An Imprisoned Nationalist Reads Benedict Anderson

Abdullah Ocalan

Many Americans find Jesus in prison. Abdullah Ocalan found Benedict Anderson. Ocalan is the revered and despised leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); Anderson is the scholar whose book Imagined Communities is famous for introducing the idea that nations are social constructions rather than real entities. The resulting relationship between a Kurdish terrorist leader and a renowned social scientist is certainly one of the strangest—and potentially most hopeful—stories to come out of Turkey this year.

As the Turkish government conducts increasingly serious conversations with Ocalan aimed at ending Turkey’s forty-year struggle with Kurdish separatists, journalists have pointed to Ocalan’s intellectual conversion as evidence that negotiations can work. Since his arrest in 1999, Ocalan has repeatedly claimed that he is no longer seeking a new state for Turkey’s Kurds, but merely increased autonomy and cultural rights. Many Turks have interpreted this as nothing more than a desperate willingness to appease the government that held him captive in the hopes of clemency. So how does Ocalan explain his more recent change of heart? Here’s how he put it, according to a recent article by Eyüp Can in the Turkish daily Radikal:

My realization that I was a positivist dogmatic was certainly connected to my isolation. In isolation I grasped the alternative modernity concept, that national structures can have many different models, that generally social structures are fictional ones created by human hands, and that nature is malleable. In particular, overcoming the model of the nation-state was very important for me. For a long time this concept was a Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist principle for me. It essentially had the quality of an unchanging dogma. Because real socialism hadn’t overcome the nation state model and saw it as a basic necessity for modernity, we weren’t able to think of another form of nationalism, for example democratic nationalism. When you said nation there absolutely had to be a state! If Kurds were a nation they certainly needed a state! However as social conditions intensified, as I understood that nations themselves were the most meaningless reality, shaped under the influence of capitalism, and as I understood that the nation-state model was an iron cage for societies, I realized that freedom and community were more important concepts. Realizing that to fight for nation states was to fight for capitalism, a big transformation in my political philosophy took place. I realized I had been a victim of capitalist modernity.

It all reads like something out of an academic’s fantasy. After reading up on theory, a guerrilla leader decides to abandon violence and embrace democratic multiculturalism. Sure, one of the main beneficiaries will be the Turkish state—but a less nationalistic version of this state at the very least. Indeed, the political potential of Ocalan’s new theoretical outlook seems so vital for Turkey’s future that it seems almost reckless to question its underlying soundness, but I would argue that capitalism and the nation state don’t currently see eye-to-eye on Turkey’s Kurdish problem. Over the past decade the considerable profits secured by Turkish firms in the Kurdish part of Iraq have been one of the principle factors keeping nationalist fears about the region’s quasi-independence in check. Moreover, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—who has never revealed any personal admiration for Benedict Anderson—seems to grasp that with Turkey making good money from trade and investment with former enemies like Greece and Russia, the rhetoric of Ottoman multiculturalism will be much better for business than strident nationalism.

Ocalan’s past statements on Kurdishness and capitalism were likely more accurate, if considerably less helpful. He has previously accused the government of promoting economic development in southeastern Turkey as part of an insidious campaign to use the power of capital to make Kurds forget their language and their identity. This is almost the exact policy that many Turkish politicians have endorsed, and one of the most progressive policies toward Turkey’s Kurdish region at that. Operating on their own reading of Marxist principles, many left-wing nationalists in Turkey’s Republican People’s Party have argued that the Kurdish problem is not one of ethnic nationalism to be solved with increased cultural rights, but simply a problem of economic backwardness in the Kurdish region to be cured with investment and infrastructure. In recent decades the alternative to this view has simply been that there isn’t a “Kurdish problem” at all, just a terror problem that needed to be crushed by force.

Many of the Kurds who admired Ocalan likely found his rhetoric about the dangers of capitalism just as unconvincing as they found official rhetoric about economic growth. They wanted to speak their own language and make a decent living, through whatever combination of state support and corporate investment it took. To the extent a majority of Kurds have come to accept a solution based on greater autonomy and freedom within the Turkish state—the exact amount remains a source of contention—it is probably not because they’ve been reading theory, either. With Turkey’s economy booming and many of their relatives finding work in Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir, new borders will just mean new problems for Kurds. Turks and Kurds have different reasons for abandoning the uncompromising nation-state model that has caused so many problems in the past, but Benedict Anderson deserves credit for any help he provided in getting one of the main actors in the drama to cooperate.

Nick Danforth is a Ph.D. candidate in history at Georgetown University.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.