Ankara—Politics always involves a tension between laws and leadership, accountability and action. Emergencies occur, the ship of state needs to negotiate the storms of unexpected events; there is a need to act. For those who believe in the priority of rights as an ideal of politics, this can be a problem. The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben mused on this in his State of Exception, arguing that sovereignty and constitutions are unstable partners, with the sovereign always longing to slip the constitutional net.
I was reminded of this during my recent trip to Ankara as part of a European socialist delegation in order to witness the trial of the two leaders of the mainly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP in Turkish), Selahatin Demirtas and Figen Yuksegdag. The prosecutors have asked for a 142-year sentence for each of them. It is likely that their request will be granted.
There is currently a “state of emergency” in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has developed a peculiar form of national Islam, an unprecedented combination of Atatürk and the Muslim Brotherhood. Any opposition is considered a threat to both nation and faith. As Istanbul leader of the Islamic Welfare Party, Erdoğan was removed from office, banned from Parliament and imprisoned for violating Turkey’s secular constitution. He has experience of previous states of emergency. His democratic support comes from the small towns and agricultural regions of Anatolia, and is now present in all big cities, partly because of the rapid immigration to urban areas over the last 30 years. His vote grew in every election he contested as prime minister and he is by far the most popular politician representing the most populous part in Turkey.
His combination of a free market and a strong state was pioneered by Margaret Thatcher—and Erdoğan has stayed true to the script. The difference lies in the desecularisation of the Turkish polity. Women with head scarves are now allowed into public buildings. There is an explosion of state-sponsored mosque building—each flying the Turkish flag between its minarets. A more Ottoman foreign policy was initially pursued, with Erdoğan presenting himself as a champion of the Sunni interest. In a partnership with Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish exile who never left his compound in the Poconos but who established a network of schools, banks, and construction companies, Erdoğan shifted the leadership of the secularist military, established authority over the police, and appointed thousands of Gülenist judges who opposed the secular interpretation of constitutional law.
As is often the way with brothers, Erdoğan and Gülen fell out. There were many issues: the use of force to disperse protesters in the Gezi Park protests, the closing down of Gülenist prep schools, financial disputes. The rift came to a head in the failed July 2016 coup attempt by a group of junior military officers. Many Turks came out on the streets, the soldiers were beaten, and more than 200 people were killed. That was the cause of the state of emergency, which is now an unmediated form of presidential rule supported by a democratic plebiscite vote. Though supposedly targeted at Gülenists, it is the Zagros mountains and not the Poconos that pose the gravest threat to Erdoğan. It did not take long for the fundamental issue of Turkish politics to reemerge, the relationship between the Turkish state and the Kurds.
For Atatürk, the Kurds did not exist as a nation. While the Ottoman millet system allowed various degrees of self-government for different religious communities, the republican nation-state does not recognize any distinction between citizens based on ethnicity, language, or race. The Kurds—a small but significant minority of the Turkish population—were not only the big losers of the First World War but of modernity more generally. Divided among four countries—Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria—they were oppressed by the state, marginal to the market, despised by liberals as particularist and backward, and glossed over by the forces of globalization. In Turkey it was a crime to even say the word “Kurd,” and Kurds were instead referred to as “mountain Turks.” In Iran neither the shah nor the ayatollahs cared for their distinctive cultural forms, and in Iraq Saddam Hussein treated them to the Anfal campaign, with its chemical attacks and forced depopulation.
In Turkey, as elsewhere, the Kurds’ sufferings generated no unified political response. The Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), established in 1978, was initially another Marxist-Leninist, vaguely Maoist, national-liberation movement with strong support in the mountains. As such it was the perfect foil for the Turkish military: a Marxist terrorist group that aimed to dismember the Turkish state. A brutal military conflict ensued with army massacres and PKK bus bombs. PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan fled to Syria, where a million Kurds found themselves on the wrong side of the Beirut-to-Baghdad railway line—and of the Baathist regime. In this small Kurdish enclave in remote northeastern Syria, Öcalan developed a politics that owed more to the New York ecological anarchist Murray Bookchin than to Lenin. He embraced Bookchin’s idea of democratic confederalism and renounced Kurdish national self-determination. The goal was the democratization of society through strong local self-government—a kind of parish commune system. He organized women-only local militias in the villages, and democratic assemblies to enact policy.
Öcalan himself was expelled from Syria in 1997, during a brief rapprochement with the Turkish state, and was captured in Kenya in a joint action by Turkish, American, and Israeli special forces. Tried in 1999, he has been kept in solitary confinement ever since, on an island in the Marmara Sea with 200 guards to ensure he doesn’t escape. No one has seen or heard from him for nearly two years. Like the 12th imam of Shia Islam, Öcalan is in a state of occultation.
Yet his combination of radical democracy, feminism, and autonomy was the basis of the YPJ and YPG forces that recently defeated ISIS in Eastern Syria. An armed, organized and functioning form of Kurdish self-government now exists in Syria.
The nightmare for Erdoğan is that, despite the power that a state of emergency brings, Öcalan’s influence continues to grow. The HDP does not aspire to a Kurdish state; rather, it calls for a democratic Turkey and is inspired by the example of the Syrian Kurds in Rojava. Its program is feminist, ecological, and democratic. Though the HDP denies any links to the PKK, its organization and ideological goals have allowed Kurds to pursue their autonomy through village and town-hall democracy in defiance of the centralized claims of Ankara. The HDP did far better than expected in the 2014 elections, winning over 13 percent of the vote—enough to temporarily thwart Erdoğan’s plans for constitutional revision—and it did not take long for the party’s leaders to be arrested.
In his backing for Islamist forces Erdoğan nearly wrote himself out of the script in Syria—until in a dramatic reversal he went to Moscow and engaged with Russia and Iran in negotiating the peace settlement. Meanwhile, in Turkey the HDP are beginning to make inroads in the cities and on the left. They offer a different vision of the republic based on democracy and a respect for the diversity of its people. Their imprisoned leader Selahattin Demirtaş is a significant figure in this strategy. He, too, is now in solitary confinement.
A state of emergency is not a period of time but a method of government. In Turkey, unprecedented numbers of journalists have been imprisoned, civil servants fired, and trade unions marginalized. Erdoğan has decimated the country’s civic space, complementing the domination of the state and the market with a nationalized Islam. He commands an Army that recognizes his legitimacy, and retains strong democratic support. Yet the Kurds still persist in challenging his rule despite the bombing of their villages, the imprisonment of their leaders, and the legal denial of their very existence as a people. They insist that reconciliation is political and not legal—and must be based on the freedom of their political leaders, especially Öcalan.
Turkey’s state of emergency generates a relentless noise, but the silence emanating from the hermit in the Marmara sea is beginning to deafen Erdoğan