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Turkey’s Kurdish movement: in search of 'Real Islam'

In order to gain popularity among Turkey’s Kurdish conservative Muslims, HDP is promoting a “Pro-Kurdish democratic Islam” rather than secularism.

Sanem Vaghefi
6 June 2015
Alevi protestor at compulsory religious classes with PKK and HDP flags, 2015.

Alevi protestor at compulsory religious classes with PKK and HDP flags, 2015. Demotix/ John Wreford. All rights reserved.One of the hottest debates about Turkey’s June 7 General Elections is whether the HDP, (People’s Democratic Party) which represents the Kurdish Political Movement, will be able to pass the 10% electoral threshold or not. This is the first time that the Kurdish Movement is joining the elections as a party, instead of nominating independent candidates that won’t be affected by the threshold. 

HDP, which defines itself as “not only the representative of the Kurdish movement, but the voice of all the oppressed and the excluded sections of contemporary Turkish society” is organizing rallies all over Turkey, and effectively using social media to reach its new target audience. This mainly is the Turkish youth, which suffers from increasing unemployment, the rising conservative culture and the hegemony of political Islam backed by a dominant AKP (Justice and Development Party).

This group was the main social and political force behind the Gezi protests, which started exactly two years ago in Istanbul. The violent crackdown of the police force led to the death of five young men and a 14 year-old child from various cities of Turkey, all of whom were from the Alevi religious minority (which can be described as a protestant interpretation of Shia Islam). Since Alevis suffer both from social and political exclusion and assimilation based on their sectarian differences, their community is the most committed supporter of secularism.

While traditionally they supported the CHP (the Republican People’s Party, the first official political party of Turkey, representing the Kemalist ideology), their active involvement in the Gezi protests was a signal of their disaffection with CHP’s policies and the search for a new and more radical secularist alternative. By nominating Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, the former general secretary of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation as the candidate in the Presidential Elections of Summer 2014, CHP broadcast the fact that it has given up its insistence on a secularist agenda. Their overall plan was shifted to challange AKP’s Islamist policies not by secularism but by another Islamic discourse. This verdict left the Alevi community and all the other religious minorities in limbo.

To respond, HDP published a separate election manifesto totally based on the demands of the Alevi NGO’s. This included abolition of the Ministry of Religious Affairs “Diyanet”. They reasoned that this governmental entity only serves the Hanefi branch of Sunni Islam. This pledge drew severe reactions from the AKP and President Tayyip Erdogan, who has ‘accused’ HDP’s co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş of being non-Muslim. Demirtaş has argued, in response, that AKP has been the main supporter of ISIS in Syria and Northern Iraq against Kurds.

Bawer Dersim, one of the commanders of PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the armed wing of the Kurdish Movement, which has been involved in a war with the Turkish State for the past 30 years) has also alleged the Turkish state’s support for ISIS. Furthermore he has urged the Alevi people to vote for HDP, and stated that “The Kurdish Movement is the main guarantor and protector of the Alevi community against ISIS” in a recent interview published in the pro-Kurdish Ozgur Gundem newspaper.

Considering the facts mentioned above, HDP seems to defend secularism against AKP’s policies and discourse in the current election. However, the standpoint of HDP and in general the Kurdish Movement on religious matters and political Islam, is not as clear as it seems. In contrast to their Iranian and Syrian kin, the social culture of the Kurdish population of Turkey is highly conservative. The support of the conservative Muslim Kurds of AKP has created a serious obstacle for the Kurdish Movement.

A greater challenge is presented by Huda-Par, the legal branch of the Islamic fundamentalist Kurdish Hizbullah, which peaked its illegal activities in the 1990’s. The party was founded in 2012 and joined the elections in 2014 for the first time. On October 6-7, 2014, during popular protests against ISIS’ violence in Kobane, there were clashes between the supporters of Huda-Par and HDP which led to the death of 50. The presence of a popular base for both the Islamic fundamentalist Huda-Par and “moderate Islamist” AKP in Kurdish society, has led HDP to adopt a populist and somewhat inconsistent policy regarding Islam. In order to gain popularity among the Kurdish conservative Muslims, HDP has evolved a discourse based on a “pro-Kurdish democratic Islam” rather than promote secularism.

The PKK, founded as a Marxist-Leninist separatist organisation in 1978 under the leadership of Abdullah Ocalan, went through a radical shift in favour of “democratic socialism” and federalism during the mid-90’s. After the Turkish authorities arrested Ocalan in 1999, PKK’s leader began to argue the necessity of defending “real Islam against the AKP’s dominant Islam”.

The most tangible message of the Kurdish Movement regarding its alliance with political Islam was given in March, 2013 through Ocalan’s Newroz (the Middle Eastern new year) message. In his message, Ocalan stated that, “Kurds and Turks lived under the flag of Islam for almost a thousand years of brotherhood and solidarity”. Considering AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s neo-Ottomanist discourse, these words were interpreted as the Kurdish Movement’s support for the Ottoman understanding of Sunni Islamic brotherhood against the Kemalist nation state’s secular nationalism.

After Ocalan’s call, “The Congress of Democratic Islam” was held on May 2014 in Diyarbakir. In a letter to this Congress, Ocalan stated that he finds the “national unity of the contemporary Muslim community” important, and declared that “The Kurdish Movement is not atheist or materialist”. He also rejected the whole “dichotomy of secular vs. religious”, arguing that “Islam should not be interpreted using Western concepts”.

It is not surprising, therefore, that HDP does not construct its election propaganda within a secularist framework. But as the Gezi Park events showed, excluding the secularist discourse from the political sphere will leave the Kurdish women in Turkey isolated against the existing traditions of child marriage, polygamy and much violence against women. Regrettably, these are the social norms which gain their legitimacy from the mainstream, patriarchal interpretation of Islam.

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