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15 Jun 2010

A New Front in the PKK Insurgency

PKK supporters, courtesy of NACH/flickr
Creative Commons - Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic Creative Commons - Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic

Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) supporters, Paris

An ideological battle to win hearts and minds is raging in Turkey’s ‘City of Children,’ as the PKK finds it is no longer strong enough to defeat the Turkish military head on, Gareth Jenkins writes for ISN Security Watch.

By Gareth Jenkins in Ankara for ISN

Since the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) first launched its insurgency in 1984, the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey has become notorious as the main battleground in a war which has cost an estimated 40,000 lives. Although the PKK still stages regular attacks, it is no longer stronger enough to confront - much less defeat - the Turkish military on the battlefield.

In recent years, a new front has been opened not in the mountains but on the streets of southeast Turkey, where NGOs affiliated with different groups and organizations compete for the hearts and minds of the impoverished masses who have crowded into shantytowns, which now engulf all of the cities in the region.

Nowhere is the rivalry more intense than in Diyarbakir, the largest city in southeast Turkey and regarded by Kurdish nationalists as the capital-in-waiting of what they dream will one day be an independent Kurdistan.

Increasingly, the competition has turned into a three-way struggle between NGOs sympathetic to the PKK and two Islamist networks: the moderate, non-violent Gulen Movement, named after the exiled preacher Fethullah Gulen, and the supporters of the militant organization known in Turkey as ‘Hizbullah’, which is unrelated to the Lebanese group of the same name.

From neglect to alienation

Decades of often willful neglect by successive governments has resulted in the southeast of Turkey being the poorest and most underdeveloped region of the country. The already fragile local economy was dealt a devastating blow by the outbreak of the PKK insurgency.

During the early 1990s, the situation was exacerbated by the forced evacuation by the Turkish security forces of 3,500 villages as part of a scorched earth campaign to deny food and shelter to the PKK. Most of the displaced moved to nearby cities. The Turkish authorities made no attempt to rehouse them or find them work. Uneducated and unskilled, the majority merely swelled the ranks of the urban unemployed. Taken together with the Turkish state’s long history of the suppression of Kurdish political and cultural rights, such treatment has resulted in a widespread sense of alienation and hostility to the central government in Ankara.

Not surprisingly, the southeast of Turkey has long been a fertile recruiting ground not just for the PKK but also for leftist and radical Islamist groups.

Since it first took power in November 2002, the moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has eased some of the restrictions on the expression of a Kurdish identity and increased state aid to the region. But most of the municipalities in the region are controlled by the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is not only a rival to the AKP but regarded by many of its supporters and opponents as being very close to the PKK. The BDP complains that the AKP government still starves the region of funds.

“The state does not allocate the same amount of money to Diyarbakir as it does to other cities of a similar size elsewhere in Turkey,” Serif Camci, an advisor to Osman Baydemir, the BDP mayor of Diyarbakir, told ISN Security Watch.

Camci heads the Association for the Struggle Against Poverty and Sustainable Development (Sarmasik), which was established in 2006 under the leadership of the Diyarbakir municipality.

“We conducted research which showed that, of the 1.5 million people in the greater Diyarbakir area, around 500,000 need some form of assistance in order to meet their basic needs,” said Camci. The survey also found that, in the poorest areas, 27 percent of the heads of households were illiterate.

“We have started programs to help people get some vocational training so that there is at least one breadwinner in the family,” explained Camci. “We also run women’s health programs and a food bank, where very poor families without any regular income receive free basic foodstuffs.”

But the BDP’s critics claim that such social aid projects are politically motivated.

“The BDP gives free food and jobs in the municipality to the families of those who have joined the PKK or whose relatives have died fighting for the PKK,” a member of a rival Islamist organization told ISN Security Watch.

Earlier this year, the central government went to court to prevent the Diyarbakir municipality from financing the Food Bank.

“We are currently donating food to 15,000 people,” said Camci. “We have found alternative sources of funding for them but the court decision has meant that we have had to postpone increasing the number to 30,000. The government said that we were doing the state’s job. I told them that if the state was doing its real job then there wouldn’t be any need for our programs.”

The return of Hizbullah

In addition to being the poorest, the southeast is also the most conservative region of Turkey. For the once Marxist PKK, establishing its Islamic credentials has always been a challenge. Although the PKK now stresses its respect for Islam - and BDP politicians even quote from the Koran in their speeches - its image of being a predominantly secular organization remains the main obstacle to the broadening of its popular support base. But Hizbullah has faced no such problems.

Hizbullah was founded in Diyarbakir in the early 1980s by an ethnic Kurd named Huseyin Velioglu. In the early 1990s, Hizbullah defeated a PKK attempt to create a permanent presence in the cities of southeast Turkey in a war which cost an estimated 700 to 800 lives, around two-thirds of them PKK militants. Hizbullah then turned to eliminating rival Islamists, torturing and executing several hundred before Velioglu was hunted down and killed by the police in Istanbul in January 2000.

