Turkish-Kurdish Split Stirs Chaos In Islamist Human Rights Group

In a country where political identities define major contours of social life, the fragmented world of civil rights movements and activists are not immune to ideological clashes and divisions. When an ethnic group or a socio-political movement face persecution, it is mostly likely that their ideological brethren and brothers marshal their efforts, mobilize political troops to rise to the cause of the persecuted and the oppressed. And those who are in a safe zone, free of trouble, mostly refuse to pull out of complacency to join the struggle that would redefine the balance of power between powerful and vulnerable in favor of the latter. It was this harrowing tragedy that most described the utter powerlessness of civil society as a whole in Turkey. It still is. 

The line between politics and civil society movements are mostly blurred, and the fragmentation of underdogs, unprivileged social groups, is a major cause of their failure to form a united front for a joint struggle to restore their rights, or to push back against the encroachment of a far-reaching state onto private sphere of individuals and groups.

In Turkey’s endemically divided socio-political landscape, the thrust of MAZLUMDER into the political scene as an insurgent civil rights movement with Islamic flavors proved to be an antidote to ethnically-driven cleavages and fissures that characterized the divided world of rights groups. 

The paramount objective that had driven its emergence was to cut across any ethnic and class-based social divisions in 1991 at a time when Turkey was deeply plagued by human rights violations, intensifying crackdown on rights organizations and escalating fighting between Kurdish militants and the Turkish security forces across the country’s southeast. 

The first impulse behind the formation of the organization was to seek attention to people detained on arbitrary, politically-motivated charges. Then, the Kurdish question and the headscarf problem that denied college education to tens of thousands of female students made a way into agenda of the group during its organizational evolution.

The security-first approach of the Turkish state to resolve the Kurdish question increasingly defined by a bloody conflict deadlocked the matter during 1990s (similar today), turning the entire region into a war zone where might defined right and imposed the cold logic of naked power in sensitive moral issues. 

The end result was thousands of vacated villages, hundreds of thousands of displaced people and thousands of victims killed in what most believe extra-judicial political murders and cold-blood executions carried out by death squads operating in the shadow, but mostly under the legal shield of the Turkish state. To document the unfolding human tragedy, and the human cost of the bloody war was beyond a matter of conscience; it was an urgent imperative. 

It was in this context that a group of idealist Turkish and Kurdish activists from religious corners of political spectrum formed MAZLUMDER. Academics, intellectuals, lawyers and civil rights activists constituted the core of main structure of the organization. MAZLUMDER was one of the most successful non-governmental organizations found by Islamic intellectuals who went beyond ethnic lines in their cause to improve dismal state of democracy in Turkey, to fight for liberties that are under constant attack and to help the persecuted, the innocent, the ‘mazlum’ — a conception couched in Islamic terminology to define the oppressed. 

It came to existence partly in protest to ideological cleavages that imperiled rights groups, where leftist human rights associations MAZLUMDER believed mostly focused on leftist victims of oppression and politically-motivated trials that characterized the dark period during military-led government throughout the 1980s. 

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the escalation of Kurdish conflict and its profound impact on daily lives of millions of Kurds in southeast, political crackdown on religious and conservative segments of society took to an unprecedented level. That led to the formation of pro-Kurdish Human Rights Association to document human rights violations, to provide legal assistance to the people who faced investigations on vague and broadly-defined terrorism charges. 

Well before the emergence of MAZLUMDER, there were historical precedents for an organized and institutional struggle to advance the cause of the individuals and groups who faced discrimination and systematic political clampdown in public domain. 


During much of the republican history, mostly in the 1980s, the secular political establishment in Ankara interpreted the rise of pious segments of society in politics and business as a threat to its monopoly on power. 

The political battle was defined as Turkey’s culture wars, identity politics, and the clash of worldviews for the soul of the country. But when the Turkish authorities saw political Islam as an all-embracing creed that defined every aspect of people’s lives, the issue of liberties and individual freedoms found its expression within the scope of a wider political war. The end result was non-recognition of the private sphere, exclusion of religious people, especially headscarf wearing women, from universities and public sector. 

It was this broadest interpretation of secularism that left no space for any expression or display of practice, dress or a theme that could, in secular Kemalists’ views, be indicative of religious identity and worldview. The headscarf issue has, therefore, constituted the main fault line in the political landscape as the militant secularist view of politics has been based on an unwavering opposition to the any “Islamic” expression, symbol or dress.

