Em hene! (We Exist!)

James Kelman argues that if we are to support Kurdish writers, we should demand proper media coverage and fully engage with their political cause.

January 27, 2017

Some people find it possible to support campaigns on behalf of writers imprisoned for their political beliefs without worrying about the substance of these beliefs, why the writers are imprisoned in the first place. They know next to nothing about the writer’s culture, community or society and manage not to regard such knowledge as fundamental to the campaign. It follows that they agitate for the cessation of human rights’ abuses without inquiring why the rights of these particular human beings are being abused in first place. At this time of writing in Turkey there are many writers in prison but if one writer is being victimised for daring to give expression to a “dangerous thought” it is likely that tens of hundreds are in the same plight, perhaps tens of thousands, with none but their family and friends to fight and campaign on their behalf. The writer and sociologist Dr Ismail Besiki has spent nearly 15 years of his life in prison. He argues that those who campaign on his behalf must recognise that the campaign cannot be about one writer, it is about the existence of Kurdistan, it is about justice for Kurdish people.

Abdullah Ocalan is President of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) and until his capture in Italy was one of the most wanted men in the world. For the majority of the Kurdish people he is a hero. Besiki has maintained that Ocalan is a legitimate leader of the Kurdish people. In the first report I read of Ocalan’s capture the pro-Turkey bias was blatant, straight from the public relations department of the National Security Council. It is still a surprise when distortion and propaganda of this magnitude come unchallenged in the mainstream media. This example arrived via Associated Press [AP] thus would have appeared not only in the U.S. but in the U.K. and elsewhere in the “free” world. One comment sticks with me, that there have been no executions in Turkey since 1984. That kind of rubbish is just disgraceful. Who knows the number of executions committed in Turkey since 1984. State executions are also extrajudicial, defined as the unlawful and deliberate killings of persons by reason of their real or imputed political beliefs, ethnic origin, sex, colour or language, carried out by order of a government or with its complicity [and] take place outside any legal or judicial process.

Human Rights’ organisations will have approximations of the number. There can only be approximations. It is estimated that between 1991 and early 1997 there were “more than 10,000 disappearances and political killings. Each Saturday in Istanbul women and girls gather in the famous old thoroughfare of Galatasaray to bear witness to the disappearance of husbands, boyfriends, fathers, sons and brothers. The courage of these women and girls is quite something, there are hundreds of them. Most are Kurdish but a few are Turkish. Sometimes the police just wade in and batter them with riot-sticks, whether observers are there or not.

Football fans will recognise Galatasaray as the name of a leading Turkish football club. The stadium is not too far away and this area is at the heart of Istanbul’s tourist quarter. Holidaymakers and football fans are surprised that the women are battered right out in the open. Some look the other way. This is encouraged by the British political authorities who, when they are not supporting the Turkish State in a less passive manner, take care not to look themselves. It is only a few months since the end of that other sorry saga, the British government’s cowardly, but ruthless, treatment of Kani Yilmaz .

In the above AP news item mention was made of the German authorities “seeking Ocalan on a 1990 warrant.” This refers to the time the German State prosecuted the PKK which up until then was a legal political party. The Turkish State was doing its utmost to have the PKK criminalised throughout Europe as a terrorist organisation. Their Deputy Chief of Staff on 1995 stated “We’ll finish terrorism but we are being held back by democracy and human rights.” Around that time there had been a horrible massacre in the village of Geri [when] 30 people, mainly women and children, were brutally killed. This massacre was reported as the work of PKK terrorists and the Turkish authorities showed video-footage for days to members of the European Parliament, in an attempt to discredit the PKK and to have its leadership outlawed as terrorists. Subsequently a delegation from a Human Rights Association went to the village of Geri itself and came up with somewhat different findings. Members of the delegation included the President of the now banned Socialist Party and also Hatip Dicle, ex-MP of the Democracy Party (DEP), currently serving 15 years’ imprisonment alongside Leyla Zana and three other other DEP MPs. In Dicle’s opinion, shared by all the members of our delegation…this massacre was an act of the contra-guerrilas. But even though discredited the Turkish State would regard its work of that period as highly successful, given that the German prosecution of the PKK at that period resulted in its being banned.

