(The 21st Annual Nonviolent Alternatives (NOVA) Lecture)
January 29, 2003
St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota
I am touched, humbled, and honored to find myself addressing you on such a lofty topic as nonviolence tonight. A child of violence, oppression and war, don’t ask me why I was chosen to shed some light on this issue that has beguiled some of the greatest minds ever to grace our world. While my musings will come later, let me at this time thank Ursula Arnold, Tristan Vazquez, Heidi Schwitzer, Julie Cartwright and Mike Sharp of Nonviolent Alternatives (NOVA) for their kind invitation to speak not just on the topic, but also its implications on the coming war from a Kurdish perspective. Let me note at the outset that anyone who gravitates toward nonviolence, or makes room for it in his or her life, or better yet practices its dictates both towards our human family and the animal kingdom, has my everlasting respect and gratitude. Who knows, nonviolence, an orphan among the disciplines, may one day become the darling of them all. I hope that day comes soon. I pray it will be before our adversaries have raised a RIP sign over the Kurds and Kurdistan in the graveyard of extinct peoples and countries in the world.
I would, of course, be remiss in my duty if I did not mention two other individuals, two bright lights on this campus, two friends whom I am honored to have crossed paths with in the brief lives that are allotted to us on this earth, two professors who, while I was in the midst of, probably, one of the longest vigils in the history of this republic, watched, worried and thought of me and the cause I was upholding, the freedom of four Kurdish prisoners of conscience, like if it were their own and sustained me for 221 days with their emails, phone calls and a potential visit, all the way from St. Cloud to Washington, DC, with a van full of students, that only got derailed in the last minute. As the saying goes, it is the intention that counts. I bowed then and I bow now before such dedication. My poor words are too weak to describe my gratitude or their friendship. Thank you Dr. Semya Hakim and thank you Dr. Jesse Benjamin.
There is one other individual in this audience that deserves my recognition and your notice. She is a native daughter and a student on this campus. Two years ago, I visited your school for the showing of the film, “Good Kurds, Bad Kurds: No Friends But the Mountains.” She approached me afterwards and expressed a desire to do an internship at AKIN, our office. This is bait, by the way, and you could do the same after this lecture. Joke aside, she came into our world as a stranger perhaps, but left it — no she never will — as our sister, daughter and friend. You know her as Melanie Lahr. Thank you for your service to the cause of Kurdish freedom. Perhaps she thought she was going to come to Washington to have some fun. Do you know what we had in store for her? We put her in a replica of a Turkish prison cell right across the Turkish Ambassador’s residence. We wanted her to atone for your government’s sins for aiding and abetting a tyranny against the Kurds in Turkey. Your friend, a child of liberty, did more for our freedoms, in the summer of 2001, than your government has ever done for the cause of Kurdish liberty in its entire 227 years. Again, thank you Mel, for adopting liberty as an universal value rather than an American one.
Now that I have paid my dues, honored my friends and recognized your daughter as an example of what should be emulated in this state and in this country as an example of what makes America great, let me address the issue of nonviolence, the distant light that has brought us together here. The light indeed is distant, and I wish it were closer, or better yet within us. No, the darker force of violence is closer to us and pervasive besides, and there is a whole industry, the “Evening News” that thrives on it. How many of you have seen the new film, “Bowling for Columbine”? If you have not seen it yet, do so, it will show you the way to your heart. There is violence in our families, and violence in our schools, or deadlier still, violence among the nations of the world. Sometimes, it is a struggle between the lust for power and the desire to live free of the yoke of others. Other times, it is a balancing act between what I call the heart, compassion, and the stomach, greed. In my case, a Kurd, I come to you as a patient, afflicted with violence, inflicted by the Turkish government, supported by your administrations, with your tax dollars, in the form of all kinds of military aid, most notably helicopters and jet fighters. It is an enforced life style, one that I would not wish on my worst enemies. It can kill you prematurely like AIDs, debilitate you like cancer, or turn you into an abject simpleton, happy go lucky zombie, the quintessential aim of our adversaries.
