Under the title “Cooperating with Erdogan means selling humanity” the Swedish newspaper Dagens ETC (*) an article written by Devriş Çimen, the European representative of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The article deals with the deal between Sweden and Finland with Erdogan’s Turkey over NATO membership and its implications for the Kurds. Çimen tries to explain the background of legitimate security concerns, universal values and Kurdish mountains from a Kurdish perspective in the context of the Swedish-Finnish-Turkish deal.
“I would like to remind you that if Sweden and Finland do not take steps to meet our conditions, we will freeze the process.” So said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara on 18 July, thus single-handedly setting the rules of the game for Finland and Sweden’s bid to join NATO. But can Swedish and Finnish government officials explain to the public what Erdoğan’s “conditions” are, and what they will do to prevent their accession to NATO being “frozen”?
You cannot and must not perceive Erdoğan as someone to treat with. He is an autocrat, who doesn’t shy away from using the Swedish and Finnish populations as playthings in his power games; who is anti-democratic; who wages wars against the Kurds in violation of international law; and who criminalises those who oppose him. Working with him means selling out humanity. If you accept this regardless, a moral problem arises that you cannot explain away, either to your civil society and to us.
We, the Kurdish people, do not impose our own conditions. But I would like to talk a little about Erdoğan’s “conditions” that will affect our future. With this deal, we have once again seen negotiations occurring about, but not with, the Kurds. It is therefore all the more necessary to look at the current discussions around Erdoğan’s proposed pact from a Kurdish perspective. Instead of listening to the voices of the Kurds, space has been given to Erdoğan’s threats and his attempted blackmail.
In Kurdish there is a proverb: ‘The Kurds have no friends but the mountains’, or ‘dostên Kurdan bi tenê çiya ne’. The phrase refers to the state of threat, perpetual security concerns, abandonment and isolation that the Kurds continue to endure. Whenever the Kurds have been persecuted, they have retreated to the mountains to survive. In their homeland, under conditions of exploitation and discrimination, where they are excluded from cultural, political, democratic and therefore universal rights, the Kurds have to resist. Not only in their homeland, but also internationally, they must resist discriminatory practices.
As the European representative of Turkey’s pro-minority rights Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which received more than six million votes in the most recent Turkish elections – more than the population of Finland – and in which the Kurds play an important role, I would like to contribute to this important debate. It is also important to know that there are currently proceedings before the Constitutional Court aimed at banning the HDP. There is a great danger that the Erdoğans government will use the judiciary, which is completely under its control, to ban the HDP before the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for June 2023. Therefore, I see it as one of my tasks to write articles and represent the objections of all the people who support the HDP. Of course, we are speaking not only about the voices of millions of Kurds in Turkey, but also about the cultural, social and political relations of these people with the Kurds in Syria, Iraq and Iran. This once again significantly expands the scope of our responsibility. The term “Kurdistan” must be decolonised and the Kurds’ demands for freedom and democracy decriminalised. Everything Erdoğan says about or purportedly on behalf of Kurds stems from racist and anti-Kurdish policies and enjoys no recognition whatsoever on behalf of the Kurdish community.
Erdoğan’s deal and “security concerns”
The deal, hailed as a breakthrough at the NATO summit in Madrid at the end of June, will only encourage Erdoğan to conduct further acts of blackmail against the West and wars of aggression against the Kurds. Erdoğan now has it in writing that he can demand support in the fight against the Kurdish population and the democratic opposition. His hostile anti-Kurdish policies are thus also being imposed on Sweden and Finland against their will.
Both countries will join the NATO military alliance in the near future. Shortly after the deal at the summit, it was also announced that the US will help modernise Turkey’s fleet of F16 fighter jets. One thing is clear: the memorandum agreed upon in Madrid will not contribute to Turkish literature and the fighter jets will not adorn Turkish museums, but will of course be used for the war against the Kurds.
This is not a wild accusation. Rather, agreement on the two countries’ joining NATO only came about when Erdoğan’s Turkey gave up its veto – and after a deal had been signed whereby Kurdish interests and Kurdish lives would once again be sacrificed.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said ahead of the Madrid summit that the “security concerns” Erdoğan’s Turkey had raised in vetoing Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership applications were “legitimate”. Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson also seemed to endorse Erdoğan’s comments, saying: “We take Turkish concerns very seriously, not least security concerns in the context of the fight against terrorism.”
But Stoltenberg’s and Andersson’s statements are illegitimate and wrong because they were arrived at on a false basis. They are wrong because they give Erdoğan a free hand for further repression and wars conducted contrary to international law. Nothing about this deal is right.
We must not forget that historically, the existence of the Turkish state is based on the genocides of the Armenians and Assyrians and the denial of the fundamental rights of other peoples, especially the Kurds. Consequently, since the founding of the state, all those who question Turkey’s dominant political culture have faced violent opposition.