Ismail Besiki was awaiting trial in a Turkish prison that same year. In an interview with Amnesty International he commented on the German prosecution, that the one thing it did establish was the existence of a “secret agreement between the NATO alliance and Turkey in relation to Kurdistan.”

The Turkish State resorts to terrorism to achieve or maintain its ends and one large area of Turkey, the south east, has been under martial law for years. The south east of Turkey is the north west of Kurdistan. Kurdish people have been executed summarily in this area for decades. The savagery of the Turkish military has been such that Kurdish people have crossed the Iraqi border. They would rather face Saddam Hussein than the monstrosities of the Turkish military.

During the 1960s there was a strong students’ movement in Turkey as in different parts of the world and Abdullah Ocalan emerged from this. The political system of that time has been described as “democratic fascism”. Even that was too liberal for the military and they conducted a coup in 1971. The young Besiki had been doing his own sociological research from the early 1960s, coming up with certain findings in relation to the Kurdish people that did not suit the establishment, academic or political. He was by turn marginalised, victimised, excluded from academic work, had his work censored and suppressed; later he was brought before the law and imprisoned. It is ironic that a couple of the present Turkish government were also rebellious students of the period, to the extent that they were imprisoned.

If Besiki was Kurdish and not Turkish he would be dead already. In the western democracies” he would neither be imprisoned nor murdered, just marginalised. There are different ways of suppressing the work of writers and it is doubtful if even one country in the world exists where freedom of expression can be taken for granted. Ismail Besiki’s writings are suppressed by the Turkish authorities but people also need to pay attention to the fact that his work is not available to the English-speaking public of the world. None of his 33 books has so far been published in the English language.

There is a block on information about Kurdistan. The U.K. media are either silent or party to the different forms of propaganda issued on Turkey’s behalf. The situation is epitomised by the U.K. travel industry who, under the nose of H.M. Government, try to sell us ‘Summer Sunshine Holidays’ in a war-ravaged police-state. The Turkish propaganda is often blatant but masquerading as news, as in the notorious article run by The Observer in September 1997, attacking the PKK in particular and the Kurdish community in general [which] consisted of a series of unsubstantiated allegations ranging from the perverse to the bizarre made by a young Kurd who had either been terrorised or disorientated or compromised by Turkish intelligence. Harold Pinter and Lord Avebury were among those who condemned the newspaper publicly and many people were outraged to discover that such blatant disinformation circulates in one of the top ‘quality’ newspapers. It was important that The Observer should have been condemned but those who were too outraged might be suffering delusions about the U.K. media; it indicates the depth of untruth to which they have become accustomed.

Of course this is a time when the public receives images of starving children in Africa as adverts for national charities; the images themselves are structured on disinformation, much of it racist. These charities are headed by a vanguard of millionaire celebrities; members of the aristocracy, rock stars and movie stars; football stars, dashing young captains of industry, and so on. In their wake the public is supposed to donate money as a moral duty – or perhaps not quite, the money is to be given on the understanding that the suffering experienced by the starving children has to do with the inherent nature of Africa itself. It has nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with the foreign policy of external forces, not interest rates and not the movement of capital, nothing to do with ‘guidelines’ that may be enforced by the IMF or the World Bank. None of that. Instead the suffering is to be seen as a sort of physical attribute of the African continent, perhaps of the ‘African character’. If the African adult population could learn to plan more efficiently and devise better strategies then they would take better care of their children. Until that indefinite point in the future the charities of the western democracies have to do the job for them, self determination is not an option, not yet, and YOU can help!

The peculiar relationship the U.K. media have with the public was in evidence a few weeks ago [April 26th], again in The Observer; this time it was a feature article by Norman Stone, “renowned Oxford historian.” It was little more than a public relations exercise on behalf of the Turkish State. Professor Stone is currently at the Department of International Relations, Bilkent University, Ankara. Stone’s views are of the far right variety and he is open in praise of the ‘true heroes’ of our time, eg. Brian Crozier. For very many years Professor Stone’s hero was an “operative of the CIA,” and a leading figure “within the whole panoply of right wing…intelligence and propaganda agencies” including straight CIA-funded projects such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom and Forum World Features.

