Ever since three Kurdish women political activists were murdered in Paris last week -- shot in the head execution-style -- my phone has been ringing off the hook from anxious loved ones. As a Kurd and the director of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN), I wish I could explain why these three advocates -- who were so alive with the hopes of freedom, struggling for peace for their Kurdish sisters and brothers in the face of a repressive Turkish state -- now lie icily cold and lifeless in a dreary French morgue.
Before their lives were cut down, these women were promoting the enduring Kurdish cause of basic human rights and dignity with their tongues and pens. I am trying to do the same in Washington, DC. One person who called me this week urged me to take extra precautions about my safety. Another person asked if I owned a gun for self-protection. My answer was that when it comes to the right to bear arms, I side with the non-violent efforts of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday is today. Did Dr. King ever own a gun?
As to whodunit, I reject the absurd suggestion from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that the killer was someone the women knew, since a code was needed to enter their building -- as if a trained assassin could not learn something so elementary. It is hardly a coincidence, to me at least, that the killings coincide with "peace" talks that were underway between imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, the founder of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and Turkish officials. To anyone familiar with the decades-old conflict between Turkey and the PKK, which has claimed 40,000 lives, the attempt to paint these murders as the result of an internal feud among Kurds falls flat.
How does one address the Kurdish Question in the Middle East, a region saturated with guns and led by rulers who equate liberty not as a universal right, but one belonging to some at the expense of others? Impartial observers speak of 20 million Kurds in Turkey (the place where the murdered women were from), and yet these women and others aren't allowed to identify themselves as Kurds. During a recent 68-day hunger strike by Kurds in Turkey, Kurdish politicians and other activists called for Turkey to authorize Kurdish language education in schools and allow defendants to speak Kurdish in legal proceedings, among other rights that are currently outlawed in Turkey. To date, if a Kurd from Turkey wins a medal at the Olympics, as one did in Athens, he is hailed as a Turk. The three murdered Kurdish women were part of this struggle for freedom.
Growing up in Kurdish Turkey, my late father used to tell us not to lift even a stick against the "government." His generation had grown up in the ominous shadow of the hideous Armenian genocide -- and he didn't want us to suffer a similar ghastly fate. But freedom, like life, blooms even in the most inhospitable terrain, and I have become a part of a peaceful Kurdish resistance notwithstanding Turkish cruelties. We yearn to breathe free -- drawing inspiration from Thomas Jefferson's ideal that "all men are created equal" -- and we believe that such basic human rights come from God, not earthly persecutors.
But as my father might have put it, the price of liberty has been high. The village he knew as home and became its head, or muhtar in Turkish, has been destroyed, the same fate as thousands of settlements in the Kurdish countryside in Turkey. Turkish pilots, who are equipped with American-made helicopters, rained death and destruction on my father's village on a cold November day in 1993. The only consolation I had, when the news reached me in the U.S., was that my father, who had built our house with his own hands, was spared the distressing report. He had met his maker four years earlier in Santa Barbara, California.
What he didn't see has become our heritage today. The Turkish government still believes force and state-sponsored violence can solve the Kurdish Question. What is missing in Ankara is respect for a culture of criticism, the bedrock of representative governments the world over. If you apply, as I do, the canons of Western classics to Turkey, it dawns on you right away that Turkey still has yet to accept the true meaning of a free, civil society, where rights are granted to all.
The Kurds of the Middle East need help. The Internet has given us a powerful tool to break through the censorship walls of those who oppress us. The Arab Spring may yet inspire a Kurdish awakening. Although they were not related, the emancipation of the serfs in Russia and those of African Americans here in America, within the same decade, added enormously to the total sum of justice in the world. Perhaps the new trend of putting an end to family dynasties in the Middle East will usher in another new: nations will no longer be able to own other nations or speak on their behalf.
A child of tyranny, I am in awe of what started in Tunisia -- but without the revulsion of Benghazi, Libya. And I am all for the peace talks between Turks and Kurds. But the rhetoric originating from Ankara, even if you set aside what happened in Paris, is not encouraging. Turkish leaders see "peace" differently, thinking it offers them the best chance to disarm Kurds without considering a real and enduring offering of rights and freedoms for Kurds.
After a terrible week for three Kurdish women, and for Kurds around the world who were shocked by their deaths, the way forward lies in the path that was traveled by the likes of Gandhi and Dr. King.