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Turkey’s war against Öcalan’s direct democracy project in the Middle East

Erdogan continues to marginalise and criminalise opposition and Öcalans isolation continues. The experiment in direct democracy inspired by his writings is imperilled by the aggression of the Turkish state. This article is based on a speech delivered by Sinn Féin MP for South Down Chris Hazzard in the House of Lords on February 15th 2019 at an event marking the 20th anniversary of Öcalan’s abduction by the Turkish state.

This week the international community marked the 29th anniversary of Nelson Mandela walking free from prison in South Africa – he had spent 27 years in prison; 18 of those on the infamous Robben Island. As we gather today in London to mark the 20th anniversary of Abdullah Öcalan’s abduction by Turkish forces in Nairobi in 1999, it’s worth remembering that he has now been held in prison longer than Nelson Mandela spent on Robben Island.


Serving the last two decades – mostly in total isolation on Imrali island – more recently he has been denied all visits from his family, his legal team and independent observers.

Whilst Öcalan is the most well-known political prisoner in Turkey, opposition politicians are now increasingly arrested as President Erdogan steps up his illegal war on any demonstration of dissent.


With international powers sitting back and allowing Turkey to regressively remodel themselves as an executive presidency – Erdogan has seized all levers of political control and is now free to rule by decree.

A fascist state of emergency has been normalised enabling independent voices in politics, the media and academia to be savagely suppressed.

As it has been for Kurdish peoples living in Syria, Iraq, and Iran – an aggressive and often brutal policy of marginalisation and suppression by the Turkish state now directly threatens the Kurdish-led Rojava revolution – an experiment in freedom, democracy and gender equality that has flourished despite the ongoing Syrian conflict.


With Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime facing collapse in 2012 the Rojava Revolution emerged in northeastern Syria; as the egalitarian project of self-government began with the liberation of all races, religions, ethnic communities and women.

The revolutionary model – shaped from the political philosophy of Abdullah Öcalan – is a hybrid fusion of socialism and direct democracy.

A communalist system of participatory decision making supported by an administrative structure inclusive of each ethnic group. Christian, Assyrian, Syriac, Arab, Turkmen, Chechen, and Armenian peoples all living together with the large Kurdish majority.

It is a truly inspirational attempt to integrate different ethnic groups and religions in a single participatory egalitarian democracy that respects the individual, the community, and the environment.


Bearing in mind the traditional peasant norms of the region, remarkably the cornerstone of the revolutionary society is the elevated position of women. Child marriage has been outlawed; women are now equal to men in all legal matters, and polygamy has been banned.

A gender-based quota system for government positions has been introduced, with a corresponding co-chair system where every position has one male and one female leader.

Significantly education is also now being offered free of charge for all women. At its core, the revolution dismantles traditional ideas of domination and hierarchy in every aspect of life, and in doing so it aims for the recasting of social relationships between all citizens regardless of gender or ethnicity.


It is easy then to see how many observers have drawn the comparison with the Second Spanish Republic – where the ‘Mujeres Libres’ commanded similar admiration as their Rojavan contemporaries, who undoubtedly have become the political and military vanguard of the revolution.

Indeed the similarities between the Spanish & Rojava revolutions are striking. Like Rojava, today, Spain in the 1930s experimented in radical democracy spearheaded by a fraternal band of anarchists, communists and socialist republicans.

Whole cities were organised under direct-democratic management, industries fell under worker control, and the radical empowerment of women was a strong feature of the Constitution of the Second Republic.


It is little surprise then that amidst the rubble and destruction of the Syrian conflict lies a political and cultural revolution that many observers believe can be the midwife to the birth of another world.

Indeed it is this promise of a truly egalitarian society that has moved Turkey’s Erdoğan to declare Turkey’s mission is ‘to strangle the dream before it is born’.
The Rojava revolution with its anti-sectarian, secular democratic principles shines as a revolutionary beacon in the Middle East opposed to the feudal barbarism of Daesh and his neo-fascist Turkish state.

Erdoğan’s continued assault on the Afrin region of Rojava has electrified growing elements within Turkey who are actively pursuing extreme Turkish expansionism; a resurrection of the Ottoman dream.


In recent times a popular Turkish newspaper violently declared that ‘we will strike them, cleanse the area and stay there permanently; we are having our second Cyprus’. The 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus is considered a victory and celebrated every year in Turkey – for Cypriots however they remember the invasion as a horrific occupation.

The brutal military assault on Cyprus was accompanied by mass murder, abduction, and rape of Greek Cypriot women and children by Turkish soldiers. Turkey has never been held accountable for their crimes in Cyprus; never brought to task for the torture of civilians and the campaigns of ethnic cleansing.


In its defence, Afrin is protected by the Syrian Democratic Forces of the People’s Protection and Women’s Protection Units (YPG, & YPJ). To their eternal credit, it was these YPG and YPJ units who went boldly into the belly of the Daesh beast and suffered heavy casualties as they liberated its capital, Raqqa from Islamist Jihadis in October 2017.

Shamefully they now find themselves abandoned by most of the western world as Erdoğan’s tanks and gunships line up alongside Islamist militias including Daesh and Al-Qaida veterans.

And yet the western world seems oblivious to the heroic actions of the Kurdish forces – indeed in recent years when these battalions fought their way through Daesh territory in Iraq in order to rescue thousands of Yazidi refugees trapped on Mount Sinjar, western commentators remained unmoved.


There is no doubt that in the midst of the complexities of the Syrian conflict – Erdogan’s illegal assault on the Kurdish people goes unnoticed and unchecked by the western world.

As the great global powers sit idly by and allow their NATO partner to launch an unprovoked military assault on one of the few remaining peaceful corners of Syria, the Rojava revolution is forced to take cover in the caves and bombed-out basements of Afrin.

So whilst the western lens of the Syrian conflict focus on the heartbreaking scenes in Eastern Ghouta; it should also look northwards to Afrin.


For at the heart of the Rojava revolution exists a model of political governance that has the potential to secure unprecedented political stability in the Middle East.

Progressives of all shades have a moral responsibility to ensure this revolution does not suffer the same fate as the Second Spanish Republic.

For our part, Sinn Féin is proud to stand in solidarity with our Kurdish comrades who continue to struggle for freedom; and face the most brutal oppression.


In recent weeks our MEP Martina Anderson – herself a former IRA prisoner and hunger striker, has been actively engaging with Leyla Güven’s family and legal representatives.

She was part of a diplomatic team who very recently made the case successfully for Abdullah Öcalan to receive a short visit from his brother.


The Turkish authorities should immediately grant Leyla’s demand, stop this senseless policy of isolation, and let the lawyers and family members enjoy prison visits.

The end of this isolation not only will end the hunger strikes and return Leyla and others to life but may also help to reinitiate democratic dialogue in the context of the Kurdish issue and hopefully resume the peace process.

Go raith maith agaibh

This article is based on a speech delivered by Sinn Féin MP for South Down Chris Hazzard in the House of Lords on February 15th 2019 at an event marking the 20th anniversary of Öcalan’s abduction by the Turkish state.

By Freedom for Ocalan

The Freedom for Öcalan campaign is a UK trade union-backed initiative to secure the release of imprisoned Kurdish political prisoner Abdullah Öcalan.

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