The Kurds in Turkey have an existential problem
This is why the Kurds in Turkey face such an existential problem. The dominant political doctrine essentially demands the annihilation of everything that cannot be defined or defined as Turkish. Thus, the 100-year-old problem over the Kurdish identity and the 40-year-old conflict between the Kurdish movement and the Turkish state are both the direct result of Turkish state ideology. The problem is not the Kurds, but the totalitarian methods of the Turkish state ideology. This has an anti-Kurdish character, which is also reflected in the constitution, which officially forces all those living in Turkey to undergo “Turkification”. This includes the imposition of a certain religion, a certain language, a certain way of life and certain gender norms.
Former Swedish Development Minister Pierre Schori said the NATO memorandum was a great success for Erdoğan, a disgrace for Sweden and a betrayal of the Kurds. He added that he believed that “the text was written by the Turks”. So it is not a fair agreement between several countries, but the deal was forced by Erdoğan. This will have devastating consequences for the Kurds and at the same time for democratic values in Sweden and Finland if it is not annulled after all.
The Kurds are not part of any decision-making body with the authority to question whether NATO should be expanded, reduced or even dissolved. But they have the right to demand a clear commitment to international law, democracy and freedom, which should also apply to the Kurdish population.
No entity has the right to abuse universal human rights for its own benefit and profit – neither Turkey, nor NATO, nor the countries applying for new membership in the alliance.
Responsibility to defend universal democratic values
Ingmar Bergman’s 1968 film ‘Shame’ delivers a historical and political lesson which illuminates the present discussion. The film effectively teaches the viewer how history shapes personal and collective ethical responsibility in situation of war. In the film, a pair of artists want to flee a civil war. But the turmoil of war spreads to their island, and the pressure of current affairs bursts in upon their everyday life on all levels. The cynical Bergman ruthlessly illustrates the destruction of human relationships and the impossibility of retreating into isolation.
The film focuses on individuals and communities, and on the good as well as the evil in them. It is about individual, ethical values, different perspectives, choices – and thus acting or not acting.
When Turkey attacked parts of the autonomous, Kurdish-led regions of North and East Syria in October 2019 under the pretext of “legitimate security concerns”, many people around the world showed solidarity with locals affected by the war in the towns of Serekanîyê (or Ras al-Ayn) and Gire Spî (or Tel Abyad). They opposed the war, which posed a massive threat to the security of the Kurds.
At that time, Sweden and Finland decided to impose an arms embargo on Turkey. Other countries had symbolically restricted their arms exports to Turkey. In this way, Turkey’s war, which was against international law, was denounced. This was not a favour to the Kurds, but a necessary act – the assumption of responsibility in defence of universal democratic values.
The memorandum signed with Erdoğan, that condemns and criminalises the Nordic countries’ assumption of responsibility in suspending arms sales to Turkey, therefore constitutes a denial of history and an ethical failure. If a new attack on North and East Syria is indeed soon to get underway, the Turkish government may not have secured the support of Sweden and Finland, but has at least secured their silence.
But how can one accept such a position in the face of Turkey’s violations of international and human rights? In this sense, the Bergman film draws attention to an important issue that should make us all rethink our position. The film makes one see parallels between its artist protagonists and the fate of people in Kurdistan or Turkey who have experienced the extremities of war. Millions of Kurds face extremely difficult ethical choices every day: To resist or surrender? To leave or to stay? To protect fellow human beings under threat or look the other way? Whether to risk one’s own life to save others? How far to go to defend values proclaimed in peacetime? Or whether to simply try and take advantage of the situation?
With the help of the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, we may ask ourselves: Can we live a correct life in the midst of a wrong one?
Systematic discrimination against and oppression of the Kurds
The deal from the NATO summit promises a lot – against the Kurds and for Turkey. It is only the most recent example of how the Turkish state’s anti-Kurdish policy systematically discriminates against and oppresses the Kurds. Anti-Kurdish policies have a long historical precedent in Turkish state policy.
As early as 1934, the Turkish Parliament passed the “Forced Evacuation Law”(İskân Kanunu), which created the legal framework for the deportation of the Alevi Kurds from Dersim in 1935. Only two years later, the Turkish cabinet decided in a secret session on 4 May 1937: “This time, the population in the rebellious area will be rounded up and transferred to other areas. […] If one is content with only an offensive action, the centres of resistance will persist. For this reason, it is considered necessary to definitively disable those who have used and are using weapons on the ground, to completely destroy their villages and to remove their families.”
“Chastisement and deportation” (tedip ve tenkil) was the phrase used to justify the massacres and attacks. Something similar is happening today in the so-called ‘security zone’ Erdoğan is demanding he be allowed to establish northern Syria, funded by EU money. After the Turkish government’s decision in 1937, the policy was bloodily implemented. The Kurds resisted. But Turkish ground forces burned hundreds of villages and thousands of civilians were murdered, including women and children. The Turkish air force bombed Dersim, using incendiary bombs and poison gas. About 70,000 Kurds of the minority Alevi faith fell victim to the attacks and about 50,000 people were deported.
By 1938, the uprising in Dersim had been put down. The Turkish army’s attacks, described by some as a “purge”, ended in the renaming of Dersim as “Tunceli”, or I’ron Hand’. From there on in, the mountains of Dersim were emblazoned with the slogan: “I am proud to be a Turk”. No village in the region was spared the ravages of the Turkish army.