Crozier was also a founding member of the secretive but highly influential Pinay Circle, “an international right-wing propaganda group which brings together serving or retired intelligence officers and politicians with links to right-wing intelligence factions from most of the countries in Europe…” In the U.K. he founded the Institute for the Study of Conflict, “part of a network of right wing bodies…lecturing on subversion to the British Army and the police.” This network included Common Cause, the Economic League and bona fide agencies of the British State such as MI5, much of whose “intelligence work was inspired not by the demands of security but by extreme right wing political ideas.” Another colleague was Brigadier Frank Kitson who in 1969 “was seconded to Oxford University for a year to read and synthesize the literature on counter-insurgency. His thesis was published in 1971 as Low Intensity Operations, and a year later he was given command of a brigade in Belfast to test his theories.”

Crozier is one of an international group of ‘terrorist experts’ who argues for “the concept of internal war…and the parallel…between the situation of a country at war with an external enemy, and the country faced with a situation like Ulster, or Vietnam, or Turkey or Uruguay.” If the general public in these countries can swallow the idea that they are at war then all kinds of ’emergency regulations’ can be introduced. As with Professor Stone he is an apologist for the brutalities of the Turkish military. 1971 was a crucial period in recent Turkish-Kurdish history, “when the army overthrew the Demirel Government …and thousands of people were arrested and tortured in counter-insurgency centres which had been set up by Turkish officers trained by the U.S. in Panama.” This is interpreted by Crozier as a “military intervention to force the creation of a government determined to restore order.” In response to an article critical of “allegations of ill-treatment during interrogation in Ulster” he wonders why people were “so distressed [by such] relative mildness… What if it [had extended] to the grim horrors reported during…the early 1970s in Turkey?” Then he justifies the barbarism of the Turkish State Security forces on the grounds that it “undoubtedly helped to provide the security forces with the intelligence they needed [to smash the Turkish People’s Liberation Army] as an effective instrument of revolution.”

I think if I was Kurdish I would have become a wee bit tired hearing European writers and others urging the Turkish State to change its ways. It is difficult to think of one country in Europe that does not collude with Turkish ruling authority in one way or another. “Turkish ruling authority” is just another name for Turkish National Security which is just another name for the Turkish military. Beyond The Observer and the mainstream media in general the contempt for the U.K. public is in evidence elsewhere, including at the highest levels of Government as when the previously discredited academic, Professor Paul Wilkinson, was commissioned by Lord Lloyd “to provide ‘an academic view as to the nature of the terrorist threat.

It would be of more value to the people of Kurdistan that we let our own governments know that we are aware of the reality, that we know what is happening behind the closed doors of power, we know of the cowardice of our own politicians and academics, and of their complicity, both at the present time and historically. We should accept responsibility and challenge those who hide in the shadows. If we expect media coverage of this “dirty war” and the atrocities being perpetrated against the Kurdish people we do so in the knowledge that weapons and torture implements used by the Turkish State are supplied by the Scottish and British business community, as well as those of USA, Germany and France.

While Professor Stone praises Turkey as the fastest-growing economy in the European region another academic has now spent around 15 years of his life in prison. Dr. Besiki is being punished as an example to other writers, to other activists, to other academics, to other sociologists, to other scientists and – most crucially – to other Turks. During one trial speech he made the basic point that it was not he who was on trial but science itself. How can the science of sociology exist as a valid field of study until he is released from prison and his work made freely available? Until then the entire subject is contaminated, not only in Turkey and in Kurdistan but elsewhere throughout the world.


This essay was previously published in Kelman’s non-fiction collection, “And the Judges Said”… Essays. Published by Birlinn Limited.

TAGS: Amnesty International James Kelman Kurdish people Turkey writers writers in exile