The 'success' of political Islam in the Kurdish context

We need to go beyond the dichotomy between radical and moderate Islam to see how Islamist movements impose hegemony at local, national and international levels.

Mehmet Kurt
2 June 2017

Screenshot: The Conquest of Diyarbakir. News Agency (İLKHA).Islamism is one of the most powerful political drivers not only in the Muslim world, but also across the globe where it now confronts multiple political, economic and historic power blocs. In seeking to understand this recent change and its drivers in the Muslim world, many scholars up until the 1990s questioned whether Islam was compatible with democracy. Then, the rise of civil society in the Muslim world and neoliberalism at a global level transformed the context of the discussion and instead raised the question: how will a market-friendly Islam adjust to a neoliberal age? 9/11, the war in Afghanistan and a political division between radical and moderate Islam(s) brought Turkey to the fore as an example of peaceful coexistence in a neoliberal polity. 

The dichotomy between who is radical, and who is not, relies on problematic political categorizations. The authority to decide and determine who is radical, and hence dangerous, belongs to power holders, in both rhetorical and political realms. Turkey, in connection with a broader geopolitical space, provides a good case study for exploring how political economy can be utilized to mobilize the masses, creating counter-narratives and forms of resilience by using a discourse that addresses people’s emotions, impacts on their bodies, and categorizes them into binary oppositions, thereby lining them up to fulfil various authoritarian ambitions.

Islamism in Turkey

Islamism in Turkey has a long history, which dates back to the time of Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) and was revived in the 1950s and 60s, when it gained trans-border reach. Despite a few short periods in the 70s and 90s, Islamist politics did not succeed in realizing its political agenda and hence stayed as a form of opposition in the Turkish political space – perhaps all the more righteous and less corrupted as a result. The post-9/11 environment provided fertile ground for a new form of Islamism in Turkey. It was indeed favoured by the neoliberal world as a moderate form of Islam, which created more space for civil society and entrepreneurship while reducing the state and its institutions to a polity that could rule peacefully while contributing to the neoliberal economy. 

Islamism gained its recent importance during the Arab uprisings. Turkey saw an opportunity to lead regional discontent and shape it into a political mobilisation that would combine Ottoman dreams with a Muslim Brotherhood discourse. Syria meanwhile, not only as an actor but also as a political space, played a crucial role in challenging Turkey’s ambitions to reshape the Middle East. How did Islamist politics, in the hands of the Turkish state, mobilize its subjects across the ethno-religious political spaces of the Kurdish regions of Turkey and its neighbours? I want to argue that Islamist mobilisation owes its success here to the practical effects of defining and manipulating discourses, bodies and languages.

The Kurdish case, through various historical moments, has become a testing ground for the success and failure of Islamist politics, which has been imposed upon the Kurds whenever the structural sustainability of the state is at danger. I would argue that Islamism’s success among religious Kurdish citizens has reached its limit in recent years. The Turkish constitutional referendum and the referendum campaign in the Kurdish provinces provide a fruitful terrain to observe both the success and failure of Islamist politics in the region. But this is a two-edged sword that can only achieve limited success while it fails to resolve the essential problem.

The political economy of Islamism among the Kurds

The legal branch of the Kurdish Hizbullah, Hüda-Par (Free Cause Party) and thousands of ‘Islamic’ civil society organisations (CSO) were at the forefront of the referendum campaign propagating ‘Yes’ votes.

Of course, this mass mobilisation has pervaded other influential networks of business, position and power active in its political spaces, since the early 2000s in the Kurdish region, when the increasing activities in legal space and mass mobilisation around civil society organisations were both compatible with neoliberal policies and the AKP interest in consolidating power.

CSOs grew in thousands across the Kurdish region and were mostly initiated by Islamists during this period. The biggest ally of the AKP government, back then, was the Gulen movement and theirs were the ones most encouraged until the first clash took place between them in the late 2013. The Erdogan-Gulen war did not only effect the political alignment within the formerly intertwined power blocs. It created new opportunities for Kurdish CSOs who got more out of the resulting carve up. The formation of the National Will Platform, established during the first days of the Erdogan-Gulen clash in 2013, has become a litmus test for Islamic organisation. Those who complied were guaranteed every form of governmental support and power; those who did not, faced various restrictions and suppression.

In those years, it was enough to be seen in an Islamic circle to benefit from state-originated wealth and support. The only unwritten rule was that you should be strictly against the Gulen and back the AKP government when needed. Many individuals and groups have benefited from this affiliation. However, Government policy was still committed to a Kurdish peace agenda and Islamic CSOs were waiting in the wings, acquiring power and recruitment and learning how to bargain and get more from their share of power.

