MISSOURI, United States, — In an interview with Rojhelat, David Romano professor of political science and the author of Kurdish Nationalist Movement, evaluated Kurdish nationalism from its origin to the current phase.
Asked about the current hunger strike sustained by the PKK and PAJK prisoners since 12 September, he believes that the fast is an extreme non-violent measure and demonstrations in support of it need to be bigger.
The full interview comes as follow:
Rojhelat: Would you tell a bit more about yourself to those readers who may do not know you?
Romano: My name is David Romano. I hold the Thomas G. Strong chair in the Middle East politics, Missouri State University. And I am originally from Montreal [Quebec-Canada]. I did my bachelor and master degrees at McGill University in Canada. I did my doctorate in University of Toronto in Canada as well.
Rojhelat: You have produced a valuable scholarly work on the Kurds, The Kurdish Nationalist Movement, what had motivated you to write this book?
David: The first time I heard about the Kurds I was an adult. I was 18 years old at the final year of my high school. That was when the chemical attack on Helebce (Halabja) occurred in 1988. As a student of high school I was somewhat politically aware and engaged and interested about politics. Seeing these images on television had an impact on me and then I got a chance to travel to Turkey for the first time in the summer of 1990 when things had started heating up in Turkey. On the one had there were people telling me that there were no Kurds in Turkey, on the other hand I was hearing the opposite—there was a war in the east [North Kurdistan] happening. It took some times; I did my masters degree on the Shining Path in Peru. The motivation to do that subject and later to study the Kurds was I was trying to understand why people risk everything to oppose the state. I think this is a question we need to remember; people risk their lives, their homes and all the things that we generally take for granted to take up arms against a powerful state. I wanted to try to understand what pushes people to such length. If you listen to state discourse it is not that they have been pushed but because they have been pulled by the allure of money and power; somehow that did not seem to me adequate explanation for the risk they take upon themselves. I also took some years outside of school and managed to go back to Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan for the first time and that was in 1994. I spent several months out there and everything I saw, the height of insurgency in Turkey and the civil war between the KDP and PUK in Iraqi Kurdistan, really opened my eyes to the things and made me go back to the school and do a doctorate on this issue. The product of that doctoral dissertation is my book The Kurdish Nationalist Movement; of course I should have entitled it as The Kurdish Nationalist Movements, but, well, the title is what it is (with smiling).
Rojhelat: Most scholars have traced the origin of Kurdish nationalism to the writings of Ehmedi Xani (Ahmad Khani) in seventeen century, but why this nationalist thought was not materialised until the late nineteen century or probably the early twenty century?
Romano: Well, I think that is a natural thing, because if you look at the broader history of the Middle East and North African nationalist ideologies you would realise that they did not really start to penetrate until the late nineteen century and early twenty century. This is a way of thinking that came from Europe frankly and especially from the French revolution followed by Napoleon and mass of citizen conscripts in the army rather than mercenaries fighting for the la patri, the nation, for the homeland; this was new. Before that the standard was multi-ethnic religious empires; that was the most common mode of political organisation. So the fact that nationalism did not start to imbue Kurdish thinking until the late nineteen and early twenty century was natural and there was no exception. The same hold true for the Arabs, for the Turks and for the Persians. There may have been the occasional thinker before this time though, who was exception, people like Xani who was nationalist before their time, so to speak, but really when we talk about the broad movements for the whole region it is the late nineteen century and early twenty century. The Kurds were a tiny bit later, by few decades I think, than some of their Arab and Turkish and perhaps Persian contemporaries, and that had to do with the isolation of the Kurdish community and how much removed they were on average from the centres of the powers. So of course there were very urban Kurdish cosmopolitan elites in places like Istanbul, Cairo, Isfahan, Tehran, Baghdad and so forth who were developing the nationalist thinking at the same pace as people from other ethnies, but in terms of the Kurdish population in general, I think it comes a decade or two or three after that it starts to imbue other population.
Rojhelat: There are old Kurdish proverbs saying “level the mountains, and in a day the Kurds will be no more,” or “Kurds have no friends but the mountains”, how would you reflect on this? Are the mountains the friends of the Kurds or their enemies (as they have isolated them from each other preventing development of dense networks of communication and social intercourses)?
Romano: I think that is a very good way of putting it, the harsh terrains, and the mountains are both for advantages and disadvantages as you say. I think, sometimes, I reviewed a book not long time ago, very good book on the Syrian Kurds, and the book said, it was going to explain why there have not been sustained revolts against the central government in Syrian Kurdistan or Western Kurdistan as we saw in other parts of Kurdistan. If anyone has been to Syrian Kurdistan notes that mountains are not significant, they are more like few hills and some planes. I think the place is the key issue and it makes the existence of guerrilla resistance against the central government a much difficult process, that’s why we had Serhildan in 2004, but that was not an insurgency, it was mostly an urban mass protest, because of the terrain I think. So the place is very important in denying the central government control over the Kurds, but at the same time as you say, they have been hampering Kurdish unity over centuries.
