Cemil Bayik: ‘In our view, the women’s liberation struggle is much more valuable than any war for the homeland’
In February, Union of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) Co-Chair and founding member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) Cemil Bayik responded to written questions from the Kurdish Peace Institute. The following is the second part of this rare and exclusive interview, which focuses on global trends and philosophical frameworks. The first part, which focuses on specific political dynamics and current events related to Turkey, Syria and the Kurdish movement, can be read here.
Kurdish Peace Institute: In the United States and other Western countries, we often hear talk of the possibility of a ‘Third World War’; politicians discuss it in the context of the war in Ukraine or the tensions between the United States and China. Your movement argues that we are already in a third world war. What do you mean by that?
Cemil Bayik: It is said that there have been more than 14,000 wars in human history. The character and form of these wars have been according to the level of historical and social development that humanity has gone through.The First World War was clearly a war of division. Its consequences were very destructive. The Second World War took the form of a test of strength and a war of market grabbing, with the extreme militarization of German fascism under the leadership of Hitler and the fascism of Japan, Italy and Spain. The devastation it wrought was greater than that of the First World War. Tens of millions of people lost their lives. Economies were destroyed, nature was devastated, the future was darkened.
Under conditions where technical and nuclear armament has reached a level that pushes the limits of reason, it is being argued that a Third World War, like the old one, could perhaps be the end of all humanity. Not only will there be no winners in such a war, but all of humanity will lose. The character of the Third World War has therefore changed. In this context, neither the problems and contradictions between the U.S. and China, as some politicians argue, nor the war in Ukraine will be a Third World War similar to the First and Second World Wars. No power and no side can afford it. However, it would not be wrong to say that the Third World War is being waged mostly through proxies.
There was a tremendous, albeit inadequate, struggle for democracy in Europe. As a result of the struggles of European peoples, the emerging nation states were sensitive to public opinion. It is a reality that the Middle East lags behind Europe in this regard. This is why the Middle East, which still has kingdoms and oligarchic, monist regimes, is today the epicenter of inter-state conflicts. However, these wars in the Middle East will not lead to the same results as the wars in Europe, but will bring about a more radical and comprehensive regional democratization. In fact, I see all the problems we are experiencing now as the birthing pains of the developments I have mentioned.
The primary theatre of the Third World War is the Middle East, and the center of the Middle East is Kurdistan. As I mentioned, since the Kurdish question is an internationalized problem that directly concerns several states, it is going on at a level that has regional implications. The First and Second World Wars lasted four to five years. A distinct characteristic of the Third World War is that it will last a long time. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that the Third World War has been going on at different levels in different parts of the world since the formation of the unipolar world after the dissolution of real socialism. But the main center of this form of war is the Middle East.
There are Middle Eastern states whose interests conflict and overlap with those of the U.S. and European states, as well as with those of Russia and China. Therefore, the Third World War is being fought in the Middle East through partner states and proxies (we can cite inhumane groups like ISIS, Al-Nusra and the like as examples of these). For example, the international coalition against ISIS consists of seventy-two states. The Turkish state, however, supports ISIS. All these factors show that the Third World War is a complex equation that may last not just for a few years, but even for a few decades.
From another perspective, the Kurdistan freedom struggle led by the PKK is an example of this new form of conflict. There are relations and contradictions with four different states. There is the involvement of international states and powers in the Kurdish problem. But this war, or these conflicts, has been going on for decades. We call this a kind of Third World War. Indeed, just as the democratization of the Middle East will have a positive and great impact on Europe and the world, the liberation of the Kurds in the four parts will have a great impact on the democratization of the Middle East. That is why we say that the current and ongoing war is the Third World War.
Your movement often mentions the concepts of democracy, freedom, autonomy and self-determination when discussing the solution to the problems facing the Kurds and the wider Middle East. What do these concepts mean to you? How does your understanding differ from the way these concepts have traditionally been understood by nation-states?
We see the Middle East as the cradle of humanity. I would even go as far as to say that the Renaissance was the stepchild of the Middle East. In other words, Middle Eastern culture is very old, its sociality is very strong. The paradox is that today, Middle Eastern society, in need of water like a barren land, is thirsty for its own democracy and freedom. If democracy is the direct and complete self-governance of the people, this is the only remedy to all dictatorships, oligarchic structures and states in the Middle East.
Middle Eastern societies are historically accustomed to federal and confederal life. The extraction of 22 states from the Arab people alone is perhaps the most undeserved thing for the Middle East. More states, more nations, and more national borders mean more peoples at each other’s throats. Our leader Apo [Abdullah Ocalan] states that “while democracy is a concept that is thought of for macro-societies such as the nation; self-governance is expressed at the smallest units of society”. If there is no direct self-governance even in the most democratic federal structures, whether they are based on states, regions or ethnic structures, it means that there is a deficiency in democracy. In this case, democracy can be defined as self-management in which society participates. In other words, self-governance is democratic government implemented at the smaller/local level.
