More dangerous than Saddam?

A latter-day Saladin, spouting a mixture of Mao and Islam, is fanning an insurgency that could destabilize the entire region.

By Franz Schurmann
Published September 6, 1996 7:27PM (EDT)

his name is barely mentioned in press accounts of the U.S.
missile attacks on Saddam Hussein's military bases. He is not directly involved in the factional fighting in northern Iraq which spurred the latest face-off.
But this Kurdish leader is creating waves that could destabilize the Middle East far more than the actions of the Iraqi dictator.

His name is Abdullah Ocalan and he is the leader of the Maoist-inspired Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which has waged a decade-long guerrilla war in Turkey.
That war has already shifted to Kurdish-dominated northern Iraq, the home of PKK guerilla bases. Turkey, which regularly sends in jet fighters and troops to attack the bases, threatens to set up a "buffer zone" in northern Iraq against the PKK.

None of this is likely to stop Ocalan (pronounced Oj-hah-lan) and his PKK, which has been fighting for an independent Kurdish state in southeastern Turkey for more than a decade. Ocalan, say many observers in the region, just may
be the transnational figure the region has been looking for -- and
fearing -- for decades.

Roughly 20 million Kurds inhabit the region stretching from eastern
Turkey through northern Iraq into Iran, Syria and the Caucasus. They are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own nation. Throughout their 3,000 year history, they have fiercely resisted every
attempt to destroy or assimilate them. Their national pride is matched by their sense of transnational mission, and is deeply rooted in their past: The greatest Kurd in history,
Saladin, destroyed the Crusader states in the Holy Land, unified Arabs,
Turks and Kurds, and paved the way for the Ottoman Empire's 500-year rule.

Could Ocalan become a modern-day Saladin? His star appears to be rising in the region as popular disdain deepens for the two quarreling Kurdish leaders, Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, upon whom the Clinton administration has pinned its vain hopes of stabilizing Kurdistan and containing Saddam Hussein through the
no-fly zone.

A year ago the U.S. sponsored a summit between Barzani and Talabani
in Dublin which flopped. A second summit, scheduled for last
month, never got off the ground because neither leader would

While the U.S. has been spinning its wheels, Ocalan has continued to build the biggest guerrilla insurgency in the world. Every day the Turkish press carries reports of police or military posts attacked by PKK units. Two months ago a young PKK woman concealing
a bomb in her dress walked into a military ceremony and blew up
30 soldiers along with herself. Turkish political prisoners who
recently staged mass hunger strikes were PKK members. Last month, the PKK
demolished 24 of Barzani's military outposts in northern Iraq.

Even the Iranian mullahs are fearful that Ocalan's message could
spill over into Iran. Indeed, the Iranian opposition movement,
Mujahideen-i-Khalq, "Martyrs of the People," sounds much like the PKK and
has its base in northern Iraq.

At the core of Ocalan's appeal is its Maoist message of empowering the poor and fighting the ruling class. Alone among Kurdish leaders, Ocalan understands that Kurds feel
not only oppressed by their alien rulers but also by one of the most rigid feudal social systems still in existence. Like Maoism, the PKK teaches its adherents to live closely with the people, espouses gender equality and a willingness to sacrifice one's life for the cause of the people.

But in contrast to traditional Marxist movements
which denounce religion as an opiate of the people, Ocalan embraces the Kurds' devout religious beliefs (the majority are Sunni Muslim). "Religion has
always existed and it always will," he has said, praising it as a
source of morality vital for movements like the PKK. He attributes the
collapse of socialism to its failure to accommodate religion.

The rise of Ocalan coincides with a region-wide Islamic revival that has affected NATO-member Turkey, resulting in the election of the first Muslim prime minister since the formation of the modern secular Turkish republic. Should Ocalan's brand of Maoism coalesce with the rising tide of militant Islam, the region could see a transnational movement which could present the West with a threat far greater than the ones emanating from Tehran or Baghdad.

© Pacific News Service

Quotes of the day

Publishing 101

"If we didn't publish books by people who had illicit sex, we would be out of business."

-- Harold Evans, president of Random House, which gave Dick Morris' $2.5 million to write his memoirs. (From "Adviser Had Secret Deal for Book," in Friday's

New York Times

Franz Schurmann

Franz Schurmann is a professor emeritus of history and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He recently wrote about urban gardening in China and Uganda for the latest issue of Choices, a magazine published quarterly by the UN Development Program.

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