From Siegfried Sassoon to Sinead O'Connor, those who write open letters know their power

A whole lot of young men and women have just had their first introduction to concepts like women’s sexual freedom, structural oppression and liberation, and mental health stigmas by means of the Miley/Sinead debate.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority, because I believe that the War is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.

The boldness of this passage; the opening sentence of Siegfried Sassoon’s public letter to his Commanding Officer, still has the power to shock. I know this because several years ago as an A Level student I opened my set text, Regeneration by Pat Barker, and seeing these words was taken aback by their frankness and courage.

In making this ‘act of wilful defiance’ Sassoon knew of the risks he was taking. Lauded as a war hero and decorated with the Military Cross, he was now risking not only his reputation, but also his life - he only avoided a court-martial because he was deemed to be shell-shocked and not in his right mind. Yet Sassoon was in his right mind, and did know what he was saying. He was trying desperately to bring to an end the slaughter of his friends, his comrades and of similar young men fighting on the other side.

The letter, which was read out in parliament and printed in The Times, did not bring about an end to the war. It did, however, create unease and tension by drawing attention to the brutal realities of World War I.

We care about this letter now as a historical document, a reminder of why we wear poppies on November 11th - but there is more to it, I think, than that. It is also a cry against suffering and war. Its continued power is its timelessness - it is at once very specific to the war that Sassoon fought in and simultaneously something which can be applied to many conflicts, highlighting the terribleness of lives wasted for an inch of land.

43 years later, another letter would be written which would become representative of the ways in which Open Letters can effect change. The letter, written in a cramped jail cell on the margins of a newspaper, became known as Letter from Birmingham Jail. In this letter its author Martin Luther King addressed his fellow clergymen, responding to a letter they had written calling for an end to anti-segregation demonstrations, claiming these were ‘unwise and untimely.’  The response was to leave a far greater impression than the piece it sought to answer.

The letter, gentle yet unyielding in tone, perfectly mirrored the spirit of non-violent resistance which it advocates: ‘You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.’

It was published in The New York Post, The Christian Century and Atlantic Monthly, becoming one of the most influential texts of the Nonviolent Resistance movement. The letter, alongside King’s other work, doubtless played a part in bringing about an end to segregation in America. We care about this letter today as an example of the power of the written word - it is much anthologised perhaps because it proves true the old maxim about the pen being mightier than the sword. It demonstrates that the open letter can absolutely work as a convincing polemic.

But there is something going on with open letters which takes them beyond the traditional remit of a polemic. Rather than opening with a direct assertion, an open letter lays its ground. It addresses an individual or a group, addressing the correspondent at once directly, through means of the letter, and indirectly, through the public and other commentators who will read and have a reaction to the letter.

Open letters are designed to provoke discussion, and therein lies much of their strength. There is also something defiant about the open letter as though it is saying ‘I defy you not to respond.’

This was very much the case with Émile Zola’s famous letter to President Félix Faure. The words ‘J’accuse’ blazoned atop the front page of leading newspaper Aurore, was deliberately and importantly provocative. It had to be were it to succeed in its goal - that of drawing attention to the horrible injustice done to Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army who had wrongly been convicted of espionage and exiled to the evocatively named Devil’s Island.

By pointing the finger at those responsible in a public address, reciting J’accuse before a list of names like an incantation, Zola set himself up to be challenged, knowing this was the only way to lead to Dreyfus exoneration. Soon after the letter Zola was erroneously found guilty of libel and fled the country, but the tale of Dreyfus’ unfair conviction was out there and could not for long be suppressed.

Do we still need open letters and should we still care about them? Was last weeks open letter from Sinead O’Connor to Miley Cyrus important, or was it, as it has been widely portrayed, a salacious 'catfight' between female celebrities?

I would like to argue that yes, we should still care about open letters. The freedom to express oneself, thanks to the internet, is greater than ever, but this does not need to dilute the discourse or stop the momentum of the important open letter. Open letters nowadays, if anything have more momentum because they can reach a wider audience.

Was O’Connor’s letter to Cyrus important? Perhaps. It is not a letter which will spark a revolution or dramatically change society, but it raises issues which we need to talk about. Does the music industry exploit young women? Do young women feel compelled, by society, to behave in a certain way? Should we be concerned about young stars?

That the letter has opened up discussion on these fronts is important. A friend who is studying for a sociology doctorate made the following point - ‘Ridiculous bickering and bantering notwithstanding, a whole lot of young men and women have just had their first introduction to concepts like women’s sexual freedom, structural oppression and liberation, and mental health stigmas by means of the Miley/Sinead debate.’

I think she makes a brilliant point.

Was Sinead O'Connor really just one half of a 'catfight'? Image: Getty
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In the chaos of the Middle East, the world must stand behind the Kurds

The Kurdish people have shown themselves to be a small beacon of light in a sea of darkness.

It is one year since the lifting of the Siege of Kobanî. Many of us can recall harrowing images of the black flags of Isis flying threateningly from the surrounding hills, of car bombs being driven into the city’s defences, and of heroic citizens defending their houses and families from the despotic invaders intent on killing them. The Siege of Kobanî was the Stalingrad of the Syrian civil war – a true turning point in the battle against Isis.