There are peoples in this world who are blessed with the knowledge and the means to leave behind their men-inflicted afflictions and join the rest of humanity as healthy nations. There are others whose afflictions are too great, and their knowledge and means too meager, to overcome their ailments and they suffer continuously from one generation to the next. The Kurds, my people, can be cited as example of the latter. Your people, the Americans, because of your successful war of independence, can be cited as an example of the first. We endure wrongs from a slew of tyrannies that, at one time or another, have had cozy relationships with your government, whose officials often roam in your streets, and one country, Turkey, is now cultivated as a bulwark in the war against terrorism. This is a monstrosity that should have never seen the light of day. It behooves you to stop it in its tracks. It is akin to CIA’s training of Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan. The destroyers of humanity can never bring a smile to the face of those who met violent and untimely deaths on 9/11 or their loved ones or their compatriots. You must do a better job of differentiating the friend from the foe, the wheat from the weed, and the cultivators of goodwill from the fomenters of ill will.
Look at me, a Kurd, a virtual slave, one of forty million in the world reeling daily under the yoke of the Turks, Arabs and the Persians, peoples devoid of their humanity’s greater responsibilities in the world. Kurdistan, my occupied homeland, suffered its greatest calamity, when British and French imperialists landed in the Middle East to carve up the spoils known as the defeated Ottoman Empire. The Kurds who had been tolerated and accepted up until then as subjects of the Turkish and Persian empires, found themselves claimed by new masters or the old ones that wanted to act like Europeans. The new Imperialists had their own designs on our land and its oil, but nothing for the people who lived on it. They divided us and partitioned our land; it was nothing short of hacking a living human being limb from limb. We were then left t to the tender mercies of the local thugs who jettisoned their old theocratic scruples and adopted a virulent form of nationalism as a form of government that began viewing us as nothing less than beasts of burden, on good days, or those of prey, on the bad. There is probably no manual in the archives of our adversaries on how to get rid of the Kurds, they would not dare put such abomination in writing, but what they do is insidious, heinous, and blasphemous all in all. One thing ties them together, and that is their love for our Kurdistan. But there is a catch to it; they don’t love us who live on it. They wish nothing less than for our disappearance from the face of the world.
This here is a place of higher learning and some among you may wonder about the nature of the darkness that descended on us with the advent of irrational nationalism into the body politics of the Middle East. Is it anything like the Jewish suffering in Europe, one might ask? Can it be compared with the African American ordeal in this country, another one might wonder? I am a student of history and analogies are not favored in our field. But I only have limited time with you and a burning desire to acquaint you with ourstory. As the Kurdish poet Xani once noted, I am going to throw “caution into the wind” and step onto the slippery territory of comparisons with some trepidation not because what I am about to say will anger all Turks, save the honest ones, but because the discipline I admire expects its practitioners to be strict at all times. And so I offer you something that you know well and compare it with something you know very littleabout. I have more respect for Adolph Hitler than the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, and those who still adore his deeds as well as his memory relative to the Kurds. The Fuhrer, as you know, had at least the honesty to tell the Jews he despised them and unleashed the power of his Reich to undo them. No such luck confronts us, the Kurds, in Turkey. 20 million of us are not even recognized as an enemy but the same end awaits us, the eventual annihilation of our race.
There are other lessons that can be gleaned from the experience of the Blacks in this country or the Jews in Europe for the Kurds. Neither group had the power to fight their tormentors and both had to submit to the dominant race to be used till death or consumed by the poisonous gas. A Civil War in this country put an end to the commerce in human cargo and the Second World War did the same by putting the gas chambers out of order. It must be noted that the emancipation of the Blacks was not an original war aim, nor was the liberation of the Jews the reason the United States entered the war on the side of the Soviet Union against the Nazis. The African-Americans and the Jews only benefited from the outcomes of the wars. In the Middle East today, a rehash of this very same movie is playing again, and this time it is the Kurds who are assigned to the roles of the Jews or African-Americans — choose your pick. Elie Wiesel, the noted Jewish holocaust survivor, a member of our Board of Directors, once noted, “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.” With so much indifference in the world, I wonder sometimes if fortune will ever smile on the Kurds? It is utter darkness out there for us Kurds. At times, it feels like being thrown down from the top of World Trade Center just like the hapless Americans who found themselves doing so on the morning of 9/11. On that day, mercy was nowhere near to rescue your kind. In our case, it feels like, it has forsaken us altogether.
