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The Case Against Incrementalism
For months now, Turkey’s main Kurdish Islamist party has been criticizing the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for excluding it from ongoing peace talks between the government and Kurds. In January, leaders of this party, the Free Cause Party (Huda-Par), demanded to be recognized as a third group at the negotiating table, alongside the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a secular separatist group that the AKP considers a terrorist organization.
With its emphasis on Islam, Huda-Par will be a direct threat to the AKP in elections this June, where it will compete with the Islamist AKP against the secular socialist Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) for religiously conservative Kurds. Indeed, since lasting peace in the country can be guaranteed only by an inclusive process, the government’s decision to leave out Huda-Par can be read as an attempt to strong-arm the process.
The heart of the issue is the fact that oppositional Islam has a long history in Turkey’s southeast—and one that has evolved in conjunction with Kurdish nationalist ideology, not distinct from it. AKP’s own greater emphasis of Islam and Islamic tradition since it came to power in 2002 opened political space in Kurdish areas for alternative groups to challenge the PKK’s secularism. The HDP has increasingly embraced a softer policy on religion, seeking out prominent religious figures to join the party’s ranks, supporting Islamist civil society groups in Diyarbakir, and organizing workshops on Islam and the injustice of Kurdish suffering to cut into the AKP’s vote share with religious Kurds. But standing in its way could be Huda-Par, which will try to play up its greater religious credentials while showcasing its pro-Kurdish stance.
A THIRD WAY?
Huda-Par was established in late 2012 by a group of Islamists that included former members of the outlawed Turkish Hizbullah group, which advocated the establishment of a state based on sharia law. The political history of Hizbullah in Turkey is dark and convoluted, with allegations that the state actually created the group to serve as a clandestine proxy in the armed struggle against the PKK.
Although Huda-Par holds the Turkish state responsible for the sins of oppression and assimilation of the Kurds, it casts the PKK and HDP as traitorous for misrepresenting the authentic Islamic identity of Kurdish society. Huda-Par has been accused of working with the AKP against the PKK and HDP, and in particular of preparing to cooperate with the AKP ahead of the local elections last year. It discredited rumors of a silent pact with the AKP, but ties between the two parties are broadly governed by a sense of solidarity that draws upon a rhetoric of shared Islamic values. Appealing to Kurdish voters is complicated, though. Conservative religious Kurds generally support the PKK’s goals—some form of self-rule and the provision of state-funded public education in their Kurdish mother tongue. This has not, however, always translated into votes at the ballot box for Kurdish political parties (or PKK-supported Kurdish political parties). Huda-Par thus treads a fine line—its priority has been to cast itself as an Islamist party before a Kurdish party. Its program was published in Arabic and Turkish before Kurdish. When Huda-Par explicitly defends Kurdish rights, it does so within a wider discussion of Islamic social justice values.
To be sure, there are a fair number of Kurds who do not want to hear Huda-Par’s take on social justice. In Diyarbakir, the party is a painful reminder of summary executions, mass graves, and torture cells common when Hizbullah militants roamed the area in the 1990s. Indeed, most Kurds remain skeptical that Huda-Par has turned the page on its violent past. Nearly 40 people died in October 2014 during protests in Diyarbakir and various other cities against Turkish inaction in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani. Some of the violence erupted between Huda-Par and PKK supporters, when Islamists were accused of siding with the Islamic State (also called ISIS) against the Syrian Kurds. In December, more violence broke out in the town of Cizre between Huda-Par supporters and the youth arm of the PKK (YDGH). Three were killed.
Nevertheless, tens of thousands have turned out for public rallies in Diyarbakir organized by Huda-Par and its offshoot civil society groups, such as Lovers of the Prophet Platform, to commemorate the birth of Muhammad. Although critics warn that the rallies represent an outpouring of religious sentiment rather than electoral support for Huda-Par, the fact remains that this conservative brand of politics has a certain appeal with local voters. HDP took the threat seriously enough to schedule a competing set of events to honor the Prophet in Diyarbakir and 20 major other cities starting last month.
