Nonviolence is a Privilege Denied to Kurdish Guerrillas

By Dr. Thoreau Redcrow

“I don’t like having to shoot my gun. I wish there was another way to stop Turkey’s inhumanity, but there isn’t. We shoot to live. They shoot to kill.” 

— A PKK guerrilla woman I interviewed in 2014

To paraphrase Arundhati Roy and Stokely Carmichael’s observations on the issue, non-violence is a piece of theatre in need of a persuadable audience, and it can only work if your opponent has a conscience. Unfortunately, the Turkish state—which has been murdering Kurds since they chased them off of cliffs in the Dersim Genocide (1937) and continued such brutality into the 1990s where they burned down over 4,000 Kurdish villages—has no such ethical compass. Indeed, the Turkish state has committed nearly every barbaric act the human mind can imagine against Kurdish citizens demanding their human rights, from torturing them in the infamous Diyarbakir Prison No. 5 until they lit themselves on fire, to cutting the ears off of dead Kurdish guerrillas to wear as necklaces. Yet, armed resistance against a criminal state that rapes your sister or throws your brother from a helicopter is criminalized internationally for being the wrong ‘remedy’, as Kurds are expected by the outside world to simply ask nicer not to be slaughtered. Consequently, in order to fully understand the risks of committing to such ‘nonviolence’, it is important to pierce the illusion behind the supposed moral superiority of the dogmatically nonviolent position.

Violence can be ghastly, nauseating, and soul numbing – but for many groups facing annihilation around the world, it is the only option granted to them for preserving their existence. Naturally, nearly everyone is theoretically against violence, in the same way everyone is against disease, but like the latter, the former exists and thrives regardless of one’s personal inclinations or sincere wishes regarding it. For this reason, oppressive states count on most people’s instinctive aversion for mass violence overriding their distaste for injustice, as it effectively lets them off the hook for their own structural violence and destruction. In view of that, I would argue that an expectation or demand for nonviolence places one’s subjective self-conception of ‘innocence’ above forcibly preventing murder, while often unwittingly advocating for the mass suicide of unarmed victims.

As an important caveat, I would not argue that violent resistance is always effective, or even more successful, but rather that assuming a universally nonviolent position is a luxury and privilege that many of the world’s systematically oppressed (such as the occupied Kurds throughout Greater Kurdistan) do not possess and simply cannot afford. For example, I would remind those who question why the Kurdish guerrillas in the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) do not ‘work within the system’, that they have repeatedly tried to pursue their aims peacefully and put forth numerous unilateral ceasefires, all of which the Turkish state then continually denies, effectively leaving no nonviolent mechanism to operate under. It is not just the PKK either, as historically the Turkish Government has repeatedly banned and arrested members of every peaceful democratically elected pro-Kurdish party for decades, such as the HEP, ÖZDEP, DEP, HADEP, DEHAP, DTP, BDP, and most recently the HDP. Thus, there is no ‘system’ to work within, and Turkey rewards any attempts at such a course with a one-way ticket to a mass grave, or a dungeon for daily torture.

None of this is a surprise however, as history unequivocally shows—to quote Leon Trotsky— that, “No devil ever yet voluntarily cut off his own claws.” As such, the Turkish state’s oppression of Kurds is constructed around perpetual agony, disenfranchisement, dispossession, and a profound disallowal of hope and it will not stop because Kurds ask nicely, or else it would have stopped long ago. Similarly, Turkey’s brutality will also not cease because it is the right thing to do, or else it would never have started to begin with. To this end, what I believe history displays is that there is no such thing as a situation where both sides are peaceful, as the state is always violent, even when it does not appear to be directly; the only decision is whether those victims of structural violence—such as the Kurds via the PKK—would like to fight back or not. The reason for this is that ossified structures of power like the Turkish state do not surrender to change unless threatened with either radical pressure or systemic collapse. Sure, Kurds can idealistically ‘be the change they want to see’, but without defensive armed organization, their protestors wearing yellow sandwich boards are just a brighter form of Turkish police target practice.

When Legal Means Evil

Take for example the actions of the Turkish military against Kurds just in late 2015, when forty-four Kurdish children were tragically murdered by the Turkish military according to a report literally entitled, We do not want War! We do not want you to Kill Children!. It should be noted that these attacks on children were in response to elected Kurdish mayors announcing that they would like to exercise their peaceful and democratic rights to self-rule. Instead, this was greeted by the AKP government in Ankara with curfews and military assaults against Kurdish civilians, which forced at least 200,000 Kurds to flee their homes. Amidst this climate where Turkish Army snipers were shooting at ambulances and killing civilians carrying white flags, along with using tanks to block hospital entrances, the HDP’s co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş summed up the lack of options as the following:

“Nothing the (Turkish) government does has a legal basis. What can people do in the face of a state that does not recognize the law? The state itself is acting illegally. If the President and the Prime Minister are doing illegal things, then where can we go for help? To the prosecutors? They are in prison. The government even arrests writers and members of the press. So the youths are digging ditches? The people are setting up barricades? Show them another way and they will do that instead.”

Predictably, Demirtaş was later arrested by Erdoğan’s regime in 2016 and has been imprisoned ever since, despite the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) condemning his arrest and continually calling for his release.

