Taking Kurdish activism online

The Internet and the way it is being used by Kurdish activists has made it easier for Kurdish voices to be heard. It is now up to us to listen to what they have to say, says Esra'a Shafei.
For the past few years, the Internet has been increasingly referred to as a revolutionary force in the Middle East, serving as a necessary outlet for social, political, and religious activism. In addition to being used as a tool for transcending traditional media and circumventing state censorship, the Internet is now serving as a powerful platform for the advocacy of minority rights in the Middle East.  

Activists fighting for the rights of ethnic and religious minorities in the region, which have long been facing horrendous levels of oppression from their respective governments, are increasingly resorting to people-powered social media. The advent of the Internet and its growing accessibility rate has made it easier for their voices to be heard. This is particularly true of Kurdish cyber-activism, the subject of this brief case study.

Kurdish activists and bloggers face greater obstacles than other socio-political activists in the Middle East, as they have two main obstacles to overcome.

The first one is overcoming state-sponsored censorship, which the Kurdish minorities in Syria, Turkey, Iran, and previously, Iraq have grown accustomed to. Silencing the voices of Kurdish journalists, either by banning their books, articles, documentaries, blogs and news sites, or by more violent means such as imprisonment and death, is not uncommon amongst Kurdish communities. However, the direness of the situation has left many young Kurds willing to brave those risks.

The Internet has effectively helped decrease some of those risks for Kurdish activists, allowing them to campaign for their rights anonymously.  

Unfortunately however, it is not only state sponsored censorship that Kurds have to fear; the threat of nationalists is sometimes more severe.

Many Kurdish blogs and websites have been successfully hacked by Turkish programmers, without governmental interference being involved. These programmers, sometimes referred to as "hacktivists," have played a big role in silencing Kurdish journalists and bloggers by targeting their websites and making it incredibly difficult for administrators to maintain security and content. 

Despite such misfortunes, many Kurds remain hopeful about the power of the Internet, which is mostly used by the younger generation of activists.

Sehla, a Kurd now living in Kuwait and whose last name was withheld by request, says "Kurdish activism is more widespread today than ever."

Acknowledging the fact that Internet activism is influencing change in many ways, she says, "I am now in my 50's and when I was younger activism was at a minimum. Most people were not aware of our oppression, and there were not many ways we could make them aware."  

When asked how the Internet has contributed to the Kurdish cause, Sehla explains, "It is public activism yet private at the same time. I still remember when petition signatures used to be collected manually, if the petition authors were revealed they used to be violently beaten and imprisoned. This scared all of us into decades of silence. Demonstrations, no matter how peaceful they were, always ended in dozens of body bags. We feared for our lives and stayed silent."

This silence has clearly been broken. Using websites such as MySpace and Facebook, Kurds are actively promoting their culture – a right they have been denied in several countries of the Middle East, namely Turkey and Syria. Whenever they do publicly practice their cultural rights, the government responds with brutal attacks and unjustified arrests.

A recent tragic example is the Newroz (the traditional new year holiday, where Kurds unite spiritually for their cause) celebrations in Iran, Turkey, and Syria, where many innocent Kurds, including elderly women, suffered violent beatings. 

We do not have to wait for the mainstream media to report such attacks; many Kurds armed with video cameras are uploading such abuse on YouTube and other video-sharing communities, publicly condemning and raising awareness about this grave injustice that has been dismissed and justified for decades.

"We are becoming more hopeful," adds Nejdar, Sehla's husband, who used to be active in promoting Kurdish activism in Iraq when it was still under Saddam's rule. The family moved to Kuwait due to the current war and have since discontinued their activism due to fear. "We leave it up to the younger generation now to lead us. The future of Kurdistan is in the hands of our brave Kurdish children who are continuing the struggle."

And indeed, most are doing so peacefully, but under unbearable pressure from the government and from anti-Kurd nationalist groups who are trying to eliminate the Kurdish identity.

Many Kurdish activists also have to put up with their association to the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which is considered to be a terrorist organization in Turkey and the USA.

Writer Orhan Kemal Cengiz put it best in an article titled, "The Kurdish Question," published in the Turkish Daily News, noting that "there were also many Kurds in the region who saw the PKK as a backward and bloody entity but at the same time would have liked to be able to state their Kurdish identity in a peaceful way. They were silenced by both the PKK and the [Turkish] State."

In other words the PKK is hardly representative of many Kurdish activists and what they are trying to achieve by leading peaceful demonstrations, often interrupted by violent abuse and arrests from heavily armed Syrian and Turkish forces, and trying their best to make their voices heard.

Non-Kurdish activists (Arabs, Turks, and Iranians) are only now beginning to sympathize with the Kurdish cause more visibly and frequently, but a lack of awareness is still apparent in the region. Hardly any regional organization is actively fighting for their cause and condemning the many abuses that Kurds continue to suffer through.

The Internet and the way it is being used by Kurdish activists will significantly change this by increasing their reportage of Kurdish causes and documenting all forms of abuse. Now, the governments of Syria, Turkey, and Iran cannot hide their mistakes the way they used to.

"These governments are naked, the nationalist terrorists are naked. The world can see their flaws now," concludes Sehla.

The Kurdish population is known to be one of the largest ethnic minorities in the world, and is one of the most oppressed in the Middle East. It is up to us now to listen to what the Kurdish activists have to say and help them overcome the violent injustices that they have suffered through, or is the world waiting for another Kurdish genocide before it takes effective action?

Esra’a Al Shafei is the director of Mideast Youth and the co-founder of KurdishRights.org.