World Affairs Council
November 13, 2013
Our world has exploded with blazing conflicts for thousands of years.
Let me talk with you about two of them.
Nearly 50 years ago, President Johnson faced a major crisis. Massive protests urging civil rights for blacks had triggered violence, killing “a man of God,” as Mr. Johnson put it.
He felt compelled to address the nation from a joint session of Congress. Martin Luther King, who was leading many of the marches, watched from a friend’s home in Alabama.
When Johnson adopted the theme song of the protest movement, “We Shall Overcome,” and read it aloud to an anxious nation, it moved many to tears, especially Dr. King.
Those tears paved the way for the current occupant of the White House to become president and your fateful journey toward a more perfect union took another irreversible step forward.
The second conflict that I want to cite has Kurdish origins, but with a Turkish angle.
Last summer, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey promised to solve it on the last Monday of September 2013. Some hoped, including this Kurd, that he would display a Johnson-style healing-moment, for the good of both Turks and Kurds.
We were all disappointed.
Unlike Johnson, he never came near the lyrics of a protest song. In fact, he did not even mention the words, “Kurds,” “Kurdish,” and heaven forbid, “Kurdistan.”
And yet there were tears. They flowed from the eyes of pious women in Turkey, including my mother. The prime minister told them they were now free to wear their headscarves.
Before that, the Turkish leader had been unable to send even his own pious daughters to school in Turkey—they had been sent to America for their education—and he was now telling them, and others like them, that their days of persecution were over.
Their tears, like the ones Johnson drew from Dr. King, were earned.
I was happy for my mom.
But I can’t say the same thing for my people, the Kurds.
In Turkey, things don’t work the way they do in the United States or other protest-riddled countries.
In Turkey, politics is a zero-sum game: if you win; your opponent has to lose, period. When bigoted Ataturk ran the country, the Kurds were delegated to inferior status and pious Muslims went underground. Today, the Muslims are in charge. The Kurds are still fighting for their political rights. And Ataturk’s children—the non-religious Turks—are sulking because of losing to the Muslim Turks.
They are now getting a taste of what they once gleefully inflicted on the Kurds and pious Muslims.
The present prime minister of Turkey is an anomaly. Ataturk kept God out of government. Erdogan does not. He wants God as his political ally—to do Erdogan’s dirty work, such as tormenting the Kurds, toying with them the way a cat taunts a mouse before killing it, as do the clerics in Iran.
There is even a Pennsylvania angle to this “holy” war against the Kurds. Erdogan’s strange bedfellow, Fethullah Gulen, a powerful Turkish cleric, with millions of followers, lives in Saylorsburg, a scant hour’s drive away from here.
Gulen is on record as asking the Almighty to punish the Kurdish warriors who are defending Kurdistan as a favor for the Turks who are occupying it.
Turks have travelled and changed quite a bit since the days of Ataturk.
But not the Kurds. We have made very little forward progress. If anything, we have been shoved backwards by the haughty Turks.
We Kurds are secular in our diction, but still speak democracy with a halting and uncertain accent.
I’m sure you can see that in me, even as I speak. As I look out at your friendly faces, with nothing to fear, in the back of my mind, I can still visualize the deadly attacks of Turkish jets desolating Kurdistan and brutalizing its children, including yours truly.
So I’m still trying to find my true voice. But if I had a voice at the Kurdish table, I would urge my fellow Kurds to change as well.
I would urge them to take a less-traveled road—the one using nonviolence. I would urge them to follow in the footsteps of trailblazers who produced change without violence, such as Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi and Dr. King.
Tip O’Neill, long-time Speaker of the House and contemporary of President Reagan, observed: “All politics is local.” The same is true in the Middle East.
The Turks freely chose Recep Tayyip Erdogan as their prime minister.
The Kurds do not have the same opportunity to choose a leader. In Turkey, we are a minority and suffer from the tyranny of majority. Forced to submit to the dictates of another race, our youth has never shied away from the title of rebel Kurds.