Velioglu’s death threw the organization into confusion. At one point it appeared in danger of breaking up. But under the leadership of Velioglu’s successor, Isa Altsoy, who is believed to be in hiding in western Europe, it began to rebuild.

Although its members remain theoretically committed to violence, over the last 10 years Hizbullah has focused on strengthening its social base by creating a huge network of Islamic NGOs, charities, soup kitchens, Koran courses, bookshops and media outlets across Turkey. It currently operates a weekly newspaper and radio station, both based in Diyarbakir, and has even begun test broadcasting for a TV channel.

On 18 April 2010, in a demonstration of its growing strength, NGOs allegedly sympathetic to Hizbullah organized a mass meeting in Diyarbakir to celebrate the anniversary of the Prophet Muhammed’s birthday. The Turkish police estimated that the event was attended by 120,000 people. The organizers put the figure at over 300,000.

There are currently believed to be more than 20 pro-Hizbullah NGOs active in Diyarbakir alone. On 20 April, the Turkish courts ordered the closure of one of the largest NGOs, the Association for the Oppressed (Mustazaf-Der), which has its headquarters in Diyarbakir, on the grounds that it was “conducting activities on behalf of the terrorist organization Hizbullah.”

“Some of the people active in Mustazaf-Der were imprisoned for membership of Hizbullah,” admitted Orhan Abdulgani, the organization’s lawyer, to ISN Security Watch. “But that doesn’t mean that the two are the same. And they had served their time. Why should they be punished twice?”

“Closure is not a punishment for us. It is an award,” Osman Aktas, the head of Mustazaf-Der’s Diyarbakir branch, told ISN Security Watch. “It shows that we are doing something and making the state look bad. But all we are doing is fulfilling our religious obligations. We are just trying to live the Koran.”

Feeding the mind rather than the body

Over the last 20 years, the Gulen Movement has grown into the most powerful NGO network in Turkey, including businesses, charities, media outlets and educational establishments. It remains deeply distrusted by many Turkish secularists, who suspect it of harboring a secret long-term agenda to transform Turkey into an Islamic state. But even its detractors acknowledge that the movement is non-violent and, when compared with Hizbullah, advocates a considerably more moderate interpretation of Islam.

Despite its close ties with some leading members of the AKP, it is only in the last four to five years that the Gulen Movement has begun to prioritize activities in the southeast. Together with the older Sufi brotherhoods or tariqah, which still exert considerable influence in the region, the Gulen Movement is regarded by the government as a counterbalance to the militancy of the PKK and Hizbullah; and its emphasis on the inclusiveness of a shared religion is seen as a force for national unity in contrast to the centrifugal tendencies of Kurdish nationalism.

In recent years, the AKP government has even initiated a propaganda campaign to reconceptualize Diyarbakir as an Islamic rather than a Kurdish city, holding seminars and conferences which highlight its role in early Islamic history and detail the large number of companions of the Prophet Muhammed who are believed to be buried in the city.

Although it has NGOs which organize cultural activities and distribute food to the poor, the Gulen Movement has concentrated primarily on education.

“There are 436,000 children of school age in Diyarbakir,” said Aziz Istegun, the regional representative of Zaman, the movement’s flagship newspaper. “It is a city of children.”

In addition to colleges, student dormitories and courses for university and high school entrance exams, since 2006 the movement has also been running what it terms “study rooms,” which provide free additional tuition to elementary school students from poor families. So far, 21 “study rooms” catering for 2,250 boys and girls have been opened in Diyarbakir alone. More are planned.

“The schools and study rooms serve a social as well as an educational purpose,” said Istegun. “We are trying to keep children in the education system, help them go on to high school, keep them off the streets and away from drugs and violence.”

But not everyone has welcomed the Gulenists’ educational activities.

“It is like a competition between the Movement, the PKK and Hizbullah,” said Istegun. “Of course, the extremists aren’t happy. Sometimes our study rooms are firebombed in the middle of the night, although nobody has been hurt yet.”

Which Islam?

In recent years, the main focus of the battle for hearts and minds in Diyarbakir has shifted away from the PKK to the competing interpretations of Islam of Hizbullah and the Gulen Movement.

“In order to be successful, any political organization in the southeast has to include Islam and Kurdishness. The proportions may vary but it has to have both,” Professor Rusten Erkan, the head of the Sociology Department at Diyarbakir’s Dicle University, told ISN Security Watch.

The PKK’s Islamic credentials have always been weak. Although it has vast financial resources and the tacit backing of the AKP, the Gulen Movement is manifestly not Kurdish. Only Hizbullah has a strong claim to being both Kurdish and Islamic.

It is currently unclear whether the organization will return to the violence of the past.

“Jihad is part of Hizbullah’s ideology,” commented a member of the security forces. “But they are growing so fast through social activities that it wouldn’t make sense for them to become violent at the moment. But in the end I think they will. And this time they will have a much stronger social base.”


Gareth Jenkins is a writer and analyst based in Istanbul and specializing in civil-military relations, political Islam and security issues. He is the author of Political Islam in Turkey: Running West, Heading East? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

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