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Searching for the roots of present Turkey, by Etienne Copeaux

The War Against the Kurds - "The Awakening of the 'Imaginary Kurdistan'" by Ismail Beşikçi

Publié par Etienne Copeaux sur 12 Janvier 2022, 16:24pm

Catégories : #Book reviews, #The War Against the Kurds, #Turkey in the 90's

İsmail Beşikçi, who was born in 1939, is one of the most prominent intellectuals in the Turkey of the last quarter of the XXth century. But, out of his country, he is not exactly a well-known character, of those who regularly attend international conferences and are often mentioned in the Western media. He has been sentenced to 100 years, however, imprisoned 8 times for a total of 17 years from 1971 to 1999, only because of his writings. But, as far as I know, and at least in France, he never benefitted from an opinion campaign claiming for his release, apart from an appeal by the famous writer and specialist of the Middle-East Maxime Rodinson 1.

If the years following the 1980 military coup d'Etat were one of the most repressive periods in Turkey's contemporary history, the 90s decade was characterized by a progressive intensification of the war between the Turkish state and the Kurdish rebellion, which reached a climax in 1999, when Abdullah Öcalan (“Apo”), leader of the PKK (Kurdistan's Workers Party), was abducted by the Turkish secret services. The Kurdish question in Turkey, even long before the armed revolt broke out in 1984, was the main concern among Beşikçi's sociological researches. He published 36 writings, of which 32 were prohibited.

Beşikçi was released in September 1999 but remains under the shadow of some 50 charges. He has gained a well-deserved prestige among the intellectual world in Turkey, and a foundation in his name, the İsmail Beşikci Vakfı, was created in Istanbul in 2011, in order to make available to the public his own library, rich of 12 000 books and thousands of journals and newspapers. The foundation has ensured the reissue of Beşikçi's whole work, and does encourage researches about the Kurdish question in Turkey 2, and regularly organizes conferences, panels and brainstorming workshops 3.

The book I want to deal with here is Hayali Kürdistan'ın Dirilişi (“The Awakening of the 'Imaginary Kurdistan''), published in 1998. Its title refers to a cartoon published in the daily Milliyet 68 years before, which is reproduced on the book's cover: it represents a tomb, located in "Ağrı", the Turkish name of the famous Mount Ararat, the place of the 1930 Kurdish revolt, atrociously repressed. On the tombstone is engraved the sentence “Muhayyel Kürdistan burada Meftundur (Here lies the imaginary Kurdistan)”. The re-publication, in 1998, of this cruel cartoon, does underline the continuity of the repression against the Kurdish movement, from the beginning of the republic, despite the Kemalist propaganda, which promised, during the Liberation war (1919-1922), for equal rights for the Turks and the Kurds.



1“Pour Ismail Besikçi”, Le Monde, March 24, 1982.

2For example, by publishing in 2015 the book of Adnan Çelik and Namık Kemal Dinç, Yüzyıllık Ah! Toplumsal Hafızanın Izinde 1915 Diyarbekir, now published in French under the title of La Malédiction. Le Génocide des Arméniens dans la mémoire des Kurdes de Diyarbekır. Translated into French by Ali Terzioglu and Jocelyne Burckman, foreword and notes by Etienne Copeaux (Paris, L'Harmattan, 2021).

3Website in English: https://www.ismailbesikcivakfi.org/en/.


The War Against the Kurds - "The Awakening of the 'Imaginary Kurdistan'" by Ismail Beşikçi

The strength of Beşikçi's work is due, of course, to his skills as a researcher, but, incidentally (and for the Turkish state it is not a mere detail) to his identity: for he is not a Kurd, and he doesn't write for the defense of his own people or community. He writes for the defense of his country as a whole and of its citizens, regardless of their mother-tongue, as a national community, which is endangered by its authorities' refusal of a recognition of the Kurdish reality. This is much more unacceptable for the regime, and, when he faces troubles with Justice, he doesn't benefit of any extenuating circumstances.

Of course, the book is polemical, even sometimes loaded with redundant imprecations, with formulas that recur like slogans, as the constant denunciation of the “Kurdistan's division, balkanisation, partition” (Kürdistan'ın bölünmesi, parçalanması ve paylasılması).

Besikçi, in reality, retraces the roots of evil, that have to be searched in an already too long past. The repression of Sheik Said's revolt (1925) and of the insurrection of the Dersim region (1938) had reached such a degree of savagery that the young Turkish republic was "at peace” during 15 to 20 years because a whole generation was merely crushed into submission and it took another generation to rebuild the forces of the Kurdish movement. Mobilization resumed after the World War, but after the coup d'état of 1960, the state strengthened its policy of assimilation and the denial of the Kurdish identity. In spite of that, the first Kurdish political party, illegal although rather conservative, the Democratic Party of Turkey's Kurdistan (Partiya Demoqrata Kurdistana Tirkiye), was founded in July 1965 1. In 1967 were held the “Doğu Mitingleri - Eastern meetings”, the first mass demonstrations in favor of the recognition of the Kurdish identity in Turkey. Then, a legal organization, the Revolutionary Cultural Hearths of the East (Devrimci Doğu Kültür Ocakları) whose aim was “the equality and brotherhood of the peoples of Turkey”. The movement claimed respect for the Kurdish language and culture and rejected the tribal system as well as assimilation and military repression imposed by the state 2.

