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 An Open Letter to Leyla Zana

  Opinion — Analysis  
  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


An Open Letter to Leyla Zana  30.6.2012  
By Kani Xulam, Washington

Kani Xulam, an ethnic Kurd living in America, founder of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN) Kani is a native of Kurdistan. He has studied international relations at the University of Toronto and holds a BA in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
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An Open Letter to Turkey's prominent outspoken Kurdish rights advocate Leyla Zana

June 30
, 2012

Dear Leyla Zana,

You caused quite a stir with your interview in Hurriyet, a Turkish newspaper, some two weeks ago. Kurds, Turks and foreigners who know Turkish have been reading it and commenting to see if it could be distilled into something called peace. Most Turks liked what you had to say; many more Kurds were not impressed. Count me among the latter group as well.

You had coined some memorable lines about the Kurds, but your choicest words were reserved for the prime minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Your saying that you believed in him almost divided Turkey. What thousands of Kurdish fighters have not been able to do almost became a fait accompli because of your statement. That is a lot of power.

I wanted to yell: “You go, girl!”

You said you maintain your hope that the prime minister of Turkey is capable of addressing the Kurdish Question. In fact, you made it very clear that you do not like the classification of the Kurdish issue as a “question”. The Kurds are not seeking separation, you noted. Ours is a struggle for rights, you added.

You did more: you said, “Turks and Kurds are a family.” To elaborate your point, you said, the Palestinians and the Israelis are not a family. They cannot live together, whereas the Kurds and the Turks would suffer from the pangs of separation if they ever were torn asunder. It was an “impressive” performance.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan was asked about your interview in Mexico. Diplomatic protocol does not allow it, but had it, he would have sent you a thank you note from the land of Pancho Villa. The man, who wouldn’t meet Ahmet Turk for years, because he was from the Kurdish side of the “Turkish” family, said, if Leyla Zana expresses a wish to see me, I would be happy to meet with her.

I hope you go see him. Although you don’t need my advice on how to approach him, I would like to offer a few of my thoughts for the upcoming Zana-Erdogan Summit. If you like my musings, use them. But I don’t want credits—it’s freedom that I’m after.

On rereading your interview, I immediately thought of Barack Hussein Obama. To be more precise, I thought of one of his favorite novels, Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. It is a charming book about a black man’s struggle for visibility in New York. Because 20 million Kurds remain, officially, invisible in Turkey, it is a must read for every patriotic Kurd in the world.

The protagonist is nameless. Mr. Ellison thought his story encapsulated the plight of all blacks in America. Time has proven him right: although Mr. Obama was not yet born at the publication of the book, he found a part of his voice in it. So did Malcolm X. So did Dr. King. Fellow Kurds: we are not the only enslaved people on the face the earth. The experience of others can be instructive. Order your own copy of the tome.

The protagonist’s grandfather is a freed slave. Although emancipation of the blacks became the law of the land, its implementation took another hundred years. Blacks like the protagonist’s grandfather witnessed the dream of freedom turn into a nightmare with the rise of Ku Klux Klan and the adoption of Jim Crow laws that made a mockery of the 14th amendment.

On his deathbed, Mr. Ellison has his freed slave say the following pithy words to his son with an admonition that this was to be his legacy: "Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion's mouth. I want you to overcome 'em with yeses, undermine 'em with grins, agree 'em to death and destruction, let 'em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open…Learn it to the young’uns."

The legacy was generalized. Dissimulation became an art form and generations of African-Americans engaged in it till the appearance of a convict called Malcolm X and a cleric called Dr. King. Today’s Turkey has produced a Kurdish version of Malcolm X: Abdullah Ocalan—till his imprisonment. It would be nice if you could become our own Dr. King. Can you?

I personally don’t know the answer. I will tell you what I do know. The Turks and the Kurds are not a family. Recep Tayyip Erdogan cannot address the Kurdish Question, though I give him credit for clipping the wings of Turkish military. I subscribe to a German observer’s assessment of him from memory: “He is the odd rose who has managed to grow in a swamp.”

But spring is not heralded with the emergence of a single rose. Already, Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies are, alas, getting the best of him. If you put him under a microscope, you would have a hard time separating him from the likes of Bashar Al-Assad or Muammar Qaddafi.

Only yesterday, in historical terms, he used to vacation with the first and accept awards from the latter. It is not customary for people in their fifties to turn on their friends. But in Erdogan’s case, he seeks glittering gold and absolute power—not universal principles and timeless freedom.

I guess all I am saying is this: the idea of “reform” from the top is already obsolescent. And so is the idea of family dynasties owning countries. “Opinions are stronger than armies,” said Lord Palmerston. The Egyptians were lucky to prove it with 900 losses. In Turkish Kurdistan, we have paid a much greater price. No, we have not won yet; but in spite of the naysayers, very few are looking back.

We must look forward with undying hope to Abraham Lincoln, who knew a thing or two about freedom—as well as emancipating those who, like the Kurds, sorely lacked their liberty.

More importantly, Lincoln knew the priceless value of public sentiment—which is what we Kurds must cultivate, and indeed must have if we are to ever gain our freedom.

In 1858, when Lincoln was running for the US Senate against Stephen A Douglas in Illinois, they held a series of four famous debates. Slavery was the hot issue of the day—particularly whether it should be extended into new territories in America, such as Kansas and Nebraska.

To put it in proper perspective, this was a year after the Supreme Court’s famous “Dred Scott” decision, which held that a slave—even if he went into a free state—did not become free, and therefore had no standing to sue in court, as the slave Dred Scott had done. So Scott was still a slave.

Douglas opposed the Dred Scott decision, arguing that slavery could be expanded into new territories or states if the people wanted it. Lincoln opposed that view, and argued that Douglas was inflaming public opinion in favor of slavery—and that public opinion was really the foundation of laws.

Lincoln then cut to the heart of public sentiment’s tremendous value with this memorable line that all Kurds should memorize: “Public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.”

He then added this towering truism: “Consequently he who molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.”

So we have our work cut out for us: keep an eye on the Kurdish public opinion, another one on the Turkish public opinion and keep your ears close to the drumbeat of world public opinion.

When we are tempted to give up, as some have, we must remember this: we will not get our freedom if we depend solely on the permission of others. It is also good to look back and take a measure of things. Consider this: we have not achieved our goal with 27 years of armed confrontation. As always, the poets say it better and as Shakespeare puts it in Julius Caesar:

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

One more thought about your upcoming summit with Erdogan. If your “yesses” and “grins” and “agree [him] to death and destruction” and “let [him] swoller you till [he] vomits or bust wide open…” don’t work, try a bit of Bismarck. He was the supreme realist and his observations have stood the test of time.

When his soldiers surrounded the French army in the battle of Sedan in 1870, he told the surrendering French general, “The Germans were a peaceful people who had been invaded by France on thirty occasions during the past two centuries—fourteen times between 1785 and 1813.”

After 1870, of course, the Germans did the invading till 1944. Today, both nations live in peace. Ask Erdogan, if by molesting the Kurds, he is investing in a future Kurdish Bismarck.

If he doesn’t know who Bismarck is, educate him. It might sober him up.

* Kani Xulam is a political activist based in Washington D.C. He is the founder of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN)

Kani is a native of Kurdistan. He has studied international relations at the University of Toronto and holds a BA in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He was recently awarded an MA by the International Service Program at American University. At the University of Toronto, he represented Kurdistan at the Model United Nations. In 1993, at the urging of Kurdish community leaders in America, he left his family business in California to establish the American Kurdish Information Network in the nation’s capital. He is the founder of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN)

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