By Mehmet Gurses
The violent and often destructive nature of civil wars is well documented. Its transformative nature, its ability to spur a cultural transformation that can pave the way for a democratic culture, however, has not yet received much scholarly attention. Civil wars as a special case of contentious politics do not occur in a vacuum. Violence, as arguably the most defining characteristic of civil wars that differentiates this phenomenon from other forms of social movements, is often a result of sociopolitical environments characterized by resentment, discontent, and repression. In other words, in such a context violence is not irrational or beastly but rather occurs when our sense of justice is offended. In line with studies that have pointed to cultural outcomes of social movements and the difficulty of drawing neat boundaries between the complex concepts of civil wars, revolution, terrorism, and social movements, my research on the armed conflict between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkey points to the transformative nature of civil wars that has resulted in transforming the insurgent group and also engendering important social and political outcomes.
Civil wars and insurgent groups are dynamic, living entities. The PKK, with its roots in the Turkish leftist movement of the 1970s, was formed in 1978 as a clandestine organization with the initial goal of establishing an independent, united socialist Kurdish state. Toward this end the group has engaged an armed insurgency with Turkey on and off since 1984. Over the course of nearly four decades, the organization that was started by a small group of college students has grown into one of the most powerful sub-state actors in Turkey and beyond. Through its affiliates in neighboring Syria, Iraq, and Iran as well as a number of Western countries, it has come to present the most serious challenge to the Turkish state since its foundation in 1923. And, through its offshoots or groups that it has inspired, it has become the United States’ most effective on-the-ground partner in the fight against the Islamic State (also known as Daesh or ISIS) in Syria and Iraq.
Throughout its long struggle the PKK has, for the most part, acted like a revolutionary movement violently challenging the regime. At other times, it has denounced violence and sought reconciliation with the Turkish state. Thus, if one is to agree with the demarcation between a “revolution” and “social movement” which builds on the distinction in the goals of the collective actors, where the ultimate goal of the former is overthrowing the state and the latter seeks to change a policy of the state, the PKK has shown a remarkable evolution navigating between these two complex and overlapping events, as described by Jack Goldstone.
The PKK’s evolution started when it parted ways with the Turkish leftist movement. Thus, the PKK abandoned the stated goal of the Turkish left, which was to overthrow the regime. The embryonic insurgent group morphed into more of a secessionist socialist movement. Its evolution continued, however. The initial goal of a “united independent socialist Kurdistan” was later replaced by “democratic autonomy” within the internationally recognized territorial borders of Turkey. New concepts, such as “democratic confederalism” and “ecological democracy,” were introduced to adapt to the changing environment.
The armed insurgency has engendered a number of non-violent organizations at both the local and national levels. It has given rise to a number of political organizations including the Democratic Society Congress, an umbrella organization for pro-Kurdish groups, the Democratic Regions Party (DBP), and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The latter has been successful in receiving support from millions of Kurds as well as a minority of Turkish liberals and leftists who lent their support in an effort to check the excessive power of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The insurgency has also stimulated a number of women’s groups with radical feminist agendas, and laid the groundwork for local committees to be formed and effectively participate in their localities. Nevertheless, while oscillating between “revolution” and “social movement,” violence has remained a part of its repertoire of contention.
As the PKK evolved, so did the society that it claimed to represent and defend. Tactics, ideology, framing, and discourses changed as did the world and reality in which the insurgents operated. The outcome of such a phenomenal transformation can best be described as a protracted revolutionary process from which significant socio-political cultural changes have arisen.
The evidence from scores of interviews that I conducted in the last several years in the Kurdish-dominated eastern part of Turkey that has been a site of armed conflict between the PKK and the Turkish army indicates a complex socio-political outcome. That is, despite pain, suffering, and conflict related traumas that participants have endured, the overall picture is more of defiance, survival, and empowerment rather than that of submission, quietism, or despair. As the war destroyed lives, property, and displaced millions, it also prompted a national identity that is secular in character, a political culture that is “radically democratic,” and a social culture that defies traditional gender roles. War as a learning experience thus has resulted in political literacy and forged a new character that can be described as efficacious rather than passive and fatalistic, key characteristics of modern man.
To conclude, the evidence from the Kurdish conflict in Turkey reveals the complex nature of civil war as a concept as well as a process from which positive outcomes can emerge. This complex nature of civil wars calls for further scrutiny in treating such a multifaceted event purely as a cause or an outcome. As such, the changing nature of civil wars implies a complex system that can arise as an outcome of certain socio-political circumstances. The very same process, however, can also work as a cause for substantial cultural developments. The challenge, of course, remains to bring this protracted and trans-nationalized conflict to a close with a comprehensive peace agreement that would institutionalize the cultural transformation it has engendered.