*Pic: Flickr, Jan Sefti
The land of Kurdistan ... Pic: Flickr, Jan Sefti
On 24 October last year, a slight, youngish man with a luxuriant moustache and an engaging smile flew into Tullamarine airport from Dubai. Arriving home must have been a great relief for him, but after a warm welcome by local well-wishers, members of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) hustled him away and grilled him over suspected links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Back in 2005, the PKK was added to the Federal Government’s list of proscribed terrorist organisations at the behest of Turkey, the sworn enemy of the Kurds.
The young man—a Kurdish-Australian journalist called Renas Lelikan—was released without charge after 12 hours of interrogation. Before returning to Australia, he had spent nine months trapped in an Iraqi refugee camp under threat from Islamic State (Da’esh) terrorists after DFAT cancelled his passport. As a Kurdish journalist, he had travelled to PKK-controlled areas and had indeed been photographed carrying an AK-47 along with his camera. While it has been rare for journalists to carry weapons, as the Wall Street Journal opined back in 2003 …
More journalists have been killed in Iraq than in nearly any other conflict in the past decade. And as post-war instability and dangers continue, a debate has arisen about how far journalists should go to protect themselves… The traditional wisdom had been that a journalist must take care not to appear to be the enemy … [but] the changing conditions of modern warfare are raising new questions and forcing news organizations to re-examine their security policies …
Commonsense prevailed and Mr Lelikan was allowed to settle back quietly into life in his adopted country. On the face of it, the AFP had recognised Mr Lelikan’s right to defend himself against the unspeakable thugs of the so-called Islamic State.
Not so: his freedom was a brief interlude. On 20 July this year the AFP arrested Mr Lelikan on charges of PKK membership. He was denied bail and has since then been confined in Sydney’s notorious Silverwater Prison, which has been described by journalists as Australia’s toughest jail. It may take up to a year for his case to come to trial and if found guilty, he faces the prospect of a decade more in prison. He is said to be in poor health, has been denied visitors, and has received death threats from Islamic State thugs who infest the prison population. According to recent press reports, Islamist gangs are forcibly converting other prisoners to their bizarre brand of religion. A secular Kurd like Mr Lelikan is in grave and especial danger from these violent idiots.
Renas Lelikan is a loyal Australian citizen. Neither he nor Australia’s Kurdish community as a whole pose any threat to Australian lives, democracy and multiculturalism. While they fly Kurdish flags in their community halls, such emblems are placed alongside the flag of their adopted country.
Sadly, Lelikan’s arrest is not the first instance of persecution of Kurdish Australians by the Australian authorities. Back in 2010, the AFP raided the Kurdish Community Centre in Pascoe Vale, Melbourne, along with the homes of half a dozen Kurdish community leaders. Parents and children were dragged from their beds at 5am by officers, some of whom had dogs.
The police claimed to have evidence that the Kurds were collecting money to finance terrorist activities in Turkey. They found nothing because there was nothing to find, but neither they nor their political masters have ever apologised for the raids. Nor have the police charged those who burned down the Pascoe Vale Kurdish Centre the following April, causing over $300,000 worth of damage after a spate of less costly attacks. The Kurds themselves have little doubt that the perpetrators may be found among the gangs of extremist right-wing Turks who drive by screaming insults. Very sensibly, the Kurds have refused to be provoked into counter-violence.
The idiocy and injustice of Australian policy
Renas Lelikan’s ordeal highlights the idiocy and injustice of Australian government policy in the Middle East. The PKK and its sister organisations in northern Syria—the PYD, YPG and YPJ—are indisputably the most formidable foes of Islamic State and other Islamist terrorists. Although the facts were redacted from UN reports, no doubt upon the insistence of Turkey, it was the men and women fighters of the PKK who saved the Yazidis from genocide on Mt Sinjar in 2014. In many cases, the PKK fighters carried the old, children and the infirm on their backs to safety. Similarly, it was the PKK and its sister organisations who have saved Christian minorities in Syria from death and slavery at the Islamists’ hands.
