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An interesting peek into the PKK

[ by Charles Cameron -- the PKK and religion, my own ignorance and curiosity ]
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Flag of the Iraqi Kurds, not a PKK flag -- but see below...

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The PKK is important in a “first cousin once removed” kind of way, if I’m understanding Karen Kaya‘s piece in SWJ this past May correctly:

As Turkish military and government officials often say, the PKK is to Turkey what Al-Qaida is to the U.S., or that “the PKK is Turkey’s Al-Qaida.”

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So I was trawling the web today, and the mention of religion in this paragraph from McClatchy caught my eye:

Volunteers who join the Kurdish insurgency against Turkey must abandon Islamic religious practice and must forego “emotional ties” to anyone outside the group, as well as swear words and sex, or face trial and prison, according to a Syrian-born Kurd who defected from the group to Turkey over the summer.

People who “defect” not uncommonly offer prejudiced accounts of the organizations they’ve left, so I read on to see how trustworthy this source might be:

The 21-year-old defector, who surrendered in June, brought with him not only a tale of life inside the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, known by its Kurdish initials as the PKK, but also detailed information about a planned attack inside Turkey that helped Turkish authorities beat back the PKK offensive.

McClatchy obtained a copy of a 19-page Turkish-language account of his debriefing, which was dated July 4 and was not marked classified. The debriefing contained his name, but McClatchy is identifying him only by his initials, R.S., to protect family members who might still be in territory held by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate.

It seems his military intelligence was quite accurate — so far so good. Next, my own curiosity naturally led me to wonder what the PKK’s religious stance, apart from being opposed to Islam, might be. After all, it’s called the the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and was founded on Marxist principles…

Okay, I skipped a few paragraphs, and found this:

R.S. portrayed the PKK as anti-Islamic. Performing daily prayers, fasting and reading the Quran are among the offenses that could land a recruit in prison, he told Turkish authorities. Instead, fighters were told that the religion of Kurds is Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s most ancient religions, and they should worship fire. There are said to be fewer than 200,000 Zoroastrians today, mostly in Iran and India.

Now that’s a fascinating glimpse behind the curtain.

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For an alternate viewpoint, here’s the University of Utrecht grad student in Conflict Studies and Human Rights, Wladimir van Wilgenburg, writing for Rudaw in English and sounding knowledgeable, though his own or Rudaw’s potential biases are unknown to me:

The idea that Kurds are actually Zoroastrians is not something new. Kurdish nationalists such as the Bedirkhan brothers tried to revive Zoroastrianism and Yezidism as the original religion of the Kurds in the 1920s and 1930s. By this the Bedirkhans aimed to separate the Kurds from their Muslim neighbors and give them a glorious pre-Islamic history that had once boasted many empires.

They did not emphasize much on the Kurdish Islamic warrior Salahadin al-Ayyubi that rallied the Muslims against the crusaders in the twelfth century. Similarly, Turkish nationalists tried to promote Shamanism as the original religion of the Turks. But despite these efforts, Islam remained an important element among Kurdish nationalist movements.

It is unlikely that Yezidis are originally Zoroastrians. The Zoroastrian religion is a dualist religion (with good and evil constantly fighting each other), while the Yezidi faith revolves more around a single deity as the Satan.

Therefore it is possible that the Zoroastrians would regard the Yezidis as devil-worshippers, just as some Muslims do.

There are still many Kurds (especially in Europe) who think Kurds are originally Zoroastrians and wear Zoroastrian symbols, even though they are non-religious and do not have much knowledge about Zoroastrianism and its rituals.

The PKK was particularly influenced by the ideas of early Kurdish nationalists. Its media promoted the idea that Kurds are originally Zoroastrians. Other Kurdish political groups also came under the same influence.

But in 1991 the PKK took a positive approach about Islam and thus managed to win some sympathy. Some say the PKK tried to merge Kurdish nationalism and Islam for its own cause.

In recent years the PKK has also used Imams, Friday prayers and Islamic language as a means to compete with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In return, the Turkish government is said to have plans to recruit 1000 Kurdish Imams in its battle to win the hearts and minds of the Kurdish people.

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That (Iraqi) Kurdistan National Flag at the top of this post has a golden sun with 21 rays as it’s central feature — but it’s from Iraq. The PKK has used a variety of flags, some of them reflecting the group’s Marxist origins, but one in particular appears to borrow from the Iraqi flag:

As noted on this Flags of the World page:

This seems to be a variant of the original PKK flag, since it has the star and the red background of the PKK original flag but also the sun disc of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq.

That, in brief, is why the symbolism of the Iraqi Kurdish flag may be significant in understanding symbolism associated with the PKK.

The Kurdistanica page on the Iraqi Kurdish flag is a little coy on the topic of the sun, noting:

The primary Kurdish characteristic of the flag is the golden sun emblem at the center. The sun emblem has a religious and cultural history among the Kurds, stretching into antiquity. The sun disk of the emblem has 21 rays, equal in size and shape. The number 21 holds a primary importance in the native Yazdani religious tradition of the Kurds.

The sun might also be associated with Zoroastrianism, and the number 21 with the 21 nasks of the original Zoroastrian scriptures — but the issue of Kurdish religious nationalism is another area I’m unfamiliar with…

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The nice thing about knowing that one doesn’t know is that it makes leaping to conclusions so much more difficult.

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