Islamism among Turkish Kurds

Growing Influence of the Hezbollah

A new political movement is making headlines in the Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey – the Islamist Hezbollah. Organized in small groups and modeled after the Palestinian Hamas movement, it is primarily active in ghettos where refugees live. Amalia van Gent reports

Kurdish supporters of Hezbollah (photo: Hürriyet)
Reports are emerging from nearly every corner of Southern Anatolia of a resurgence of Kurdish Islamism and the Hezbollah

​​Judging from its main street, the town of Batman could be a prosperous, dynamic city in western Turkey. The wide boulevard, named after the late Turkish president Turgut Özal, is lined with modern glass and steel structures and expensive shopping malls.

Shiny limousines and jeeps crowd the parking lot in front of the fashionable Mado-Café, a favorite daytime hangout for young people, including women in short skirts and skin-tight jeans. Music is played late into the night in the parks along the boulevards.

Activism in the ghettos

But Batman is not a city in western Turkey. It is located in the remote southeastern part of the country, not far from the Iraqi and Syrian border.

The appearance of the Turgut Özal Boulevard is deceiving, says Mayor Hüseyin Kalkan straight away during an interview. He says that Batman, once a sleepy little town, has taken in tides of refugees during the civil war between Turkish security forces and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), and rapidly swelled to a city of nearly 400,000 in just two decades.

Mayor Kalkan explains that the Turgut Özal Boulevard does not reveal the true character of his city. To see the real Batman you have to travel to the ghettos on the outskirts of town where refugees live on the edge of starvation. Nearly 16,000 people have to be regularly supplied with food from the community.

Hüseyin Kalkan is a member of the pro-Kurdish DTP party. During the last local elections, his party received 74 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, the DTP could soon be overshadowed by a new political force in the ghettos.

The "arrogance of the Europeans"

Islamist groups are gaining influence among the poor with incredible speed, according to Arif Arslan, publisher of the largest regional newspaper, Batman Cagdas. He says that the most influential group in Batman, the Umut dernegi, distributes financial aid to the needy and ensures that children from destitute families receive an education. Modeled after the Palestinian Hamas movement and the Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Umut dernegi are primarily active in schools and hospitals.

Reports are emerging from nearly every corner of Southern Anatolia of a resurgence of Kurdish Islamism and the Hezbollah. When a Danish newspaper published the controversial Mohammed caricatures, approximately 100,000 people took to they streets of the Kurdish city Diyarbakir to protest against the "arrogance of the Europeans" and this "blasphemy against Islam." The Diyarbakir demonstration drew considerably more people than similar rallies elsewhere in Turkey.

A reign of terror

Yet the Hezbollah in Diyarbakir and Batman is closely linked to an extremely dark page in history. Turkey's Hezbollah was founded in 1983 and, aside from its name, the organization had nothing in common with Hezbollah in Lebanon. It was not until 1991 that the Hezbollah gained importance in the war-torn Kurdish region of southeastern Turkey.

In Diyarbakir the Hezbollah was divided into the Ilim and the Menzil groups. The Ilim group was ideologically close to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and did not hesitate to use violence. In the early 1990s, the Ilim group in Diyarbakir attacked the rival Menzil group. During weeks of bloody fighting, the Menzil group, which had distanced itself from the use of violence, was destroyed.

At the time, the founder of the Turkish Hezbollah, Hüseyin Velioglu, settled in Batman. His bearded fighters staged heavily armed demonstrations on the city's main street, which had not yet been named Turgut Özal. They ordered all women to wear veils and punished teenage girls when they dared to speak to male schoolmates on the street.

Fighting the "PKK atheists"

This reign of terror was not only tolerated by the government in Ankara, it was actively supported. Velioglu was a convenient ally against Kurdish nationalists. He fiercely fought the PKK who he viewed as atheists.

Former Turkish police chief Teoman Koman praised Velioglu at the time as "an individual with deep religious convictions who is endeavoring to resist the PKK." Police intelligence chief Hanefi Avci later admitted in front of a parliamentary investigative committee that the Hezbollah stood under the protection of the police intelligence service in the early 1990s.

Hezbollah has been blamed for the murder of dozens of Kurdish activists. Even the Kurdish member of parliament Mehmet Sincar was assassinated by the organization in the heart of Batman.

Velioglu fell out of favor in the late 1990s when his organization began extorting money from businessmen, even in western Turkey, and murdered those who refused to pay. A total of 52 people were brutally murdered before Velioglu was killed in a police raid in the Istanbul district of Beykoz in 2000. Thereafter roughly 6,000 Hezbollah members were arrested and their widely feared organization retreated from Batman.

Influential brotherhoods

Meanwhile, the memory of Velioglu's Hezbollah has faded in the ghettos. The young generation of refugees holds the PKK Kurdish nationalists responsible for the loss of their ancestral home – and the Turkish state for their current hopelessness and lack of opportunities.

They are now inspired by the struggle of the Palestinian Hamas. With virtually no place else to turn, they seek refuge in the Islamist brotherhoods that have always been an important element of Kurdish identity. In Batman the Naksibendi brotherhood is particularly influential. The mosques filled up when the Syrian-born Naksibendi Sheik Hiznavi visited Batman, says a young journalist.

According to political analyst Önder Aytac, the new head of the Turkish Hezbollah is Isa Altsoy, a Kurd who lives in Germany. Under his leadership, the Hezbollah recruits new members, even in the Kurdish diaspora, publishes books and magazines, and has its own bookstore in Diyarbakir, just like the Ilim and the Menzil groups did a decade ago.

Islamist NGOs

In contrast to his predecessor, Altsoy rejects the idea of a centrally controlled organization in favour of smaller associations and non-governmental organizations that can be quickly deployed.

One example of this is the non-governmental organization Mustazaflar that is currently in the news for its activities in Diyarbakir. The new Hezbollah also differs from the old in that it rejects the Turkish state and pursues Kurdish nationalist objectives.

Batman's mayor Hüseyin Kalkan makes no secret of his displeasure over the recent developments in his city. He says that if the current trend continues, the Kurdish Islamists could prove to be more dangerous than Hamas. Then the PKK, which is so bitterly opposed by the state, would not be "a danger, but rather an opportunity" to preserve the secular Turkish Republic.

Amalia van Gent

© NZZ/Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

This article was previously published in the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung.

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