This week marks 25 years since the capture of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan. Since then, the leader of the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been been held almost entirely incommunicado, in conditions amounting to torture. It’s been years since Öcalan’s last, brief phone-call or contact with the outside world, while throughout the past decade he has only been able to meet with his lawyers during one brief period in 2019.
His detention has attracted global solidarity and condemnation, with many pointing to parallels between his detention and that of South African icon Nelson Mandela. Medya News spoke to Mike Arnott, President of Scotland’s Trade Union Council and Secretary for its Dundee branch, to discuss the long history of internationalism in the UK’s trade union movement, his union’s support for Öcalan, and how the Kurdish leader’s vision could transform the Middle East.
Could you explain why internationalism is important to the trade union movement? Why should Scottish workers care about the Middle East?
We’ve long been in solidarity with international issues. One which I’m active in historically is the commemoration of the Spanish Civil War and the International Brigades who went out to fight in Spain to defend democracy and the democratically-elected government against a fascist coup; that was very much supported by the Trade Union movement, because they understood how important it was to defend democracy and defeat fascism. It’s an element of international solidarity – supporting workers in struggle.
You recently visited Dundee’s sister city, Nablus. Did you see similarities between Israel’s occupation of Palestine and Turkey’s occupation of Kurdistan?
We had drones flying over, all day and night. Before we went, we were aware of IDF incursions into Nablus in which people had been summarily executed. When the Israelis were apparently seeking to ‘detain’ people, who nonetheless end up dead, most of them young people. And most of them were engaged in a spirit of resistance, because you have to have a spirit of resistance; and that’s what we see with our Kurdish friends, a spirit of resisting and having to resist, in a very real sense.
Certainly in the attacks on Rojava, on North and East Syria; attacks on Iraq as well, when the Turkish air-force were bombing Iraq and settlements of the Kurds in that area. There’s a long tradition of being opposed to injustice, and supporting people who were facing injustice, both militarily, and also culturally.
Can Öcalan’s political thought make positive contributions to the Middle Eastern crisis?
Öcalan’s development of his political thought, and how that can be a settlement or a solution to the situation of the Kurdish people in Turkey and in other countries, has real possibilities for other parts of the Middle East. And I would argue beyond that, democratic confederalism; the importance of the role of women; the autonomous organising from the ground up; the inclusiveness of involving Christian, Arab and other ethnic groups into a united movement, into autonomous organisations to drive forward that idea… has immense possibilities for the rest of the Middle East. You can see in Iran, the way that women are being repressed, many of them Kurdish; that call that’s coming from women, for greater freedom.
With so much happening in the Middle East, why should people push for Öcalan’s freedom?
Öcalan’s proposals could be game-changing for the whole Middle East. I know when he was in Italy, he inspired many to model their working practice on his theories. There are municipal leaders in Italian cities who try to take lessons from democratic confederalism as a way to organise their communities, in their cities. So the possibilities are endless, and he’s very much like Mandela in an island prison, a leader of his people, trying to lead them from oppression. His release could mean so much. Another person he reminds me of is Antonio Gramsci, the great political theorist, who wrote many articles in prison, in his prison notebooks and diaries, to try and move the progressive movement forewards. He stands for me within that pantheon, and the possibilities are endless, if he’s able to be released.