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Democratic Islam Congress and the Middle East

The Democratic Islam Congresses called for by PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan are promoting an interpretation of Islam that bolsters Kurdish nationalist aspirations, but it remains to be seen exactly how they will deploy this turn to religion.

Thousands rally in Berlin in 2013 against PKK ban. Demotix/Thorsten Strasas. All rights reserved.

The Kurdish nationalist movement has gained tremendous acceleration thanks to over 30 years of struggle by the PKK in four parts of Kurdistan (Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria). Given the considerable experience gained in those years, this movement flourished from armed groups to a fully-fledged institutional industry. This includes armed organisations (PKK and HPG) cultural, political, and social works (human rights associations, educational support centres, job training courses and the Democratic Society Congress), (dozens of pro-Kurdish political parties), and recently even an attempt at forming an economic association consisting of ethnic Kurds.

In addition, instead of being in ideological opposition to religion (Islam), the movement had the flair to form the Kurdistan Islam Union in Europe and locally to gather religious figures (Meles and Seydas in Kurdish) within the perameters of the Democratic Society Congress.

The expansion of the Kurdish nationalist movement into an institutional industry has happened because of its ability to adapt itself to counterattacks against so-called 'imperial enemies'. For a better understanding of the religious stance of the movement, a short historical evaluation is required. In the 1980s, the PKK lunched an armed organisation to fight against imperialism. It had a leftist orientation, in particular a Marxist-Leninist perspective which usually considers religion one of the main obstacles to opening people’s minds up for freedom. As a result, until the late 1980s, the religious stance was dramatically rigid, and religious figures and symbols were all targets for attack.

However, as a counter-strategy to the official Islam driven by the state, the traditionalist conservative Kurdish religious strata, and finally Islamist movements’ use of Islam for mobilisation, Abdullah Öcalan himself declared that the PKK was not against Islam. He stated that rejecting Islam was a significant determinant in the failure of most Middle Eastern leftist movements, and he emphasised the revolutionary essence of Islam to legitimise the existence of so many potential recruits.

Since then, the leftist ideological background has not significantly changed, but the PKK has formed another extension to deal with issues regarding Islam. In doing so, Kurdish ethnic rights have been employed, rather than ideologically leftist perceptions of religion. Eventually, the Islamic-approved existence of Kurds as a distinctive nation constituted a main component of the Kurdish nationalist movement’s discourse.

In this context, the imprisoned leader of the PKK Abdullah Öcalan called for Democratic Islam Congresses, one of which was held in Diyarbakir, Turkey on 10-11 May by Democratic Society Congress (DTK) and another one in Hagen, Germany on 24-25 May 2014 by the Federation of Kurdistan Islamic Community.

This initiative is not as surprising as it sounds, since, compared to previous regimes, the PKK-led Kurdish nationalist movement is surrounded by religious powers. These range from the traditionally conservative Barzani government in northern Iraq, the conservative-democrat AKP government in Turkey, the arguably radical Islamists in Syria, and finally the Shi’ite-dominated mullah regime in Iran. Despite their different interpretations or applications of Islam, it is now an undeniable fact that Islam is an approved coin of the realm among Middle Eastern societies.

I personally attended the Democratic Islam Congress in Diyarbakir and externally followed the other one; I can vouch for the fact that there is another interpretation/application of Islam about to be born.

To start with, the first page of the introductory paper delivered by the Democratic Islam Congress (DTK) in Diyarbakir, Turkey, links current conflicts throughout the Muslim world to the elevation of Islam into an instrument of political power, disburdening Islam of its actual essence, which is of course to be the religion of peace, brotherhood and justice. It argues that certain tariqas and religion-based organisations have conducted this politicisation of Islam.

It also argues that Islam has been materialised by the capitalist world system, and that to do so, the capitalist world system implements two main methods: radical Islam, or if that does not work, it pushes Muslims into the trap of morally emptied soft-Islam and historical dogmatism. Either way, religious conflicts in the Middle East are still seen as an imperialists’ game over the region, which is making it hard for Kurds to obtain their basic rights; to be accepted as a distinctive legitimate nation as are other Muslim ethnicities such as Turks, Arabs and Persians.

Whether it is intentional or unintentional, by formulating Islam in a way that stresses fighting oppression and pursuing peace and order, the Kurdish nationalist movement is creating its own interpretation of Islam to consolidate its existence as a nation among others.

