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Turkey: Are PKK and Gulen Movement Burying Hatchet?

An armed Kurdish group slowly weaning itself off Marxist-Leninism and a powerful Islamic movement that preaches interfaith dialogue laced with Turkish nationalism: the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the Fethullah Gulen Movement do not seem to be natural bed-fellows. But a flurry of activity following comments made in early December by the imprisoned leader of the PKK is fueling speculation that, after years of bitter enmity, the two movements might be moving towards dialogue.

"They are quite a dynamic force, as we are," Abdullah Ocalan wrote in a letter he gave to his lawyers on December 6. "If these two forces were to show each other understanding and solidarity, several fundamental problems could be solved in Turkey."

His remarks came a day after Ocalan’s lawyers, who have acted as intermediaries between him and his supporters since he was jailed for life in 1999, went for talks with a man widely seen as the Gulen Movement's number two.

"In our meeting, I said ... that solving this [Kurdish] problem was vital for our country and our future," Huseyin Gulerce wrote December 9 in his column in Zaman, a Gulen Movement flagship that is Turkey's biggest-selling daily. "It is clear what needs to be done: democratization ... the rule of law, equal rights, freedom of thought and expression ... mutual respect."

The exchange sent ripples through Turkey's media. One of Turkey's most respected political commentators, the usually level-headed Rusen Cakir described it as "of historic importance."

The cause of the excitement was not the words themselves, which were coded and cautious. It was the fact that the two groups have been sworn enemies ever since followers of retired imam Fethullah Gulen began opening schools in Kurdish areas in the mid-1990s.

Kurdish nationalists, secular-minded or otherwise, have long lambasted the Gulen Movement as a patsy that the Turkish state is using to assimilate Kurds. Occasionally, the PKK has openly attacked it. There have been fire bombings of the group's property. In November, an imam allegedly close to the movement was gunned down in Hakkari. The PKK denies involvement in the murder.

For three years, the most popular soap opera on the biggest of its television channels has portrayed a pious teacher's fight to enlighten ignorant Kurdish villagers and stand up to the PKK. Last year, it set up a private Kurdish language TV channel.

The movement has played a more questionable role in the on-going trial of 150 Kurdish politicians accused of "abetting a terror organization." Gulen supporters are known to be powerful in the police and judiciary, and many observers say that operations which began across the Turkish southeast last year were the work of pro-Gulen police and prosecutors. The pro-Gulen media has given the trial massive, highly partial coverage.

In such a climate of mutual dislike, it is a miracle the two sides are talking at all, says Yusuf Goz, a journalist in the mainly Kurdish city of Van. "It is like Cain kissing Abel, rather than killing him."

On December 14, facing criticism from within the Gulen Movement, as well as from radical secularists who see it as the enemy number one of a secular Turkish Republic, Huseyin Gulerce apologized publicly for talking to Ocalan's lawyers. "Apparently I made a mistake," he wrote in Zaman, insisting the meeting had been his initiative, not Gulen leadership's. "I forgot that some people want terrorism to continue and want to advance their personal interests."

Was all the talk of dialogue just a flash in the pan, then? Highly unlikely, analysts say.

"Ocalan has come to the conclusion that it is impossible to move towards a solution [of the Kurdish war] without Gulen," says Rusen Cakir. "And his analysis is right."

The Movement is too powerful in southeastern Turkey to be driven out by force. It also has very good relations with the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan, where the children of the elite are taught in Gulen schools and the PKK has its mountain headquarters. Ocalan also has more personal reasons for wanting better relations with Gulen, analysts say.

The Turkish state now admits that it is talking to him directly in its efforts to end the PKK war, comforting him in his view of himself as the chief representative of the Kurdish people. With elections due next summer, though, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has begun to take a more hawkish line.

"The Gulen Movement has a sort of symbiotic relationship with the government," says Murat Yalniz, a journalist who follows the movement closely. "Talking to it means opening up a new channel when the channel with the government is closing."

For supporters of Fethullah Gulen, the most immediate advantage of burying the hatchet with the PKK would be greater ease of movement in the region: at present, there are districts that are essentially out of bounds for the movement representatives.

But analysts think that the movement, like the PKK, may also have realized the limits of intimidation as a tool to cow its rivals.

The prosecutors and police who launched the 2009 operation against Kurdish politicians probably thought it would sweep them aside as quickly and as successfully as the on-going investigations into alleged coup plots against the government have destroyed ultra-nationalist secular circles, says Rusen Cakir.

"But the Kurdish political movement turned out to have sharper teeth."

The sight, on Page One of Zaman, of hundreds of Kurdish men and women, several of them well-respected public figures, standing handcuffed in a police line, "didn't intimidate [Kurdish nationalists], it sharpened them up yet further."

Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.

Turkey: Are PKK and Gulen Movement Burying Hatchet?

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