That cultural war took its toll on thousands of people. Female students were expelled from universities while public officials faced expulsion from their posts due to discrimination during the 1990s. What drove MAZLUMDER to action was the need for a sustained legal and institutional struggle to protect and defend rights of people who suffered injustice based on discrimination. Whether in Kurdish southeast or Istanbul, the group lent support to the oppressed, provided legal assistance to pursue their rights at courts. 

Moreover, it released reports and conducted field research to document, in a detailed fashion, the existence of unjust practices at the public sector, universities, and suffering of Kurdish civilians in Southeast. Its emphasis on solidarity with the oppressed has become the unifying point for the gathering of Turkish and Kurdish intellectuals in the same milieu. While many politically active Kurds define themselves in a mostly leftist framework, there is still a significant portion of Kurds who frame their life beliefs and worldview in more Islamic terms. 

Islam as a strong agent of social unity is still salient and enduring despite for all the flaws rooted in the nation-state and dividing character of nationalism that dominated the political landscape for much of the republican history. 

Brotherhood, solidarity, and fraternity had been the themes on which MAZLUMDER thrived and cherished with enthusiasm to overcome the nationalist ideology and its dividing nature. But that was then. The social forces of nationalism, the alignment with security establishment and the need for political survival forced pro-government factions within MAZLUMDER to adopt the basic tenets of realpolitik with little regard for the principles that made what MAZLUMDER was.

Internal Chaos and Coup

The brewing civil war within MAZLUMDER for more than a year last week unraveled into a full-scale takeover of the organization in what many sees a coup by pro-government Istanbul faction.

On March 19, an extraordinary meeting convened in Ankara to settle the internal squabbling over the direction and management of the organization. Last year, Istanbul branch, which has the highest numbers of members, orchestrated a coup to topple then-MAZLUMDER Director Ahmet Faruk Unsal and the central body of executives. Their move to convene a general meeting to push for removal of Unsal failed to yield a result after majority of branches came out against the proposal. The root cause of Istanbul branch’s move was its opposition to MAZLUMDER’s report about human rights violations in Southeast.

The clash came to a boiling point when Istanbul branch took the matter to a court, demanding a court-appointed trustee for convention of a general body meeting.

The court sought expert opinion from Directorate of General of Foundations, which oversees and arbitrate dispute among foundations or in foundations. The expert view reflected Istanbul branch’s decision and was blessed by the judge.

The court-appointed trustees immediately called for an early meeting, leaving no chance for the headquarters to appeal the verdict of court. The Ankara-based headquarters again went to the court for an injunction on the ruling, but its demand was outright rejected.

That legal showdown ended on March 19 with the convention of the meeting where majority of branches boycotted the gathering, questioning its legitimacy.

Unsal, Former head of MAZLUMDER, called the attempt a coup. He slammed his former colleagues for even not seeking opinions of their friends while shutting down of 15 out of 24 branches, mostly from southeast and eastern Turkey.

More than 2,000 people’s membership has been revoked, while the now-defunct headquarters vowed to pursue their legal battle to end what they say usurpation of MAZLUMDER’s legitimate leadership. The Istanbul team also finalized its long-held dream of moving headquarters from Ankara to Istanbul.

The culmination of internal chaos that dismantled many of the organization’s branches across Kurdish southeast first started to appear last year after release of human rights reports that documented serious violations during urban clashes between the security forces and Kurdish militants.

In an article for Rudaw, Nurcan Aktay, who worked for the rights group for more than 12 years, chronicled the background of the showdown that was building for more than a year. 

Her headline of the article encapsulated the heart of the matter eloquently: Blow from MAZLUMDER’s Turkish Islamists to Kurds. As an organization, the group has many offices in Kurdish southeast and every local branch is able to carry out individual work, prepare reports on widespread human rights violations across the region. 

For her, the origins of intra-group clash lie at divisions over how different factions, or mostly Turkish Islamic intellectuals and Kurdish ones, view the Kurdish conflict. The differences last year came to the core.

Before delving into her account of what happened in MAZLUMDER, it would be prudent to remember the evolution of the Turkey’s intractable Kurdish conflict last year. After the collapse of a fragile truce in 2015, the entire region plunged into a vicious war between the Turkish security forces and the Kurdish militants. 

