Criminalizing Our People: Social Impacts of the PKK Ban


Published by, 20 November 2015

The terror-listing of the PKK by Western states criminalizes ordinary Kurds. However, its hypocrisy also created a conscious, mobilized, activist community.

Last year, when Western mainstream media was confused about “PKK terrorists” fighting “Islamic State group terrorists,” this evoked a tired smile in the faces of ordinary Kurds who, aside from oppression at home, are stigmatized and criminalized throughout Europe.

Terror designations often demonize one side of a conflict, while immunizing the other. This especially applies to the Turkey-PKK conflict, with the second largest NATO-army on one side, and an armed national liberation movement on the other. But in this case, a terrorist designation also criminalizes an entire community of ordinary people, denying them fundamental rights.

The on and off listings of groups and states, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, according to the day’s political situation, are examples of how blacklistings are political, not moral, regardless of their pretensions. In reality, listings strengthen state-sponsored violence by reinforcing the state’s monopoly on the use of force, ignoring the legitimacy of resistance and making no moral distinction between groups like ISIS and movements reacting to injustice.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was designated as a terrorist group by the United States in 1997 and by the EU in 2002. While PKK-affiliates committed violent acts in Germany in the 1990s, violence was not the reason to justify the ban, but rather the PKK “disrupting NATO interests in the Middle East.” Still today, European officials state that as long as Turkey’s stance on the PKK remains, they will refrain from lifting the ban. Whenever governments look like reconsidering the listing, it is due to tensions with Turkey. While the listing appeases Turkey, it is also a wild card  to signal that the ban on their enemy could be removed if Turkey misbehaves.

One does not have to be a PKK-sympathizer to view the ban as an anachronism. In an era in which the PKK not only shifted its political perspective, announced several unilateral cease-fires, and initiated a two-year long peace process, it is also the life guarantee for many ethnic and religious communities in the Middle East as the strongest enemy of the Islamic State group. Old arguments fail to hold.

But, legal and political arguments aside, what social implications does black-listing have?

In Europe, Kurdish people constitute one of the most organized and political communities. The concept of democratic autonomy is implemented in the form of people’s and women’s assemblies in the diaspora. This democratic potential itself is seen as a threat.

European governments aim to delegitimize organizations perceived as terrorist by targeting and “disrupting” support bases through criminalization in an attempt to depoliticize communities and break their ties with politics at home.

But Western governments are often complicit in the oppression that forces these communities abroad. The same states that label the PKK as terrorist are the top arms providers of Turkey’s war on the Kurds. Intelligence provided by U.S. drones killed 34 Kurdish civilians in 2011, German tanks destroyed 5,000 Kurdish villages in the 1990s in the hands of the Turkish army. Ironically, while supporting Turkey’s war on the Kurds, European states also accepted thousands of Kurdish refugees due to political persecution in the 1990s. The explicitly geopolitical nature of these lists reinforces injustice; thus, for the Kurdish community, terror-listing is not a standard for morality or legitimacy, as Kurds actively die under its implications. What it is however is harassment and abuse to a community of millions.

In Europe, people don’t need to actually commit offenses to be arrested for PKK-membership. In Germany, which pursues the most aggressive criminalization due to the long tradition of German-Turkish political and economic collaboration, the criteria for membership can be mere perceived sympathy, which is answered with phone tapping, psychological and physical violence at demonstrations, home raids, and closures of social and political institutions. Participation in social and political events, which are normally democratic rights protected under international agreements, suffice as membership criteria. Legally registered offices, student organizations, and community centers are under constant suspicion.

People are charged without seeing evidence against them due to the secretive nature of counter-terrorism procedures. In the case of Adem Uzun, a prominent Kurdish politician and activist, a reason to arrest him was actively fabricated by French authorities.

Young Kurds in Germany, France and the U.K., without residence status or citizenship, are targetted because of their vulnerability and coerced to collaborate with authorities as spies against their own communities. They face threats of deportation when they refuse. Nowadays, refugees from Kurdistan who escaped the Islamic State group are threatened and harassed by European police for joining political activities.

