This is a short extract from the defence the Kurdish People’s Leader Abdullah Öcalan prepared at the beginning of 2011. It was read at the opening of the first “Challenging Capitalist Modernity—Alternative Concepts and the Kurdish Quest” conference that took place in Hamburg, Germany from 3-5 February 2012.
The conference which was the first of its kind, had three big aims: To inform the international public of the new paradigm and vision of the Kurdish freedom movement, to strengthen and further discussions within the Kurdish community at large, and most importantly to establish a platform for alternative movements to come together and share theoretical and practical results. Each conference is summarized in a book, published as a permanent resource of political education.
The main organisers of the conferences “Network for an Alternative Quest,” announced that this year’s conference “Challenging Capitalist Modernity IV: We Want Our World Back!” that was supposed to take place this weekend (10-12 April) was regretfully postponed as a response to the public health concerns surrounding the Coronavirus pandemic, stating that the health and safety of people discussing alternative ideas was a priority.
At the time of the conference in 2012, Abdullah Öcalan’s conditions, and the Turkish state’s onerous treatment of him, prevented an effective connection to the conference. For almost seven months of the period between 2011 and 2012, Öcalan had been confined to strict isolation conditions, which prohibited him from seeing any of his lawyers or family members and even from sending letters. All the lawyers who had visited him until then had been detained and were held in high-security prisons.
Since then, the Imralı prison has been a place unable to be visited by a single lawyer for eight-years until single visits were allowed in the summer of 2019 again. Lawyers and family members are denied again in the current situation.
Despite 21-years of imprisonment on the Imrali prison island and the conditions of total isolation, Öcalan consistently demonstrates the determination to continue his struggle by remaining attuned to transformations outside, and by thinking and searching. The following text is a deep reflection on his quest and his transformations in isolation.
Seeker of Truth
Nothing is more valuable in one’s life than the attainment of truth that one lives. The quest for truth is the most valuable human activity, because it’s humans that constitute reality.
When I started on the adventure of my life I was unequipped for it. It was very difficult to grow up in a family which was in a decomposed state and struggling to get to its feet in a decomposed society. Underneath this difficulty
lies the long loss of the family’s own truth and the fact that there is nothing much left to give their child. What is left behind is a mentality void of substance and open to the lies of the rulers. Such mentalities, that are unable to oppose lies, are troublesome. It is inevitable that societies which exist under a status of colonisation or worse will eventually, either through force or persuasion, shall accept these lies. The sovereigns of the world have by now developed a vast pool of experience in ways to ensure that they do. They know very well how to convey their lies most efficiently and effectively. Only if people cross a threshold that removes their vulnerability to lies and illusions can the process of revolution be started.
I am a person who knows no boundaries. The adventure of my own life has inevitably led me to see behind the lies and face the truth of society. I have previously explained how social realities hit me at specific stages of life, and I have tried to ideologically and scientifically seek the truth. I have continued to do so so even as the powers-that-be have rejected my human and social identity, tried to annihilate me, and tried to punish me severely as if I were a fugitive; the collaborators primarily responsible were the United States, the European Union, and the Republic of Turkey.
Before prison, while I was able to develop both in theory and practical action, I did not have much of a chance to develop the perception of truth. For those who have grave problems, the circumstances of a prison are of educational significance. Thus, closed prisons although are not areas of theoretical and practical struggle but instead are areas where those who are not crushed by such problems may develop a successful perception of truth and necessary mode of struggle for it. Prison allows those who fight for exceptional causes to work hard each day to attain truth. Prison time that is spent on the acquisition of truth is, I am certain, worthwhile.
To all appearances, I arrived at Imrali as a result of a successful operation by Turkish Security Forces, according to legal methods, and that is the story that was told to the world. But my journey was actually made possible by the system of capitalist modernity headed by the United States and the European Union. More specifically, the enormous operation that brought me here was led by NATO’s unconventional and illegal force, Gladio.
I was brought here on February 15, 1999. Seventy-four years earlier to the day, on February 15, 1925, the republic initiated its conspiracy against Sheikh Said. A few months after my arrest, on June 25 a comical court trial sentenced me to death—and on that same date in 1925, Sheikh Said and a few of his friends were hanged. For three-quarters of a century, the state has continuously, without a break, carried out policies of annihilation and denial.
The United States and the European Union agreed that my execution would serve to intimidate resistance. But instead they decided not to go through with the execution, in order to use me to try to control and eliminate the Kurdistan Freedom Movement and the PKK. Of course they did so with the utmost subtlety, agreeing to trample on the legal ways of “combating terrorism.”
