Abdullah Ocalan’s Prison Writings: The Roots of Civilization

Reviewed: Prison Writings: The Roots of Civilization, by Abdullah Ocalan, (London: Pluto Press, 2007, 320pp.)

The Turkish government’s attacks on Kurdish-populated areas in Turkey, Iraq and Syria, as well as the recent arrests in Turkey of academics who protested anti-Kurdish measures, has focused attention on the role of Kurdish movements in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey, and on the role of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Among other actions, the Turkish government is demanding a “security zone” on its frontier with Syria and Iraq to limit Kurdish influence. Turkish government policy is colored by its armed conflict since 1984 with the Kurds during which some 45,000 people − mostly Kurds − have been killed and a large number of Kurdish-populated villages destroyed.

Thus attention is again turning to the views and influence of the leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan. In February 1999, Ocalan was kidnapped on his way from the Greek embassy in Nairobi, Kenya to the airport by intelligence agents of the US, Israel, and Turkey. He was flown to Turkey where he was tried and condemned to death for treason. In 2002, as part of Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union, the Turkish Parliament abolished the death penalty, and Ocalan’s sentence was transformed to life imprisonment. He is kept in solitary confinement as the only prisoner on the prison island of Imrali.

Ocalan has appealed his sentence and prison conditions to the anti-torture committee of the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights. The only way his book Prison Writings: The Roots of Civilization, which was written in prison, could leave the prison was as documentation for his appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. It is unclear what the judges thought of this reflection on 3,000 years of Middle East history with long sections on Sumerian mythology recalling Samuel Kramer’s History Begins at Sumer.  

Ocalan had become politicized in the early 1970s by participating in Leftist university student movements. The emphasis was on developing democracy within Turkey, not yet on Kurdish autonomy. In 1972, he was arrested in a general crackdown on students and was imprisoned for six months. There he was able to spend much of his time reading, and so he draws on his memory for these prison writings. His current prison has no library facilities, and his lawyers or family cannot send him books. Thus a team of translators-editors who prepared the Prison Writings text for publication has added extensive footnotes to identify people and places mentioned and a bibliography as background.

Abdullah Ocalan is usually referred to as a Marxist, and there are Marxist elements in his thinking, especially in his outlining of progression of societies based on the means of production: hunters, agriculturalists, slave-holders, feudal, capitalist. However, he is a Marxist in the tradition of Antonio Gramsci, although Gramsci’s name does not appear in the bibliography. For Ocalan, ideology is the basis of change. Technology and the means of production come to fill the spaces first opened by ideas. Thus his prison writings are a history of the Middle East as ideology. The next steps in history must come through a new ideological construction.

He writes “Every human society or group can be described by a number of key characteristics that also reflect its self-conception. One of these is its ideological frame of reference − what we may call its ideological identity. When we need profound information on the state of a human group, on the way that it interacts with its environment, the group’s ideological identity provides it…Beneath the clamor of battles lost and won, the stories of the rise and fall of political systems always hinge on the superior ideological and moral force of the new. When an old system runs out of breath and becomes inoperable, it will sooner or later be overcome by a new force emerging from within or beyond its precincts, irrespective of the imbalances of power that may be perceived to exist between the two antagonistic forces.”

He sees the main ideology of the Middle East −Islam − as a spent ideological force and as a block to all progress. “Islam had used up all political and ideological material, all the traditions of the Middle East and brought the region to a standstill. All religious myths and all forms of political authority that had been developed there ever since the Sumerian reached a dead end in Islam… Islam’s essence, its values, had been used up, leaving it an empty shell with increasingly fossilized political institutions…”

For renewal, there must be a post-Islamic society, what Ocalan calls “the age of a democratic pluralistic world” based on imagination, will-power, drive and reason. “The most difficult phase in helping a new society to be born is the struggle against dogmatism. Secularism is part of the political equipment in this struggle… For the first time, people are freeing themselves from the paralyzing pressure of dogmatic ideologies and void utopias. They are bringing all they have to the great process that is taking place − the renaissance of the people. The fall of rigid class-based dictatorships is an immense gain for those peoples whose existence is determined by democracy… In contrast to earlier epochs, the real importance of ideology today lies in communicating a perspective of hope. Ideology has to break dogmatic traditions while renouncing all kinds of utopian beliefs.”

For Ocalan, there are two main avenues toward a democratic pluralistic world: respect for human rights and the liberation of women. “The age of democratic civilization stands for the liberation of women as much as it stands for the liberation of the people… If the twenty-first century can initiate women’s awakening, liberation and gaining strength, this will be even more important than class or national liberation. The rise of a democratic civilization must be accompanied by the rise of women into equality on all levels.”

Rene Wadlow is President and a representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.