On 14 October 2016, the Kurdish-Australian journalist Renas Lelikan was freed on bail after spending three months on remand in NSW prisons, where he was repeatedly threatened with death by supporters of ISIS. Lelikan is charged with membership of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was listed as a terrorist organisation by the Howard government in 2005. His bail conditions include a $1.5-million surety, posted by the Kurdish community, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew. His case raises disturbing questions about Australian foreign policy and in particular Australian popular and official attitudes towards the Turkish state. This article examines some of the salient features of that relationship—including the legacy of Gallipoli—and how they impact on the Kurdish question. Both the Crown prosecution and the Australian Federal Police (AFP) admit that Lelikan poses no threat to the Australian public. Why is he being pursued?
Australia’s relationship with Turkey starts in 1915, when the Anzacs landed at Gallipoli as part of a British expeditionary force. Over the intervening century, Australians have come to regard their once mortal enemies as friends. Moreover, because of interlocking defence treaties—ANZUS, and NATO in particular—Australia and Turkey are allies at one remove.
Both countries trace the time when they achieved nationhood to the First World War and Gallipoli is a potent national symbol for each. Benedict Anderson argued that nations are ‘imagined communities’ and if this is so it follows that national founding myths are historical fictions.
Founding myths may be relatively benign. Tartan kilts, as Hugh Trevor-Roper has shown, were actually invented by an English factory owner to clothe his Scottish workers, but they have come to symbolise Scotland’s nationhood. The consequences of such myths are often less whimsical, and this is so in the case of the Gallipoli myth.
Arguably, the Howard government and its successors have been blind to the political realities of the Turkish state in large part because of the Gallipoli myth. Anzac Day is a huge event on the Australian national calendar. Tens of thousands of Australians flock each year to elaborately staged spectacles on the Dardanelles coast. One such visitor was John Howard. Those who make the pilgrimage doubtless pause before the sandstone monument engraved with what are purported to be the words of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives. You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.
Atatürk said no such thing. The words are those of a Queensland politician, but it suits the authorities of both countries to attribute them to Atatürk and for the publics of both to believe them.
I have no wish to denigrate the courage of the Anzacs or to mock their descendants who make the trip to Turkey to honour them. Nor do I wish to insult ordinary Turks or Turkish Australians. However, the myth has political consequences far removed from simple remembrance. In the case of Australia, the myth has encouraged unthinking acceptance of its own militarism and a rose-tinted view of the Turkish state. In the Turkish case, it is an ideological prop for ugly ethnic chauvinism and for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fast-crystallising dictatorship. Renas Lelikan is the unfortunate victim of the convergence of these myths.
The Treaty of Sèvres, signed at the end of the First World War, promised the Kurdish people a free vote on their future. Along with the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne, in 1923, Sèvres guaranteed the language and cultural rights of all national minorities in the Turkish state. Turkey, however, has never respected the treaty terms and the world’s governments have allowed it to get away with that. Australia, as a dominion of the British Empire, was party to both treaties.
The Kurds, who today number approximately 35 million people, are the world’s largest stateless nation and live across Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Speaking a number of related dialects, they are not Turkish, Arab or Persian. Turkey’s solution to the problem of millions of restive Kurds was forcible assimilation. The Kurdish language was banned. It was even illegal to call oneself a Kurd; the ‘correct’ term was ‘Mountain Turk’. Many common Kurdish names were banned because they contained letters that do not appear in the Turkish alphabet. Protests were repressed. Uprisings were drowned in blood.
The longest Kurdish insurgency has been that waged since 1984 by the PKK. It is believed to have cost up to 40,000 lives. Originally Stalinist and nationalist in ideology, the PKK has undergone a radical ideological shift in recent years, largely as a result of a process of rethinking by its imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ӧcalan. The PKK now pursues autonomy and ‘democratic confederalism’ and is strongly feminist, pro-ecological, socialist and multicultural.
The PKK has declared a number of ceasefires and until 2015 it was engaged in a dialogue with the Turkish state. Alas, the ceasefire ended, sabotaged by President Erdoğan, who in his desperation to win full control before a run-off election resorted to beating the nationalist, anti-Kurdish drums of war. In reality, Erdoğan would never countenance Kurdish autonomy, because it conflicts with his ethnic nationalism, which desires only an ethnically ‘pure’ Turkish state.
This brings us back to the role of Gallipoli as a major symbol of Turkish nationalism. After some years of modernisation and movement towards political pluralism, Turkey is now racing towards a form of dictatorship that many are equating with fascism. Indeed, President Erdoğan is on record as expressing admiration for Hitler. Since last year, enormous crowds have flocked to town squares across Turkey to hear grandiloquent speeches and watch images of Gallipoli beamed onto huge screens. These spectacles, reminiscent of Nazi rallies, have been crafted to stoke nationalist paranoia and bolster support for the autocratic president, who hopes that the 16 April referendum will grant him absolute power. One demonstrator summed up the message:
We united against the enemy that wanted to have the Bosphorus and the Dardenelles… Now we have to defend against an enemy that is both inside and outside. Now we are like the fingers on one fist…
The ‘enemies inside’ include the Kurds and other minorities, along with Turkish socialists, liberals, trade unionists, feminists, and any other proponents of democracy and human rights.