Rojhelat: So do you think that if the Kurds did not have the mountains, we would not have had the Kurds as an ethnic group as we have today, as some people have argued that way?
Romano: Well, that is a difficult hypothetical to consider, because perhaps if there had not been the mountains, the Kurds would have unified in 1600-1700 and emerged as an empire of their own, perhaps they would have been a state now if they had come under the solid control of one or two Kurdish leaders or dynasties, the same thing that denied the central government control over Kurdistan, denied Kurdish princes whether this is the Emir of Botan or more contemporary ones control over their peers, so the same factor that protected Kurds and their culture from conquering and assimilation impeded the emergence of a strong Kurdish unified political entity.
Rojhelat: In your book page 47 you have listed abundance of Kurdish political organisations that emerged in 1970s in North Kurdistan including the PKK (Kurdistan Worker Party). But none of them, other than the PKK, has survived. What would account for the survival of the PKK and its development, in fact, to other parts of Kurdistan, not only in Turkey proper?
Romano: I am glad you asked that because I think you are quite perceptively zoomed in to one of the core puzzles of my book and in fact, that was the first chapter I wrote of my book. I wrote that chapter before the others, that was my original puzzle (with smiling). Because a lot of accounts we are reading just saying yes the PKK emerged as a response to either oppression, or from foreign support and this and that. They missed the most interesting puzzle, because there were many organisations trying to do things very similar to the PKK, but the others collapsed or became largely insignificant such as the Socialist Party of Kurdistan, Kemal Burkay’s organisation. This is a story I tried to answer, and I think the answer is perhaps three-pronged. There had to do with sequence of what turned out to be smart strategy on the PKK’s part. They started with a very little in the way of resources, but a lot in the way of commitment to their projects. The first thing they did were important to the villagers, they were trying to appeal for their supports and recruits—the [support and recruits of] villagers and some of the urban populations. So they took up their causes, and they did not just talk about their causes but deployed coercive force and violence in support of the causes. If there was a military governor who was less reasonable than others or a landlord who was more exploitative than others, they would have attacked them. And the villagers saw a group of people who were willing to put actions to words and fight on their behalf. After the PKK would help them in this way, the villagers owed the PKK their loyalty and the PKK’s fortune began to be tucked into their own fortunes if they did not want the landlords to come back and repossess the land for instance. At the same time the PKK was fairly ruthless in suppressing its competitors, some of the other organisations that I had listed [in my book]. And this is not an exception; the PKK is not the only group to do this. If you look at the emergence of Communist Party in Vietnam, they started by suppressing the competing movements; the Catholic Church of Vietnam, the Hawo Hawo, the Kaldov and other groups until they became the only platform from which Vietnamese interested in fighting against colonial rule could operate, so even none-communist joining the Vietnamese Communist Party so. I think you could tell a similar story about Kurdish nationalists, some may not have been particularly interested in Marxism-Leninism or the Apocu ideology and so forth, but they did want to fight for what they saw as Kurdish national rights and recognition and so forth, or perhaps just an end to exploitative practices from feudal landlords or the state, and the PKK set itself up to be that vehicle, and in doing so it also set itself up as the most viable movement for foreign powers interested in pressuring Turkey. When Syria supported the PKK, it was not Syria that created the PKK, the Syrian state after Ronan said, what was the most effective rebel organisation in Turkey that we could support to cause problem for Ankara, and by then the PKK had already emerged, as such, and, hence you get the explanation of how they were to attract support from neighbouring or other states that were interested in causing problems for the Turkish state.
Rojhelat: Some people have criticised the armed struggle led by the PKK, believing that it should only pursue civil non-violent methods. You are an expert in social movements and revolutions; would you believe that Kurdish nationalist aspirations, including independence, would be realised by civil campaigns as it pursued in India by Mahatma Ghandi?