It is important to note that we do not see the right of nations to self-determination as one and the same with state-building. Wilson was the first to put this forward; this is in his principles. In the name of socialism, Lenin defined self-determination as the right to establish a state. Today, we are of the opinion that these understandings are not correct. These views initially had an impact on the PKK. But one of the main distinguishing features of our leader Apo and the PKK is flexibility and creativity.
I can state that we have renewed ourselves extensively, especially after the collapse of real socialism. As I have stated, the right thing is not separation but democratic unification. We also evaluate the solution of the Kurdish question from this perspective. Neither Islamic ummahism, nor the liberalism and cosmopolitanism of capitalism, nor the internationalism of real socialism have been able to solve the Kurdish question so far. The right solution is not more state or more national identity, but more democracy, more decentralization. To put it more concretely, it is the democratization of Turkey and the Kurds gaining their freedom and autonomy. Autonomy reinforces unity and unification, not separation. We call this Democratic Confederalism. In other words, this should be understood as the form of government of the democratic nation.
There are important differences between our view of the nation-state problem and the Western nation-states’ view of the nation-state problem. We believe that the age of nation-states is being overcome, that struggles and wars for national problems and nation-states are meaningless, that the right of nations to self-determination does not equal nation states, and that Democratic Confederalism and Democratic Autonomy represent the most correct and valid solution model of our time. Finally, I would like to answer your question with a quote from our leader Apo: “The Kurdish question must be solved within the democratic governance models of society without ever getting involved in statism, without turning to nation-state pursuits, and without being forced into solutions under those scopes”.
The PKK defines itself as a women’s movement and argues that the liberation of women will lead to the liberation of society from all other forms of oppression. Can you explain how this idea developed and how it is implemented in practice?
The PKK defines women as the oldest colonized people who have never been a nation. Therefore, we can state that women today are experiencing the most critical period of their history as the first and last colonized people. If women are indeed the oldest colony, then humanity is enslaved by the enslavement of women. When we read the equation correctly, this means that the liberation of women will liberate all of humanity. This is why we, as a party, define ourselves as a women’s movement. Our leader Apo understands the importance of the women’s issue and the vital meaning and value of their liberation.
Many women comrades have joined the ranks of our party. One can imagine what kind of problems women in a colonized society can experience. Our leader Apo developed his first analyses on women in the 1980s. The large number of young Kurdish women joining the freedom struggle and our party ranks made it necessary for him to find radical answers to the problem of women’s liberation. In our view, the women’s liberation struggle is much more valuable than any war for the homeland. All traditional male-dominated powers have called on women to obey and serve. Capitalism’s view of women as the queen of the commodity is another matter for consideration. It is not possible to be free without creating a consciousness of freedom in women and society in general. If society is to be free, it will be with and under the leadership of women. In this sense, it is not possible for society to be liberated without the liberation of women. Therefore, women’s freedom consciousness and the creation of a free women’s personality are indispensable.
Our leader Apo devoted a lot of his time to creating the framework for women’s liberation. He saw the growth of the PKK and the democratization of society in proportion to the level of women’s liberation and leadership in the struggle. In the history of our movement, we have seen how great a role the ideology of women’s liberation has played in the liberation of humanity and the democratization of society. The importance given to the women’s question by Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg is really valuable—but in the end, including the period of real socialism, the women’s question has always been indexed to the class question and sacrificed to it. This meant that there was never sufficient effort put into the realization of real women’s liberation. It is this women’s leadership that will fight against statist and hierarchical structures and create and develop a democratic, free and ecological society that is not state-oriented. I can ambitiously state that the level of representation that the women of Kurdistan have reached today in all areas of life and struggle means that slavery has been overthrown in the political sphere.
These ideas of women’s liberation have inspired demonstrators in Eastern Kurdistan and Iran, who have adopted the slogan “jin, jiyan, azadi [woman, life, freedom]” to symbolize the goals of the ongoing uprising there. How do you view these developments?
First of all, I must mention that the slogan “jin, jiyan, azadi” is a slogan that our leader Apo coined decades ago. This slogan contains within it the basic characteristic of the age and century we live in. It has now become a slogan that has spread all over the world, adopted by all women struggling for freedom, uniting the women’s struggle, revealing the common will of women, and playing an important role in creating its vanguard. The people of Eastern Kurdistan have been greatly influenced by our leader Apo’s paradigm and the PKK’s struggle. Hundreds, even thousands of young men and women from Eastern Kurdistan have taken part in the Kurdistan Freedom Struggle and many have been martyred.