The conspiracy against me wished to have the effect of diminishing all hope for a Kurdish solution. The very act of prolonging my execution was intentional, a means of waging psychological warfare. At first I myself was unsure as to how long I could hold out under these conditions; to survive even a year seemed unthinkable. But then I thought to myself, “How can they imprison millions of people in a tiny space?” As the leader of the Kurdish people, I saw myself as the synthesis of millions. Most people can’t endure being apart even from their own families—how was I supposed to endure being separated from the will of millions of people for ever? I was not permitted even to receive letters from the outside. Up to now I have been allowed to receive only a few censored letters from my fellow inmates. I have been unable to send letters. All this may help convey the extent of my isolation. But my situation also has certain unique characteristics. I was responsible for many breakthroughs for our society. They are mostly only half finished and all are prerequisites of a free life. I have virtually dissolved myself in societal freedom areas leaving no ‘me’ behind. In societal terms my imprisonment began at such a time.
Even if the outside circumstances, state, the administration and the prison itself would have been equipped like a palace, it would not have been adequate to explain how I endure the isolation imposed on me. Fundamental factors should not be sought in the circumstances or state’s approach. The determining factor has been my own ability to persuade myself of the isolation conditions. I had to have enormous reasons to be able to endure the isolation and to prove that a great life can be displayed even under these conditions. In this regard, I must share two thoughts.
The first is about the status of Kurdish society. My thinking ran like this: If I am to desire free life the society to which I belong must be living freely. To be more precise, individual freedom cannot be achieved without the society. Sociologically the freedom of the individual is exactly linked to the freedom level of the society. Applying this hypothesis to the Kurds, with their lack of freedom, we must conclude that the life of the Kurdish people resembled a dark prison.
The second point is the necessity to be devoted to an ethical principle in order to be able to understand the concepts. The individual should make her/ himself conscious of the absolute necessity to live as a member of any given society. Modernity has successfully created the illusion that individuals may live untethered to society, but that’s impossible. Such a conviction is a false narrative. In fact there is no such life, but belief in such a fabricated virtual reality has been achieved. This demonstrates the poverty of ethics and principles today. But truth and ethics are mutually embedded. The notion of liberal individualism is only possible through the dissolution of the moral society and its connection with truth severed. The fact that liberal individualism is presented to be the dominant lifestyle of today does not mean it is right. Liberal individualism is the representative of capitalist system and it has been possible in the same basis. I have reached this conclusion as a result of my experience with the Kurdish phenomenon and my focus on Kurdish question.
And here I must highlight a duality in my nature; namely, my wish to escape from Kurdishness and simultaneously my embrace of Kurdishness. Because of the ongoing cultural genocide, opportunities for Kurds to escape Kurdishness are present everywhere, and such escapes are encouraged. But here is where ethical principles must step in. How right or good is it for one to escape from society in order to save oneself? I could have escaped—I almost finished my university degree, and could easily have done so, which would have practically guaranteed my personal survival. But it was at that time that I tilted toward Kurdishness, which signalled a return to ethical conduct. The individual must associate him or herself with a social phenomenon in order to become ethical. It was increasingly evident that I was not going to be unethical. My choice to embrace Kurdishness, with all its many problems, was an ethical choice, made in the knowledge that ongoing enslavement of the Kurds rendered impossible any fulfilment of my dream of a free life.
This world is not one in which I could live freely, even if I were living outside prison. Prison exists on the outside as well as the inside. Indeed, as I now realise, the outside prison is much more dangerous for the individual. A Kurdish individual living in the outside world who believes that he or she is free is seriously delusional. A life that is lived though illusions and lies is a life lost and betrayed. In my view, life outside can be lived under only one condition: by struggling twenty-four hours a day for the existence and freedom of the Kurdish people. For a Kurd, an honourable and ethical life may be had only by becoming an around-the-clock freedom fighter.
When I consider my previous life outside in relation to this principle, I accept that it was ethical. It is in the nature of our struggle that death and imprisonment are part and parcel of life. Life without struggle is dishonest and dishonourable; but life with struggle brings these likely consequences of death and imprisonment. It would contradict all my principles to find myself unable to endure the conditions of my imprisonment. But endurance is a necessity on the path to what you are fighting for. Especially for Kurds who are imbued with socialist thought, whose minds have not been captured by liberalism or some twisted religious cult, the only ethical life is lived through constant struggle. For such a person, no other life and no other world exists.
