A few months ago, shortly after 24 soldiers had been killed by the PKK and everything related to the Kurdish issue seemed to be going backwards, Fethullah Gülen made an important speech about that issue. It was circulated later on the website herkul.org, and aroused (or re-awakened) some controversies. Here, I will first present a summary of his statement before touching upon some of the controversial points that it gave rise to.
Fethullah Gülen began his statement by saying that none of us, including government, were grieved enough about this conflict, not grieved deeply enough, to achieve a solution to it. He said that unless and until we felt the problem deeply enough all the solutions proposed would be lacking in sincerity and prove unsustainable.
Secondly, he criticised past governments and the military people for doing too little to end the attacks which are the work of terrorists. He thinks the failure to tackle the terrorism highly questionable, given the technological and personnel resources available to the army.
Thirdly, he unequivocally condemned terror and violence and advised, instead, that people try to act positively. He said nothing can be gained by hurting people; there was no point in gathering in the streets and calling for revenge. Instead, he urged people to remain calm and devise policies and submit them to the government for consideration.
Fourthly, and perhaps most importantly, he urged the government to implement the natural rights of the Kurdish people just as Western nation-states implement them for their ethnic minority citizens. He argued that the right to be educated in one’s mother tongue is a fundamental right and one that has been generally affirmed in the West.
Over the past weeks Gülen’s statement has been widely discussed in the Turkish media and subjected to some harsh criticisms. For example, some people criticised Gülen for not saying anything about the Kurdish question over the last 30 years, not urging any policies on government and, instead, always tacitly supporting the military and past government actions.
It is simply not true that Gülen did not say or do anything about the Kurdish issue. Starting from 2000 he has been commending wealthier families from the western part of Turkey to locate and befriend poor families in the east. He urged them, for example, to spend Eids together. In response, thousands went to the eastern part of Turkey, stayed there and helped the poor families through the Kimse Yok Mu relief charity. He urged schools in the west to provide scholarships for the poor children who otherwise could not afford a good education: hundreds of children got their secondary education on full scholarship in well-established schools in the big cities of Turkey such as Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir. He persuaded philanthropic businessmen to open ‘reading rooms’ in the eastern part of Turkey: hundreds were opened and thousands of children received free maths and science courses. Gülen also urged teachers to give voluntary lessons in those reading rooms: hundreds of volunteers responded and moved to the region without any expectation of material reward for doing so. Indeed, most of the recent social mobility from west to east in Turkey can be credited to Fethullah Gülen’s good counsels. Also, after the change in the law which permitted TV broadcasting in Kurdish, it was on Gülen’s advice that the first private channel broadcasting in Kurdish, namely Dunya TV, was established.
At the end of the day the Gülen movement is a social movement; it cannot and does not aspire to make laws. Recently, Prime Minister Erdogan declared that nobody should expect from him amendments to the law about the right to educate in one’s mother tongue. As an opinion leader Gülen stated that it is a fundamental right to educate in one’s mother tongue and getting education in one’s mother tongue is an option in the established democracies in the West. Now, was there any obligation on him to do this, especially in view of the opposition of the current government on this issue? Simply, no. Some people asked that if Gülen really believes that this is a natural right, why don’t Gülen schools offer education in Kurdish as an option? The answer is: it is still illegal to do so. The Gülen schools must operate in Turkey within the laws of the land, just like every other state school does. All Gülen can do is state his opinion about having the Kurdish language as an option. I believe this will happen in the near future, and I am sure that the first schools in Turkey teaching in Kurdish will be the Gülen schools.
Another criticism was directed at this statement that the PKK should be defeated. Critics asked how a man of love could speak in favour of violence against PKK guerrillas? What, seriously, did those critics expect him to have said? Did they want him to say ‘Thank you’ to the PKK for the killing of innocents – children, pregnant women, policemen playing football – for burning secondary school children asleep in their dormitories –for blackmailing and terrorizing the people in the whole region, for actions that have led, over the last thirty years, to the loss of over 30,000 human lives? The rights of the Kurdish people are now clearly separated from the actions of the PKK. The PKK is an illegal terrorist organisation and so recognised by almost every state within the region and in the West as well.
In making the statement that he did on this issue, when he did, when everything was going backwards, I believe Fethullah Gülen faithfully carried out his responsibility as a leader of opinion and the inspiration of a major social movement: he forcefully emphasised the rights of the Kurdish people, and he advised the society as whole to feel responsible for the situation and to act positively.