Simultaneous crackdowns are often coordinated across Europe and coincide with developments in Kurdistan. Shortly after peace negotiations were announced between the PKK and the Turkish state in 2013, crackdowns on Kurdish activists took place most notably in Spain, Germany, and France.

Angela Merkel’s visit to Turkish President Erdogan before November’s snap elections expressed support for his authoritarian-fascist rule and meant that Europe would close its eyes to Turkish massacres if Erdogan keeps refugees out of the EU. As besieged Kurdish cities like Silvan face massacre by the Turkish army, Germany raids Kurdish houses and arrests activists, as I write.

Simultaneously, after having spent most of the year in jail, Shilan Özcelik, an 18-year-old Kurdish woman is being tried in a British court under terrorism charges for allegedly wanting to join the fight against the Islamic State group. Activists believe that the U.K., which criminalized Kurds for more than a decade, wants to set precedence with Shilan’s case, especially after British volunteer Konstandinos Erik Scurfield died fighting the Islamist terror group alongside Kurds in Syria, the funeral of whom was received by crowds praising him as a hero. The British government is in tacit alliance with Kurdish forces at the front, but criminalizes the same struggle domestically.

Statistics about PKK-sympathizers in Europe are only based on wild guesses by authorities because the mutual mistrust between ordinary Kurdish people and European state authorities makes it impossible to express political opinions openly. The UK, France, Germany, and Denmark made their point clear when closing several Kurdish TV channels, charging them with heavy fines for allegedly supporting the PKK. In the case of ROJ TV, the then prime minister of Denmark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is believed to have banned the channel to gain Turkey’s favor for his post as NATO secretary-general in 2009, according to leaked documents.

What message do those that pride themselves with press freedom and democracy send to hundred thousands of diasporic Kurds who see these channels as their only voice and connection to their homeland?

That nobody is immune against the constant Kafkaesque distress of criminalization is exemplified by the case of Nicole Gohlke, Left Party Member of the German Parliament. In November 2014, during the siege of the Islamic State group on Kobane, she spoke at a demonstration in Munich. She held up the PKK flag for 15 seconds, saying: “I urge the German government to no longer criminalize symbols like these, because a fight for freedom, human rights, and democracy is being led under this flag as we speak. Lift the PKK ban!” She was detained, forced to pay a fine and had her parliamentary immunity lifted. This happened in a political environment where the PKK was internationally applauded after rescuing ten thousand of Yezidis stranded on Mount Sinjar.

Clearly, the terror designation is a veil behind which Europe hides its own wickedness. It is a tool of control to silence dissent and annihilate political consciousness. But the PKK is legitimate in the eyes of millions of Kurds; it is impossible to make any distinction between “organization” and “social base.” Whoever attended a Kurdish demonstration will have heard the slogan: “PKK is the people – and the people are here.” Kobane, the bastion of resistance against the Islamic State group, was liberated with the slogan “Long live Abdullah Öcalan.”

Today, the Kurdish freedom movement around the PKK, especially with its pioneering women’s liberation paradigm, appeals not only to Kurds, but to all oppressed peoples in the region. In Rojava and North Kurdistan, the idea of democratic autonomy based on the co-existence of all ethnic compounds is taking practical shape.

When Kobane was under siege last year, everyone saw the mobilization power of the Kurdish community; hundreds of spontaneous demonstrations, hunger strikes, occupations, and rallies were simultaneously organized across Europe within hours. At the same time, Europe’s own two-faced politics were exposed when the PKK saved entire communities in the Middle East, while NATO-member Turkey supported jihadist groups, wanting to see the Kurds fall before the Islamic State group, thus becoming a major causal factor for the refugee crisis, for which the EU now brown-noses Turkey.

Regardless of their moralistic pretensions, crackdowns by arms-selling governments that support oppressive states like Turkey, which are realized in the hope of assimilating especially young Kurds into uncritical, pacified parts of the system by isolating and robbing them off their opinions, democratic rights, media, and sense of community, reached quite the opposite: a politically conscious, increasingly autonomous, critical community that burned its bridges with the system and is willing to dedicate itself fully to its legitimate struggle.

Dilar Dirik, 23, is part of the Kurdish women’s movement, a writer, and PhD student at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge.