The Turkish state’s treatment of Kurds and the question of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK) turned into a global discussion in late February when Turkish President Erdoğan threatened to blockade the admittance of Sweden and Finland into NATO unless they agree to crack down on Kurdish militant activity within their borders. The NATO allies, who have long turned a blind eye to Turkey’s persecution of Kurds and occupation and operations across Syrian and Iraqi borders, were quick to appease the Turkish president.
Just before NATO’s annual summit in June, the governments of Sweden, Finland, and Turkey announced a , reconsideration of the arms embargo since Turkey’s invasion of Syria in 2019, an end to Nordic support for North and East Syria, the possibility of extraditions, further collaboration on intelligence sharing, and monitoring of Kurdish and pro-Kurdish political movements in Finland and Sweden. The memorandum explicitly that Finland and Sweden must “commit to prevent activities of the PKK and all other terrorist organizations and their extensions, as well as activities by individuals in affiliated and inspired groups or networks linked to these terrorist organizations.”
In their critiques of NATO’s ongoing appeasement of Turkey, rightfully warned about Turkey’s all-encompassing definition of terrorism and the danger of associating all dissidents, who have escaped Turkish state violence in the first place, as sympathizers of the PKK. It is true that the Turkish state has long criminalized any Kurdish political and cultural activity, or at times even the bare presence of a group of Kurds as a collective, as PKK activity. Turkey’s recent track record of criminalization, where thousands are imprisoned over social media comments, and even for singing in the Kurdish language, prove the paranoid perceptions of the Turkish state and the readily available association of any such dissident as a sympathizer of the PKK.
Yet this line of argumentation falls short of recognizing the historical and contemporary Turkish colonization of Kurdish populations and geographies and, more importantly, of recognizing the legitimacy of different forms of resistance against a colonizer state. It is true that the Kurdish freedom movement has blossomed into various political parties, cultural and community organizations, women’s organizations, media outlets, etc.; a substantial number of these were charged with being related to the PKK, but are completely distinct organizations. It is also true that demarcations between the PKK and these other political actors and organizations are politically and pragmatically useful both to protect the Kurdish migrants in Europe, and to de-carcerate certain individuals or decriminalize “legal” Kurdish political activity, such as that of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey. However, in trying to protect certain organizations and groups from the detrimental state laws of terrorism, this outright separation unintentionally reproduces a notion of legitimate political action from within state-defined boundaries of legality and innocence and (re)criminalizes a politics of anti-colonial self-determination.
This article looks at two foundational instances of colonial state violence and anti-colonial struggles against the Turkish state and illuminates how Kurdish resistance is often analyzed from within state discourse, where self-defense and potential claims to self-determination are readily criminalized. The first is the 1938 genocide in Dersim, which marks the most organized episode of colonial violence in Bakur-Kurdistan, the part of Kurdistan within the borders of colonial Turkey, resulting in the settlement of Turkish rule in the region. The second is the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK), the most organized anti-colonial mass movement against the Turkish state. As the PKK’s guerrilla warfare proved to be long-lasting, and its popularity increased in the region in the 1990s, the Turkish state intensified violence against the Kurdish populations, increasing military surveillance and checkpoints, displacing millions, and burning down thousands of villages. I argue that most discussions of the PKK today, even the supposedly more progressive ones cognizant of state violence against Kurdish populations, ultimately reproduce colonial state discourse, in which violence is recognized only through tamed notions of state-defined legality and human rights without reference to colonial violence and anti-colonial struggles, and all forms of militant self-defense and self-determination are ultimately delegitimized.
Settling of Turkish Colonialism over Kurds: Genocide of 1938
I will first look into the most organized colonial violence in Bakur-Kurdistan, the , which resulted in the settling of colonial rule in the region and the first public discussions of this Genocide in Turkey during the peace process of 2009-2014. In 1938 the Turkish state massacred thousands of people in Dersim, a Kurdish Alevi municipality in Eastern Turkey with a prominent Armenian population at the time, and displaced thousands more, forcing them to move to areas with a majority “Sunni Turkish” constituency. From large-scale massacres to forced displacement, from the forced adoption of young girls to the breaking of communal-spiritual relationships, 1938 marked a genocidal project against the Kurdish Alevi population of Dersim, and a in the region of Bakur-Kurdistan. The Turkish state has kept its archives on 1938 a secret, and there were no public discussions of the event for decades until a debate between the ruling AKP and the oppositional CHP (Republican People’s Party) referred to Dersim in 2009-2010. I will now look into this debate briefly to illustrate that even during a peace process in which state violence was publicly discussed for the first time, concepts and discussions of colonialism and self-determination/self-defense fell outside the discursive limits of many intellectuals and even political activists.
