Turkey Pulse

Islamist Kurdish Group Seeks Role in Southeast Turkey

Article Summary
A new Kurdish party, the offshoot of a group that fought a bloody feud with the PKK in the 1990s, is emerging in southeast Turkey, raising questions on how the legacy of the Kurdish fratricide will be overcome.

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey – With Turkey focused on fragile peace talks between Ankara and Kurdish nationalists, another streak of Kurds — loyal not to rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan but to Allah — are silently mounting a bid to establish themselves on the Kurdish political scene. The newcomers are sympathizers of Hezbollah, an outlawed Islamist group unrelated to its Lebanese namesake, which fought the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in a vicious “war within a war” at the peak of the Kurdish conflict in the 1990s. They say they are committed to peaceful politics and want to end the Kurdish fratricide for good. But with no formal peace between Hezbollah and the PKK, mutual mistrust continues to run deep, holding the risk of rekindled tensions when electioneering heats up ahead of local polls next year.

Founded in December, the Free Cause Party — whose acronym “Huda-Par” doubles as “Party of God” — hopes to capitalize on Kurdish allegiance to Islam, which remains strong although the PKK’s three-decade struggle has secularized large segments of Kurdish society. The party leaders, who keep contact with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, position Huda-Par as a third contender for the vote in the mainly Kurdish southeast —  the opposite of the secular Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the PKK’s political extension, and a “more Muslim” alternative for Kurds disenchanted with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Huda-Par Chairman Huseyin Yilmaz and his deputy, Bahattin Temel, who spoke to Al-Monitor in Diyarbakir, Turkey’s largest Kurdish city, are cheerful and outspoken men, but do not shake hands with women. They shun the biggest Kurdish annual event, the Nowruz, because it has become “a BDP political show” and “men and women mix there.” Disillusioned with the AKP, they say the “Muslim vote” for the ruling party was meant not as a mandate “to fix the economy” but to lift all restrictions on the Islamic head scarf and even criminalize adultery.

Huda-Par’s Islamist agenda, however, is complete with a strong appeal for Kurdish freedoms and self-rule similar to the demands of the PKK-BDP duo. It comes as a response to BDP’s growing efforts to lure pious Kurds and a message to Ankara that the vision of Islamic fraternity alone is no longer a coin in the Kurdish realm.

The AKP, which enjoys solid popularity among conservative Kurds, appears to be watching closely — and with a degree of concern — Hezbollah’s political quest. According to a confidential report drawn up by an AKP member in anticipation of Huda-Par’s creation, excerpts of which were published by the Aksiyon magazine in November, the new party will “redraw” the political landscape in the southeast. If the Kurdish problem drags on, the report warns, the movement is likely to fuel Kurdish estrangement from Ankara by eroding the traditional bond between Turkish and Kurdish Islamists. The report also predicts that the movement “will not shy away from confrontation” with the PKK/BDP.

Despite a long-standing lull in tensions between the two sides, Yilmaz worries that the peace talks with Ankara will embolden the PKK to “play for the patronage of all Kurds.” He says many Kurds “who do not see the PKK as their leader are irked” by that prospect. “We, too, want violence to end,” he told Al-Monitor. “But the government is wrong in conditioning the rights of all Kurds on the PKK laying down arms. I’m a Kurd, but I have nothing to do with the PKK. Why do my rights depend on the PKK?”

Yilmaz urges Ankara to reach out to Hezbollah, too. “If they want to be credible in giving this [peace] opportunity to the PKK, they should give it also to Hezbollah,” he said.

Hezbollah, whose birth in 1979 was inspired by the Iranian revolution, has shunned violence since 2002, but has not formally renounced the arms.

Its feud with the PKK erupted in 1991 amid a thrust by Ocalan’s guerrillas to subdue Kurds who resisted their dominance and Marxist ideology. Hezbollah responded ferociously, targeting prominent Kurdish figures. The Islamists are widely believed to have received covert support from and even collaborated with rogue elements of the Turkish security forces, who terrorized the region with almost daily summary executions of Kurdish dissidents. The tit-for-tat claimed about 700 lives before a facto truce was reached in the late 1990s.

Huda-Par leaders deny Hezbollah ever colluded with the Turkish state, which designates both the PKK and Hezbollah as terrorist groups. Temel, who served 10 years in jail for membership in Hezbollah, says he himself was the victim of torture at the hands of the police and landed behind bars only for teaching the Quran to children in mosques. 

He believes time has come to reconcile. “We recognize the PKK as a reality in our society. But there are Muslims here as well. We have to accept and tolerate each other,” Temel said.

Asked about the current state of ties, Yilmaz said it “cannot be called peace” but rather a “continuation of the de facto truce” although small gestures are occasionally exchanged between BDP and Huda-Par. “When BDP members lost relatives, we offered them our condolences. The BDP sent flowers for the opening of one of our new offices,” he said, while hinting that the electioneering for municipal polls in March 2014 would be the real test.

Similar misgivings linger on the BDP side. The party’s provincial chair in Diyarbakir, Mehmet Emin Yilmaz, says the Hezbollah movement must face up to its “massacres” in the past before peace could be achieved. He welcomes Huda-Par’s commitment to the Kurdish cause, but is not yet convinced. “We have to see their policies on the ground. We have to see self-criticism. They have to apologize,” he told Al-Monitor.

In 2000, Hezbollah’s chilling reputation reverberated beyond the southeast when police killed its founder, Huseyin Velioglu, in Istanbul. The ensuing crackdown on the group uncovered its so-called “grave houses” across Turkey, where dozens of victims, among them Islamists opposed to Hezbollah’s radical means, had been killed and buried after torture sessions recorded on camera. Thousands of suspected members were convicted.

Severely crippled, the movement shifted its focus to the legal ground and sought to obliterate its violent image. Its adherents concentrated on charity work for the poor, set up associations and launched media outlets. The movement drew attention with the huge crowds it mobilized for annual rallies dedicated to the Prophet Mohammed. Last year, its flagship association, headed by Yilmaz, was outlawed for links to Hezbollah, prompting the creation of Huda-Par.

Yilmaz finds it premature to speculate on his party’s possible gains in its electoral debut next March. “Be it mayorships, municipal council seats or nothing — we will keep up working,” he said. “Our vision is not short-term. We have a long way ahead.”

Sibel Utku Bila is a freelance journalist based in Ankara, who has covered Turkey for 15 years. She was a correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) from 1999 to 2011, and articles she wrote during that period have been published in many newspapers around the world. She has worked also as an editor at the Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey’s oldest English-language newspaper.

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Found in: turkey, pkk, kurdistan, justice, islamists

Sibel Utku Bila is a freelance journalist based in Ankara who has covered Turkey for 15 years. She was a correspondent for Agence France-Presse (AFP) from 1999 to 2011, and articles she wrote during that period have been published in many newspapers around the world. She has worked also as an editor at the Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey’s oldest English-language newspaper.

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