Abdullah Öcalan: Representing the freedom struggle of a people
The Kurdish people can look back at a long history of resistance. Since the increasing intervention of capitalism in the Middle East in the early 19th century they have been struggling to protect their cultural identity and develop political unity. Dozens of uprisings since 1806 are a clear proof of the Kurds` insistence on their right to govern themselves. Despite all efforts and sacrifices the Kurdish uprisings did not lead to the desired results but were crushed sooner or later by global and regional forces like England, Iran or Turkey. Until today, Kurds remember leaders like Sheikh Ubeydullah, Seyit Riza or Ismail Simko and keep alive their quest for a united, independent and democratic Kurdistan. In the 1970s the latest phase of the Kurdish freedom struggle started and has been continuing until today: the resistance of the Kurdistan Worker`s Party (PKK). Ever since, Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the PKK, is widely accepted by the Kurdish society as their political representative and philosophical inspiration.
Growing up in a colonial state
Having grown up in the small village of Amara in the Kurdish Province Riha (Urfa) along the Turkish-Syrian border, Abdullah Öcalan later became an internationally-renowned politician struggling to achieve a political status for the Kurdish people. After his birth on April 4, 1949, he spent his childhood in a traditional Kurdish community in rural Riha. Agricultural village life, the contradictions of a traditional Kurdish family and Muslim teachings by the local Imam heavily influenced the first years of his life. When he started primary school in a neighboring village a new contradiction arose that would follow him all through his life: being a Kurd under the authority of the Turkish nation-state. Whether in a small school in rural North Kurdistan, at the Institute of Political Science at Ankara University or as a state employee in the Kurdish city of Amed – Abdullah Öcalan became increasingly aware of the hardships the Turkish state policy imposed on its Kurdish citizens. Unlike many others, he did not opt for being assimilated into this colonial state system, but started to win other students in Ankara for the freedom struggle in Kurdistan during the politically turbulent early 1970s.
Leading a freedom movement
With the official foundation of the PKK in November 27, 1978, what had started as a small reading group of students in Ankara turned into a professional revolutionary struggle. Abdullah Öcalan played the decisive role in both organizing its first members and in building the ideological, political and military foundation for its constant growth. After he was forced to leave Turkey in 1979 because of increasing state repression, he continued his political activities first in Lebanon and later in Syria. From there he gave ideological and political education to newly joined PKK-members from all over the Middle East and beyond, established diplomatic relations with a variety of civil and state representatives and welcomed journalists, academics and artists from all over the world. After the start of an armed struggle in late 1984 Öcalan repeatedly undertook initiatives in order to find a peaceful solution with the Turkish state. Yet, the numerous one-sided ceasefires declared by him since 1993 did not yield the desired results. After the collapse of the Soviet Union Abdullah Öcalan started to intensify his search for a new socialism that would learn from the mistakes of the Soviet past and pave the way for the freedom struggle in the 21st century.
A new socialist paradigm from prison
His quest for an independent, socialist Kurdistan was seriously targeted when Öcalan was forced to leave Syria on October 9, 1998 due to pressure by Turkey. What would later turn out to be a comprehensive NATO-operation eventually let to the imprisonment of Abdullah Öcalan on February 15, 1999 and his deportation to the Turkish prison island Imrali. He has been forcefully held there until today. Nevertheless, Öcalan turned the hardships of solitary confinement into an opportunity to continue his search for a new socialism that provides answers to the problems humanity is facing in the 21st century. Based on his personal experience, the writings of Western philosophers and political thinkers and his research on Middle Eastern history, he developed new ideas that led to a unique political project: Democratic Confederalism. Since the early 2000s Abdullah Öcalan has written numerous books explaining his idea of a stateless, self-governed system that guarantees the freedom of both the individual and society as a whole. The three pillars of grassroots democracy, women liberation and ecology constitute the basis of his theoretical outline and practical suggestions. From his prison cell on the isolated Imrali island he has shared his ideas with political thinkers like Immanuel Wallerstein, led peace negotiations with Turkish state officials and inspired new political initiatives like the foundation of the HDP in Turkey. Despite a strict isolation enforced by the Turkish authorities since April 2015, Abdullah Öcalan has used the few meetings with his lawyers and family members to repeatedly call for peace in Turkey, Syria and the whole Middle East.
After more than 50 years of struggle and almost 23 years of imprisonment, Abdullah Öcalan is today one of the most influential political theorists and leaders worldwide. With the support of the Kurdish people and a constantly growing number of regional and international supporters he continues to pave the way for a political status the Kurdish people deserve, thus also providing an alternative to the crisis of the global capitalist system.