The debate started when a parliamentarian from the oppositional Republican People’s Party CHP, Onur Öymen, criticized the peace process between the Turkish state and the PKK initiated by the ruling AKP. Critical of the motto of the peace process, “stopping mothers from crying”, said “Didn’t mothers cry in Dersim? The [AKP] government does not have the courage to fight terror.” President Erdoğan, who was playing ‘good cop’ in those days to appeal to Kurdish voters and to corner the leader of the CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, a descendant of a family exiled from Dersim during the genocidal violence of 1938, for running a political party that killed his ancestors, publicized state documents about 1938 and called the events “the heaviest tragedy in recent history.” Though he never responded to the appeals of the Dersim-based organizations for a public apology and for the revelation of the burial sites of those killed by the Turkish state during the massacres, Erdoğan broke the long silence only to encapsulate the Dersim genocide in a new form of mainstream discourse.
This new emerging discourse was centered around whether people in Dersim were “innocent” or not. While the mainstream media followed Erdoğan’s with debates on “what happened in Dersim,” those who resisted any change in state discourse tried to reconstruct a narrative about the massacres as the “suppression of a rebellion,” while those who wanted to break this discourse denied any sign of self-defense completely, referring to the “victims” mostly as “innocent women and children.” For the former, any documentation of the possession of guns or clashes between the Turkish military and Dersim was a sign of a rebellion, legitimizing the massacring of tens of thousands. According to these nationalist historians, self-defense legitimized the state’s righteousness in undertaking a genocide. In order to disprove the former, the latter group, including local oral historians from Dersim, focused exclusively on the massacres of (defenseless) “women and children.” Although the latter narrative is a critical part of “what happened in 1938,” its complete denial of instances of self-defense implicitly delegitimized Kurdish self-defense against a violent and assimilationist colonial state.
It is true that there was in action against the Turkish state in 1938. Most community leaders agreed to turn over their rather limited armaments which, prior to state centralization at the beginning of the century, had been a legitimate form of protection in all regions of Anatolia. It is also true that some leading figures were initially excited about the foundation of the Republic in the hopes that it would recognize the religious/spiritual autonomy of the region. However, many others were quick to recognize the dangers of state centralization and the status of outsiders under the new centralizing nationalist ideology. There were public intellectuals and organizers like Alîşêr Beg and Zerîfe Xatun, who were involved in the Koçgiri Resistance of 1921, and later came to Dersim to have dialogues with community leaders. Of course, these intellectuals and public figures were the first to suffer state violence, as many were killed in 1937, prior to the start of the large scale-massacres in 1938. Moreover, local populations launched mostly un-coordinated instances of resistance for self-determination against the settlements of colonial rule, such as the military outposts in the villages, which constituted a threat to the self-organizing and spiritual arrangements between different segments of the community.
Oral historians excluded the self-determination work of intellectuals-organizers, as well as instances of self-defense against the colonizing military, from the collective memory of this era in order to prove “innocence” and appease state historians desiring to legitimize a colonial genocide as the “suppression of a rebellion.” In both nationalist and more progressive discourses, the “innocent” do not resist being colonized; they allow themselves to be colonized. This search for “innocence,” either to prove or disprove it, leaves no space for self-defense and self-determination against a colonial state in public discourse.
Limits of Legal Discourse: The PKK as an Anti-Colonial Struggle
The same debate takes place around the PKK today. The PKK was founded as an anti-colonial Marxist movement against the capitalist colonial Turkish state in 1978. Influenced by the tradition of Marxist-Leninist parties organized in the form of guerrilla warfare, as well as the history of anti-colonial struggles of the Kurdish people against the colonizing states of the Middle East, the PKK quickly formed guerrilla units in the mountainous regions of Kurdistan. Organizing itself outside Turkish borders, the PKK was able to survive the coup d’etat in 1980 that crushed all oppositional parties and organizations in Turkey, and criminalized and killed movement leaders. With many of its founders and members in Turkish colonial prisons, the guerrilla units of the PKK started clashing with the Turkish state forces in Bakur-Kurdistan in 1984.