However, while the Kurdish fighters in Syria are celebrated for the present by the world press, the Australian government puts the PKK in the same category as their enemies in the loathsome Islamic State! As a result of this folly, Renas Lelikan is wasting his life behind bars. But then, they say there’s nothing new under the sun: the world—Australia included—has always let the Kurds down.
So, what lies behind Lelikan’s arrest and the earlier police raids?
At present, the Australian government lists 20 organisations as terrorist and the law prescribes tough penalties for anyone who aids or abets them or is found to be preparing terrorist acts. Nineteen of the proscribed organisations are Islamist—foremost among them Da’esh and the group that spawned it—Al Qaeda.
The sole non-Islamist group on the list is the secular PKK, which is also proscribed by the US and the EU. The PKK is not, however, listed as a terrorist group by countries such as India and Switzerland, nor by the United Nations.
Since its formation in 1978, the PKK has fought a long and costly guerrilla war against the Turkish state. Initially a “Marxist-Leninist” group dedicated to the creation of an independent Kurdish state in southeast Anatolia, the PKK has more recently dropped its demand for independence. It has also, at the urging of its imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan, sharply revised its ideology, substituting Murray Bookchin’s philosophy of “democratic confederalism” for the old and discredited Stalinism of the past. It is also strongly feminist. Until last year, too, the PKK was engaged in a dialogue with the Turkish government and a ceasefire was in place.
These ideas are also held by the PKK’s sister organisations in the Rojava districts of northern Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD), and the men and women fighters of the YPG and YPJ; the heroic defenders of Kobane and Da’esh’s worst nightmare. Alone among the contestants in the dismal Syrian civil war, the Kurds have endorsed international covenants on the humane treatment of prisoners, child soldiers etc. They have been a beacon of hope in a region plagued by sectarianism, ethnic cleansing, social injustice and repressive patriarchy.
We now have the situation in which the Australian Defence Forces are fighting alongside not just their American Allies against Da’esh in Syria and Iraq, but also effectively in alliance with the YPG, the YPJ and the PKK, while simultaneously branding the PKK as terrorist and charging an Australian citizen with membership of it!
Recently, a spokesman for Senator George Brandis, Attorney-General in the Turnbull government, informed me by letter that the terrorist threat to Australia is “PROBABLE” (capital letters and emphasis in the original). I agree with this. After all, the Da’esh publication Rumiyah recently exhorted its followers to kill Australians “on the streets of Brunswick, Broadmeadows, Bankstown, and Bondi. Kill them at the MCG, the SCG, the Opera House, and even in their backyards … Stab them, shoot them, poison them, and run them down with your vehicles. Kill them wherever you find them …” These homicidal maniacs mean every word of it. However, Mr Brandis’s spokesman went on to claim that because the PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation, the government has a duty to protect Australian citizens from it because the terrorist threat is probable. This is mad circular logic in which one false premise justifies yet another.
So what lies behind this absurd contradiction?
The Kurds are often said, with some justification, to be the world’s largest stateless nation. There are at least 35 million of them spread across Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, with smaller numbers in Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, and a large diaspora is spread across the world, including many refugees from state terror. While the majority of Kurds are at least nominally Sunni Muslim, substantial numbers are Shi’a Alevis (Zazas) and Yazidis with a smattering of Christians. An ancient people, they speak a number of closely related dialects and have their own distinct customs and traditions, which mark them off from the other peoples of the region.
Unfortunately, the Kurds have faced persecution across the region ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and its division into artificial states by Britain and France in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.
For most Australians, the words “Turkey” and “First World War” are synonymous with the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli in 1915. “Johnny Turk” is portrayed as a gallant foe turned friend and in recent years thousands of Australians have made the pilgrimage to the site of those long-ago battles. Forgotten in what passed for history lessons in my primary school years was the genocide of the Armenian people by the Young Turks. There is no evidence of any greater awareness today: sad proof of Hitler’s cynical observation at Wannsee when planning the extermination of the Jews: “who remembers the Armenians?”
