Today there is an internationally unified voice calling for the freedom for Abdullah Öcalan, and an end to his isolation. Politicians, scholars, lawyers, artists, and activists insist that he must be given the opportunity to meet with his family and lawyers after almost three years of total isolation.
When Öcalan was forced to leave his headquarters in Syria on 9 October 1998, he began an odyssey that crossed several national borders and ended with his capture in Kenya. He was brought to Turkey on 15 February 1999 under particularly degrading conditions, where he was imprisoned on the island of İmralı. At first, lawyers and family could visit him at irregular intervals, but this support system has been broken completely. No one has seen or heard from Öcalan in nearly three years. What is happening at İmralı can only be speculated, but there are reasons to fear for his life and health.
Due to the isolation of this important Kurdish leader, the Kurdish question remains unresolved. In the same way that Öcalan is held down by force under Erdoğan’s iron fist, an entire people is also held oppressed. Kurdish people are deprived of their most basic human and political rights such as the right to life, fair legal treatment, education in their own language, freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly and protest.
The right to freedom for most Kurds, not only in Kurdistan in Turkey, but also in other parts of Kurdistan and diaspora is diminishing in parallel with the isolation of Öcalan. Since 2015, as part of the Turkish authorities’ policy of repression and coercion, the Turkish military (in alliance with various jihadist groups) have gone to war, with a goal of the ethnic cleansing of Kurdish people. Because the Turkish authorities so far refuse to enter into any form of peace talks or negotiations with Öcalan, the hope for a democratic, peaceful resolution within Turkey diminishes. In order to break the deadlock and end the isolation of Öcalan, he must also be given new opportunities to negotiate.
Why is Öcalan still so important in Kurdish politics and what makes his particular type of leadership so prominent?
Throughout his political career, Öcalan has always treated the many talented and loyal people at his side as equals. First through the foundation of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1978 and the first military attack in 1984, and later to the transformation of the PKK from being a guerrilla military unit to a political movement in the 1990’s and beyond. Thousands, if not millions, of Kurds joined this movement, which can be described as a broad popular revolution or more precisely – an educational awareness-raising revolution.
Through all these years, before and after incarceration, Öcalan has spoken with a strong, clear and fearless voice. When his name is mentioned among Kurds, it is usually with humility, deep respect and love to a man who has become important to millions of people in Kurdistan and other parts of the world. They regard him as the voice for the voiceless, and hope for the hopeless. Through his writings, political speeches, and former actions, he has contributed to ordinary people’s awareness about their conditions, their history and democratic rights to participate in decision-making processes. This has made a particularly visible difference in Rojava. Öcalan speaks words that illuminate the world to help people understand their situation. They become aware of their own background, environments, community, fundamental rights, and gradually become better equipped to participate in democratic life.
The 25 years in prison under terrible conditions have not silenced Öcalan. He has written dozens of books, several of them were written while incarcerated. Many of the notes taken from his weekly meetings with his lawyers (before his access to meet with them was taken away) have been edited and published. Through his publications in prison, Öcalan has continued to give advice, staked out the way forward and uplifted the spirits of millions of Kurds. In his writings he has particularly focused on women and contributed to lifting women out of invisibility, out of silence and supported them both within and outside the movement to find their own way– ideologically, politically, and militarily. Today, women are a significant and important part of the Kurdish freedom struggle. Kurdish women have succeeded in changing their own situation, forming their own military unit, contributed significantly to democratic model in Rojava and the surrounding regions and, through this, they have managed to reach out to women in parts other than Kurdistan. Women themselves give much credit for the start of this movement to Öcalan.
All this shows that Öcalan is more than just a Kurdish military and political leader. Based on his writings, speeches, and the way he approaches his people, I would call Öcalan a life-changing teacher, educator, and holistic intellectual for the world. His knowledge, wisdom, courage, support, and endurance still represent light and hope for so many people, including myself as a researcher in education. The Kurdish people need Öcalan and so do the Turkish authorities if they seriously want to solve the Kurdish question by honest means and to move toward a more democratic future.
It is never too late to make a better world, and this is the time!
*Kariane Westrheim is Professor of Educational Science at the University of Bergen, Norway. Since 2004, Westrheim has chaired the EU Turkey Civic Commission (EUTCC) which among others organise the Annual International Conference on EU Turkey and the Kurds in the European Parliament, Brussels.