The Kurds may have won the battle for Kobani, marked yesterday in Berlin by a spontaneous celebration in front of the Brandenburg Gate, but their fight against ISIS is far from over. Eager to avenge their brethren, the Kurdish community here is waging its own war against “Islamic State”: both in the Middle East and at home.
At a protest in front of the Brandenburg Gate on October 6, members of Berlin’s Kurdish community chanted: “A tree, a rope, a Salafi neck!” Referring to their opponents variously as “Salafists”, “Wahabis” or “agents of the Turkish government”, protesters used slogans such as “Salafists are fascists” or “Wahabis are no Sunnis”. The conflict between Kurds and Islamist supporters of ISIS has long spread to diaspora communities around the world. With its large Kurdish population, Berlin has not been spared from the tensions.
Through Kurdish satellite channels, Facebook and Twitter, Kurds in Berlin have followed their Middle Eastern counterparts’ involvement in the war on ISIS with increasing frustration. Nearly all consider themselves to be connected to the conflict in one way or another. With August’s attack on the Kurdish city of Shingal, Iraq and September’s news of the siege of Kobani, tensions reached a boiling point. “Turkey will explode if Kobani falls into ISIS hands,” seethes one Kurdish Berliner.
We, the Kurdish youth, are ready to defend our nation in Berlin, whenever necessary. We are on constant alert.
When Germans speak about Kreuzberg, Neukölln and Wedding, they often refer to “little Istanbul”. But in fact, approximately 110,000 Berliners – nearly half of the so-called “Turkish community” – belong to this ethnic minority from eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and northwestern Iran. A total of 500,000 Kurds live in the whole of Germany. Though they share a common religion, Sunni Islam, with Turks, the Kurds have been subject to decades of repression from the Turkish government – and now find themselves the target of ISIS persecution in Iraq and Syria. As they’ve done for years, they are fighting back.
Since 1978, the Kurds have had their own army in the form of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), a secular, militant communist organisation originally formed by a group of students led by Abdullah Öcalan, who is now serving a life sentence in Turkish prison. Mostly relying on guerrilla warfare, they and affiliated groups in Iran, Iraq and Syria engaged in brutal clashes with Turkish armies, as well as fellow Kurds in the Islamist organisation Kurdish Hezbollah, resulting in horrific consequences for the Kurdish civilian population. An estimated 45,000 people were killed between the PKK’s first battle in 1984 and their agreement to withdraw their forces in 2013.
Now the PKK has emerged as radical Islam’s staunchest enemy, carrying out rescue operations in Shingal and Kobani in the face of inaction from the Turkish government.
As in Turkey, the PKK is considered a terrorist organisation in Europe, and has been banned in Germany since 1993 due to violence, illegal recruiting and fundraising by German members. Nevertheless, it has stayed active here through a network of different PKK-affiliated groups. In 2013, Germany’s internal security agency, the Verfassungsschutz, estimated there were 13,000 core PKK members in Germany, most of them based in Berlin.
Azad (name changed) is a 23-year-old bricklayer from Berlin. Although an active member of a PKK-affiliated youth organisation, he calls himslef as “a normal citizen who carries the ideology of the PKK and its leader Öcalan.” Yet, not a “real member” “If I were, I would be on the mountains in Turkey.” According to him, “Nobody knows the real PKK leaders in Berlin. Sometimes cadres from Turkey or other places in Europe come to check whether the Kurdish organisations follow their rules.”
In past years, most of these groups have concentrated on cultural activities or organised peaceful protests in order to raise awareness of Kurdish resistance and press for the annulment of PKK’s status as a terrorist organisation. However, tensions between PKK members and young Turkish nationalists, or “Grey Wolves”, have been known to turn violent. The PKK attacked Turkish consulates, banks and alleged supporters of right-wing Turkish parties, and at Kurdish rallies its supporters violently clashed with opposing Turkish youth. In 2007, Turkish protesters went so far as to attack the Kurdish Ibrahim Halil mosque in Kreuzberg, thinking it to be a PKK support base even though the PKK is famously leftist and secular.
Recently, though, most Kurdish protests in Berlin have been held in solidarity for the besieged Kurdish regions in Iraq and Syria – both to raise Germans’ awareness of the situation, and to distance themselves from the acts being carried out in the name of their religion.
PKK-affiliated groups have mobilised tens of thousands of Kurds for their protests across Germany, gaining significant media coverage. They have received increasing organisational and political support from German leftists. Speaking in the Bundestag, prominent MPs like Gregor Gysi of Die Linke and Green leader Cem Özemir have called for a lift of the ban on the PKK. There have even been voices in the CDU and SPD questioning the ban, despite the PKK’s criminal money-raising activities in Germany, suspected to include drug dealing, prostitution and the collection of ‘protection money’ from shops and restaurants.
Meanwhile, as its profile rises, the PKK has found more and more Kurds willing to join their cause in Syria – contrary to the media’s obsession with jihadist recruits, here is a group of European Muslims making the trip to wage war against, not with ISIS. Kurdish organisations estimate the number of Kurdish PKK volunteers who went from Germany to Syria to be around 50 so far. But due to a well-established underground network throughout Europe that has provided the PKK with money and volunteer fighters for decades, the actual number is likely to be much higher.
Asked whether the PKK is in fact recruiting Kurdish youth through Kurdish organisations, Azad says, “They’d be shut down if they did. We don’t recruit fighters. Our job is to raise our voices against oppression and to show people that the PKK is no terror organisation like ‘Islamic State’.” At the same time, he says, “If somebody really wants to join, he will get there. I don’t know the exact procedure. Even among supporters, these structures are secretive.”
He himself does what he can to support the anti-ISIS cause. “A wounded female Kurdish fighter came to my family in Berlin a few days ago and we treated her. The moment she was ready, she returned to the battlefield in Kobani.”
In early October, the Syrian conflict played out on German soil. In the sleepy northern town of Celle, street fighting between Yazidi Kurds and Muslim Chechens had to be contained by riot police. In Hamburg, hundreds of Kurdish PKK supporters protested against ISIS, fought with Muslim radicals and clashed with the police. The Verfassungsschutz warned that these tensions could escalate further.
“I don’t think there will be similar clashes in Berlin,” says Azad. “Yes, there are people who are traumatised by what’s happening to the Kurds in Shingal and Kobani. But our goal is not fighting Salafists or Islam. If we wanted to attack Salafists, we would have. What happened in Hamburg and Celle was self-defence.”
Asked about any possible PKK directive on how to deal with ISIS supporters in Germany, he says: “No, there are no orders from PKK in Turkey. But we find out very quickly if someone in Germany wants to attack Kurds. And we are prepared in case it happens. We can defend ourselves. The Kurdish youth here are not trained to fight, in contrast to the Kurdish youth in Turkey. But we are ready to defend our nation in Berlin, whenever necessary.”
A recent incident shows how tense the situation between PKK-affiliated groups and alleged ISIS supporters in Berlin actually is and how serious the Kurds take the issue of self-defence against possible Islamist aggression. “There was a dangerous situation on October 10. Kurds demonstrated in Düsseldorf in solidarity for Kobani. As their buses returned to Berlin, we were warned that a group of Salafists were planning an attack on those buses in Wedding. We immediately went to the place and monitored the surroundings. We even went to a nearby Salafist café, so that they would see us. Only after we gave our OK did the buses come. We are on constant alert.”