The most troubling part of our struggle, of course, is to find your own government aiding and abetting our adversaries who have turned the killing of the Kurds into a sport. The Turkish leaders, our most implacable foes, often compare themselves to you, noting that both societies are immigrant nations, spreading the gospel of civilization to lesser creatures, meaning the Natives in your case and the Kurds in theirs. This is something for you to think about as well as to find ways to distance yourselves from such compliments. Here I am reminded of Senator Patty Murray’s remarks, last December, which riled up the conservative groups in this country, some asking for her immediate resignation. She had said that Osama Bin Laden is popular in many of the poor Arab countries partly because he had built schools, hospitals, and roads for them and that perhaps we should have been there first. I don’t know if Mr. Bin Laden has built anything in the poor Kurdish villages, but I do know for a fact that nearly 4000 Kurdish communities, including my own village, were destroyed by Turkish piloted American cobra attack helicopters and F 16 jet fighters. Millions of Kurds found themselves reduced to abject poverty, and most dangerous of all, hopelessness, not because your government was not there first, but because it aided and abetted a tyranny that destroyed those things. I cannot help but share with you the immortal lines of your third president, Thomas Jefferson, who noted, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.” On the morning of 9/11, I shuddered thinking of what went through the little minds of Kurdish children whose homes were destroyed by your missiles supplied to the Turkish government.
Disturbing as these musings of mine are, you as children of freedom, I as a child of tyranny, must consider another question that has been troubling me lately. Is it right for the Kurdish children to associate your good name only with Cobra attack helicopters or F 16 fighter planes? Would not Tom Paine, Nathan Hale, or Patrick Henry offer better role models or my favorites, Henry David Thoreau and Dr. King? Do you know how many 9/11s we have endured in Turkey? How about Iraq? And Iran? Unlike Osama bin Laden, the Turkish leaders are not hiding in caves, no; wait until you hear this: they are hailed as role models for the Muslim world by some of your highest-ranking un-elected officials, such as Paul Wolfowitz. Saddam Hussein, the Osama Bin Laden of the Kurds 83 times over and sometimes with chemical and biological weapons to boot, is now the target of your guns. Am I happy about this? President Bush has made a new discovery at the White House, surprise, surprise, the dead of Halapja, and trumpets them constantly to drum up support for the war. What do the Kurds think of this?
Speaking for myself, I resent the use of our dead, for a war aim that will bring the surviving Kurds nothing good. I also think we do the dead no service by adding others to their list. While no Kurd has pity for Saddam Hussein and a vast majority wishes him ill and right away, this Kurd believes that every effort should be made to declare him a war criminal and cut him off from the society at large. If the Kurds are lucky and he is arrested — who ever thought Milosevic would — the graveyards of close to 100.000 missing Kurds could be located. Imagine the closure that this would bring to the lives of thousands of Kurdish families. On Saddam watch, out of a population of five million Kurds, some 250.000 have been murdered or disappeared. That is like saying one in twenty Kurds is missing or has met a violent end. If the same numbers were to be applied to the United States, it would mean the death of close to 14 million Americans. Imagine a man made calamity in which the entire population of New York is subjected to excruciating deaths or disappearances. And the irony of it all, all these Kurdish deaths occurred when Baghdad and Washington enjoyed the best of relations, or as some have quipped, were on their honeymoon.
The violence that has been crippling entire generations in the Middle East finally found its way to your shores on 9/11. You were shocked to discover that innocence could be targeted so mercilessly. Those who had looked the other way when Saddam had gassed the Kurds began talking about our unbearable deaths as if it had just happened. Our dead got more coverage in your media in year 2002 than all the previous 14 years combined. But the coverage did not come without its bitter aftertaste or mind boggling gaffes. To this day, your president refers to us as Saddam’s property, his immortal line is: “The man has gassed his own people”. I have seen Kurds throw their remote controls on President Bush for engaging in this sacrilege. A cold shiver takes over my body every time I hear it. Mr. Hussein is an Arab and we are Kurds. He does not own us and we resent being viewed as his chattel. Now that he is the target of your guns, most Kurds are wondering if President Bush will deliver on his threat. Let me be the first to tell you that a vast majority would welcome the news. But the news of his demise will not put us on the course of redemption, salvation, and self-determination. The White House, out of respect for the territorial integrity of Turkey, has decided to consign us to the misrule of the emerging government that will take over in Baghdad.