Abdullah Ocalan, the latest Kurdish leader to take up arms against Turkey, is in prison now. He has led a 29 year-old armed struggle that has cost Ankara almost 500 billion dollars and Kurds over 30,000 young lives.
For fifteen years, he was free and in charge of his band of brothers and sisters. He earned an everlasting place in the hearts of every patriotic Kurd for forcing the Turkish government to acknowledge the existence of Kurds. For that feat alone, he has a place of honor among Kurdish freedom fighters.
For the last fourteen years though, he has been the sole inmate of an island prison on Imrali in the Sea of Marmara. Although the analogy may be weak, the Kurdish leader could be compared to your Malcolm X.
But there are also major differences. Mr. X never led a guerrilla war; Mr. Ocalan did. Prison turned Malcolm X into a fiery orator and revolutionary of international fame; on the other hand, prison muted, if not robbed, Abdullah Ocalan of his voice!
Kurds suspected this all along. But it became abundantly clear on March 21, 2013, when the Kurdish inmate was given an opportunity to address a crowd of one million Kurds at the Kurdish New Year celebration through two intermediaries.
What Ocalan said then says more about why the Turkish prime minister didn’t say anything about the Kurds when he addressed his nation some six weeks ago. It turns out the Kurdish leader was tasked to “calm” the Turks alone (read: dismiss the Kurds), whereas President Johnson had sought to comfort both black and white Americans.
Freedom, that noblest of human ideals, was sacrificed on the altar of bigotry that day. Greatness, the type that increases human happiness rather than compounds its misery, was once again kicked down the road to be tackled by our grandchildren.
Johnson and King are now honored for freeing America from its original sin and catapulting a black man into the White House. Erdogan and Ocalan will pass into the pages of history as the authors of a shotgun marriage between two peoples who dream different things but are forced to share the same bedroom.
But that is not how Mr. Ocalan sees things—and the Turks desperately need his views to perpetuate their evil system on the Kurds. He says the Turks and the Kurds have been friends and brothers since 1071, and that we helped the Turks conquer Anatolia.
If we did—and the historical record is scanty—we have paid a heavy price in blood and suffering. Turks have always been eager to shed Kurdish blood. If Kurds vanish from the pages of history, it will be the Turks who pulled this off.
Mr. Ocalan absurdly claims that Kurds and Turks lived in peace and harmony for the next 800 years. He conveniently ignores the destruction of Alevi Kurds and Turks by Selim the Cruel, a Turkish sultan, and the perennial scorched-earth campaigns of Ottoman Turks into Kurdish lands.
Ehmede Xani, a Kurdish poet of 17th century, laments the loss of Kurdish life in the hands of Turks and Persians alike and notes, whenever the “Turkish ocean” and the “Persian sea” got “rough” and “stormy,” “It [was] the Kurds who [were] spattered with blood.”
These days, our Turkish and Persian neighbors have stopped fighting each other—although in the Syrian civil war, they support opposing sides. But they have never lost their appetite for Kurdish blood—especially our children’s!
Mr. Ocalan disputes the Kurdish poet. He suggests the Kurdish-Turkish enmity was spawned by “western imperialists” forcing the “Arabs, Turks, Persians and Kurds” into “imaginary” countries with “artificial” problems.
Middle Eastern countries may be artificial creations that don’t follow linguistic lines—but none of them has ever expressed an interest in giving the Kurds their rights. If anything, they are glad the Europeans carved up Kurdistan for them.
Besides, if I were an Arab in Amman or Riyadh or Beirut, I would be grateful to “western imperialists.” If they had delayed their arrival, Turkish would have been spoken today in all these cities as it is in Amed, the Kurdish capital.
Again, I have not detected any nostalgia on the part of Arabs for the good old days of Ottoman Empire. If they ever pine for those days, they should look at the Kurdish plight in Turkey—and be grateful to have Turks only as tourists!
