Adam Barnett in Dissent from a few weeks ago (image Kurds celebrating Newroz, Diyarbakir, Turkey, March 2013 (Alberto Tetta / Flickr)):
One of the experiences that sets the life of a reporter apart from other pursuits is the realization that when you enter a building in a foreign country and see the portrait of a convicted terrorist proudly displayed on every wall, you know you’re in the right place. Such was my experience upon entering the offices of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or Halklarin Demokratik Partisi (HDP), in a side street near Istanbul’s central square, where I hoped to gain a Kurds’-eye-view of the war against ISIS in northern Syria.
I use the word “terrorist” with hesitation, not only because of its nebulous quality and widespread abuse, but because to millions among Turkey’s Kurdish minority, Abdullah Ocalan (whose portrait beamed down from the walls of the HDP offices) remains the symbolic leader of their decades-long struggle for dignity and human rights. In Turkey, where the label “terrorist” is applied with as much cynicism and bigotry as in Israel, the picture of Ocalan hangs over the fragile peace talks between Ankara and his Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, after three decades of war and misery that claimed at least 35,000 lives, most of them Kurdish.
The HDP is the latest attempt by Turkey’s Kurds to advance their interests by parliamentary means, and plays a crucial role in these talks—not yet negotiations—with its delegates relaying messages to and from Ocalan as he serves out his life sentence in an island prison. The party has much to its credit. A social-democratic bloc of Kurds, secularists, feminists, LGBT activists, and greens with twenty-eight seats in the Turkish national assembly (making it the fourth-largest party), the HDP has roots in the Turkish left of the 1960s and a lineage that goes back to the Democracy Party of Leyla Zana. It advocates equal rights for all minorities (including Alevis and Armenians) and state neutrality on matters of religion, as well as mandating at least one female co-chair at every administrative level and applying a sort of “affirmative action” for LGBT candidates. Already this puts most European and American parties to shame.
But what truly distinguishes the HDP, and could have wider resonance across an ever more fragmented Middle East, is its call for a radical decentralization of powers from Ankara to regional assemblies, along the lines of the democratic experiment being conducted in the area of northern Syria known to Kurds as Rojava. This program would include granting rights to local assemblies to choose an official language for public life and education (the rights most famously denied to Kurds by successive Turkish governments)—“devolution plus multiculturalism,” to put it in policy terms. This formula may sound rather anodyne, but it strikes at the lungs of Turkish nationalist ideology, which in its most virulent form denies even the existence of non-Turkish minorities in Turkey.