one door for him. Erdogan knows this. That is why he threatened Selahattin Demirtas during the week of Eid [an Islamic holiday] to close the door. He said “if [the Kurds] carry on like this, they will fall out with the Minister of Justice Sadullah Ergin and the door will be shut”.  So Ocalan’s manner is understandable. However, if, after a period of time, this process fails, then everyone will have to pay for it.

CI: As you said, Ocalan expressed that the government might end the negotiations and not allow meetings at Imrali again. It seems he is aware that the process may have finished and that he may have been taken advantage of.

“They never see and will never consider Kurds on equal terms as a nation, an ethnic group or as a people. What I mean is that they will never do so voluntarily.”

AT: The Republic of Turkey, including Tayyip Erdogan, from the start has not had good intentions. Initially, the public regarded Erdogan and the government as conservative Muslims who also suffered from the regime and were imprisoned in the hands of the state. Therefore, people hoped that they would eliminate Kemalism, establish a democratic Turkey and grant rights to Kurds. But it appears that Tayyip Erdogan and his colleagues are not able to go beyond the Turkish-Islamic nationalist paradigm. They never acknowledge Kurds as a different people, as a nation. Kurds, like Arabs, like Albanians, like Georgians are a different nation; they have a right to learn their mother tongue and to govern themselves. Kurds and Turks are brothers and sisters. The two peoples will live together not in separate states, but in one state. Yet the [government’s] mindset is different. They see Kurds as a minority to be governed or at best, a younger sibling. The big brother who controls money and governance can act as it wishes; it can beat the younger sibling or give pocket change to the younger sibling, who has no say in anything anyway.

CI: So they will never acknowledge Kurds as a nation.

AT: They never see and will never consider Kurds on equal terms as a nation, an ethnic group or as a people. What I mean is that they will never do so voluntarily. This can only happen if Kurds take their rights. As they say rights are never granted, but taken. That will be the case for the Kurds.

September 2013 Democratisation Package

CI: Erdogan and his government always repeat that half of Turkey votes for them. Are there any changes regarding this percentage? Have the Kurds who voted for the AKP begun questioning recent developments? How did they react to the democratisation package [a series of pro-minority reforms announced by the government in September]?

AT: Erdogan’s claim is right; half of Kurds, at least half or even more than half, vote for Tayyip Erdogan. Why do they vote for him then? That is the question. First, there is a claim that [Kurdish] people vote for him because their votes are won with free deliveries of goods, because people are so simple! I don’t think that is the case, public would not sell their votes like that in any society. Secondly, there is another claim that people vote for them because they fear the state’s repression, the police, the military, the gendarme or the village guards. We cannot accept this claim, either. Yes, there might be people who would vote for that reason, but not half of the [Kurdish] public!

I think there are a few important factors here. One of them is the religion factor. Kurds are the most pious people of the Middle East.  According to recent statistics from what appeared to be a fair opinion poll, only 19.7% of Turks want sharia [Islamic law], but the number is much higher for Kurds—44.4%. Kurds are more supportive [than Turks] of regular prayers, fasting and [women] wearing headscarves. So, the first factor is religion and the second factor here is Kurdish politics. Kurdish politics and the PKK in particular had a Marxist-secular slant that as at one point anti-religion. I mean, even if you are not religious, you need to show respect to religion and manage to represent Muslims in your approach. But, like I said, Kurdish politics followed anti-religious path and this was quite beneficial for Islamist groups. For example, Erdogan, in the last general elections called Kurdish politicians Zoroastrians and atheists! The third factor is socio-economic; a large number of Kurds now live in cities. A Kurdish middle class has emerged for the first time in the 1000, 1500 or even 2000 year-old history of the Kurds.  Kurdish people are now educated and are either employed or are traders or are civil servants.  Kurds used to work only in farming and agriculture. They did not know about trade. Now, this new urban middle class or petite bourgeoisie as we call it has different demands. The sectarian-leftist Kurdish political discourse, which is rooted in 1960s and 1970s, is struggling to meet these new demands. It fails to promise liberal democracy. The dominant Kurdish political discourse even insults liberalism and Western-style democracies. To sum up, these are the factors for why half or more than half of Kurds vote for AKP: power, benefits, business, credits and aid; religious issues and liberal middle class [concerns].

