Today is day 56 of the Kurdish hunger strikes in Turkey. There are thousands of Kurdish political prisoners in Turkish prisons, along with the much-loved leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s party), Abdullah Ocalan. The main demands of those on the hunger strike are the right to education in Kurdish, the right to the use of Kurdish in courts, and the release of Ocalan. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t really know much about the Kurdish plight in Turkey, but I’m reading all I can about it and talking to people who know much more and have dedicated their lives to achieving equal rights for Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. All I know is that a hunger strike is the weapon of the most oppressed, dispossessed, and voiceless. It’s a weapon of the weak. When you have nothing else, no other avenue to express yourself, and no other means of getting others to listen to you, the only thing left to you is your own body. When you have to starve yourself in order for others to take notice of your plight, you have reached a level of despair that makes this the only form of resistance possible. A hunger strike sends such a powerful message, more powerful than martyrdom in an act of violence, because you are using your own body as the medium for the message without actively harming others – you take the burden upon yourself, and yourself only. It’s not as immediately shocking as self-immolation, but the slow wasting away of the physical self while the will to resist remains is equally as powerful.
The hunger strikes in Turkey are in protest of the lack of political, social, and cultural rights for Kurds, who constitute the largest minority group in Turkey. Particularly after 2001, Turkey has been lauded by the US and Europe as being a stalwart democracy and Western ally in a region with many authoritarian regimes. And Turkey certainly is more democratic than many other states throughout the region and indeed the rest of the world. Yet the Turkish state has been at war with the PKK for the past 30-odd years and its conduct certainly has not been democratic to say the least. Once again, it seems that the bestowing of the label of a ‘democratic state’ by so-called established Western democracies has effectively concealed such contradictions. John Berger, an art critic, novelist, and poet, describes the paradox that is modern democracies:
On the one side: every armament conceivable, the dream of no-body-bag wars, the media, plenty, hygiene, many passwords to glamor. On the other: stones, short supplies, feuds, the violence of revenge, rampant illness, an acceptance of death and an ongoing preoccupation with surviving one more night – or perhaps one more week – together.
(from Hold Everything Dear: Dispatches on Survival and Resistance)
More information on the hunger strike:
- Fighting for cultural and language rights for Kurds in Turkey – here, and here.
- Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s Prime Minister, rejects education in the mother tongues of minority populations, though he clearly means Kurdish.
- Of Hunger Strikes and Role Models: An Interview with Bilgin Ayata
- The Turkish government cedes to one of the three major demands of Kurdish prisoners currently on day 56 of the hunger strike, and agrees to allow defendants to use languages other than Turkish in court.
- A media release and report from the International Crisis Group on Turkey, the PKK, and a Kurdish settlement that recommends searching for long-term solutions to addressing grievances, unify Kurdish opposition, and cease violent means and attacks on civilians.