I argue that there are two layers of mainstream discourse that shape discussions of the PKK today: one is the state discourse of “terrorism” while the other is a seemingly more progressive liberal discourse of “anti-violence,” which ultimately reproduces state discourses and colonial relations in the region.
Those familiar with the first discourse of “terrorism” in other contexts are aware of how readily states mobilize it against revolutionary movements. Although the problems with this discourse and the laws surrounding have become more visible with the treatment of Muslims in the United States following September 11, laws and regulations concerning “terrorism” have been commonly and readily used by states to criminalize and suppress movements. The FBI’s treatment of the Black Panthers’ Party in the 1970s with the program of , Israel’s treatment of any form of Palestinian resistance to this day, and Turkey’s criminalization of Kurds with laws and regulations of “terrorism” are just some examples. When already-colonial state laws are not adequate in suppressing people or movements considered as “threats,” states often invent new laws, called “extraordinary situation laws” or “exceptions,” to criminalize and punish the colonized. The Turkish state, for example, introduced a whole set of laws in 1935 called “Tunceli Kanunu,” to prepare Dersim for the 1938 Genocide. With these so-called “laws of exception,” even genocide can be made lawful. Similarly, with the emergence of the PKK, the Turkish state declared “extraordinary situation laws” concerning the Kurdish regions that legitimized the torture and killing of Kurds, the burning of villages, and the forced displacement of millions.
Criminalization through the discourse of “terror” creates such fear that once a state names a movement “terrorist,” even those who might otherwise be sympathetic to the cause of the movement avoid any engagement with it. In this case, once the Turkish state named the PKK a “terrorist” organization, a label readily accepted by the United States and most of Europe, millions of Kurds for whom the PKK constituted a struggle against colonial violence were criminalized. And any time we clearly distinguish individuals and organizations from the PKK to prove their innocence, we define a category of “good Kurd,” one who acts from within legal bounds of political action, against the “bad Kurd,” a member or a sympathizer of the “terrorist” PKK, much like ’s discussion of “good Muslims” vs. “bad Muslims” following September 11. These categories only work to reproduce discourses and laws of terrorism, where states define anti-colonial and anti-systemic movements as “terrorist” and derive laws of “exception” to manage them, while those resisting state violence now have the added burden of proving they are not “terrorists.”
The second discourse that perhaps unintentionally empowers the state discourse of “terrorism” is that of “anti-violence.” Distinguishing itself from nationalist and statist approaches, this liberal discourse attempts to remain “objective to both sides.” It is through a universal rejection of any form of violence, even in the forms of anti-colonial liberation and self-defense, that even those cognizant of the Turkish state violence are sure to distance themselves from the PKK. For example, in his about state violence against the Kurds, Cihan Tuğal condemns the PKK for “contributing to the bloodshed” and “killing civilians as well as security officials.” Although he recognizes the conditions that led to the emergence of the PKK and the fact that Turkey’s militaristic approach has not left room for “more conciliatory Kurdish organizations,” he fails to recognize the Kurds’ right to anti-colonial struggle against the colonizing Turkish state, which took the form of guerrilla warfare, as happened in much of the colonized world in the 1960s and 70s. Referring to the colonial Turkish state and the PKK with the same discourse of “bloodshed,” Tuğal and others maintain a safe distance from “both sides.”
This liberal discourse of “anti-violence,” presumably “objective” to “both sides,” attempts to engage Turkish state violence and the PKK on the same level. As Walter Rodney, a prominent Guyanese historian and political activist, asked with reference to anti-colonial struggles of the 1970s, “by what standards of morality can the violence used by a slave to break his chains be considered the same as the violence of a slave master?” “By what standards of morality” can anti-colonial resistance be considered on the same grounds as the violence of a colonizing state that has massacred, tortured, and displaced the colonized for over a century? In their false objectivity, based on a hesitant disavowal of the question of colonialism, these moral critiques blame the PKK for reproducing violence and for triggering further state violence against Kurds. This version of the anti-violence discourse is not only silent on the question of colonialism, but it becomes a tool for the reproduction of colonial relations with an outright insistence on “what is good for Kurds.” Thus, although state violence is recognized, the colonial state’s logic of “saving the colonized” from the “bad Kurds” is reproduced by an outright rejection of the PKK.
