xactly 23 years ago, on 9 October 1998, Abdullah Öcalan left Syria after Turkey, with the support of the USA, threatened to invade Syria. Öcalan became one of the first prominent victims of Guantanamo-style renditions when he was abducted and handed over to Turkey in Kenya in 1999. The invasion of Syria was postponed, but today Turkey occupies large swathes of land in majority-Kurdish northern Syria.
Little known to the world in 1999, Abdullah Öcalan and the movement he founded rose to greater prominence in recent years with the Rojava revolution and the successful battle against ISIS. He is held in total isolation on İmralı Island and denied visitors, but, nevertheless, he remains influential through the movement he built and the books he has written in his prison cell.
While the purpose of his imprisonment was to remove him from the political stage, Öcalan has managed to achieve even greater prominence. In prison, he penned daringly innovative works that give ample evidence of his position as one of the most significant thinkers of our day. His prison writings have mobilised millions of people and inspired a revolution in the making in Rojava, northern Syria, while also penetrating the insular walls of academia and triggering debate and reflection among countless scholars. Thus, he is a major actor for peaceful and democratic change in the Middle East and is in a position to have a huge positive impact on the whole world.
Öcalan, an avid reader of Fanon’s books, shares his focus on the psychology of the oppressed, but unlike Fanon (and many other brilliant authors) he succeeded in building a movement around these ideas that has withstood all manner of attacks for decades.
Öcalan’s influence is best summarised by the many comparisons in recent years to different personalities, revolutionary writers, and organisers, each of which addresses one or several aspects of his impact. Taken together they paint a colorful picture of a person being held in incredibly strict isolation from the world.
Karl Marx certainly was a key inspiration for the revolutionary left in the 1970s, and for Abdullah Öcalan as well. When Marx wrote his most important work, Das Kapital, he had access to one of the best libraries in the world and could correspond with friends and comrades. Öcalan, however, writes sitting alone in his cell and is only allowed one book at a time.
Like Vladimir Lenin, Öcalan created an organisation that has withstood the harshest repression at the hands of dictatorial regimes. But he has long abandoned the Leninist models of party, state and revolution.
Antonio Gramsci quickly comes to mind. Like Öcalan, he was an outstanding intellectual whose thinking revolved about the liberation of the oppressed. His most famous writings, the Prison Notebooks, were penned in a prison cell, in fascist Italy. Gramsci spent his last ten years in captivity; Öcalan has been incarcerated for twenty-two and a half years at this point.
Frantz Fanon wrote brilliantly about the psychological impacts of colonialism on all sides involved and on roads to liberation. Öcalan, an avid reader of Fanon’s books, shares his focus on the psychology of the oppressed, but unlike Fanon (and many other brilliant authors) he succeeded in building a movement around these ideas that has withstood all manner of attacks for decades.
All these comparisons have their limits, of course, but they show that Öcalan is now recognised as an important theorist and influential organiser of revolutionary change by many people around the world.
Öcalan was driven out of Syria on the anniversary of Che Guevara’s murder, 9 October. Kurds have often speculated that this was intentional. Like Che, Öcalan with his acts and his writings inspires young people all over the world, and they both have been painted in an iconic way by the same artist Jim Fitzpatrick. While the revolution in Cuba was backed by the socialist block of states, the Öcalan-inspired revolution in Rojava is not supported by any major power in the world—but it does get the support of the people.
Comparisons are often made with Nelson Mandela, and they tend to focus on their respective popularity and Öcalan’s role in past and future peace processes. Also, like Mandela, Öcalan has become a major symbol of resistance to the repression of a whole people and for democratic change far beyond his homeland. Mandela got the chance to negotiate a peace process after he was released. Öcalan has not yet had that possibility. All the talks he has had with the state to this point have been conducted in captivity.
Most importantly, however, is that unlike everything else mentioned above, Öcalan is not history. He is a living, feeling, suffering political prisoner in a European prison that violates numerous human rights norms and convention.
All these comparisons have their limits, of course, but they show that Öcalan is now recognised as an important theorist and influential organiser of revolutionary change by many people around the world. Maybe it is exactly this factor that lies behind both the killing of Che Guevara and the decision to hand Öcalan over to Turkey. Turkey is holding him prisoner in the same way that fascist Italy held Gramsci. European governments support the jailers instead of the oppressed, vilifying them as terrorists, as they did with the ANC in Apartheid South Africa. Öcalan’s circumstances share a striking resemblance to all of this.
Most importantly, however, is that unlike everything else mentioned above, Öcalan is not history. He is a living, feeling, suffering political prisoner in a European prison that violates numerous human rights norms and convention—above all the UN’s “Nelson Mandela Rules” for the treatment of prisoners.
International political and human rights organisations are frequently called upon to use their weight to gain some improvement in Öcalan’s horrendous prison conditions and to win his freedom. However, we are seeing that international law and human rights conventions are increasingly losing their substance and becoming tools used against the people’s rights and freedoms. Not a single institution or organization is effectively challenging the vast array of human rights violations that Turkey continues to commit every day.
Until now, it has been the Kurdish people and its friends that have ceaselessly resisted and relentlessly fought for Öcalan’s freedom. In times like this, the only force that really matters is the power of the people. It is this power that will ultimately turn into a force that opens the doors of İmralı. And this is why you and everybody should join in the campaign for Öcalan’s freedom. Demand his immediate release, wherever you are, so that ultimately “Freedom Shall Prevail.”
Reimar Heider is one of the spokespersons of the International Initiative “Freedom for Abdullah Öcalan—Peace in Kurdistan”.