Although he felt sympathy for the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish people, this man said something that deeply surprised me. He was from an Islamic movement, but he had no qualms about defending the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a Marxist terrorist organization, and its leader.
For him, the PKK was the human rights organization of the oppressed Kurds. I explained to him that after 1925 and during the military coup eras Kurds suffered greatly, but that this suffering was not specific to the Kurds, as it affected pious Sunni Muslims, Alevis, Turks and religious minorities, who faced serious violations of human rights as part of an overall lack of freedom issue. I told him that although the use of the Kurdish language had been banned by the 1980 military junta, the EU accession process has led to reforms that allow it to be used freely today. Also, a slew of steps have been taken to teach Kurdish and to use it in the media. As I spoke about the PKK’s philosophy, its terrorists attacks that claimed the lives of thousands of Turks and Kurds, its execution of its own members who express the tiniest discrepancy from the organization’s formal ideology and its being disapproved of by the majority of Kurds, I realized that he was listening to them as if he had never heard them before. It was obvious that the organization had successfully and effectively promoted its views not only in Europe but also in the Middle East.
A letter sent by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an aide to Nelson Mandela in his epic struggle against racism in South Africa, which never reached Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, reminded me of this memory of mine. Apparently, the terrorist organization had explained itself more successfully than the Turkish state not only in Europe and the Middle East but also in the remotest parts of Africa. And so South Africans began to equate PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan with Mandela.
In his letter, Tutu, the chairman of The Elders formed by Mandela in 2007 in order to help the world’s deep-rooted problems be solved and which includes former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, former US President Jimmy Carter and other leaders, called on Erdoğan to use his influence to solve the Kurdish issue. Tutu suggested that the Kurdish Human Rights Action Group (KHRAG), which launched a signature campaign in his country for Öcalan’s release, could help Turkey in the process. Nothing is wrong with an internationally acclaimed Nobel Peace Prize winner to issue a call for peace. This may even positively contribute to the process. The problem is how the KHRAG he pointed to sees the PKK. The KHRAG’s petition in South Africa states, “Öcalan is to Kurds what Mandela is to South Africa.”
It is of no use to criticize Tutu, a world-famous human rights defender, as this is the result of a campaign. Rather, we should concentrate on how a group designated as a terrorist organization around the world managed to impress important figures in the Middle East and South Africa, and why Turkey failed to promote its position.
A meeting held in Cape Town last year may give us hints as to how the organization achieved what the Turkish state failed to do. In November, Leyla Zana was invited to South Africa as a guest of the KHRAG. One of the platforms at which Zana delivered a speech was the South African National Association of Democratic Lawyers (NADEL), a legal organization established in the 1970s against the apartheid regime. Zana of course has her views, but the interesting bit was what Joey Moses, a NADEL executive, said. Arguing that blacks and Kurds had similar problems, Moses gave six examples to explain the similarities between the Turkish Republic and South Africa’s apartheid regime. Just as the apartheid regime exploited non-whites, he said, Turkey is racist against Kurds and deprives them of the right to elect and be elected. As Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, Öcalan, too, was illegally abducted from Kenya and jailed on the island of İmralı.
See how a South African lawyer believes this. In 1992 Mandela rejected the Atatürk International Peace Prize conferred on him, citing human rights violations in Turkey. This was a clear indication that people’s minds in this country were extremely confused. At how many meetings in South Africa has Turkey explained its views and its steps to extend freedoms since then?
*Published by the Turkey-based TODAY'S ZAMAN on Aug. 21, 2010