“Pious Kurds and nationalist-Islamist Turks are separate from each other at the moment, similar to how the Turkish left and the Kurdish left segregated in 1970s.”

CI: You noted that religion separates Kurds. Don’t Kurds who vote for AKP also want autonomy within Turkey?

AT: This is a serious disagreement among religious Kurds and Turks. Pious Kurds and nationalist-Islamist Turks are separate from each other at the moment, similar to how the Turkish left and the Kurdish left separated in 1970s. [This is because] a large number of pious Turks in Turkey are subconsciously nationalist-Islamists. Look, I am not saying all of them. There are people among the Turkish Muslims and Arab Muslims, who are pan-Islamists. They are internationalists and consider all Muslims equal under the law [regardless of ethnicity]. I keep these people out of this argument. However, a large number of Islamic conservative Turks, 80% or 90% of them, are actually Turkish ethnic nationalists. They call themselves pan-Islamist, but they are actually nationalists…As a result pious Kurds and Islamist Turks have begun separating from each other. Perhaps, the Kurds will benefit most from this separation, because when it happens in full it will allow 80% or 90% of Kurds to unite. However, there is another disagreement here to consider [among the Kurds]. How much will secular Kurds, left-wing Kurds and/or the PKK allow the inclusion of religious Kurds? Will there be a conflict because of this, similar to the break between the Islamist HAMAS and secular-nationalist Palestine National Liberation Movement (Fatah)?

CI: We have recently seen a separation of Kurds at the intellectual level. For example, some Kurdish nationalists are questioning the intentions of Kurdish Islamist groups, including Zehra and Hüda-Par. However, we haven’t yet seen pious Kurds on the street separating themselves from pious Turks.

AT: This is an ongoing process. When the Kurdish left separated from the Turkish left a significant proportion of secular Kurds were still a part of the secular-Turkish nationalist Republican People’s Party (CHP). Yet, we should remember that we are talking about a period when in 1977 Mehdi Zana [a Kurdish socialist from an internationalist party] was elected mayor of Diyarbakır. Again Nurettin Yılmaz, originally from the CHP, was also elected an independent MP for Mardin. It was during this period that the secular Kurdish left separated itself from the secular Turkish left. A similar process has begun regarding the gradual separation between conservative Turks and conservative Kurds. Pious Muslim Kurds are distancing themselves from nationalist-Islamist Turks. Here I am underlining nationalist-Islamist Turks, not Pious Turks. This separation at the politico-intellectual level will over the next three to five years begin affecting ordinary people and thus elections.

“BDP will have to open itself up, absorb more conservative Kurds, become more democratic, embrace more middle class Kurds, and employ an urban and middle class politics.”

CI: I’d like to ask you more about Hüda-Par, the Kurdish Islamist political party. Is Hüda-Par experiencing a transformation of its identity? Is it shifting its focus more towards Kurdish nationalism?

AT: When it comes to the Kurdish issue, Hüda-Par advocates federalism for Kurds and education in the mother tongue. I do not think that it is right to question their sincerity. Time will tell if they are sincere. For the time being, their rhetoric in TV shows, newspapers and party gatherings shows that they support education in the mother tongue and federalism for Kurds. Therefore, at the moment their discourse is not much different from that of BDP or HAK-PAR [another Kurdish leftist party]. Actually, BDP’s rhetoric is less clear and assertive than that of Hüda-Par’s regarding federalism. While HAK PAR and KADEP are campaigning for federalism, BDP is choosing the phrase “democratic autonomy” to define its vision for the Kurds in Turkey. This is a rhetoric that is more coherent with the Republic of Turkey. Therefore, currently Hüda-Par is arguing for the same things as other secular Kurdish parties and organizations, and even sometimes with a stronger discourse. Their sincerity will show over time. Yet, for now, the fact that they are choosing legal and democratic means of activism rather than armed struggle is something to be appreciated [Hüda-Par is a successor to Kurdish Hezbollah, a militant organisation]. I believe legalization, activism through forming parties, organizations, unions and charities is much better than activism through violence.