According to Ismail Besikçi, the rebirth of the Kurdish movement was one of the motivations of the 1971 coup d'état and the martial law implemented during the following years. But, despite a series of criminal proceedings against the Kurdish organizations, the PKK was founded in 1978 near Lice (southeast) by a group of 28 students. Some of them being from the region of Dersim 3, the memory of the great 1938 repression was transmitted among the Kurdish movement, across the generations. As the Dersim massacres and deportations were committed by the army of the republic, the Kurdish movement obviously would cut off from Kemalism.


1Yılmaz (Özcan), La Formation de la nation kurde en Turquie, Paris, PUF, 2013, pp. 106-110.

2Id., ibid, pp. 115-117.

3Id, ibid., pp. 240-242.


Ismail Besikçi at one of his trials, Milliyet July 9, 1996 and November 15, 1996Ismail Besikçi at one of his trials, Milliyet July 9, 1996 and November 15, 1996

Ismail Besikçi at one of his trials, Milliyet July 9, 1996 and November 15, 1996

Responding to this rebirth, the Turkish state has mobilized some complacent academics whose role was to “demonstrate” that the Kurds are merely a branch of the family of the Turks, and that the Kurdish language does not exist. Thus, the famous “Turkish history thesis” (Türk Tarih Tezi) and the “Solar Language Theory” (Güneş Dil Teorisi), as they were formulated at the time of Atatürk in the thirties, have too experienced a rebirth. A good deal of allegedly "scholarly” researches was published by some state or parastatal institutions, which I refer to in an article available on susam-sokak.fr (in French). Anyway, less than ten years after the military intervention in 1971, the Kurdish movement was, at least partly, one of the reasons for the 1980 coup d'état.

In his book, İsmail Beşikçi denounces the negation of the Kurdish identity by the state, and the means of the repression. Article 142 of the Turkish penal code, in effect until 2004, established the crime of “attempt to weaken the Turkish national spirit”, which was obviously easy to use as a means of political repression. Article 143 did punish the offense of “racism” - theoretically a valuable disposition, but the offense has been switched over against the Kurds who, by claiming their identity, would be guilty of “anti-Turkish racism”. For example, as during the preceding decades the whole of the Kurdish place-names had been turkified, continuing to use the original names – and allegedly in that case uttering a pejorative opinion of the Turks (Türkleri küçük düşürmek) could bring article 142 into play.

When Beşikçi's book was published, the war was at its height, and its ravages and scars were felt even in the large cities if only through the migration it provoked. Beşikçi rightly lingers on the system of "village protectors" (korucu). The authorities, in effect, impose an impossible choice on the villagers: either they comply with the korucu militia system and therefore become the target of the rebels, or they refuse, and are given five days to evacuate the village; if not, they are considered rebels. The effectiveness of the system is based on this menace, and on the support it gets from the tribes, whose aghas redistribute prebends and benefits of all kinds, which in turn become the basis for trafficking drugs and arms. As a result, in 1998 alone, at least 2500 villages were evacuated and/or destroyed. Many others were subjected to a food blockade, a method that had been used in Cyprus against the Turkish Cypriots between 1964 and 1974 by the Greek activists of the EOKA; as usual, the methods of war are transmitted from one camp to the other.

Ismail Besikçi expresses a strong resentment against politicians, hence his endless troubles. In several parts of his book (e.g., pp. 47 and 104) he points out the hypocritical discourse of some politicians, who claim on the one hand "We are brothers, we are like bones and muscles", but refusing, on the other hand, to institute an educational curriculum in Kurdish, as well as to allow Kurdish radio and television channels. On his list of deceptive or deceitful politicians are Bülent Ecevit (moderate left) and Alparsan Türkeş (extreme right), Mümtaz Soysal, Süleyman Demirel, Nusret Demiral, Yetka Güngör Özden, a resolute guardian of the Kemalist temple who at that time was the President of the Constitutional Court. Neither the Assembly, nor the political parties, nor the Government, at the time when Beşikçi published his book, actually intervened or worked for a settlement of the Kurdish problem. On the contrary, some provisions of a 1913 law, the Memurin Muhakemati Usulü Kanunu, were taken over by the Law No. 657 on State Officials (Devlet Personel Yasası), which incites the judges to show "understanding" in case of the murder of Kurds by policemen, soldiers, gendarmes...

From the very first page of the book, Besikçi points out that in the summer of 1970, members of the Komando Harekatı (shock troops) practiced psychological torture by compelling young men to stroll around the streets of the village, leading their own father or grandfather, nude, with a string tied to his penis. Several times he revisits the fact, insisting: those who took up arms from 1984 onwards were the children who had seen their parents or grandparents undergo this infamous humiliation.

This method was also practiced by the French army in Algeria. How can a military man, a politician, an administrator, be so silly as to believe that such methods will bring about pacification or lead to victory? They can only fuel revolt, for generations, as Ismail Beşikçi points out.

A portrait of Ismail  Besikçi published in Bianet, May 8th, 2009

A portrait of Ismail Besikçi published in Bianet, May 8th, 2009

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