09 November 2021 | Dilar Dirik
The decades-old labelling of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a terror group by the European Union and several European states has meant that much of the Kurdish freedom movement’s extensive political work in the diaspora has historically operated in a clandestine manner. This changed dramatically with the battle for the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane in late 2014. Following the circulation of images of Kurdish women who fought against the so-called Islamic State, thousands of researchers, activists, journalists, artists and politicians turned up at Kurdish community centres across Europe.
As a researcher and organiser who frequently helps others access this field, I was able to observe how the sudden discovery of the Kurdish freedom movement – the broad social movement organising around the theory and practice associated with imprisoned leader Abdullah Ocalan – was frequently marked by tensions between researchers and research participants. The sudden, nearly industrial-scale contact between researchers and Kurdish activists showed that the former often lack an understanding of the psychological, political and cultural impact of criminalisation on social life worlds. This affects their research design, questions and ethics. I noticed how research on social movements and political organising is often out of touch with the shadowy world of states’ counter-extremism measures, police and intelligence (Choudry, 2019).
Engagement with researchers and journalists in recent years has given Kurdish activists the opportunity to explain their perspectives, build new alliances and legitimise their causes in unprecedented ways. However, researchers who are unaware of the full scope of the criminalisation of Kurdish freedom movement structures in Europe often encounter diaspora activists who are torn between the desire to talk about their long-repressed resistance struggles and the need to protect themselves from exposure.
Activists’ desire to destigmatise the political struggle has meant that research requests have rarely been declined. However, a lack of familiarity with research conduct protocols, and in an atmosphere shaped by genocide, war and large-scale forced displacement, has meant that few Kurdish activists – who are overwhelmingly lower-class migrants/refugees – have taken issue with extractive research. In the rush of events in 2014 and onward, practices that would usually be considered problematic and unethical in research with vulnerable communities, were left unchallenged. Taking advantage of people’s reluctant openness, some researchers have taken it upon themselves to reveal organisational structures and movement relations, in a manner akin to security service intelligence gathering. In some cases, disappointment with researchers’ outputs has led activists to reconsider their willingness to engage with researchers, some of whom simplistically attribute this reticence to the Kurdish movement’s paranoid, secretive or cultish/partisan culture.
The diaspora Kurdish activist community offers a rich, transnational resource for understanding political struggles and liberal state power in Europe. But Kurdish activists’ lived experience of surveillance, police violence and foreign policies built on decades of War on Terror politics demands that researchers have a heightened ethical and political awareness of power dynamics when carrying out their work.
A closer look at recent experiences of the Kurdish political movement in Europe helps contextualise activists’ suspicion of strangers asking questions about their political work. On 9 January 2013, three Kurdish women, Sakine Cansiz, Fidan Doğan and Leyla Şaylemez, were assassinated in the Kurdish Information Office in Paris by a Turkish intelligence service agent who had infiltrated the French-Kurdish community. To this day, the extent to which the French state had knowledge of Turkish intelligence operations ahead of the murders is unclear. In recent years, investigative reports revealed the activities of Turkish state spies operating in Europe; several well-known Kurdish activists and politicians were found to be on hitlists.
In addition to threats from the Turkish state, politically active Kurds have long had the status of suspect communities (Hillyard, 1993) in the eyes of European states. A large number of activists are subject to surveillance, raids, protest and travel bans, and deportation threats. In Germany, the country with the largest Kurdish diaspora, the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz) prioritises the PKK in the category Ausländerextremismus ohne Islamismus, translatable as foreigner extremism without Islamism, and considers it to have strong ties to the (likewise targeted) so-called left extremism scene. Police frequently groom Kurdish individuals as spies, using their legal status as a mechanism for reward or punishment.
If criminalisation directly affects people’s ability to act politically, stigmatising representation impacts their willingness to openly speak their mind. Media reports often reduce heterogenous and popular Kurdish political activities in Europe – which include cultural festivals, educational seminars and anti-domestic violence projects – to a caricaturised image of a gang-like sect that preys on young people for recruitment to become glorified martyrs in armed struggle. Ahead of announced actions, local newspapers often feature warning sentences such as “Police expect violent escalations at Kurdish demo”, dismissing (overwhelmingly peaceful) Kurdish protests with complex demands as displays of irrational ethnic rage. As a result of such representations, activists can be very defensive in interactions with journalists or researchers.
The securitising conditions that shape knowledge production on anti-system movements can be an occasion for researchers to learn from criminalised political communities’ knowledge of liberal European states. Enabled by the War on Terror paradigm, criminalisation and political stigmatisation compromise political communities’ ability to raise even legal demands within democracies in Europe.