At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, the Ottoman Turkish Empire was decaying rapidly and the war hastened its demise. A large section of the Turkish ruling class had become infected with virulent ethnic nationalism. They feared that the Empire was near collapse and were determined to carve out the largest possible geographical space for an ethnically “pure” Turkish nation-state. There was to be no place in such a state for non-Turkish people, including the Armenians and the Black Sea Greeks.
At the same time as the valiant Johnny Turk was battling the ANZACs at Suvla Bay, his political masters were “ethnically cleansing” Anatolia of its unwelcome minorities. Thousands of Armenians and Greeks were forced onto rafts and towed out into the Black Sea to be drowned out of sight of land. This was no spontaneous pogrom: hundreds of thousands of Armenians were forcibly marched southwards into the deserts without adequate food, water and shelter. Disarmed Armenian units in the military were butchered en masse.
Around one and a half million Armenians perished. It was perhaps the largest genocide of the early years of the twentieth century. Successive Turkish governments have refused to acknowledge or apologise for these atrocious acts. Indeed, while is a crime in Germany and Austria to deny the Nazi Holocaust, in Turkey it is a crime to acknowledge the genocide of the Armenians! (The PKK, in contrast, has apologised to the Armenians for the part played by Kurdish troops.)
There was no place for “non-Turks” in the brave new Turkey forged by Kemal Ataturk after the defeat of the Central Powers in 1918. Most of the Greeks—that is, Christians—were deported to Greece in an infamous population transfer. In return, the Turks—that is, Muslims—were deported from Greece. In many cases, the deportees only spoke the language of the country from which they were expelled!
The largest remaining ethnic minority were the Kurds. The Kemalists were determined to assimilate them into the Turkish nation, forcibly if necessary. The Kurds, however, had other ideas. The Treaty of Sèvres signed by Turkey and the victorious Allies in 1920 recognised the Kurdish case for an independent state in the southeast Anatolian districts where they made up a clear majority of the population. The Turkish government, however, refused to countenance the creation of a Kurdish state that would deprive them of territory.
The Treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne
By 1923, the Allies had lost interest in the Kurds who were only pawns in their amoral Realpolitik manoeuvres. They drafted and signed the Treaty of Lausanne, which recognised Turkish sovereignty over the territory enclosed by the artificial boundaries of the Turkish state and ended the state of hostilities that had existed since 1914. According to the clauses of Section III of the Treaty, the rights of national minorities (e.g. Greeks, Armenians, Assyrians and Kurds) were to be respected. Turkey was legally bound to protect “the life and liberty of all inhabitants without distinction of birth, nationality, language, race or religion”. All inhabitants were to be equal before the law and the security of non-Muslim minorities was not theoretically guaranteed. All minority languages were to be provided full rights in private life, commerce, religion, the press, publications and public meetings, and could be used orally in all courts of law.
They were fine principles, but in practice they have been routinely violated. The Kurds have been forbidden to use their language or educate their children in it. The Turkish government has even banned the use of Kurdish given names as these often contain letters that do not appear in the Turkish alphabet! For many years it was even illegal to describe oneself as a Kurd: the official designation was “Mountain Turk” or similar. To resist was to risk draconian punishment and the history of the Kurdish people since the end of the First World War is littered with instances of massacres and other atrocities by the authorities.
A similar picture was true of the treatment of the Kurds other states created by Sykes-Picot in former Turkish administrative vilayets in Mesopotamia and the Levant; i.e. Syria and Iraq. This was particularly the case in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but also in Iran under both the Pahlavis and the current Islamist government.
The Kurds have always fought back, alas against superior odds, and ever since Lausanne, the rest of the world has turned a blind eye. On occasion, the Kurds have been encouraged to stand up for their rights when it was in the interests of the imperialist powers for them to do so, but then dropped when they were no longer useful. This was the case, for instance, in Iraq after the first Gulf War between the US and its allies and the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq.
