London, Asharq Al-Awsat—İsmail Beşikçi was once a young intern in the predominantly Kurdish city of Elâzığ. After completing his degree at the highly prestigious Faculty of Social Sciences at Ankara University, he continued his research with the local governor. It was only when he went to a Kurdish village with the governor that he came across Kurds who didn’t speak Turkish. It immediately struck him that the villagers had to speak with the governor through an interpreter.
That was the first time Beşikçi had encountered Kurdish-speaking Kurds, with their different customs and dress, in contrast to the common belief that “all citizens are Turks”—a belief still backed by Article 66 of Turkey’s constitution.
And that was how Beşikçi started his work with the Kurds—the work that cost him his job, and resulted in him being imprisoned for a total of 17 years in 13 different prisons between 1971 and 1999. In addition, he was treated like an outcast by his fellow Turkish academics and intellectuals. It is said that a prominent left-wing Turkish writer, Aziz Nesin, who was angry with Beşikçi writing about Kurds, told him he should not forget he was “a blue-eyed Turk.”
But to the Kurds he became a symbol of honor for the way he spoke the truth, and for his unshakeable defense of the Kurdish people and their right to self-determination. Because of his fair complexion the Kurds game him a nickname, “Sari Hoca,” which means “blond teacher” in Turkish.
Beşikçi earned the love and respect of all Kurds—Marxist or Islamist, rich and poor, men and women of all ages. He is respected by Kurds all over the world. But he has never once taken any of this for granted, and among his friends he is known for his altruistic honesty and modesty. I remember once, in the early 1990s, his wife, a retired teacher, told some friends visiting their modest flat in Ankara that he would eat anything put in front of him without complaint even if it was a stone.
The appearance of this short, slim, soft-voiced man is often a surprise to many who meet him in person for the first time. In the flesh, he is the opposite of the stereotypical image of a heroic figure, though with his challenging and uncompromising stance on the Kurdish issue, Dr. Beşikçi is seen as a hero to many. I remember once in 1990, he visited the offices of the Kurdish Yeni Ülke newspaper. An elderly Kurdish livestock trader was sitting next to me. As Beşikçi was speaking to other visitors, the Kurdish man whispered in my ear to ask who the “tiny and soft-voiced” man was. He didn’t believe me when I told him it was İsmail Beşikçi, and said that I must be kidding. After I repeated my answer, he said, “Oh my God, so that is the heroic İsmail Beşikçi,” and went to shake his hand out of respect.
For half a century, Beşikçi has been an ardent critic of Turkey’s official policy of denial and oppressive policies towards the Kurds. In Beşikçi’s opinion, Kurdistan is not even a colony, because it has no legal status at all. Kurdistan, a land of rich natural resources now spread across several countries, was divided by Britain and France in the 1920s, with the close cooperation of Turkish, Persian and Arab states in the region.
On April 7 of this year, Beşikçi gave a talk on this issue to a packed committee room at the Palace of Westminster in London. He told the assembled guests how, at the beginning of the 20th century, politicians who worked in that very same building had drawn the borders of the region as part of the Sykes–Picot Agreement, which did not include an independent Kurdistan. During the same event, Beşikçi told a group of Kurds he had said the same thing about French policies at the French Parliament earlier this year, but that former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner was not happy to hear his words.
Beşikçi also criticizes the hypocrisy of others, including socialists, liberals and Islamists, towards the Kurds. “When Halabja was gassed by Saddam [Hussein on March 16, 1988], Muslim countries were holding their meeting sessions . . . and all Muslim countries just turned a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons in Halabja. But later those same Islamic unions condemned massacres against Muslims in Bosnia,” he said.
For Beşikçi, the core of the Kurdish issue is not the lack of human rights, or minority rights; it is in the division of Kurdistan—the way the Kurds have not secured their right to an independent and united homeland.
Now aged 75, Dr. Beşikçi still actively writes and talks about current Kurdish affairs in cooperation with a foundation set up five years ago in his name. The İsmail Beşikçi Foundation’s headquarters in Istanbul is now a prestigious hub for Kurdish studies. Run by his friends and relying on donations, it has its own building with a lecture hall and a library holding around 25,000 books.