The biggest opportunity for Islamist CSOs, and their big brother the Kurdish Hizbullah, came after Erdogan rejected the Dolmabahce Agreement in February 2015. These two Islamist  CSOs both organized conferences in Diyarbakır in the spring of 2015. Both events sought ‘an Islamic Solution to the Kurdish Question’ with the attendance of tens of CSOs and religious community leaders. The first conference was led by the Humanitarian Relief Foundation, an infamous organisation swiftly replaced in the clash with the Gulen movement, and the second by Kurdish Hizbullah affiliate CSOs. Both conferences concluded that the only solution was Islam and Islamic unity and that they were ready to take responsibility for realizing this goal and bringing ‘peace’ to the Kurdish question. Each organisation had their own interests in and plans for their political alignments with the AKP; but both were useful supporters for Erdogan in the wake of war with the PKK.

The civil society battle-front

Throughout the revived conflict in the Kurdish region beginning from July 2015, a year before the failed coup attempt, up until the referendum in April, 2017, the partnership between the Islamist CSOs operating in the Kurdish region and the state evolved gaining further forms of support to back the AKP government. During the destruction of the Kurdish cities, the pro-Government daily Aksam announced the mission of Islamist CSOs from its front page, with headlines claiming that ‘The Turkish Armed Forces will hit, civil society will build’ (TSK Vuracak, STK Kuracak). Although they provided basic humanitarian aid and launched a few small campaigns, their effectiveness in reaching victims was as limited as their public image, especially that of Hizbullah, was dubious and worse. However, the AKP government was enabled by the CSO’s to spread a counter-narrative that could legitimize state violence while demonizing the oppressed.

Mutual benefits, between the Hüda-Par and the AKP resulted in electoral support when Erdogan jettisoned the results of the June, 2015 election and called for early elections in November of the same year. Hüda-Par did not participate in the November election but made it clear that they supported the AKP. The Hüda-Par leader Zekeriya Yapıcıoğlu even tweeted a call from a voting booth to their supporters to come and vote, in an election where his party played no official part. The message, however, reached its audience and Hüda-Par supported AKP both in the November, 2015 election and the referendum in April, 2017. Their motto for the yes campaign was ‘not enough, but yes’, a motto that the liberals had used to show their support to a smaller scale constitutional change referendum in 2010.

Since November 2015, Islamist CSOs and Hüda-Par have gained more public visibility and status in the pro-government mainstream media while secular, leftist or pro-PKK organisations have been constantly suppressed and eliminated in various ways. The AKP succeeded in creating alliances with Islamists and managed to disseminate a counter-narrative that legitimizes state violence in the eyes of public opinion.

During the city wars in 2015 and 2016, many interviews from the edge of the destroyed Sur district appeared on pro-government TV channels, presenting innocent Muslim brothers and sisters, affiliated with some Islamist CSOs. Against dramatic background music, they would tell of their suffering under PKK hegemony and how the state security operations brought peace, as well as their gratitude to the Government and Erdogan. Actually, these organisations and their members were promised their reward in historic buildings and other facilities when the neighbourhood of Sur is rebuilt. The AKP was at the same time intent on conquering political and physical space, through mass destruction and displacement of half a million people.

Violence and political turmoil, it is clear, did not begin with the failed coup for the Kurds. Yet the failed coup in July, 2016 and its aftermath complicated the situation for them and led to further repression. The solidarity between Islamist CSOs, Hüda-Par and the state has continued and they have remained very active in the post-coup environment. Hüda-Par leader Zekeriya Yapıcıoğlu gave a speech in Taksim Square for the first time in their history, and attended the Yenikapı Meeting, the gigantic meeting that took place once Erdogan had made sure that he had defeated his enemies in August, 2016.

Gulen as a common enemy and symbolic capital

The Gulen movement was not very welcome among Islamist groups in Turkey, as they have always considered it factional and ambiguous. But Hizbullah has had a particularly strained relationship with the movement dating back to early 2000 when the Hizbullah’s leader, Hüseyin Velioğlu, was killed and the Hizbullah archive was seized by the Turkish police, which exposed the Hizbullah membership dataset, resulting in thousands of arrests. Hizbullah blamed the Gulen movement for these operations and regarded its leaders as criminals many years before the failed coup. Yet the coup became a turning point for the Hizbullah to articulate these old rumours and transform them into political power.

The deal between the AKP and Hizbullah affiliate Hüda-Par was declared on Hizbullah affiliate Rehber TV on referendum night:

  • - The release of around 300 Hizbullah lifetime prisoners.
  • - The strongest punishment for the murderers of Yasin Börü, a youngster who was brutally killed during the Kobanî protests in 6-8 October, 2014.
  • - Hüda-Par would be the latest new interlocutor to ‘solve the Kurdish question’

The new president of the New Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent his special thanks to the Hüda-Par community and to its leader for their support in the referendum.