Australia was a dominion of the British Empire at the time the London government signed the treaties of Sèvres and Lausanne. In fact, at that time the Australian government maintained that it had no foreign policy independent of Mother England. The Lausanne Treaty is legally still in force: contrary to rumour, has no expiration date. Australia has a duty still to insist that Turkey fulfils its obligations to the Kurds and other national minorities. And yet, along with much of the rest of the world, the Australian government panders to the demands of a state that was founded on the bones of the Armenians and which has ever since attempted, illegally, to forcibly assimilate the Kurds.
Why the PKK was put on the terror list
Back in 2005, the then Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, paid an official visit to Australia and was warmly welcomed by Prime Minister John Howard. One week after he departed, the Australian government put the PKK on the terrorist list despite the fact that it had never in word or deed threatened this country. This cannot be coincidental. In attempt to justify a threadbare case, ASIO and/or other intelligence agencies provided a list of real and imaginary crimes of the PKK. The list appears to be cut and pasted from Turkish propaganda sources. While the PKK itself admits that it did commit some atrocities during its Stalinist period, most notably to its own, the overwhelming majority of its targets have been members of the Turkish police and military; forces which themselves have carried out much worse excesses against the Kurdish population.
The decision to place the PKK on the terror list was rejected by two members of the parliamentary committee that examined the case. These were Senator John Faulkner and the former Denison MHR Duncan Kerr. Faulkner, now retired, was regarded by many as the elder statesman of the parliament. Kerr, who served as Attorney-General in the Hawke-Keating era, is a prominent jurist who now sits on the Federal Court bench. It is believed that their dissent is the first from such a decision in the history of the Australian parliament.
Kerr and Faulkner, along with thoughtful observers, believed that while the Turkish state and its NATO allies regarded the PKK as terrorists, for millions of Kurds they were freedom fighters. A number of journalists observed that had the terror laws been in place earlier, it is probable that supporters of FRETILIN in East Timor and the ANC in South Africa would likewise have been criminalised. We should not forget that Nelson Mandela, the first President of post-apartheid South Africa and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was on the United States terror list. Many countries, too, would have put George Washington and the other American Founding Fathers on such a terrorist list, had it existed, for taking up arms against George III of England! As Kerr and Faulkner realised, “one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter”.
A dictator in all but name
Turkey today is a dictatorship in all but name. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who visited Australia in 2005, is now the autocratic President of the Turkish state and head of the laughably misnamed “Law and Justice Party” (AKP). An Islamist zealot who has provided the Islamic State with r & r bases, weapons and intelligence, Erdogan has also allowed the terrorists free access across the borders into Syria and Iraq. His family and friends have profited from the transport across the border of black market petroleum from Da’esh controlled oilfields. At the same time, he has blocked the border for supplies to the Kurdish autonomous zones of Rojava in northern Syria—even during the siege of Kobane by Islamic State. Who can forget the Turkish tanks sealing the border for aid to the Kurdish fighters while the genocidal Da’esh fanatics besieged the city? Erdogan, no doubt, must have been sorely disappointed when the defenders drove the terrorists away.
Erdogan and his cronies are so corrupt that had his party lost the last general election they faced the certainty of arrest and long periods of imprisonment. This fear prompted him to sabotage the peace process with the PKK: patriotism was truly the last refuge of this particular scoundrel. Since that time, the Turkish security forces have waged a campaign of ferocious repression in the Kurdish districts of southeast Anatolia. Whole districts have been put under curfew. Civilian areas have been bombed and strafed. Towns have been reduced to rubble.
Thousands of Turkish and Kurdish academics were threatened with arrest and dismissal for calling for an end to the war. Over forty have now been arrested. Opposition newspapers and broadcasting stations have been seized and converted to government mouthpieces. Last year’s election, too, was held in a climate of fear and the HDP and pro-Kurdish organisations were deprived of any airplay in the state-owned media. Erdogan was able to claw back support and the AKP formed government with 49 per cent of the vote.