Together with these ideas, Öcalan’s letter sent to both congresses foregrounded a concept of cultural Islam. He argues that Shi’ite and Salafi orientations have both been power-centred state structures that emerged as a result of the rise of capitalist imperialism after the demise of the Ottoman Empire, and that both used the “nationalism microbe” against the essence of Islam. He gives the example of how the British Empire used capitalist imperialism to divide the Islamic ummah into nation-states. To him, that is why the current implementation of Islam by existing state structures has been destructive to core values of Islam, which are, most importantly, just and liberal. He sums up the incumbent state structure of the Middle East as authoritarian, laicist, nationalist fascism, and the non-state radical versions (Hezbollah and Al-Qaida and their derivations) as religious fascism.

To avoid conceptual complications, he prefers to call his vision ‘cultural Islam’ since it is much more inclusive. Briefly, he sees religions as a set of cultures that will constitute a system free from the state structure, but at the same time will lead to a reformation of Middle Eastern societies. Thanks to this vision, he rejects the claims of being atheist, communist or materialist and instead re-defines his movement as a contemporary synthesis of Salahaddinian and Huseynian movements.

The Medina contract, signed by different entities in Medina when the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) migrated to the city from Mecca, was at the core of the understanding of Islam accentuated in both congresses. It is believed that this contract can be a solution for all conflicts in the middle east as it was a core cause for stability among nations then living in the city; Jews, Muslims (together with migrants and those who helped them) and pagans. The core idea of the contract was to unite to defend the city in the eventuality of attack from the outside, while providing equal rights to all constituents regardless of ethnicity and religion. The intended result of having this contract at the core of the congress was to justify not only the ethnic distinction of the Kurds, but also the demands other Muslim nations have today.

The congresses were quite critical of radical Islamist organisations in the region, especially in Syria. There is an on-going armed conflict between pro-Kurdish and pro-PKK PYD (Partiya Yekitiye Demokratik-Democratic Union Party), which allegedly formed Kurdish cantons, and radical Islamist groups such as ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Sham) and Al-Nusrah.

Taking the Medina contract as an example in this situation, Kurdish self-determination via cantons has to be accepted if the actual essence of Islam is followed. Furthermore, all other religious groups apart from Muslims can live in peace as per the requirements of the contract, in regard to Christian and Nestorian minorities among the Kurds in Syrian Kurdish cantons and Armenians and Yezidis in Turkish Kurdistan. According to the atmosphere of the congresses, that is the actual essence of Islam, which is also democratic. Therefore, democratic Islam makes sense from the perspective of the Kurdish nationalist movement.

From a general perspective, the congresses criticised the current states for the degeneration of the libertarian, egalitarian and pluralist features of Islam, which is totally consistent with democracy. It is believed that with the application of this democratic Islam, all of the issues of the Middle East can be resolved. Both congresses indicate primarily the Syrian crisis and then the Kurdish question in other adjacent states as a starting point.

While articulating appreciation to Abdullah Öcalan for calling this important meeting and suggesting the Medina contract as the ultimate solution to all problems in the Middle East, most of the attendees did not mention anything about the PKK’s very early animus against religion, yet accused all other organisations and states of using Islam for their own interests. In this regard, the call for reconsideration of previous un-Islamic historical mistakes should have applied to the PKK itself.

Given that most of the participants and organisers are sympathisers of the current PKK to various degrees, this however is unlikely to prevail. However, another criticism of the congress was that they did not include other religious organisations or political parties operating in the same region. That is why it is hard to believe that this initiative will bring easy solutions: but it will provoke a new version or reading of Islam within the Kurdish nationalist movement.

Looking at the concluding remarks of both congresses, it is explicit that there is a domination of the Kurdish issue, which will of course be quite influential in shaping the post-Arab spring Middle East.  At the same time, there is direct approval of Islam as one of the core components of Middle East politics; the Kurdish nationalist movement implicitly uses it, regardless of whether they will play politics with Islam or keep it separate.

About the author

Rahman Dag has a BA in Political Science and International Relations from Istanbul Yeditepe University and an MA Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Orient and African Studies, and finally a PhD in Middle East Politics from Exeter University. He is also director of the CESRAN Turkey desk.


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