CI: I have done fieldwork studying Hüda-Par and Kurdish Hezbollah. I have had the opportunity to visit homes of their members. Their constituency seems to be experiencing a rise in awareness of Kurdish identity. Have you noticed this, too?

AT: That is true, because they are Kurds. They are from southeast Turkey and most of them are villagers. They are financially in a difficult situation; they are a poor constituency. Whether Hüda-Par will be successful and whether its past will pose problems for itself might be discussed separately. However, if we take a broader look at the situation, when we look at groups like HÜDA PAR, Zehra, Med-Zehra and other Kurdish Islamist organizations, we see a rise in awareness of Kurdish identity. After a while, this will manifest itself in broader politics as well. The BDP will have to open itself up, absorb more conservative Kurds, become more democratic, embrace more middle class Kurds, and appeal to middle class Kurds. If BDP cannot accomplish this, then conservative Kurds will organize themselves in rival parties.

Arab ‘Spring’ and Syria

CI: What do you make of the Arab ‘Spring’?

AT: The Arab revolutions have both domestic and the international dynamics. What are the domestic dynamics? Just like in Turkey, the religious, ethnic, class and sectarian demands of Arab people have been oppressed for 150 – 200 years because of colonialism. For example, Shiites are oppressed in Iraq, Sunnis in Syria, and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Moreover, there is a terrifying level of poverty. Many Arab leaders are believed to be billionaires, while at the same time two million people in Cairo live in cemeteries. The Middle East is not only experiencing religious, sectarian or ethnic problems but also class issues. The oil revenue is being wasted by certain regimes. That is why opposition and uprisings have not subsided in the Middle East in the past 100, 150, 200 years. Now these problems, which formed the domestic dimension of the revolts, are exploding out into the open.

Internationally, the EU and the USA view the situation as unsustainable. Therefore, they wish to use neo-liberal policies to transform the Middle East into consumerist societies. Currently, the number of credit card holders in the whole of the Middle East is less than the total of credit card holders in Turkey. Such a transformation would be beneficial for the West’s neoliberal interests. In other words, the West would like to sell computers and electronic devices rather than arms to the region.

“Although the Islamists did not have a serious economic project and had shortcomings the West was also taken aback by the Islamists. They were especially alarmed by a closer relationship forming between Turkey-Egypt-Iran, and the possibility of a new axis of power emerging in the region.”

CI: So economics are guiding these uprisings…

AT: Yes, but the Western world has not been able to decide on a strategy. They tried to support change in Egypt and Tunisia…but Israel has become uncomfortable with the changes to more Islamist and anti-Israeli regimes and the improvement of relations between Iran and Turkey. Thus, the West has had to withdraw certain decisions due to this. And now, the Arab ‘Spring’ has turned into Arab fall and winter. Now we are facing more problems, opposition and violence.

CI: So you believe the West played a role in the troubles of the Arab Spring?

AT: Of course, I’m definitely linking the West to the Arab Spring and how it has turned out. However, the Islamists also lack experience. It would be wrong to say that the Islamists didn’t make any mistakes. The Islamists lack experience in governance.

Moreover, they must also determine the kind of relationship they are to have with the people that are not of them, that are not their constituency. We understand that you are conservative Muslims, you cover your head, you don’t drink and you do not live a Western lifestyle. However, what is your relationship to that world, to people who wish to live that way? The Islamists do not have experience in forming constructive relationships with the West and its followers. They immediately became exclusivist and oppressive, which is a serious mistake.

CI: In a way, they have not been able to govern through crisis.

AT: Ultimately, the Islamists who formed basis of the Arab Spring had two significant shortcomings. The first is the failure to build relationships with non-Islamists. They don’t have a serious plan how to coexist with secular, modern Arabs; Christians, Jews and Israel.