Erdogan’s Reichstag Fire?
Following the recent failed coup blamed on elements of the military and the exiled Fethullah Gulen, the repression has only increased. The coup may well go down in history as Turkey’s equivalent of the convenient Reichstag Fire, which enabled the Nazis to seize absolute power in Germany in 1933. Erdogan is in fact on record as expressing admiration for Hitler, and his crackdown on dissent is eerily reminiscent of the Führer’s road to absolute power via a permanent and bogus state of emergency.
Tens of thousands of judges and academics, members of the police and military and civil servants have been fired. Most recently, all members of the country’s largest left wing teachers’ union have been sacked. All the deans at Turkey’s universities have been suspended and academics are prohibited from leaving the country. Although the alleged mastermind of the coup was another Islamist and former Erdogan ally, the government has used it as the pretext for massive repression of secularists, liberals, feminists, socialists, trade unionists and Kurds. Erdogan is now threatening to arrest MPs from the pro-Kurdish secularist HDP party despite their condemnation of the coup.
An aggressive beanpole of a man, Erdogan has a very thin skin; a trait he shares with other authoritarians from Hitler to Vladimir Putin. Rising from obscurity as a street vendor and would-be soccer star to heavyweight in the AKP, the Erdogan hates to be made fun of. Thousands of Turks and Kurds have been arrested for insulting him and for “insulting Turkishness”, which he probably sees as the same thing. Not content with that, he bullied the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, into charging the comedian Jan Böhmermann with the same “crime”.
Sitting in his 1100-room palace, which consumes as much electricity as whole towns and resembles the late Nicolae Ceaucescu’s megalomaniacal architectural confections, Erdogan seems consumed by neo-Ottoman dreams of pan-Turkish glory. As has ever been the case, the Kurds are the enemy. He hates them with a passion: an abhorrence he shares with the fanatics of the Islamic State. Although he claims to have targeted ISIS in his recent military intervention in Syria, his real objective is to neutralise the Kurdish fighters of the YPG and YPJ. In defiance of international law and all reason, he claims the right to intervene in the affairs of what is still a sovereign state to impose his views of what is acceptable. The thought of a permanent autonomous Kurdish zone on his borders is anathema to this despot who dreams of Turkish hegemony in the Middle East.
Recognise the Kurds’ right to self-determination
Meanwhile, the world looks the other way while Erdogan turns his own country into a dictatorship and destabilises the region. Of all of the world’s leaders, perhaps only Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party, has called for the release of Abdullah Ocalan, the de-listing of the PKK as a terrorist organisation, and the resumption of the peace process with the aim of justice for the Kurds. The Australian Labor Party should follow suit.
We cannot continue to betray the Kurds. They have suffered for almost 100 years, despite the “guarantees” of the Treaty of Lausanne to which Australia is still legally a signatory. Not only is this an ethical imperative, it is also a practical one: for as long as the Kurds are deprived of justice they will resist. Karl Marx observed that as long as the English oppressed the Irish, they themselves could never be free, and in Padraig Pearse’s words, “Ireland unfree can never be at peace”. The same is true of the relationship between the Turkish and Kurdish peoples: peace and friendship cannot exist until they live side by side as equals. Many Australians can trace their ancestry to the Irish diaspora and if we care to look our natural affinity with the Kurds is obvious.
Be that as it may, successive Australian governments have been complicit throughout this century in the injustices heaped on the Kurds. More than that, they have grievously insulted Australian Kurds, who are loyal Australian citizens, and equated the Kurdish freedom struggle with the vile dystopia of the so-called Islamic State. It is high time that the Australian public demanded that we stop appeasing the despot Erdogan. We should immediately drop the charges against Renas Lelikan and release him from horrible incarceration at Silverwater. We should also apologise to the Australian Kurdish community and recognise the right of the Kurds to self-determination.
*John Tully is Honorary Professor in the College of Arts at Victoria University and a member of Australians for Kurdistan.