Second concept, in connection with the first, is to develop one’s perception of truth. The only way to persevere in prison is to do this. Even in ordinary life, having a strong perception of truth enables one to attain most joyous moment of life, that is, to grasp life’s meaning. For the individual who has grasped the meaning of his or her life, its specific location will no longer be a problem. A life enmeshed in lies and errors lacks all meaning—it is a degeneration and will naturally lead to discomfort, depression, violence, and degradation. But for those who have achieved a decent perception of truth, life appears like a miracle. Life itself is the source of excitement and pleasure. The meaning of universe is hidden in life. As one becomes aware of this secret, albeit in prison, life is no longer merely something to be endured. Indeed if one is in prison to attain freedom, then the only thing that will develop there is the perception of truth. Even the most painful emotions may be transformed into happiness if life is built upon the perception of truth.
Imrali Prison has become the arena for my quest for the truth in order to understand the Kurdish phenomenon and question as well as to construct opportunities for a solution. In the outside world, theory and practice were important—but here in prison meaning is. The political philosophy that I have developed here through my defences would have been very hard to develop had I been outside. Writing political philosophy requires a robust effort and a strong perception of the truth. I was able to profoundly grasp that I was in fact a dogmatic positivist—this understanding is highly connected to isolation conditions. Here I have been better able to distinguish among different concepts of modernity; that there can be various models of constructions of nations and it is here have I realised better that social structures are human creations and hence are by nature flexible.
To overcome the nation-state was especially important for me. This concept for a long time was an unchangeable dogmatic Marxist-Leninist principle for me. My explorations of history, civilisation, and modernity have since taught me that the nation-state has nothing to do with socialism—it is merely a residue of classed society and that it is nothing but maximal societal rule that has been legitimised by capitalism. Therefore, I never hesitated in rejecting it. If we are ever to achieve a real scientific socialism, then the masters of real socialism will have to change: their acceptance of a capitalist concept was a big mistake and dealt a terrible blow to socialism itself.
My realisation that capitalist liberalism is in fact a powerful ideological hegemony helped me better comprehend and analyse modernity. Democratic modernity, I found, is not only possible but is far more real than capitalist modernity, far more contemporary, and far more liveable. Unfortunately real socialism was not only not able to overcome nation-state but also considered it to be fundamental to modernity. This resulted in our, the socialists’, inability to envision the possibility of a different sort of nation—a democratic nation. We thought a nation had to possess a state! If the Kurds were to be a nation, then they must have a state! But as I pondered the question, I grasped that the nation-state is one of the gloomiest realities of the last couple of centuries, that it has been heavily shaped by capitalism, and that it is nothing more than an iron cage for societies. I then realised that concepts such as freedom and communalism are more precious. As I became aware that fighting for a nation-state is the same as fighting for capitalism there were huge transformations in my political philosophy. The narrow nation and class struggles would at the end result in nothing more than strengthening capitalism.
Another realisation of mine was that the social science produced by modernity is nothing more than contemporary myth—and that insight deepened my historical and societal conscience. This revolutionised my conceptualisation of the truth. Tearing down the capitalist dogmas, I gained pleasure in understanding history and society as well as the truth it contained. At this point in time I began to think of myself a “seeker of truth.” When perception of truth holistically develops, be it in the social, physical, or biological sphere, it attains a great leverage of meaning incomparable to the past. Under prison conditions I could have as many daily revolutionising truths as I want. Nothing else could have given me so much strength to resist.
The strengthening of my perception of the truth also enabled me to form better practical solution to problems. Divinity and singularity have always been ascribed to the Turkish statist mentality. That mentality conceives the only possible form of administration to be the state. This mentality has Sumerian origins and continues through Arab and Iranian culture of power. The roots of the single God concept is closely tied to theories of power. As power elites were formed, Turks developed fourth or fifth versions of this concept; they were always affected by the results rather than its etymological meaning. During the Seljuk and Ottoman periods, power lost all substance, and to attain it without a second thought brothers, sisters, and relatives were executed. With the entrance of the Republic this took on a new guise. To be more precise, national sovereignty and the nation-state models that were developed in Europe were mounted to power. Thus, the Turkish nation-state became an even more dangerous Leviathan. Anyone who dared touch it was executed. The nation-state was to be worshipped. This was especially so for the bureaucratic staff. The problem of power and the state was to become the most convoluted problem in history.
In Imrali, I applied my new ideas about power and the state to the problem of Kurdish and Turkish relations and as I saw what kind of a role they played I felt the need to find concrete practical solutions. I felt the need to examine the past one thousand year old development of power and state arrangements within the Turkish and Kurdish relations all the way back to the Hittites. I firmly understood the geopolitical and geostrategic connections between Mesopotamian and Anatolian power and state cultures. When I adapted this to the relationship of the Kurds and Turks I immediately understood that separation of power and state was not the right methodology. I did not accept state and power as they were concepts developed against democracy. When I saw that leaving all governance to the rulers and state incurred a big loss to the society, I understood the importance of democracy better. Although state and power are not methods that I approve of, I realised that an anarchical rejection of the state and power too was a hindrance to practical solutions. Democratic governance is our primary choice. However if I was to deny the power and state cultures that have become unitary throughout history, not grasping their aspects that can be shared communally, then as a result I could not attain any sound practical solutions. I thus realised the importance of common power and state concepts.