Tens of thousands of civil servants, teachers and academics, judges and police have been sacked. Over 70,000 real and imagined opponents of the regime have been arrested, including trade unionists, feminists, socialists and secular liberals. Turkey is now ranked 151 out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders Index of Press Freedom and will surely fall even further following the arrest of scores of journalists and the seizure of opposition newspapers and electronic media. The government has even closed down the Kurdish children’s TV channel, which dubbed Sponge Bob and other kids’ programs into Kurdish. Many Kurdish towns in southeastern Anatolia have been reduced to rubble by Turkish bombs and shells after their elected representatives declared their towns’ autonomy. Unarmed civilians have been massacred. Kurdish MPs and their leftist Turkish colleagues have been stripped of their parliamentary immunity and Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, the co-leaders of the pro-Kurdish, leftist HDP, have been imprisoned on trumped-up charges of ‘supporting terrorism’.
The recent unsuccessful coup was Erdoğan’s Reichstag fire. It has given him the pretext to eliminate whatever democratic space had opened up in the country. The silence of world leaders has been deafening.
Over the past decade, Australian governments have forged close ties with their counterparts in Ankara. In 2005, Erdoğan, then prime minister, made an official visit to Australia. He was warmly received by his Australian counterpart, John Howard. The pair discussed a number of issues, including trade and investment links and, significantly, the preservation of Anzac Cove and its promotion as a tourist destination.
This, evidently, was not all that was discussed, because a week after Erdoğan’s departure the government put the PKK on the list of proscribed terrorist organisations. Senator John Faulkner, and former federal attorney general, now Federal Court judge, Duncan Kerr dissented, but not many noticed. Nor was there a public outcry when two years later the AFP raided Melbourne’s Kurdish Hall and private houses at dawn with dogs and guns seeking proof that Australian Kurds were sending money to the PKK. Nothing was found.
There are now twenty proscribed groups on the list, nineteen of which are Islamist terror outfits like ISIS, al-Qaeda and Boko Haram. While these groups have not managed to carry out anything on the scale of the Nice, Brussels, Paris, Baghdad or Libya attacks in Australia, they most certainly are a threat to Australian citizens. The odd man out on the Australian government’s terror list is the PKK. It has never made threats against Australia or Australian citizens, and although it is also proscribed by the United States and the EU, it is not listed as a terror group by Switzerland, India or the United Nations. It exists to fight for Kurdish rights and, increasingly, for the rights of other ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East.
In alliance with its sister organisations in the Rojava districts of Syria, the YPG and the YPJ, the PKK is in the front line of the fight against Islamist terror. It was the PKK that escorted the Yazidis to safety from Mount Sinjar and it is its allies who struck massive blows against ISIS in the towns of Kobane and Manbij.
Can Foreign Minister Julie Bishop explain why we list the PKK as a terrorist organisation at the same time as US Special Forces are fighting alongside the PKK’s Syrian sister organisations? One reason for such silence is the fact that Turkey is a NATO member. Another is that Erdoğan has blackmailed the EU into biting its tongue over his human rights abuses by threatening to send more Syrian refugees to Europe. This perhaps also resonates with the Australian government’s obsession with ‘stopping the boats’. Underlying it all, however, is the illogical Gallipoli myth that prevents us from seeing the Turkish state for what it is.
The arrest of Renas Lelikan shows how far Australia is willing to go to appease Erdoğan. When Lelikan returned from Iraq in October last year, he was questioned by the AFP for twelve hours over his alleged membership of the PKK but was released without charge. The AFP admitted then, as it still admits now, that he is no threat to this country.
On 20 July 2016, however, the AFP arrested Lelikan and charged him with PKK membership (which he denies). He was twice denied bail in lower courts until NSW Supreme Court judge Natalie Adams granted it to him over the objections of the prosecution. Lelikan is not, however, out of the woods and he faces up to ten years in prison if convicted.
The AFP arrested Lelikan on flimsy grounds. The evidence against him boils down to the fact that he was photographed in Iraq wearing Peshmerga-style clothing and carrying an AK-47 assault rifle, but as the Wall Street Journal explains:
More journalists have been killed in Iraq than in nearly any other conflict in the past decade. And as post-war instability and dangers continue, a debate has arisen about how far journalists should go to protect themselves… The traditional wisdom had been that a journalist must take care not to appear to be the enemy… [but] the changing conditions of modern warfare are raising new questions and forcing news organizations to re-examine their security policies…
It is also very obvious that the Turkish state has a strong interest in this matter. When Lelikan was charged with PKK membership by French authorities, the Turkish government sent a delegation to interrogate him. He fled as a result and was convicted without penalty in absentia. President Erdoğan is a vindictive man, as shown by the hundreds of lawsuits he has initiated against Turkish citizens for insulting him and by his ludicrous claims that German and Dutch government leaders are Nazis. Could it be that the Turkish authorities ‘blackmailed’ the Australian authorities into arresting Lelikan by suggesting they might close down or restrict the annual Anzac Cove celebrations?
A federal prosecutor in a previous bail hearing said that Lelikan is ‘a long-term supporter of the PKK and its ideology’. But so what if he is? Millions of Kurds around the world, including thousands in Australia, are PKK supporters. More than ten million people have signed an open letter calling for the release of PKK leader Abdullah Ӧcalan. Many prominent academics, trade unionists, politicians, journalists and jurists support taking the PKK off the terror list. Had Australia’s terror laws existed in the past it is entirely feasible that FRETILIN, SWAPO and the ANC would have been proscribed to placate an assortment of dictators and racists.
Australia’s unrealistic attitude to Erdoğan’s rogue state has coloured the whole sad episode. We know that in one breath Howard and Erdoğan discussed Gallipoli and in another the PKK. Turkey is hurtling towards a dictatorship that threatens to crush the Kurds and undermine progress towards peace in the Middle East. We cannot continue to fail the Kurds, and we do Turkish democrats no favours by trucking with the likes of Erdoğan. We should throw aside the distorting lens of the Gallipoli myth through which we still view the Turkish state.