Romano: I think, strategically, violence played a key important role in 1980s and perhaps the beginning of 1990s. I am not condoning the violence or trying to give advice, I am just remarking on what works and what does not at different stages of time. For the population that was suppressed, ignored, denied, and banished from the public and political landscape and discussion, violence is a good way to make a people impossible to ignore. That’s being proved just not in the Middle Eastern context but plenty of other contexts as well. That much said the strategy that is appropriate or even justified and effective at one stage and time may not be the right strategy or effective or appropriate at another stage and time. If we look at the justification of violence, they only really pull water when the political system is paused to other alternatives. That is just one of the criteria we could employ, and so, what one would have to ask whether or not the Turkish political system nowadays is closed to Kurdish demands, aspirations, and politics like it was in the past. If the answer is no, then ipso facto, logically speaking, violence may no longer be a justified, appropriate or effective because the goal is shifted from being recognised and no longer ignored and so forth to something else. I personally think that in today age with media and globalisation and so forth, non-violence can play sometime more effective role than guerrilla warfare for instance. By way of example, if we look at Syria, look at the late 1970s and early 1980s uprisings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria; when the suppression of the uprising reached its height in Hama in 1982 and also in Homs, the Syrian regime was able to massacre some 20,000 Muslim Brothers and civilians, there was hardly an outcry, it was hardly noticed because we had no images of it, we had no developed media by which the story of rebels in Syria could come out. We see a very different story today. Even before the uprising in Syria turned violent, we had the self-phone, the cameras upload to facebook, youtube and so forth telling the story. Turkey is not Syria; Turkey is much more liberal democratic state than Syria. With severe limits and problems to that liberalism and democracy granted, I think the role of non-violent movements can be quite strong and I think the Kurdish nationalist movement missed an opportunity in the mid 1990s to end the violence and switch to non-violence. I think part of reason is that the PKK was afraid of losing control of the movement feeding it into an urban mass protests and kind of urban uprising that would have been hard to control for them and they missed a huge opportunity to move their goals not if not their organisation forward, and so, I think nowadays one has to ask a serious question if the time for the effectiveness of the guerrilla warfare and taking up arms is not what it once was.
Rojhelat: David you pointed to the nature of Turkish political system and the role of non-violent campaigns, between 8000 to 10,000 Kurdish political activists, democratically elected politicians, lawyers and journalist are imprisoned now in Turkey who have sustained an indefinite hunger strike; none of them have ever taken up arms against the state, but ended up being incarcerated in Turkey’s prisons. Having seeing this, how would you think the current Turkish political system is open for non-violent campaigns?
Romano: I think it may be, like I mean, their hunger strike is an extreme non-violent measure and I hope they survive it and they affect some of the changes they are seeking. Non-violent strategy would have much more of the population taking to the streets in their support. I know there have been big demonstrations but they would need even to be bigger. Some systems are more open than others and I certainly don’t think that Turkish system is sufficiently open, especially with some of the more authoritarian measures the Prime Minster Erdogan have taken recently including his clampdown on peaceful Kurdish activists, journalists and academics, that is oppressing in general. I am sure you are well aware of what trend under the AKP administration have been over the years, they stalled the Kurdish initiative and so forth, it needs to be more open. But you know the British rule in India was not exactly so open either (with smiling), and Mahatma Ghandi and his movement were able to challenge it quite successfully through non-violent movement, so, I would think there is a large place for non-violence under current circumstances.
Rojhelat: Both Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara in their books, On Guerrilla Warfare, have argued that the final stage of guerrilla warfare should extend to conventional war. Having considered the shift in the PKK’s tactic from “hit and run” to “hit, take position and defend the areas”, how the current PKK operations could be evaluated? Do you think the PKK is working along this line of analysis?
Romano: I don’t think that could be a successful strategy in this context. Che Guevara’s success has much to do with Batista’s terrible army and completely incompetence and full of unpopularity. The same is true of Shaing Kai Shek and Mao Tse-tung opposing army of China. What is admitted in this analysis, when we do make comparison, both Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara were leading movements meant to appeal to all the Chinese and Cuban people respectively. They could get protection from the army because they were leading movement that were supposed to appeal to the soldiers that were in the army as well. A fact of mater in situation in Turkey today is although the PKK has had non-Kurdish members and even leaders in its ranks, as a whole the movement’s appeal does not extend beyond ethnic Kurds very much. You never get Turkish soldiers defecting or refusing to fight against the PKK. Turkey has one of the largest army in the world, the second largest army in NATO, well-supplied, reasonably well-trained. There is no way that the PKK could follow the same final phase of guerrilla warfare that Mao Tse-tung and Che Guevara pursued. If they intend to stick to guerrilla war, the most they can do is something perhaps more comparable to what the North Vietnamese did, which is just wear down their enemy until their enemies wanted to negotiate more, realising the fighting was worth not much. But the North Vietnamese never really won that battle against the United States forces. They just caused so much damages overtime to the American forces who wanted to find a way of ending the conflict. So for them it was withdraw, so that is also a more difficult question because what Kurdish nationalist movement refer to North Kurdistan, Turkey refers to as southeast, and they see it as their territories and not something that they are going to withdraw from. It leads to a situation where the amount of fighting that both sides are willing to undertake is tremendous and the Turkish army is that of a regular strong state, not like Shiang Kai Shek army or Batista’s army in Cuba. I think that would be a core metaphoric strategy to adopt.
Rojhelat: Thank you very much David Romano for this interview
Romano: My pleasure, my pleasure