The latest phase of fighting has been fundamentally different from the previous rounds as the Kurdish insurgents brought the war into cities, sparking a fierce reaction from the government troops, which used tanks and artillery to crush and dismantle militant networks in cities. The escalation of fighting leveled cities to the ground, inflicted a ravaging destruction to towns, leading to massive displacement of people. The Human Rights Watch and other international organizations give numbers of displaced people ranging from 300,000 to 500,000, revealing the scale of the human and social cost of the war.

The political contours of the social tragedy in southeast worth mentioning. It was the Islamist AKP that expanded rights of Turkey’s Kurds to a level unseen before, giving a boost to hopes for a lasting settlement of the conflict that raged for nearly four decades. During its spell on power for more than a decade, the AKP launched novel and groundbreaking reforms to enrich cultural rights of Kurds, legalizing the use of once banned the Kurdish language in education and printing, improving life standards of ordinary Kurdish citizens, bringing investment to largely underdeveloped and neglected southeast. 

It reaped rewards of its policies with election victories. Pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) and ruling AKP had emerged as two competing political powers to win hearts and minds of the Kurdish voters in the region. They were the two vital and indispensable actors for any form of peaceful and political settlement of the prolonged Kurdish conflict. The other player is Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which sees the armed struggle as the best way to persuade the government after a war of attrition to reach a political accord. 

The civic and pro-peace approach of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP dramatically ended after June 7 elections in 2015 when the AKP lost parliamentary majority after HDP’s historic achievement to pass notorious 10 percent election threshold. One party’s triumph spelled the defeat of the other, the AKP, deprived it of its majority to form a single-party government. 

It was then Erdogan’s AKP decided to become a war party to regain its lost parliamentary majority in next snap elections, abandoning hard-won cease-fire which took hold for at least two years. The PKK’s eagerness to revive clashes was another factor for a return to the old stalemate, bewildering state of deadlock in the conflict.

Against this backdrop, MAZLUMDER also went through a sweeping transformation after re-alignment of its rank-and-file officials in Istanbul with the government. Aktay wrote that the Istanbul faction rebelled against reports by MAZLUMDER’s Kurdish offices about massive destruction in Cizre, Nusaybin, Silopi, Dargecit and Yuksekova during clashes. 

The infighting broke out in April of 2016 after the release of reports. But the Istanbul faction’s response was mostly shaped by reaction of the Turkish military which contacted with the Interior Ministry over the reports’ findings. The core of the military’s concern and fury was that reports might well pave the way for possible international trials against Turkish commanders in the future given that MAZLUMDER well documented army-led destruction in details. These reports contain evidence that may be used against the members of the military, the General Staff wrote to Interior Ministry. 

Unsal gave a similar account after March 19 general meeting, saying that the military leadership voiced anxiety over MAZLUMDER’s reports.

A government investigation into the group followed, and the Istanbul faction unleashed an assault on its Kurdish members, accusing them of making propaganda for PKK, promoting Kurdish nationalism and betraying the founding principles of MAZLUMDER.

But according to Aktay, it was the Istanbul faction that abandoned MAZLUMDER’S anti-nationalist spirit, the foundation stone of its major existential principle to undo forces of nationalism in this society.

The recent surge in violence in the southeast, the Islamic AKP’s shift to political wind of nationalism for purely political motives have left its mark on the dynamics of infighting in the group. After court’s intervention, the Istanbul faction, which presides over control of only seven offices, moved to shut down 16 offices on March 19 by circumventing its legal procedure, bypassing organization’s bylaws. But they depicted the move as an effort to return to founding principles, correcting later misgivings in its Kurdish branches by rejecting pro-Kurdish sentiments. The painful truth, however, that it was the pro-government faction that was beholden to a nationalist argument and standpoint, silencing any dissent within its ranks.

Aktay lamented that Turkish Islamists are no different from secular pro-state political thinking in their view of the Kurdish question and the ongoing human tragedy in the southeast. Any attempt to cover it, document unjust policies and destruction, are regarded as an effort to advance the cause of PKK or pro-Kurdish political agenda. No, it is not, she fumed over that kind of reading. The convergence between the government and Istanbul-based Islamist intellectuals is a betrayal of the MAZLUMDER’s original, core values as they begin to ignore the level of suffering of ordinary people.

Former president Unsal refused pro-PKK accusations. He told media that MAZLUMDER always defended a peaceful solution, and made numerous calls on both sides to refuse armed solution.

With the removal of mostly Kurdish offices, one of the Turkey’s promising rights groups, MAZLUMDER, is no longer once what it was. Its original appealing to reach wide segments of people regardless of their ethnic and social background is part of history now.