Kurds may be uneducated, but they know the difference between freedom and servility. When a Turkish deputy read Mr. Ocalan’s statement to the Kurds, he tried to excite them, but it didn’t work. The applause was lukewarm.
When the Turkish prime minister was asked what he thought of Mr. Ocalan’s statement, he complained that he hadn’t seen any Turkish flags at the gathering.
That wasn’t the question. He dodged it, like a typical American politician. His silence means he liked it. Who knows—he may have even dictated the whole thing.
But imagine this: Instead of dodging the matter, instead of forcing a Kurdish prisoner to eulogize the Turks, what if the Turkish prime minister had done a genuine mea culpa, and agreed that Kurds should be free?
What if Mr. Erdogan had sidestepped his bigotry and walked, like the statesman he could become, into a glorious field of light, glowing with Kurdish liberty?
What would such a cathartic experience do to Mr. Erdogan? As a latecomer to your literature, I can only think of John Newton and his remarkable journey to the song, Amazing Grace.
Mr. Newton was an 18th century English sailor and slave trader, who when a violent storm almost sank his ship, underwent a genuine spiritual conversion and became a minister—and wrote the lyrics of the Amazing Grace to describe his painful journey to redemption.
I wish Mr. Erdogan could undergo a similar spiritual experience, with or without the aid of a shipwreck, and describe his own conversion in a speech, the way Newton did in his soul-stirring song, Amazing Grace.
I wonder what Mr. Erdogan’s speech, which might be titled, “Amazing Peace,” would sound like…
I am not the right person to write that speech, because of my lack of education. When Abraham Lincoln was first elected to the Congress, he was given a biographical form to fill out. It listed a line for “Education.”
Lincoln wrote: “Defective.”
I give myself the same grade. But I’d also give myself the mark, an old farmer gave one of his cows, when he was selling her, and the buyer asked how much milk she gave. The farmer said: “I won’t lie to you. She won’t always give the most milk—but she’ll always give you all she’s got.”
I may not write the best speech for Erdogan, but I’ll give it all I’ve got:
“In the Name of God, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.
I come to you at a critical moment in the history of Turkey. Our republic is facing a grave threat.
The first thing I want to do is to let you in on a state secret: we don’t have a terrorism problem in our country; we have a Kurdish Question in our hands.
The origins of our problem go back to the inception of the Turkish republic. Our founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, erred profoundly when he declared Kurdish lands Turkish soil and outlawed Kurdish language and identity.
That was a terrible mistake—a horrible error that still haunts us today.
We must correct it, in the interest of peace, and basic justice.
As your prime minister—for the Turks and the Kurds—I intend to correct that enormous wrongdoing.
Bigotry—and it was bigotry—might make a few sick people happy, but it has never made a nation healthy.
Racism—and it was racism—might make a few people feel superior, but it makes others feel inferior.
We must not allow bigotry or racism to destroy our country.
Look at America. Slave-traders hauled black Africans to America and sold them into slavery for 200 years. Yet, America ended slavery—and today has a black president, my good friend Barack Obama, who was elected not once, but twice.
Now look at Turkey. For 90 years, we have enslaved Kurds. We have foolishly insisted that they be Turks, from the top of their head to the soles of their feet, whether they liked it or not.
In short, we have not just engaged in cultural snobbery. But we have done even worse with our military weapons. In Zilan, we killed close to 15,000 Kurds in 1930. In Dersim, we killed twice that many in 1937 and 38.
The time has come to let you in on another state secret: we gassed civilian Kurds in Dersim, five years before Nazis used it on Jews and 51 years before Saddam Hussein did the same in Halabja.
I have apologized for what took place in Dersim. I have been told apologies help the survivors heal faster. I realize that we are 74 years late. Nevertheless, I subscribe to the Turkish proverb, “Zararin neresinden donulurse kardir,” which translates as, “When you cut your losses, you are making profit.”
