Hunger Strikes: The hourglass for democracy

By Dilar Dirik:

Since September 12th 2012, Kurdish prisoners in Turkey have been on an indefinite hunger strike. A group of around 65 prisoners initiated the protest, but by now, thousands have joined their struggle – among them other prisoners, members of parliament, and civil campaigners all over the world. The political prisoners have three basic demands: the end of the isolation of PKK-leader Abdullah Öcalan, the right to defend oneself in one’s mother tongue in court, and the right to education in Kurdish.

But what are the political and moral implications of a hunger strike?

Many Turkish politicians, most prominently the Prime Minister Erdogan himself, have accused the hunger strike -which is on its 62nd day today – to be a form of political blackmailing. Other analysts claim that such a form of protest is inefficient and only impedes diplomatic efforts. Such statements however make it seem like the government has given the Kurdish political society many other options.

First of all, the prisoners’ demands are of a legitimate and reasonable nature. Some mainstream media agents recognize the demands as such, but yet appease the government by stating that the demands cannot be met in such a short period of time. But of course the hunger will not last until a bill becomes a law after passing a full legislative process. The government needs to show genuine concern and effort to meet the requests. Erdogan’s aggressive tone, including threats to reintroduce the death penalty, does not show any empathy with the strike, but legal propositions for language rights in court suggest negotiations under the table. How can one speak of inefficiency, when the hunger strike has sped up diplomatic processes in an otherwise inefficient system? And besides, how many other tools to raise awareness of the situation of Kurds have drawn as much attention to the cause as the hunger strike has?

Hunger striking is not blackmailing. Blackmailing is used to exert pressure on a second party by threatening them with something they find precious in order to manipulate their behaviour in one’s favour. In the case of the hunger strike however, it is wrong to speak of blackmail, when the entities which the hunger strikers are accused of threatening with are their very own bodies. Rejecting food as a means to campaign for a human rights cause is in fact a challenge for the system. Surely the protestors are fully aware of the impact that the possibility of their deaths will have on Turkey’s reputation, and they use this as their strongest weapon, their loudest voice against a system of censorship and unlawful incarcerations.

Nobody starves for fun, hunger strikes are always a last resort! Degrading them to things like blackmail only begs the question of the actual problems. Instead of condemning this form of protest, people need to engage with the underlying causes that lead to people resorting to such a life threatening action. Blackmails bring illegitimate gains upon people, but hunger strikes put one’s own life at risk, in order to gain what one is naturally entitled to. The prisoners do not fight for better conditions for themselves (which is also a legitimate cause), but rather act for reasons they perceive as greater than themselves.

Hunger strikes are an hourglass for democracy, because they pose a race against time. They are an ultimate and unselfish form of personal sacrifice for a cause that one unconditionally subscribes to. People risk their lives, even though they don’t have to, because they believe in the righteousness of their demands. Every sand corn that rinses down the hourglass is symbolic of the deteriorating health of the prisoners. The more time passes by, the faster the sand drizzles down, the more urgently the authorities need to act. The next couple of days will show how far the government will be pressured to take action against the evitable death of the prisoners. We will see how fast the so-called democracy in Turkey can work, if it is forced to.

Time is ticking. According to doctors, the 40th day marks the crucial period after which hunger strikers can take serious, long-term harm, and ultimately face death as a result of the lack of food intake. In order to prolong their protest, the prisoners take vitamins, salt and sugared water, which are reported to be denied to them in some instances.

I find it disturbing to hear people judging the hunger strikers, as if their activism was somehow a selfish thing. Along with deep respect and thankfulness for their willingness to fight, we need to at least recognize that this protest is an unselfish and peaceful act, and as the media discourse shows, very much efficient. Even if the strike wasn’t “efficient”, there is still an immensely meaningful social value in such a kind of dedication. Nobody wants the hunger strike to have to continue any longer. Staying in solidarity with the strikers does not mean that one gets a sadistic kind of enjoyment out of the suffering of the prisoners. The aim of the strike is not death. On the contrary, the hunger strikers love life so much that they are willing to die fighting for it. Condemning the strikers is futile. They use the most powerful weapons that are available to them and the only harm they cause is to their own bodies, and to nobody else.

Instead of criticizing people’s autonomous choices, we must keep pressuring the authorities to engage in peaceful negotiations, to acknowledge the Kurdish cause, and to recognize Öcalan as a dialogue partner without which this conflict cannot be solved. Every person with a conscience must address the demands of the prisoners and encourage the dialogue. Attempting to make moral judgements about the “efficiency” of the hunger strike distract from the urgency of the real moral issue: people are dying! If you want to condemn someone, it should be the government that watches the slow death of its own citizens. How to treat the lives of thousands of people is a decision that politicians need to make.

But time is also ticking for the Turkish government. The Kurdish civil society is becoming stronger every day. Democratic Turks sign petitions to support the demands of the prisoners. The bus tour for the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan is still touring Europe. Journalists, politicians, artists, and many other campaigners join the hunger strike. While the AKP administration emphasizes its physical power and tries to assert its sovereignty by using force, the hunger strikers are an example of how ideals can trump paradigms based on power. The hunger strike was born in small prison cells, but expanded without any use of violence into the minds of many people all over the world. The socio-political structures of Turkey may perpetuate desperation in the face of injustice, but this act of civil disobedience indicates hope.

Not consuming food for 62 days and counting is an astonishing illustration of the determination of the human mind. The strength of these people shows how far people are willing to go for peace and justice. The people in the streets of Turkey chant “No deaths, but solutions”. The children, journalists, politicians, human rights activists in prison, the censorship of the media, Roboski, the attacks on BDP members, in short, the human rights abuses against the Kurds can no longer be denied.

In March, a group of 15 Kurdish activists went on a hunger strike in front of the European Parliament which lasted 52 days. I visited them a couple of times, and the more the desperation and helplessness among the visitors grew, the more proudly the determination in the eyes of the strikers shone. You paralyze when you face human strength that transcends everything that comforts you in your cosy safety zone. In a consumerist society, a hunger strike is perhaps the most radical weapon one can use against systemic abuse. Hunger strikers do not look for pity. They are conscious of their sacrifice as a voice to raise awareness of their cause and they are so committed that they see justice beyond their own lives.

In the hope for a positive end to this devastating time, I send all my respect and thoughts to the prisoners who starve so we can have a better future. May their voices be heard!

Copyright © 2012

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