Throughout history hegemony and state policies and strategies in Anatolia and Mesopotamia have ensured intensive relations and various attempts at joint models were made. In Turkish-Kurdish relations similar models too have been preferred at all critical junctures, of which the War of Independence is the most recent example. I committed to a detailed analysis of this reality in my last defence. Although I presented a theoretic model, turning it into a practical model will not only solve the Turkish-Kurdish problem, but will be valuable in solving many of the other problems in the Middle East currently at an impasse. Such a model is not only in harmony with the historical realities against the positive dogmatism imposed by capitalist modernity, it also contained elements that were closer to everyone’s ideals in finding a practical solution. In light of historical developments I proposed concepts such as democratic modernity, democratic nation and democratic autonomy as opposed to state and power.
Another historical truth I realised was that centralised rule is an exception and local governance is the norm. If we are to understand the reason why centralised nation-states are presented to be the only and absolute model by capitalism then we should look at how they are interlinked. I thus understood the importance local solutions hold for democracy.
Finally, I also drew conclusions concerning the relationship between violence and power. It was clear that gaining power and nationhood through violence can not be our preference. The use of arms, except in self-defence, has absolutely nothing to do with socialism—it can only be the tool of oppressors. This realisation gave me the theoretical basis to approach the question of peace in a more meaningful and ethical manner. I therefore had attained enough conceptual and theoretical accumulation to invalidate the “separatist” or “terrorist” label given by the elites of state and power to not only Kurds but all those who are exploited.
Apart from the health issues that have arisen from the physical conditions of the prison, I can endure life on Imrali. My morale, my conscience, and the force of my will have not retreated one whit; on the contrary, they have all been enhanced. As social truths are explained through science, philosophy, and aesthetics, the potential for a more right, better and beautiful life increases. I would much rather live here on my own till I draw my last breath, than live with people whom the capitalist system has removed from the path of truth.
I must summarise, for me life is only possible if it is lived freely. A life that is not ethical, just, and political is not a life worth living in any social sense. In general civilisation and especially capitalist modernity allows and encourages the individual, through ideological pressure, to live an enslaved life full of lies and demagogy. This is how social problems form. Revolutionaries, whether they call themselves socialist, libertarian, democrat, or communist, must stand against the dominant lifestyle of a civilisation built on oppression and exploitation of excessive class, city and power. In no other way can a free, just, democratic and societal life be developed; and therefore lived. Only wrong lives full of lies and filth can be lived. This is called a life set on a wrong base. It must be well understood that all my life I have taken issue with this sort of life and have rejected it fully.
Another aspect of this question, that raises significant interest, is the relationship with the woman. This is a problem that occupies the heart of many social problems and therefore to solve it requires a scientific, philosophical, ethical and aesthetic approach. At present, living a free joint life requires not only a serious responsibility but keen scientific, philosophical, ethical, and aesthetic understanding. At present, to live a free joint life not only requires a serious amount of responsibility; but also strength in scientific, philosophical, ethical and aesthetic understanding. No matter what type of relationship is entered into, without a clear understanding of the status of women within this modernity and without an ethical and aesthetic approach, all such efforts will lead to lives full of wrongs, corruption and filth.
Modernity’s power-based civilisational morality, and the sexist principles it imposes on women, have brought about a life style that generates terrible ugliness and immorality. There is a need for each man and women—who feels responsibility—to liberate themselves in order to overcome such a life which I also have been striving for. There is a need especially for women to empower and free themselves as well as attain a balanced level of participation in all social spheres. There is also a need to develop a scientific, philosophical, aesthetic and ethical approach and work hard to enshrine this within the mentality and institutions of the democratic nation.
Whether one is inside prison or outside, in the womb or anywhere in the universe, a human life can only be lived in a society that is free, equal in diversity and democratic in essence. Lives outside of this are perverted and therefore can only be described as illnesses. For this to be put right all social movements including revolution may be utilised. But firstly, an ethical, aesthetic, philosophical and scientific mentality must be constructed.
In that case, at the moment of possible release, wherever I may be, wherever I may live, it is only natural that I will struggle tirelessly in theory and practice for the creation of a democratic nation of the Kurdish people, and then, the Democratic Union of Nations in the Middle East as a model for its liberation, and its peoples’ emancipation.
With the ethical, aesthetic, philosophical and scientific approaches that construct my personality as a seeker of truth I will win life, and share it with everyone!
Imrali Maximum Security Prison