This becomes clearer when commentators like Tuğal yearn for more “conciliatory” organizations to negotiate with a state. This yearning is based on two related conditions: a selective recognition of state violence around the discourse of human rights without an understanding of the historical and foundational violence of colonialism; and a disregard towards, if not outright rejection of, anti-colonial struggle. Tuğal’s emphasis on the 1980 coup d’etat is shared by many other commentators who blame this era for extreme violations of human rights, which ostensibly gave way to the formation of the PKK in the first place. So although this more liberal discourse of “anti-violence” seems, at first sight, to be critical of state violence, it ultimately reproduces the legitimacy of colonial rule, treating its direct (physical) violence in these select periods as tameable. In this imaginary, neither the violence of colonial rule itself, nor the historical and contemporary practices of self-defense and self-determination, are recognized for what they are. From the suppression of the Koçgiri resistance in 1921 to the genocidal violence against Dersim in 1938, from the “special” treatment of the Kurdish regions following the 1980 coup d’etat to the state of exception of the 1990s, Turkish colonial rule has been foundational, ongoing, and systematic. It has taken many forms, from annihilation, to displacement, to criminalization, to assimilation. Anti-colonial struggles and forms of self-defense and self-determination have a long history as well, with an abundance of means and tactics debated among public intellectuals and movements.
In this liberal dream in which the foundational violence of colonialism is non-existent, liberal intellectuals do not question their role in reproducing colonialism desiring instead a tame politics from the colonized. Judging once again the “innocence” of colonized subjects, the liberal politics of “anti-violence” fails to understand why the PKK has appealed to millions of Kurds in the region as an anti-colonial struggle. Yearning instead for more “conciliatory” organizations, such liberal discourses reproduce a dichotomy between “good” vs. “bad” resistance based on a conundrum of “innocence.” So-called “good” resistance is innocent; it operates from within the realm of state laws and makes no claims to self-defense and self-determination. At this point the liberal discourse introduces lines of separation between different segments of Kurdish freedom movement, whimsically choosing among those they avow and those they don’t. For example, many commentators celebrate the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), while blaming the components of the HDP that seem to be “too close to the PKK.” They want to see the party “distance” itself outright from the “bad,” the “unacceptable.” Ultimately, even the HDP needs to constantly prove its “innocence” by outright rejecting the PKK and distancing itself from questions of self-determination and self-defense.
This conundrum of “innocence” is a trap that willingly criminalizes anti-colonial politics. Even those who do not outright reject the PKK are always looking for its “mistakes,” distancing themselves from acts that they consider to be too “radical” and often blaming these “radical” acts for the consequent state violence. While the liberal imaginary, left untouched by colonial violence for decades, seeks innocence and purity in order to defend the rights of the colonized, as in the case of 1938, the colonizing state continues to kill and imprison. This is not to say that we cannot criticize the PKK or the mistakes it has made over the years, like any other political organization. However, to readily criminalize it for taking arms against its colonizer, which happens to have the second largest military in NATO, is to fall into the trap of state discourse, wherein states’ monopoly of violence and their colonial rule over colonized populations are beyond critique and reproach. Hence when an otherwise knowledgeable analyst uses state discourse of “bloodshed” against the PKK, they contribute to the discourse of war and “terror” that delegitimizes not only the PKK, but the political will of millions of Kurds who see the PKK as an agent of anti-colonial self-defense and self-determination against the colonial Turkish state.
What is needed from scholars and activists cognizant of Turkish state violence is rather to realize the colonial nature of this violence and their own position vis-a-vis state discourses and anti-colonial struggles. There have already been several calls and legal proceedings to from terrorist lists in various countries to advance a political solution. These calls discuss the transformations of the PKK, such as its signing of the and its adoption of a democratic confederalist model, a form of decentralized democracy with a representation of women and minorities, over a secessionist movement in search of a nation-state. Even though these changes are important to understanding the PKK as a political organization with changing motives, ideology, and objectives, they are overlooked in most ; as such, it is all the more crucial that we not condition the legitimacy of anti-colonial self-determination on these changes. Such conditions would only strengthen state-defined discursive and legal boundaries of politics. Those who center colonial violence in their politics would be better off engaging with the political motivations and objectives of an anti-colonial movement as determined by the colonized instead of freighting anti-colonial movements with colonial desires for “innocence.”