Second, they don’t have serious economic plans. The level of poverty and corruption is terrible in the region. How will you fix this? Where will you begin? This is important. You can’t start building from the roof. What will your foundation be? Still, the West was taken aback by the Islamists. They were especially alarmed by a closer relationship forming between Turkey-Egypt-Iran, and the possibility of a new axis of power emerging in the region, and encourage the restoration of the pre-revolution state in Egypt. However, having [deep state] regimes in Egypt like that of Sissi, and like that of Ergenekon in Turkey which clash with society is not sustainable. I believe that we will definitely be entering a new era. During this time the Islamists will be rehabilitating, restoring themselves. I believe the West will eventually once again have to make space for Islamists.

Turkey, Jabhat al Nusra and the Democratic Union Party (PYD)

CI: What are your thoughts on the struggle between the al-Qaida linked al-Nusra Front and the PKK linked Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria?

AT: Turkey has supported al-Nusra and al-Qaida. Initially, Erdogan cooperated with Saudi Arabia. Turkey received money in return. However, it was the Salafists—Saudi Arabia and Kuwait—that supported the coup in Egypt. This was a significant blow to Erdogan’s strategy. But he doesn’t want to acknowledge these issues, so he is not criticizing Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait. Because they had acted together, they had cooperated. In order to prevent Syrian Kurds from gaining a federal, autonomous region, Turkey has used El Nusra and Al Qaida against them. However, this strategy has not been successful either. The whole strategy is wrong.

There will be a new Middle East. In this new Middle East, all religions, sects, ethnicities will live together peacefully. Oil wealth will be distributed justly or, if these cannot be achieved, then violence and conflict would continue forever. Turks, Arabs, Sunnis, Shiites, Alawites and Kurds would all suffer from this. Therefore, there is a need for a new Middle East, a new order, a new peace. However, this peace cannot be imposed by the Turkish and Sunni Ottoman Empire that Turkey has in mind, nor the Shiite Empire envisioned by Iran, nor the theocratic Salafi dictatorship model of Saudi Arabia. This new Middle East will have an order where everyone will be able to express themselves freely, where Muslims of different ethnicities or nations will be able to participate in politics and where non-Muslims group will have identity rights.

CI: In this new order, do you see an armed PKK or a non-armed PKK?

AT: Of course I see a non-armed, pacifist PKK for Turkey. In Syria, Kurds definitely need arms because they are not safe. However, in Turkey, armed struggle cannot take the cause any further. From now on, a democratic struggle is necessary in Turkey. Conservative Muslim Kurds and pro-PKK Kurds must unite. However, it would be wrong if Kurdish politics – not saying the PKK but in general Kurdish politics – tries to use Islam merely as a symbol or window dressing. Conservative Muslim Kurds and secular, leftist, socialist Kurds must join together in the struggle to gain Kurdish rights. Conservative Muslim Kurds should be represented equally. It is not enough to have one conservative Muslim Kurd, such as myself, as window dressing. Our participation must increase; if not conservative Muslim Kurds will start organising separately. This will be inevitable.

CI: Considering Kurdish rhetoric claiming that the government has not made serious reforms, has not issued a democratization package, has not granted the Kurds their rights, will the PKK sit on its arms? What is the PKK waiting for, if it is not going to use those arms?

AT: Firstly, people cannot obtain their rights without unifying from within. Today, you cannot beat the second largest army in NATO with Kalashnikovs, bombs and Molotov cocktails. In the past thirty years, 50,000 people have died. But neither side has run out of soldiers or guerrillas. What needs to be done now is the political unification of Kurds. All Kurds – secular, religious, liberal, social democrat, Sunni, Shiite or Alawite must all be united. What needs to be done is to present the Kurds to the world as a unified people in the ballot box. The pathway for this by democratising and enlarging  the BDP.

CI: There is already the PKK’s Democratic Islam project.

AT:  Muslims prefer to use their own terminology over Western constructs. For example, instead of Democratic Islam, we could say an Islam for the Ummah [Islamic nation]. Regardless, pious Kurds must own the Kurdish issue and their identity, and organise themselves as a power in politics.  And the PKK must respect these other Kurdish factions, and ally with them.