In Iran, all peoples and cultures are resisting for freedom and democratization. Our people in Eastern Kurdistan have taken an active part this women-led uprising. Kurdish women’s leadership and the slogan ‘jin, jiyan, azadi’ have been influential not only in Eastern Kurdistan but throughout Iran. The more the repression increased, the more the resistance spread. The attitude of the Iranian state towards the uprisings is known. It responded by carrying out executions. However, despite this, Kurdish women and our people, as well as other communities and cultures who rose up for the democratization of Iran, did not give up. They have persisted in their resistance. Unless the Iranian state realizes a democratic transformation and recognizes the identity and free status of communities and cultures, especially women’s freedom, uprisings are likely to continue. It is clear that the democratization of Iran and the attainment of a democratic and free status for the people of Eastern Kurdistan will be women-led.
The ideas discussed here have their roots in the political philosophy of Abdullah Ocalan. He is currently in prison, where he is blocked from meeting with his relatives and legal team and from otherwise communicating with the outside world. You have repeatedly criticized Turkey and its allies on this matter. Can you explain why you see this situation as so dangerous? What makes his ideas so important? And what do people in countries like the U.S. need to know about them?
Yes, last month marked the 24th anniversary of the international conspiracy (the capture of Abdullah Ocalan). On this occasion, I would like to once again express my strong condemnation of all the forces that took part in the international conspiracy, thus denying the democratic and free future of the Kurdish people in the person of our leader Apo, and causing the deaths of thousands of patriots, revolutionaries and civilians in the war that has been going on since then.
When our leader Apo was first brought to Imrali, the first person to greet him was the presidential representative of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) of the Council of Europe. His first words were, “You will stay in this prison, and we will monitor it through the Council of Europe and try to develop some solutions”. However, things did not turn out at all as the CPT representative stated. Our leader Apo is still being held in solitary confinement in his 25th year. Neither international law nor Turkey’s domestic law is applied in Imrali. The severe isolation in Imrali continues. For two years neither his lawyers nor his family have received any news from Imrali. Some of the information reaching his family, his lawyers and us is extremely concerning. We are still trying to understand how accurate it is There is speculative news about his health condition. The Turkish state and the Ministry of Justice are not providing a satisfactory explanation. The CPT of the Council of Europe is also being secretive and unresponsive. States and political institution such as the E.U., the U.S., and so on have not put the issue on their agenda in any way.
Undoubtedly, this encourages the Turkish state. The fact that there has been no communication or meeting with our leader Apo for the last two years, and that speculative information about his health condition has been spread, is undoubtedly an extraordinary situation. It is certain that the Turkish state has a vengeful approach to our leader Apo. Otherwise, it would not have prevented him from meeting with his family and lawyers, which is a basic legal right.
While there is nothing as natural as our leader Apo meeting with his lawyers and family, what should really be being discussed is his freedom. However, the physical freedom of our leader Apo is not on any agenda, it is not even discussed. Now the only agenda is his health.
We do not see our leader Apo as just a person. Our leader Apo and the Kurdish people cannot be considered separate and abstract from each other. When the relationship between our leader Apo and the will and free future of the Kurdish people is understood, it will become clear why the Kurds, and our movement, are always on high alert for him. In his person, a people, the situation and future of the people of Kurdistan are represented. In the mountains, villages and cities of Kurdistan, in the four parts of Kurdistan, Kurds of all ages are setting their bodies on fire in the name of “You cannot darken our sun” in protest against the international conspiracy and the pressure on our leader Apo.
The Kurdish people have historically been in a continuous resistance. They know from experience that an important reason why their resistance has not been successful is the problem of leadership. In this sense, the Kurds’ embrace of our leader Apo at the cost of death must be understood. It is the Kurdish people who have experienced the heavy cost and pain of a leaderless life and resistance the most. The Kurdish people undoubtedly have great confidence and faith in the PKK’s uninterrupted decades-long struggle. In our leader Apo’s style of struggle they see their own free future, invincibility and the freedom of Kurdistan. The slogan “Bê Serok Jiyan Nabe [no life without our leader]”, which is widely chanted by the Kurdish people at marches and rallies, is the most striking expression of the importance they attach to him.