We can blame our fathers for some of our shocking atrocities. But we are guilty too. We have wasted almost 500 billion dollars promoting Turkish supremacy while murdering more than 30,000 brave and innocent Kurds yet again.
We must stop this nonsense. Yes—it is nonsense—killing your brother is wrong. It always has been—ever since Cain killed Abel.
We must promote mutual respect throughout all our lands—a genuine respect for our languages, our cultures, and all that we each hold dear.
I quoted a good Turkish proverb. Now I’ll quote an American adage:
“There is so much good in the worst of us, and so much bad in the best of us, that it ill-behooves any of us to find fault with the rest of us.”
Amen to that!
Now let me quote a Kurdish saying. When the Kurdish struggle for independence began, it adopted as its theme: “Ji Serxwebûn û Azadiyê bi Rûmettir Tistek Nîne.” That translates as, “Nothing is as precious as independence and freedom.”
I agree. Freedom and independence are like apples of gold in pictures of silver—precious jewels without price.
Let me also honor the real heroes of these lands.
They are not our Turkish soldiers, who followed our orders blindly and terrorized the defenseless Kurds.
They are the gallant Kurdish fighters, who boldly dared to challenge the second biggest army in NATO with something stronger than all the armies, navies and air forces of the world.
And that force, my friends, is this: the love of freedom.
I salute all you courageous Kurdish warriors. You have earned my sincere gratitude.
In 2011, the Turkish Air Force attacked a caravan of Kurdish villagers in the mountains of Kurdistan. 34 innocent people were slaughtered, 19 of them were children—some brutally burned beyond recognition.
That murderous attack was triggered by faulty intelligence from American drones. Yet neither President Obama nor I apologized.
I hereby apologize for that dreadful outrage. I am also asking President Obama to apologize. My apology cannot heal your grief, or bring back your cherished loved ones. But I beg your forgiveness.
We must heal old wounds, and work together as true brothers, like two trees in a forest, respectful of each other’s space, yet living in peace and harmony as God intended us to live.
It is late, but it is never too late to correct mistakes. The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. We begin that first step today.
I am abolishing all political crimes—and declaring amnesty for all Kurdish and Turkish political prisoners, including Abdullah Ocalan.
Turkish and Kurdish are both ethnic identities. Turkey means land of the Turks, but 25% of our population is Kurdish. That leaves Kurds out. We must not exclude Kurds from our country’s name.
I suggest Great Anatolia, as in Great Britain. Scots and Welsh feel part of Great Britain, yet maintain their languages, traditions and parliaments. We want Kurds to likewise preserve their languages and traditions and establish a parliament of their own in Amed, the Kurdish capital.
The English and the Scots even merged the flags of England and Scotland to form the current flag of Great Britain. I am naming a commission to accept suggestions of how the Turkish and Kurdish flags can be combined for Great Anatolia.
Turkish armed forces have destroyed about 4,000 Kurdish villages. We will rebuild them all, beginning tomorrow—and five million Kurds who were forced to flee their ancestral dwellings are free to return home.
We have angered Kurdistan by profaning its sacred mountains with signs saying: “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk!” Those insulting signs will be removed immediately. Your mountains will no longer be polluted by politics. We will stop mocking your treasured identity.
I am a man of God and value my faith. My religion believes in, “an eye for an eye,” rule of justice. We have forced Kurdish children to learn Turkish for the last 90 years. I am now ordering all Turkish children to learn Kurdish as an act of atonement.
God Bless Turkey. And God bless Kurdistan.”
If Prime Minister Erdogan gave such a speech, it would do three good things:
He would generate tears of joy, like the ones of Dr. King—in Turkey, in Kurdistan, and around the world.
He would provide a good first step solution toward solving the long-standing Kurdish Question.
He would finally convince the European Union, which has barred Turkey’s entry, to welcome it with open arms.
I pray we will hear such an “Amazing Peace” speech one day soon.
Thank you all!