Kurdish Hizbullah 's rise raises concerns
The increasing social and political activities of Kurdish Hizbullah in Turkey have led some to question the extent of support for an Islamist group with a history of blood on its hands.
By Alakbar Raufoglu for SES Türkiye -- 13/12/11
Mehmet Goktas, a 59-year-old Islamic theologian and editor of the pro-Kurdish Dogru Haber newspaper, calls on Muslim Kurds "not to send their children to schools".
Mehmet Goktas, an influential theologian within Kurdish Hizbullah, is highly critical of Turkey's secular system. [Facebook.com]
Plainclothes policemen and workers recovered the remains of a missing person killed by Kurdish Hizbullah in Adana in early 2000. [Reuters]
A captured militant from Kurdish Hizbullah named Comert Yorgun, wearing a balaclava, is surrounded by police and media members in 2000 as he points out the site where he and his friend killed a newspaper vendor named Adnan Isik in Van in the early 1990s. [Reuters]
Speaking in front of thousands at a rally in Diyarbakir late last month, Goktas criticised the ban on headscarves in the Turkish education system. The rally was set up by Mustazaf-Der, an organisation sympathetic to the Kurdish Hizbullah (Party of God).
"Those who guide their children in such a way [not wearing headscarves] with the excuse of school or other excuses; those mothers and fathers who don't bring up their children in accordance with Islamic morality and decency are the biggest enemies of their children," Goktas said in his speech.
Based largely in southeastern Turkey, the Kurdish Hizbullah -- a Sunni group with no relation to the Lebanese Shi'a Hezbollah -- has been organising Islamic inspired rallies in recent years, in addition to developing a social base through NGOs, charities, bookstores and media.
Kurdish Hizbullah's renewed activities have prompted the question whether the once violent organisation will turn to politics, challenging the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and traditional secular Kurdish nationalist groups like the PKK and Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in Turkey's Kurdish populated regions.
Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based analyst, says most of the population of western Turkey has no idea how strong Hizbullah has now become in the southeast. "The Kurdish Hizbullah receives almost no coverage in the mainstream Turkish media, even when they mobilise hundreds of thousands of people for mass rallies."
Formed in the 1980s by a Turkish Kurd, Huseyin Velioglu, Kurdish Hizbullah is believed to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people during the 1990s, the height of the Turkish state's conflict with the PKK, when security forces turned a blind eye to the Kurdish Hizbullah's activities in its ideological conflict against the Marxist-inspired PKK.
In January 2000, shortly after PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured, Velioglu was killed in a police raid in Istanbul. The police captured Hizbullah's archives and many of their weapons, which resulted in the arrest of around 4,000 of its members.
"Inevitably, this had a devastating impact on Hizbullah's ability to function. It called a halt to violence and concentrated on rebuilding," Jenkins says.
Early this year, 18 suspected Hizbullah militants were released from jail. Their release came as the government suffered a number of electoral defeats in the predominately Kurdish southeast to a resurgent Kurdish nationalist movement led by the BDP, an opponent of the Kurdish Hizbullah.
"Generally, people are afraid of Hizbullah as it has a very bad reputation with torture and assassination in its history," says Nihat Ali Ozcan, an Ankara-based security analyst, adding that there are some similarities "between them and al-Qaeda, Lebanon Hezbollah and Hamas".
In the 1980s, Velioglu had envisioned a three stage process: propaganda, the building of a social base and then finally jihad. After his death, Hizbullah effectively suspended the jihad and returned to the second stage, that of strengthening its social base.
"Hizbullah now controls a vast network, primarily in the southeast of Turkey… It has magazines, a newspaper and a radio station. In some neighbourhoods, it is also the dominant force in the local community and even acts as an arbiter in local disputes," says Jenkins.
The current leader of the organisation is believed to be Isa Altsoy, although his exact whereabouts are unknown.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a writer for Rudaw and Jamestown Foundation analyst on Kurdish issues, says that Kurdish Hizbullah wants to transform the secular system into a system based on their interpretation of Islamic law, inspired by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian Revolution.
"They still have good relations with Shi'a Iran and they organised a Muharrem festival which is normally mostly celebrated by Shi'a," he says.
During the Turkish state's "dirty war" against the PKK in the 1990s, van Wilgenburg says that the Turkish state allowed Hizbullah to fight the PKK. Hizbullah, in turn, used the state to become more powerful.
"This honeymoon ended after the capture of Abdullah Ocalan and the temporary decline of the PKK," he explains.
Van Wilgenburg says there is now a debate within Hizbullah about whether or not they should establish a political party and compete with the BDP and AKP in the Kurdish southeast.
Due to its religious and Kurdish nationalist credentials, Hizbullah is also a threat to the Gulen movement, which has been making strides in southeastern Turkey and the Kurdish neighbourhoods of the large cities.
Therefore, new fault lines are developing between Hizbullah and the Gulen movement -- which is backed by and backs the AKP -- over influence among religious Kurds.
According to Ozcan, the police are sometimes arresting Hizbullah members, opening the way for the Gulen movement to spread its influence at Hizbullah's expense.
While the PKK and BDP have been attacking the symbols of the Gulen movement, through violence and rhetoric, respectively, Ozcan says Hizbullah has been quiet, acting as a "sleeper cell". Its priority has been to first eliminate its Kurdish nationalist rival, the PKK; "then it can attack Gulen".
In the meanwhile, Suleyman Ozeren, an associate professor at the Turkish National Police Academy, says that by bringing a religious agenda to the rallies, Hizbullah is aiming to become one of the most powerful organisations in the Kurdish southeast.
"They began advocating their radical Islamic agenda," he explains, but "They're still far away from the political centre -- Ankara."
"They can't come to the point of creating a political party, because they have doubts about being able to get votes. BDP is the only alternative at this point," he says.
BDP MP Ibrahim Binici also believes that the Kurdish population would never stand behind the Kurdish Islamists unless they can assure the population of their ability to act legally.
"As for BDP, we can't co-operate with people whose hands are covered with blood," he told SES Türkiye.
However, Abdurrahman Kurt, former AKP MP from Diyarbakir, seems to brush aside all the fear mongering about the growing power of Hizbullah, saying "it's wrong to describe Hizbullah as an organised group."
"There is no Hizbullah structure in the region. These people [Hizbullah] can't count on the Diyarbakir Kurds as their electorate. They [Hizbullah] are just using their right to freedom of assembly and invite the people to the rallies; everyone can do that in Turkey," he says.
"I'm sure those who came [to the headscarf rally] were not there for the organisation, but for the Prophet," he adds.
However, back in Ankara, some officials aren't so calm, accusing Hizbullah of intending to create unrest in the country under the "order of foreign forces".
"From time to time, such organisations pop up [in Turkey], with foreign support," Mustafa Akis, member of the Parliamentary National Security and Internal Affairs Commission, told SES Türkiye, adding that the government intends to solve the headscarf issue by lawful means.
"But it's impossible to solve the issue in the name of Islam by using ways prohibited by Islam, such as terror or violence," he said.