Kurdistan’s mountains and “We are the mountains of the Kurds”
Seyit Ali Yüce, one of the eyewitnesses who sought shelter in the mountains for seven years after the “cleansing” action in Dersim, told me about these atrocities while living in exile, prior to his death in 2009. He explained how even before the foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 the province of Dersim, the main settlement area of the Kurdish Alevis in eastern Turkey, had been attacked by the Ottomans and experienced massacres. In this mountainous region, which was difficult to access at the time, the Kurdish Alevis were able to live according to their traditional culture almost unmolested.
But when the genocide in the region began, the Kurds’ cry for help was not heard by anyone. As it was said at the time, “the only ones who protected us from the attacks were the mountains.” Both before and after, the mountains were the places where the Kurds received protection. Interestingly, Seyit Ali Yüce told us that there was also contuny resistance against contuny state oppression. He added that one of his sons, Xalid, died in 1986 in the mountains of Dersim in a battle with the Turkish army as a member of the PKK guerrillas. The same is true for other parts of Kurdistan, especially for the Kurds in Iraq, who were subjected to systematic massacres for decades under the Baathist regime. It was only the mountains that offered them protection.
But now, in addition to the mountains of Kurdistan, there are “mountains” all over the world that stand by the Kurds – our friends, allies and supporters.
Indeed, the ‘mountain’ metaphor has a meaning for Kurds that goes beyond friends. At the historical point the Kurds’ struggle has reached today, many people around the world have made the statement “we are the mountains of the Kurds” to declare that they stand in solidarity with the Kurds. After the Kurds’ successful struggle against ISIS and the construction of the autonomous project in northern Syria, people and politicians from Sweden also made similar statements of solidarity. This was very significant, and a strong position to take at the time. But to be a “mountain”, you need to be able to withstand a storm.
As far as the Kurdish people are concerned, such statements are as important as official treaties. Since the Kurds are excluded from official international law, they have no heads of state who could conclude formal treaties to guarantee their protection. For this reason, the Kurds place great value on words and moral stances. It is the result of their tradition that the Kurds trust words when they are spoken, and demand an attitude of decency from all political actors.
The Kurds’ demand that Sweden and Finland take a stand against Erdoğan’s threats is based on this tradition of trust and moral responsibility. We will find out in the coming days whether the democratic and humanistic values of both countries means they can truly be considered “mountains”.
The NATO deal will create “legitimacy” for illegitimate acts
Turkey is the country that has been condemned most often in the history of the European Court of Human Rights for violating universal human rights – prisons, arrests, political prisoners, torture, unsolved murders, ill-treatment, rights violations, and so forth.
Erdoğan tramples on democratic values in Turkey, muzzles journalists and critics, and declares all legitimate political opponents – especially the Kurds – to be terrorists in order to be able to imprison them. According to data from the Turkish Ministry of Justice in November 2021, the country’s 383 prisons are full over 110% capacity, while Turkey has the highest incarceration rate of any Council of Europe country bar Russia. This has serious consequences for the inmates.
Among those imprisoned are tens of thousands of political prisoners, including at least 4000 members of the HDP party, such as former co-chairs Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş, and many MPs and mayors. Erdoğan’s government, moreover, wants to create more than 100,000 new places behind bars in the next five years by building numerous new prisons. All this is happening under the pretext of Turkish security concerns.
Instead of giving in to Erdoğan’s blackmail now, it would be more proper for Western powers to make the counter-demand: “Create democratic conditions in your country where people and the opposition are not systematically persecuted and arbitrarily punished.”
Through their political struggle, the Kurds have created hope and belief in a pluralistic, free, democratic, ecological model, one based on women’s liberation and wherever they live. Their struggle for a life of freedom and dignity is not a threat to Turkey or anyone else. On the contrary, the threat comes from autocrats and those who endanger our common universal values in order to retain or expand their power. Among such figures we find Putin, Modi and Bolsonaro, and another one is Erdoğan, who imposes a nationalist, Islamist, anti-democratic and anti-Kurdish worldview on all of us.
The claims by international actors that Turkey has “legitimate security concerns and the right to fight terrorism” are manipulative, an instrument arbitrarily used by Erdogan’s Turkey to undermine the legitimate rights of the Kurds and other peoples seeking to live in peace and freedom. This NATO deal will create “legitimacy” for illegitimate actions.
Oppressors cannot raise legitimate security concerns against those they oppress. On the contrary, we oppressed peoples have security concerns that should be morally, politically and legally supported by everyone else. It is the denial of Kurdish rights and policies of assimilation conducted by the dominant states in the region, especially the Turkish state, that lead to illegitimate and hostile repression. Turkey’s attacks against and occupation of majority-Kurdish regions in northern Syria and northern Iraq are a direct expression of this policy.
In Turkey’s literary circles, people often refer to the following lines in Bergman’s film. To the question “Things are going badly, how is the world to be saved?”, we hear the following response: “Shame. Only shame can save the world.” It is the moral and political responsibility of society in Sweden and Finland, but also of the whole Western community, not to let Erdoğan blackmail us any further.
(*) Dagens ETC: The newspaper ETC has been published since 2014 for its readers with a left-wing and green worldview.
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