Adnan Khan is a writer and photographer who lives in Istanbul and Islamabad.
There was little joy among Turkey's Kurds when U.S. warplanes started dropping bombs on the Islamic State in Syria. Their reaction was surprising to say the least: For weeks, Kurds had been protesting in Istanbul and in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast against the lack of support their fellow Kurds were receiving in Kobani, the besieged city just across the border in Syria.
Kobani was surrounded on three sides, with the only safe route in or out being north to Turkey. But the Turkish army had sealed the border. The city's defenders, a local Syrian Kurdish militia, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, begged for international assistance. When U.S. bombings and supply drops finally helped push back the Islamic State's advance, the Kurds were saved from a likely massacre.
The intervention should have sparked celebration, but the protests continued, with Kurds lashing out at the Islamic State and condemning Turkey's actions. More significantly, the protesters railed against the United States and its allies, including Canada, denouncing Western imperialism and capitalism.
The protesters were largely socialists, a virulent strain of whom remain widespread among Turkey's Kurds. Their anger did not stem from ethnic nationalism but political ideology. A revolution is under way in Kobani, they say, and everyone – the West, the Islamic State, Arab countries, the Turkish government – is trying to suppress it.
Their version of events is worrying. Turkey experienced years of political violence after a peace process with its Kurdish minority collapsed in 1993. Radical leftists, mostly Kurds sympathetic to the banned Kurdistan Workers' Party (the PKK), battled ultranationalist Turks and Islamists calling themselves the Turkish Hezbollah. The government of the day, heavily influenced by the military, was suspected of manipulating the Islamists and nationalists in an attempt to crush the PKK-led insurgency.
Those were dark days. Thousands of Kurds died and hundreds of thousands were displaced after the military razed as many as 3,000 southeastern villages suspected of supporting the PKK. "It was like a mob war," says Tolga Baysal, an Istanbul filmmaker who lived through those times. "Hezbollah was kidnapping and assassinating suspected PKK members; the PKK was doing the same to Hezbollah."
Now, history appears to be repeating itself. Another Kurdish peace process is on the verge of collapse. The Turkish Hezbollah is back, reinvigorated by what they view as an Islamic revival in Syria and Iraq, as well as the conservative proclivities of the current Turkish government. Kobani has re-energized Turkey's radical left, inspired by the Democratic Union Party, which announced last September that it would be setting up the perfect socialist society in Kobani. Once again, the government is reaching out to ultra-nationalists to counter them.
According to the prevailing narrative, the Kurdish desire for ethnic and cultural self-determination has been reawakened by events in Syria. But this is oversimplification. The escalating conflict has more to do with political ideology – a radical socialism at odds with Turkey's burgeoning capitalist project and the Islamist-rooted government leading it.
Indeed, Turkey's governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has made significant progress over the past decade in granting cultural rights to Kurds. A great deal of work remains to be done, but it's no longer illegal to call oneself a Kurd or to refer to a space called Kurdistan. A limited number of Kurdish-language TV stations have been issued broadcasting licences and large-scale development projects in the southeast have improved Kurds' economic lot.
But the Democratic Union Party and the PKK have a much wider agenda, which militants explained to me in 2006, when I visited their base in the Qandil mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan.
"The revolution begins with the people," I was told. "This is what distinguishes our socialism from any other socialist movement: individual action. The people must take responsibility for their lives. Try to imagine it: Power emanating from the bottom up, from the people to the government administration in a way that reduces the political leadership to a co-ordinating role. This is the PKK's vision."
During the week I spent with the revolutionaries, I saw firsthand what their utopia might look like: a rigidly organized society where everything was shared, gender roles were eliminated and revolutionary ideals were indoctrinated. According to leaders, this was only the beginning.
"Ours is a global movement, not just limited to the region," they said. "But we focus on the Middle East as a starting point. We will change the sociopolitical landscape of the Middle East as an example for the rest of the world."
Now, that revolutionary project has found its historic moment: the Arab Spring. In the predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood of Okmeydani in Istanbul, the signs are all there: Graffiti announcing the resurgence of people power, hammers and sickles crudely drawn up with bright red paint, images of Che Guevara alongside Kurdish revolutionaries. "Kobani is our Stalingrad," reads one common slogan.
"The Islamic State is not alone," one leftist demonstrator told me. "The Islamic State is attacking a revolution. … This is not a struggle against the Islamic State. It's a struggle against the system and its supporters, including the Turkish state as well as a mix of others: Qatar, Saudi Arabia, England, France, the USA. All of these imperialist and capitalist systems should be opposed."
For Turkey's government, this sort of fervour threatens to tear down years of capitalist enterprise and return Turkey to the bloodshed and economic ruin of the 1990s. In their calculation, the Islamic State is the lesser threat. Turkey's radical left, which happens to be Kurdish, is the Pandora's Box – a lid to be kept closed at any cost.