Kur­dish group tries to shake ter­ror­ism la­bel

The Washington Times Weekly - - World - By Ni­cholas Birch

DI­YARBAKIR, Turkey — The Kur­dish Hezbol­lah, the Is­lamic group nick­named “Hez­ba­troc­ity” be­cause it is sus­pected of killing hun­dreds of Kurds in the 1990s, has resur­faced in south­east­ern Turkey as a char­ity call­ing it­self the As­so­ci­a­tion for the Op­pressed.

It says it has re­nounced vi­o­lence, high­light­ing a key dilemma in cop­ing with the threat from mil­i­tant Is­lam: Can mil­i­tants with blood on their hands be trusted when they pub­licly re­nounce vi­o­lence?

Huseyin Yildirim, an of­fi­cial in the group, ad­mits that he car­ries a heavy weight on his shoul­ders. He never killed any­one, ac­cord­ing to as­so­ciates, but he was jailed for mem­ber­ship in Kur­dish Hezbol­lah.

The rad­i­cal Is­lamic group with no known con­nec­tion with the Hezbol­lah of south­ern Le­banon, is ac­cused of killing about 500 peo­ple in south­east­ern Turkey in the 1990s.

“Yes, some of our mem­bers were Hezbol­lah, but we are [now] op­posed to vi­o­lence, cat­e­gor­i­cally,” Mr. Yildirim said in an in­ter­view at the or­ga­ni­za­tion’s head­quar­ters in Di­yarbakir, south­east­ern Turkey’s big­gest city.

“Our fight is against poverty, ig­no­rance and all sources of so­cial con­flict,” he said.

In the 1990s, the Turk­ish Hezbol­lah fought a two-front war, against the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers Party (PKK) and the Turk­ish state. It lost.

In 2000, po­lice found tor­ture cham­bers and grave-filled safe houses dur­ing a mas­sive crack­down on the group, in which they ar­rested about 6,000 mem­bers. It earned the group its nick­name, Hez­ba­troc­ity.

“Hezbol­lah did all this killing in the name of Is­lam,” said Ce­lal Ay­gan, head of an­other Is­lamic as­so­ci­a­tion in Di­yarbakir.

“Peo­ple do not trust Mus­tazaflar,” he said, us­ing the Turk­ish term for the NGO.

Still, the or­ga­ni­za­tion seems to be able to pull crowds big­ger than the PKK, tra­di­tion­ally the strong­est group in the re­gion.

In Fe­bru­ary, dur­ing a Turk­ish army in­cur­sion against PKK camps in north­ern Iraq, 40,000 Is­lamists marched in Bat­man, near Di­yarbakir, to protest Is­raeli at­tacks on the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries.

Last month, thou­sands of peo­ple turned out in towns across Turkey when the NGO or­ga­nized cel­e­bra­tions for the prophet Muham­mad’s birth­day. In­zar, an Is­tan­bul-based monthly mag­a­zine close to Hezbol­lah, now boasts a cir­cu­la­tion of nearly 10,000 copies.

The group “can be­come an in­flu­en­tial power in south­east Turkey in the mold of Le­banon’s Hezbol­lah, Iraq’s Mahdi Army and Ha­mas” in the Pales­tinian ter­ri­to­ries, warned a pol­icy pa­per pub­lished in Septem­ber by the Wash­ing­ton In­sti­tute for Near East Pol­icy.

Many lo­cal an­a­lysts think this sort of talk is ex­ag­ger­ated, a knee­jerk re­ac­tion to the re­li­gious­minded rul­ing Jus­tice and De­vel­op­ment Party (AKP) of Prime Min­is­ter Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan. The AKP tripled its vote in Kur­dish ar­eas of Turkey dur­ing gen­eral elec­tions last sum­mer.

When 100,000 gath­ered in Fe­bru­ary 2006 dur­ing the Dan­ish car­toon cri­sis, the me­dia pre­sented it as a Hezbol­lah march, says Bu­lent Yil­maz, head of a con­ser­va­tive lo­cal NGO.

“In fact, 95 per­cent were or­di­nary peo­ple. Kurds are close to their re­li­gion and al­ways have been. None of the groups you see to­day — in­clud­ing this one — have come out of nowhere,” Mr. Yil­maz said.

“Per­son­ally, I’d be de­lighted to see signs of the Is­lamiza­tion the me­dia is talk­ing about. But I don’t,” he said.

De­spite the group’s peace­ful face, its rhetoric re­mains rad­i­cal, with publi­ca­tions re­fer­ring to Turkey’s sec­u­lar regime as “taguti,” or sin­ful.

“If Is­lam comes to the fore, there won’t be any need left for fight­ing and killing,” said Sait Sahin, the soft-spo­ken head of the group’s Is­tan­bul branch of­fice.

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