Two weeks after this special thanks, 41 suspects of the Yasin Börü lawsuit were sentenced to life-time sentences – 110 years in prison for the 6 whose age was under 18. Some of the suspects have proved that they were not even in the same city on the night of the incident but this did not save them from life-imprisonment. An innocent 16 year old boy, who was on his way to distribute aid packages, delivered by a Hizbullah-affiliated CSO in Diyarbakır Baglar neighbourhood, was brutally killed, among 31 others who lost their lives during a three day protest and riot in 6-8 October 2014 across the Kurdish region. Most of the 31 civilians were killed by security forces and their story is unknown. However, Yasin Börü’s story, and his dead body, have become emblematic, used repeatedly in political discourse to accuse the opponents of inhumanity, and defame them in the public eye.

As for the prisoners, who are, according to Hizbullah propaganda, victims of the Fethullah Gulen terrorist organisation (FETO) because of their peaceful Islamic activities, we will probably never know whether they are still in prison or among us. Despite the propaganda, they are indeed perpetrators who have killed more than one civilian, up to 30 in some cases, during the conflict between the state-backed Hizbullah and the PKK between 1991 and 1996. The story is not new but it is compact enough to see how easily a perpetrator can be turned into a victim. No one should be surprised if ambitious public prosecutors find another plot between the FETO – as the Government likes to call them – and their Muslim victims, who have been put behind bars for their peaceful Islamic activities!

The conquest of geopolitical space and the Kurdish Peace Process

Meanwhile, the so-called ‘new peace process’ has already started, this time without a declaration and far away from the public gaze. However, we can envisage the outcome of this new process by comparing discourses, looking at public events and exploring the many new alliances emerging in the public and political space. 

Freshly baked celebration for the Conquest of Diyarbakır (639 A.D.), the symbolic capital of Kurdish politics, is a good final example. The first celebration of the Conquest was organised by Hizbullah affiliate CSOs last year in May, 2016. Back then, 4-month-long curfews in the historical district of Sur had just ended and the massive destruction of neighbourhoods and historical sites were not well documented. A recent UN report shows the extent of the destruction that has taken place since July 2015, when the peace process terminated and the conflict between the PKK and the state forces started up again. The destruction of the Kurdish towns goes hand in hand with this creation of a discursive hegemony which produces symbols and narratives to maintain hegemony. The celebration for the Conquest of Diyarbakır can be interpreted as an example of a counter-narrative created and backed by the state and its apparatus. 

The conquest originally took place in 639 A.D., during the rule of Khalif Umar, but the battle still continues. In the last 40 years, it has remained at the centre of debate between secular and religious Kurds as the first would define the incident as a massacre and the latter as a victory and conquest.

However, it has only recently been transformed into a public event in which the masses can participate and bear witness. This is indeed another response to the well-attended Kurdish, and other nations’ new year celebration, Newroz. A quick look into public celebrations such as the Blessed Birth to celebrate prophet Muhammad’s birthday, the Newroz and its political implications for Kurdish nationalism, including this newly-invented Conquest of Diyarbakır, show us that the struggle between power blocs takes place at multiple levels and transforms the Kurdish public space into one that complies with the state’s political interests. Here, historical moments compete at the hand of the more powerful, becoming discursive instruments that can be used to mobilize the masses. Hence the Islamisation of public space in the Kurdish regions serves the particular interest of state hegemony while also benefiting from it to pursue its own interests.

The approach is clear: suppress the opposition and eradicate it from the public sphere (media, institutions, politics etc.); support and create counter-hegemonies and make them visible and powerful. This involves a mass mobilisation of capital; creating businesses and benefits, allocating services, land and facilities to constitute a massive network of people, ideas and discourses. All these resources have been allocated to these power blocs to complicate, destabilize and administer the Kurdish issue. The state’s policy towards Kurds has focused on administering the problem and keeping it manageable instead of offering consistent agendas for a solution. Consistency in discourse is expensive and not sustainable if it must rely only on partial truths (or post-truths) denying what is obvious.

Turkish Islamism in the Kurdish geopolitical space, reflects the complicity of Islamist mobilization and the power blocs it creates. A distinction between radical and moderate Islam does not encapsulate the intertwined ethno-religious and geopolitical dynamics of Islamist mobilization in the Turkish/Kurdish case. We need to go beyond that dichotomy to analyze the different ways in which the Islamist movements attempt to impose hegemonic discourses and practices at the local, national and international levels.

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