Our leader Apo’s ideas are a summation of many ideas that have emerged in the history of humankind. It is especially important for us to see and evaluate the Democratic Modernity paradigm as a manifesto. Our leader Apo’s views on the state and hierarchy, revolution, the right of nations to self-determination, the women’s question, ecology and the approach to nature, the question of democracy and freedom, and sociality are really profound and striking. As you may appreciate, it is not possible to explain all these issues in the scope of an interview. Each of them is a comprehensive subject in its own right. I think everyone who is curious, especially women, youth, and lovers of democracy and freedom, should read them with excitement and passion.
In more than 40 years, the PKK has grown from a small group to a mass movement with armed forces active in multiple countries and millions of sympathizers in the Middle East and beyond. Yet the Kurdish question is still far from a resolution. Today, there is conflict and repression in every region where Kurds live. Looking at this totality, what would you say has been your greatest success as a movement? What has been your greatest failure? Where do you see the Kurdish struggle going in the next 40 years?
Achieving the most difficult thing must be the greatest success. When I say the most difficult, I am not only talking about material and brute force. Perhaps more than that, I am talking about ideological and spiritual values, the loss of these values, and regaining and reviving them. When evaluated in this context, there is no doubt that the PKK has made great gains and achievements in half a century of struggle. When the Ararat Rebellion of 1931 was suppressed, the Turkish state wrote the following on a tombstone on Mount Ararat: “Imaginary Kurdistan is buried here”. In other words, this means that the Kurds were buried in a grave and the top was sealed. If I say that the PKK brought the dead Kurd back to life, this should not be seen as an exaggeration.
When the best Kurd for the Turkish state was a dead Kurd, the PKK created the Kurd who thinks for himself. After the Dersim Rebellion of 1937-1938, the Turkish state committed a relentless white massacre against the Kurdish people. I am talking about forced assimilation here. There is probably nothing more brutal than cultural-linguistic genocide. Kurdish culture has now flourished again. It has flourished with the blood of thousands and tens of thousands of martyrs. It has flourished at great cost. Kurdish women had no agency before the PKK. Now, the science of jineoloji and the ideology of women’s liberation are effective not only for Kurdish women but for all women, giving them power. The epic struggle of the women of Kurdistan against the enemy of humanity, the fascist ISIS thugs, is already well known. The democratic modernity paradigm developed by our leader Apo is a paradigm that unites peoples, communities and cultures in a democratic and free life against the nation state and all forms of nationalism. It is right to see these main points as important achievements of the PKK.
Of course, I must also point out that, although we are a movement that has made history, we have significant inadequacies and failures. I think dialectics has taught us all this. Thoughts and ideas are always ahead of actions and actual behavior. The paradigm, ideological depth, and measures developed by our leader Apo are very strong, and if they are organized at a level that is applied in a timely manner, they are incredibly effective. Our biggest failure is that we have fulfilled only a very small percentage of the requirements of this paradigm and ideology, and in this sense, the gap between the reality of our thoughts and our practice has widened too much.
The fact that we have not been able to develop a sufficiently consistent and result-oriented practice in the field of politics and diplomacy despite the known attitudes of the international powers, from the USA to European states, should be interpreted as our inadequacy in this field. Sometimes, not seeing and utilizing opportunities in a timely manner and not achieving the results we should have can be counted among our failures. I can say that insisting on a benevolent approach to relations, facts and friends rather than scientific skepticism, which is a characteristic of Eastern societies, has sometimes been harmful for us. And most important of all, of course, is our stance towards our leader Apo. I can easily state that there is never any flaw in comradeship, loyalty and sincerity. But when it comes to fulfilling the requirements of these concepts, it is clear that we have inadequacies.
The summary is as follows: In his 25th year, our leader Apo is still a hostage in the hands of the Turkish state on the island of Imrali. If we had been able to produce greater results with a stronger struggle in the ideological, organizational, political, social, military and diplomatic fields at the level that he wanted and expected, he would be among us now. The fact that this has not happened yet is our biggest failure. Without further ado, I would like to point out that in our half-century of struggle, there are of course many more achievements to be respected and great lessons to be learned. There are also inadequacies that we must avoid, analyze correctly, and draw conclusions from in order not to repeat them. As a movement that is committed to the truth and insistent on the journey of truth, I would like to state that we are determined to increase our righteous and successful aspects, and to reduce our wrongful and inadequate aspects, with the belief and determination to achieve great success for our people, our friends and humanity.
You ask where the Kurdish struggle will go in the next forty years. I hope and believe that forty years from now, we will not be discussing the Kurdish question as it is discussed today. Forty years from now, even if it is the result of a very delayed and costly struggle, the Kurds will of course continue to live their lives as an honorable member of the democratic and free world community of peoples. I sincerely believe that the peoples and cultures of the world will reach a more prosperous standard of living with less state and hierarchy, more democracy and freedom, and a Democratic Union of Nations.
(Photo: BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images)