Now that I have, hopefully, made some inroads for you into the Kurdish world, it is perhaps apt that, at this time, I also share with you where I stand on the coming conflict. I oppose it. Eleven days ago, I joined as many as a quarter million people in the Mall, in Washington, DC, carrying a banner that said, “Bush Trumpets Kurdish Dead for Oil War, Saddam Loves Kurds Like Osama Loves Americans, Free Kurdistan Now, www.kurdistan.org”, and holding a sign that read a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “I oppose violence. The good it does is temporary. The damage it causes is permanent.” I did so knowing that the way to increase happiness in the world is not by adding more pain to it but by adding more happiness to it. I also realize that there is another school of thought out there, more popular than the nonviolence that some of us subscribe to in this hall, called military science that specializes in the application of a little of bit of death now with the hopes of a lot of good later. That is exactly a page of out of Saddam Hussein’s book relative to the Kurds. But he has only earned our everlasting hatred. Is the United States going to do the same relative to Arab world? In the first Gulf war, your losses were 146 and the Iraqi losses stood at 158 thousand. What will the ratio be like this time? Have deaths ever brought peoples together? While I grant the right of self defense to those who come under merciless attacks, I myself, claim perfect ignorance of a science that considers success when tens of thousands of people are murdered for the “good” of a state, but the same act would be considered utter madness if it were done by an individual.
My own opposition to the war has come with a price in these turbulent times for the Kurds. After I posted an announcement on our website inviting the Kurds to join me on the Mall, a Kurdish woman wrote me and challenged me to the task of proving to her that I was still a Kurd. How could I, she demanded, get in the way of harm to Saddam Hussein. She had a point. Was it reason enough for me to despair? No, but I was troubled. I would like to share with you what she wrote me by way of having you glimpse at her world. “Dear Kani Xulam,” the letter began. “I wonder if you are a real Kurd. Your activity as an anti-war activist gives me another view of the nationality that you belong to. Because being a Kurd must mean being a strong supporter of any act against Saddam Hussein and his regime that made us the victims of al Anfal, Halapja, and exile. I hope you also think of all the Kurdish mothers who are eager to find the graves of their disappeared sons. Sincerely.”
Here was a fellow Kurd obviously in great pain accusing me of being traitor for holding on to my beliefs as a nonviolent activist. I would have liked to engage her in a philosophic discourse about the opaqueness of her accusations, but I thought better of it and did not want to add salt to her gashing wound. But if I had written the missive, it would have read something like this:
“The word traitor is an accusation that you should not throw around lightly. For myself, I find solace in the words Seneca once used, ‘A wise man ought to prepare himself in advance for all that can happen to a human being, resolving to bear each thing calmly if it comes his way.’ I reject your characterization, but accept your right to your opinion.
“Also, I am going to the Mall not just to express my opposition to the coming war, I view it as a noble thing, but a greater task awaits us Kurds, the liberation of our homeland, as you know. I will be joining the peace activists to denounce the “Chicken Hawks” for desecrating our Kurdish dead for a war aim that will bring us no freedom, but also goad them to take, the enduring Kurdish cause of self-determination, onto their wings — they call themselves doves, as you know — for the journey to the promised land, a free and independent Kurdistan.”
Instead, I wrote her a long letter, and would like to read you a short a passage from it.
“I am not interested in pleasing every Kurd, but rather serving truth and Kurdistan. Truth doesn’t stand in equal distance from its disciples and we obviously see things differently in the coming conflict. Vengeance, it looks like, we Kurds will get, but I want something else. I want the survivors of al Anfal to heal and the mothers whose sons are missing to have an opportunity to find the mass graves of their loved ones. That will come not by killing Saddam and his cronies, but with having them behind bars to account for their crimes.”
I went on,
“Freedom’s call has always been the vocation of the honest and the brave. We should all strive to it. Those who served Kurdistan, without looking back, deserve nothing less. I hope you agree with the sentiment. Sincerely.”
Thank you for coming and I look forward to your questions.