Writing about the UK’s flagship counter-extremism scheme PREVENT, Christos Boukalas critically discusses the implications of such measures on democracy, and any prospects for social change: “In preventing the formation of non-liberal subjectivities, counter-extremism aims to cancel the potentiality of a political future and freeze society into an eternal liberal present” (Boukalas, 2019). By ideologically cementing itself in an imagined liberal middle, the state asserts itself as the sole entity to decide over moderate/extreme, ie, good/evil. People who challenge the state’s moral compass are pathologised; measures to prevent their activities get framed as national security matters.
In hegemonic discourses around integration, politically active migrants/refugees epitomise a resistance to assimilate into the liberal European power framework. Individuals can participate in European civic life with their Kurdish identity, as long as they distance themselves from what are broadly framed by the state as PKK-linked ideas (eg, expressions of sympathy with Ocalan and other political prisoners or guerrilla fighters) and structures (eg, community centres, youth movements and women’s assemblies organised under the umbrella of democratic confederalism) and left extremist circles close to it. Marginalising Kurdish diaspora politics also shields European states from accountability for their complicity in enabling war crimes and human rights abuses by NATO member and EU candidate Turkey through political support and arms sales.
To European states, the Kurdistan solidarity/left extremism nexus presents an explicit domestic problem. After all, many of the non-Kurdish individuals who travelled to Kurdistan in 2014/15 onwards were organised activists, rooted in anti-fascist and anti-capitalist struggles in their own countries. Among them were anti-arms trade campaigners, feminist, anarchist and socialist organisers, hunt saboteurs, trade unionists, and left party members, with experience in rallying solidarity with Palestine or the Zapatista uprising. The formation of new solidarities and struggle fronts poses a threat to European states’ authoritarian domestic policies, as well as to the profits made through war, arms trade and political conflict. As Iida Käyhkö, a feminist organiser and researcher who examines the criminalisation of the Kurdish movement, explains, punitive measures taken against Kurdistan solidarity interact with “the recent inclusion of environmental and anti-fascist organisations and groups on counter-terrorism guidance passed out to police and public servants” in the UK – an issue that recently resurged with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill 2021. Social movement researchers are better off actively monitoring such political trends, not only because these affect their interlocutors, but because criminalisation may impact their own ability to research freely in the future.
Intimate knowledge of pervasive, international state intelligence cooperation encourages activists, as a matter of self-protection, to question the intentions of strangers who come into their lives asking about their aspirations, tactics, plans and organisational structures. Furthermore, in the eyes of many Kurdish activists, politically motivated repression – from the prevention of legal activities to police brutality – affirms one of the key ideas of their philosophy: namely, that the state, including liberal democratic European states, expresses an institutionalised form of violence and domination and that true democracy must be built outside of its parameters.
Kurdish organisations regularly characterise the inaction of Europe-based, human rights-related institutions such as the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) vis-à-vis the Turkish state’s abuses, as a logical outcome of capitalist modernity. Researchers seeking to understand such perspectives can creatively design research in ways that meaningfully engage with movements’ struggle concepts. This in turn can allow for mutual learning and participatory, cooperation-based knowledge production on institutional power.
When conducting interviews or ethnographies among suspect communities – especially movements that claim to propose political alternatives – researchers should reflect on whether their work could contribute to the normalisation of authoritarian measures. Taking activists’ security concerns and analyses seriously, and refusing to reinforce stigmatising tropes about radical political cultures, can enable solidarity-based scholarship that challenges rather than sustains the state and government agendas that, beyond impacting the activities of already-targeted communities, affect the prospect of social action for justice and critical knowledge production more broadly.
Among the most widely reported cases is the assassination plot against Austrian-Kurdish politician and Green Party MP Berivan Aslan https://www.dw.com/en/in-the-crosshairs-of-turkeys-mit/av-55619618
Turning the prominent role of women in the PKK against it, in 2021, the conservative German mainstream magazine FOCUS caused outrage with unsubstantiated claims about “loverboys” travelling in Europe to “seduce young women to join the fight for the left extremist workers’ party” https://www.focus.de/politik/deutschland/zum-ersten-mal-seit-1993-axel-spilcker_id_13482559.html
Tufyal Choudhury’s account (2017) of the history of counter-terrorism measures and denationalization in the UK also offers a relevant discussion on how “values” are politically framed along national security interests.
For example, thousands of Kurdish villages were destroyed by the Turkish NATO army in the 1990s with the use of German tanks and assault rifles. Ever since, “German tanks out of Kurdistan” or “Germany finances, Turkey bombards” have been among the most common slogans in the diaspora.
Boukalas, C. (2019). The Prevent paradox: destroying liberalism in order to protect it. Crime, Law and Social Change, 72(4), 467–482. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10611-019-09827-8
Choudry, A. (2019). Activists and the surveillance state: learning from repression, London: PlutoPress.
Choudhury, T. (2017). The radicalisation of citizenship deprivation. Critical Social Policy, 37(2), 225–244. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261018316684507
Hillyard, P. (1993). Suspect Community: people’s experience of the Prevention of Terrorism Acts in Britain, London: Pluto Press.