Now for those who would ask why the occupied Kurds of Northern Kurdistan do not just increase their peaceful protests and outreach to the broader world, I would remind them that the Turkish Government systematically closes off that avenue as well. For instance, in late 2016, Turkey’s education ministry suspended around 11,000 teachers in Kurdish areas and banned twenty-three predominantly pro-Kurdish radio stations and TV channels. Turkish authorities then used a ‘state of emergency’ decree, to replace twenty-four democratically elected Kurdish mayors with state trustees, jail 120 journalists, and close more than 100 news outlets for allegedly ‘spreading terrorist propaganda’. As Erol Önderoğlu, Turkey’s representative for Reporters Without Borders, observed following these aforesaid crackdowns, “The main aim is to break all social links with Kurdish political movements. To avoid a humanitarian approach to the issue or the humanization of Kurds.” In fact, in response, the PKK foreign minister Rıza Altun, addressed how his movement would like to utilize nonviolent methods of outreach directly, stating that:

“Our battle is multi-faceted and includes action on the social, intellectual, diplomatic, media and even military fronts, with the method used depending on the attitude of the state… When the state uses military power to threaten your very existence, you find yourself forced to use violence in order to defend yourself… We have lately been subjected to great pressure and were thus forced to resort to armed resistance. Parties and media outlets were shuttered, parliamentary immunity lifted and arrests made, leaving us but one available avenue; namely, the use of force.”

The Naiveté of Pacifism

Nonetheless, despite this reality, there are of course many people around the world who still expect the Kurdish people of occupied Northern Kurdistan (southeastern Turkey) and the PKK to universally refuse armed resistance in all circumstances. But what I would contend an uncompromising commitment to nonviolent resistance essentially does is disenfranchise and gaslight oppressed populations and victim-blames them if they have the audacity to reclaim their inalienable rights. Furthermore, in situations where those who are calling for ‘peace’ are not those directly experiencing the violence themselves, but rather outside insulated observers pontificating from a theoretical position of relative safety, their stance of patiently abstaining from force exhibits their privileged status.

Accordingly, it remains difficult to advance the position that the Kurdish people are not morally justified in defending themselves in the face of such a systematic onslaught as the one Turkey has wrought upon them since the 1980s. Indeed, I believe the situation of the Kurds and the PKK is a perfect case study for the necessity of defensive violence and the often-futile potential of relying on oppressors to voluntarily desist their dominance. Unfortunately, in situations like with the Turkish state and the Kurds, Ankara has repeatedly displayed they have no inhibitions about furthering Kurdish sorrow. In fact, Turkey has continually shown they have an insatiable hunger for it, as the entire Kemalist crypto-fascist political structure hinges on the myth of ethnic indivisibility within Anatolia (with historical Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian genocides to prove it).

The limitations of nonviolence were even a lesson that the great advocate for peace Mahatma Gandhi learned the hard way, as he wrote Nazi leader Adolf Hitler two letters pleading with him to seek peace in 1939 and 1940 on the verge of WWII – and was surprised when he was ignored. Despite the popular mythology which advocates sacrificial satyāgraha amidst impending slaughter, several years later even Gandhi was forced to admit that, “Though violence is not lawful, when it is offered in self-defense or for the defense of the defenseless, it is an act of bravery far better than cowardly submission.”

And in seeking that submission, what I believe history shows is that when ruling structures cannot offer political solutions to curtail oppression, they instead appeal for order, making their requests for nonviolence in effect a demand for compliance and silence. Now with regards to the armed guerrillas of the PKK, they are the collectors of all the metaphorical screams representing the internalized alienation, discontent, hopelessness, misery, and wrath of the subjugated Kurdish people, with the hopes of transforming them into a reaped whirlwind of liberation that will consume their tormentors. And while it is true that such armed methods of guerrillas are not always successful, they are often morally justified, and only shouldered when it is perceived that all other avenues to halt the war crimes and institutionalized viciousness of the oppressors are closed off.

As Nelson Mandela—who was held in isolation on an island prison for decades in the same way PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan has been—recounted in his autobiography:

“Nonviolent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do. But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end. For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon.”

Therefore, if you want to truly understand why people turn to defensive violence, one has to ask those compelled to personally partake in it, and what they will mostly reveal is that it was begrudgingly undertaken as a last resort. For instance, since I began this article with words from the PKK, I will close with the observation of another Kurdish guerrilla in the Qandil Mountains who told me in 2014:

“Is it terrorism to fight off your rapist? What about your kidnapper? Should victims of oppression first check with those in power and get a list of acceptable ways to defend themselves? I have a right to live. I have a right to exist, regardless of what those in Ankara, Brussels, or Washington think. And it is my natural right to protect my life with everything I have at my disposal. Terror comes from fear, and we in the PKK only instill hope.”


  • Thoreau Redcrow

    Dr. Thoreau Redcrow is an American global conflict analyst who specializes in geopolitics, stateless nations, and armed guerrilla movements. He is a frequent speaker before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and has been a foreign policy advisor for several groups seeking self-determination. He has previously worked on the ground throughout Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, Eastern Africa, and the Middle East. He is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch).

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