By Adem Ince
February 24, 2016
The PKK/PYD's secular Kurdish nationalist doctrine, which is quite similar to Kemalism in terms of having no tolerance for ‘others,' will not bring freedom to the region but rather the despotism of totalitarian regimes.
Einstein once defined nationalism as "the measles of mankind," and he was right. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, almost every nation that used to live under the rule of the empire experienced nationalization processes that generally resulted in the formation of a variety of independent nation-states, with the exception of Kurds living in four different countries: Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Having looked at recent developments in these regions, it seems to me that it is now the Kurds' turn to have "measles."
Despite being one of the latest examples of ethnic nationalism in the Middle East, Kurdish nationalism appears to imitate other nationalist ideas in the region, such as official Turkish nationalism. This might be explained by the fact that the current form of Kurdish nationalism that has developed lately in Turkey could well be considered a kind of reactionary nationalism, having been born as a reaction to the assimilationist policies and actions of the Turkish state. Therefore, in this article, I claim that the PKK's own version of secular Kurdish nationalism has a lot in common with Kemalist Turkish nationalism based on its actions, which can be seen in many areas, such as the ethnically oriented nationalist ideals, the cult of a powerful leader and the use of education for nation-building purposes, although they do embrace/follow completely different ideologies.
To begin with, based on a comparison between the Atatürk personality cult that is embedded within official Turkish nationalism and the cult of the PKK's imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan that has developed within the secular Kurdish nationalist movement, it seems to me that Kurdish nationalist's ideals and views are not very different from the Turkish ones, even though the Kurdish nationalist movement claims to have a critical stance against Turkish nationalist ideals and practices.
Apoism Vs Kemalism
First, the attempt to develop a national ideology of Apoism in response to the Turkish official ideology of Kemalism is clearly visible in secular Kurdish nationalism. Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) Co-Chair Selahattin Demirtaş's statement regarding the erection of statues of Abdullah Öcalan was one of the first examples that come to mind. "We will erect his statues, and you will see," he said.
This quote clearly shows the desire for the character of Öcalan to replace that of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, whose statues already dominate every city, every town, government building and school across Turkey. Although Öcalan does not yet have a surname meaning "the father of the Kurds," there is no doubt that he is indeed seen like one by his followers. Furthermore, any criticism of Öcalan is not welcome among Apoists, as criticism of Atatürk is not welcome among Kemalists; in both cases, this results in having a leader with unquestionable authority. Thus, the idea of having a hero is reproduced within secular Kurdish nationalism.
Secondly, another similarity between Apoism and Kemalism is the existence of bigotry towards any ideology other than its own. Both ideologies are intolerant of dissent and any form of opposition. Many people were jailed (some even hanged) in the single-party period in Turkey just because they thought differently. Similarly, it could be argued that the PKK uses the same strategy in Kurdish-inhabited provinces in southeast Turkey. This can be seen in the murders of a number of Kurdish people who were members of a rival Kurdish party, Free Cause Party (Hüda-Par), in October 2014, as the PKK wants to be the only "legitimate" authority for Kurds.
Third, secular Kurdish nationalists seem to have an agenda of cultural homogenization in Kurdish-inhabited regions. This was also one of the main goals of Kemalists in the early days of the Republic, and their ethnic cleansing strategy played a crucial role in reaching this goal. For instance, the population exchange treaty between Turkey and Greece in the 1920s is a clear example of an ethnic cleansing campaign used to build an ethnically homogeneous motherland for Turks.
A similar strategy can be observed in the de facto autonomous Kurdish territories/cantons ruled by the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria, which is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK. According to a report published by Amnesty International, the PYD is accused of "razing entire villages seized from DAESH," which led to the forced displacement of their Arab and Turkmen inhabitants. There is no doubt that the PYD wants to homogenize the Syrian cantons for the sake of creating an ethnically pure homeland for the Kurds in northern Syria.
Lastly, the use of "education" for nation-building purposes to impose the created identity on everyone is also a method commonly used by Kemalists and Apoists. It is obvious that the Turkish educational system is still primarily based upon Kemalist ideals. Kemalism and its interpretation of Turkish nationalism dominate the educational system, with the cult of Atatürk being visible in both textbooks and the curriculum.
For instance, the very first goal of the educational system in Turkey is "to raise all individuals as citizens who are committed to the principles and reforms of Atatürk and to the nationalism of Atatürk as expressed in the Constitution, who adopt, protect and promote the national, moral, human, spiritual and cultural values of the Turkish Nation." Although "critical thinking" is encouraged in the educational system in theory, it is somewhat ironic that the "democracy education" section of the Education Law specifically prohibits any form of discussion/criticism of the Kemalist interpretation of Turkish nationalism. Of course, Atatürk's personality and his principles are also strictly out of the question in schools.
Likewise, it seems that the PKK/PYD wishes to implement a similar curriculum in the Kurdish region. This, in fact, could well be seen in the new curriculum and textbooks recently introduced by the PYD in the cantons of northern Syria.
The newly introduced curriculum is claimed to be creating controversy by fostering Öcalan's ideology and for including biased information. Even other Kurdish political parties in the region, such as the Kurdish National Council (KNC), accused the PYD of implementing an ideological curriculum. The claims suggest that the new textbooks include sections such as "Öcalan Philosophy" with many pages devoted to Öcalan's photos and sayings. Therefore, as mentioned by the secretary of the West Kurdistan Teachers' Union, Jian Zakaria, this ideology-driven national curriculum has the potential to foster a kind of "totalitarian ideology" in classrooms "by sanctifying the leader and militarizing the schools." This is exactly what has been happening in Turkish schools since the 1920s.
As a result, even though secular Kurdish nationalism claims to bring about "freedom" in Kurdish towns, it is obvious from the actions of the PKK/PYD that instead they represent a kind of totalitarian ideology, having absolutely no tolerance against "others." Furthermore, they - including the pro-Kurdish political party HDP - seem to be unable to foresee the possible future consequences of their actions, as the Kemalist experience has already shown us the possible consequences of implementing such policies, which is the creation and exclusion of "others" in society.
It appears that secular Kurdish nationalists have not learned anything from the Kemalists' mistakes, and as beautifully mentioned by George Santayana, "Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." Having said that, I remain hopeful that the majority of Kurds can be aware that what the PKK/PYD wants to accomplish is nothing but "measles" for the Kurds.
Adem Ince is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Leeds, U.K.