In last year’s municipal election, in which it ran for the first time, Huda-Par won a meager 0.19 percent of the national vote. But despite being a new party, it managed to emerge as the third most important contender in the southeastern region, particularly in the cities of Diyarbakir, Bitlis, and Batman, where it had its strongest showing at around eight percent. With a ten percent constitutional threshold in effect for any party to enter parliament, Huda-Par is planning to field independent candidates in nine provinces in the upcoming election.
Huda-Par and Azadi are right that Kurds need more than just the PKK to speak for them. Political pluralism in Kurdish politics is the key to any sustainable peace.To help itself along, as the election approaches and bilateral peace talks between the government and PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan run into hurdles, Huda-Par is shifting to a Kurdish-first stand to target conservative votes that have traditionally been split between the AKP and the HDP. Its rallying cry? By choosing to negotiate exclusively with Ocalan, the AKP government has conceded to the PKK’s self-asserted hegemony over the entire Kurdish population, glossing over ideological and social differences among the Kurds. This appears to be helping the party for now.
A FOURTH WAY?
As if things weren’t complicated enough, now another group wants to get in on the competition. The Azadi Movement, a civil society group founded in Diyarbakir, describes itself as a Kurdish-Islamic synthesis. It has been instrumental in deescalating tensions between Huda-Par and PKK supporters in the past—it acted as a mediator between the two sides during clashes in 2014, coordinating face-to-face and telephone conversations—and it explicitly prohibits violence as a means to achieve Kurdish emancipation. The movement seeks constitutional recognition of the Kurds as a founding people of the republic and argues that the creation of a regional parliament should be on the negotiating table. With its origins as a nonviolent movement, Azadi has taken great pains to distance itself from Hezbollah and Huda-Par on the one hand and the AKP on the other.
Along with a handful of small leftist Kurdish parties, Azadi recently joined the “Kurdistan Election Alliance,” led by the HDP. In exchange for its participation, the HDP pledged that it would list five candidates supported by Azadi on its ballot, including the chief religious cleric of Diyarbakir. Azadi has lost some of its credibility as an impartial mediator by siding with the HDP, but Sidki Zilan, a key figure in the movement, believes that it is now better positioned to exert pressure on the PKK to stop supporting attacks on Huda-Par.
Azadi supports the peace process and is adamant that civilian politics must replace politics at gunpoint. Although it is not officially a political party yet, as long as it remains committed to nonviolence and promotes its role as a platform for dialogue, it may become a durable actor in regional politics. Azadi is not tainted by a murky past like Huda-Par, and it can tap into both religious and Kurdish nationalist sentiment. Officials insist that Azadi’s electoral alliance should not be read as an HDP takeover and that Azadi will remain an independent movement.
THE ONLY WAY
Huda-Par and Azadi are right that Kurds need more than just the PKK to speak for them. Political pluralism in Kurdish politics is the key to any sustainable peace. For too long, religious, centrist, and left-leaning Kurdish parties have been frozen out of the political process.
But for Huda-Par to earn its democratic credentials, it must first confront and account for Hezbollah’s bloody legacy. Although both sides have far too much to lose from a return to intra-Kurdish clashes reminiscent of the 1990s, a resurgence of violence cannot be discounted for now. The danger is that skirmishes between university students siding with either Huda-Par or the PKK ahead of the elections will escalate.
And for Azadi to make a dent in politics, it needs to remain open to peaceful cooperation with other Kurdish groups but keep out of factional infighting. Zilan says that Azadi favors transparent dialogue both within and beyond Turkey, including with the United States, the European Union, and the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq.
Islamist Kurdish groups cannot change the political landscape in Turkey’s southeast or the outcome of the peace talks overnight. But the evolution of the PKK into a disarmed and hence more legitimate movement that wrestles some form of political decentralization agreement from Ankara may eventually bring about the normalization of Kurdish politics. And that might pave the way for groups such as Huda-Par to act as an opposition party in a new stage of more vibrant and competitive politics.