Originally published: https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2023/10/12/glasgow-organising-freedom-for-ocalan/

12 Oct 2023 | Bella Caledonia, Vala Francis

This week saw an event in Glasgow organising around the international demands for the freedom of the political leader and philosopher for Abdullah Öcalan.

“When we say freedom for Öcalan, we are saying freedom for women, for Kurdish people, for democracy.”

On the 10th October in Glasgow, a press conference was held as part of the initiative for the Freedom for Öcalan and a solution to the Kurdish question. The day saw more than 74 press conferences all over the world.

The central focus of the new international campaign is to bring about the release of Öcalan, the founder of the philosophy of the Kurdistan freedom movement, as a prerequisite to the beginning of a new peace process in Turkey and the wider region. The most pressing immediate demand is to bring an end to the total isolation that Öcalan has been subject to after more than 24 years of continuous imprisonment in Turkey. For nearly three years, neither family members nor his legal team have been able to contact him.

Roza Salih, SNP councillor for Glasgow City and human rights activist moderated the event. Jenni Keasden, co-author of the book Worth Fighting For and Jineolojî committee member, Stephen Smellie, deputy convenor of the union UNISON, and Chris Stephens, SNP MP for Glasgow South West, were speakers at the event.

“Glasgow, the city we are in, was involved in the freedom for Nelson Mandela – we should replicate that” said Roza. She said that the NATO partnership between Turkey and Britain, as well as other powerful states, is what creates complicity in human rights abuses and an obstacle for adherence to international law. Chris Stephens added how the treatment of Öcalan constitutes “a gross violation of any prisoner’s basic rights” without adherence to international law, and that “his trial and detention did not end the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurds. On the contrary, it formed the basis of the problems that continue to this day.”

Jenni Keasden spoke about how the region of North and East Syria, also known as Rojava, is putting Abdullah Öcalan’s theories into practice. She said that, “the whole world has so much to learn [from the region]” and that it is an “impressive, inspiring example of how we can organise our society […] from the bottom up, from the street and neighbourhood level – functionally. Not as a token.”

“Everyone needs to be engaged in politics – in Rojava it is women and youth organising for themselves” in a way that is “empowered by the political project in a wider sense”. And yet, the political model based on women’s liberation, ecology and democracy, is attacked both politically and military. In particular, the last week has seen a huge increase in attacks against North and East Syria, with dozens of people killed and more wounded, with “bombs being dropped on power stations and health centres”. Jenni said, “The pressures on Rojava now are the same forces that have kept Öcalan in prison […] when we stand up for Öcalan’s freedom, we stand up for that political project and the people in that region, including the kids who have lost their lives”.

By making the step to have this meeting in Glasgow – from those who have not yet begun school to those who have retired, “we are making a concrete step to show why the will [of the movement] cannot be broken. Öcalan is key in the door of changing politics across the Middle East.”

Stephen Smellie also recognised this paradigmatic change that Öcalan’s philosophy brings, including the influence on his own political development as a life long trade union organiser and internationalist. “I first visited Kurdistan in 2002. I went to Amed [Diyarbakir], and you couldn’t say the word ‘Kurdistan’. Nobody could say that word, because if they did, they’d be arrested as a terrorist.” He continued with how Öcalan and the wider movement’s theories and practice have “a philosophical approach – not the kind we [in the West] are familiar with”. In south west Turkey, the northern region of Kurdistan, Stephen witnessed an earlier form of the political practice “democratic confederalism” that Jenni had outlined, where people met and enacted decisions over every aspect of their lives. The backbone was liberating ourselves from the history of “women [as] the first slaves, the first oppressed by patriarchy. We have to firstly free women before we can free ourselves”.

Stephen met with fellow trade unionists in northern Kurdistan, “who went and did exactly what we did” including “organising for International Women’s Day” – “but they were accused not of agitation, but of terrorism”.

Human rights activists, women, journalists – in the eyes of the Turkish state, all of us here [at the press conference] would be considered terrorists. But they don’t talk about state terrorism – the Turkish state can obliterate villages and towns… and that’s the government that our government funds.”

Many opportunities emerged over the years of Öcalan’s imprisonment for a peaceful solution to the ongoing war. But after 2013, the peace process between Turkey and the PKK fell apart. In the last year, the Kurdish majority People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey has been judicially crushed, “and its leaders jailed […] Erdogan calculated that peace would not be productive for him” concluded Stephen.

“With self organisation, comes the right to self defence.”

Roza Salih encouraged everyone to to learn Öcalan’s theories. She advocated for self defence against the colonial assimilation policies, such as the loss of mother tongue language, and that self initiative was necessary for this. Roza also continued with the demand for everyone to take action in support for the freedom for Öcalan – in particular by asking members of parliament to sign the Early Day Motion 1635. Other steps can be followed through social media channels such as Scottish Solidarity with Kurdistan.

The floor was opened to the participants; the discussion darted from whether different parties in power will continue the same colonial policies to the answer that regardless of who grants the weapons contracts, “we have to organise ourselves”. Roza pointed out that Turkey funds both sides of many conflicts – the strong ties between Turkey’s ruling AK Party and both Hamas and the Israeli state as a pertinent example. Other participants asked “how can we build this initiative further?”, “how can we increase participation?”, “who are we asking for freedom?”

Stephen Smellie responded “We need to change all these things in our own society. We need to change the world, in effect”.

As an example of local organisation of the Kurdistan freedom movement’s philosophies and resistance, Roza mentioned the recently held Jineoloji camp in Scotland, where more than 80 women and children attended seminars with the theme of revolutionary motherhood.

The conversation also turned to the escalation of conflict in Palestine, in particular the connections between the occupations of Palestine by Israel, and Kurdistan by Turkey and other states – and the methods of asymmetrical warfare, particularly through political means. Stephen Smellie said, “Palestine was an issue when I was a young boy and now I’m in my 60s – and there’s no sense of resolution. Israel applied the exact same tactics of [the label] ‘terrorist’ against the movement with the backing of our government. America has colluded with the oppression of Palestinian people and the creation of a ghetto in Gaza. […] We need to advocate for Palestinians’ right to defend themselves.”

He continued, “I believe Öcalan’s ideas are the solution to Palestine – that is, democratic confederalism. Not a two state solution.”

What does internationalism mean for the trade union movement now? Participants discussed what divestment from Turkey could look like; how billions of pounds of British pension funds are invested in the arms industry and what taking action on this could mean. Furthermore, inspired by a revolutionary movement that centres ecology and liberation, what could a just transition look like – not just for fossil fuels and ecology, but for the arms industry and war?

We need to take concrete action and know that from Scotland to Kurdistan, the effects of colonialism – and importantly, the resistance to it – can be felt as a ripple across geographies. While transnational alliances are linked through state geopolitics, internationalism is connected across peoples’ freedom struggles.