Since then, we have seen a significant escalation in the involvement of the international community in Syria and Iraq. But to what end? Syria remains divided between various competing forces; Iraq is a half-governed country with declining influence over its populace. Foreign governments play power games across international boundaries which have long-since ceased to be relevant, least of all to those wishing to establish an Islamist caliphate.

Beheadings, suicide bombings, barrel bombs, religious extremism, violent intolerance, mass movements of people – these are just a few terms most associated with the Middle East today. To say the region is complex is an understatement bordering on ignorance.

In a recent PBS documentary, Inside Assad’s Syria, a television crew was sent to Damascus to cover its sectarian, religious and ideological divides. It showed us two halves to the city: one which lives in liberty and security; and another which resides in barrel-bombed apartment blocks and streets overrun with groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad.

In the southwest of Syria, pro-democratic force control pockets of land and fight Assad’s forces. In the northwest, Hezbollah works with Assad’s army to fight Islamist groups. Further north are areas ruled by groups with affiliations to Al Qaeda, such as the powerful al-Nusra Front. In the east, highways and cities have fallen to the apocalyptic regime of Isis, which stretches far across the old border into Iraq. What future does the Middle East have with such contrasting ideological and religious divides? It is near-impossible to offer a positive view for the future.

Resolving these issues will only be achieved in the long term and through a combination of local agreements (and perhaps the portioning of areas) of international oversight. In the short term, what can we do as citizens of a country with vested interests but limited power?

One of the problems of Western coverage and commentary is that we rarely view the Middle East in any way except through the prism of war. Debate is focused narrowly on the issues of intervention, extremism and migration. People are commonly talked about in derogatory terms with most mistakenly referred to as migrants, when many are fleeing from death and destruction.

These are people who, like us, desire to live in peace and security. They want to raise families and contribute to their communities. Although there are theological differences between Shias, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Jews and various minorities, for centuries these groups have lived alongside each other with general tolerance and respect. Churches have existed in the same cities as mosques. Yet the internecine conflicts have ruined the multiculturalism balances in Syria and Iraq. Communities have been divided against each other, sometimes on pain of death. The region is overrun with regressive forces.

Here in the UK, our view of foreign policy is shaped by the forming of alliances with progressive forces – that is those countries, governments and parties committed to values similar to our own. With the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as they are, dominated by regressive forces, our foreign policy is in disrepute. Who should we support in Syria? How can we continue to support Iraq’s army if it is being led on the ground by Iranian generals?

There is one force within the region that is progressive. They share our commitment to democracy, the rule of law and liberty. They have cohesive, well-led armed forces which not only protect their peoples, but also others in fear of persecution. Their women fight alongside their men, often in leadership positions. They have been the bulwark against Isis advances in both Iraq and Syria. They liberated Kobanî from oppression in tandem with US forces.

The Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria and the Peshmerga in Iraq have proved their strength and longevity in the face of enormous challenges. Lacking the weaponry appropriated by Isis, they have fought bravely and slowly liberated areas from tyranny. In doing so, they have treated non-Kurdish citizens well and protected them as they would wish to be protected by others. They have put their lives on the line for the common good, such as the taking of towns and cities outside of Kurdish areas. In doing so, they have refrained from declaring an expansion of Kurdish territory, instead stating that such lands will be handed over to local progressive groups when it is ready to do so.

Perversely, Western governments depend on Peshmerga and YPG forces to fight without adequately arming them. In Turkey, the same Kurdish citizens who would fight for the YPG against Isis are prosecuted and sometimes killed during clashes for protesting in favour of devolution. Turkey’s Kurdish populations in towns like Sur, Cizre, Nusaybin and many others are living under curfew. Yet we do nothing to raise this an issue.

Yet is it the Kurdish people that will be the first army to defeat the ideology of Isis. And because of this they are the biggest target. Their men and women are free. They live in lands governed by democracy, social justice and equality. They hold values in direct opposition to Isis but living in cities just miles apart. The Kurds are the only progressive force in the region which shares our values, has a commitment to democracy and has armies strong enough to protect its peoples.

If we believe in supporting those who share our values, we must show them our solidarity. Our support must go to Kurds as a whole not just those who fight for our interests, because the challenges Kurds face go beyond the borders set by the UK and France in 1920. These borders have been disregarded not only by Isis and al-Qaeda but also by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have each ignored international boundaries in pursuit of their interests.

It is fair to say that this simple notion of solidarity leads us to certain complications. Kurdistan is an ancient region divided up by imperial powers between Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. How do we support the Kurds without alienating our allies in Ankara and Baghdad?

During the 1991 Gulf War, the US, UK and France established a no-fly zone over Iraqi Kurdistan to protect Kurds from Saddam Hussein’s air force. A year later, the first free and fair elections were held in Kurdistan. It was also the first such election in the whole of Iraq. A decade on, whatever the merits of the conflict, the Peshmerga were allies of the Coalition during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Since then, Kurdistan has remained steadfast in its commitment to a democratic future.

In Iraq, there is already a functioning Kurdish state in all but name. It is a pioneering force for democracy in the Middle East. In Iraqi Kurdistan there is a core set of values based on tolerance, respect and freedom of expression. Inclusiveness is enshrined in law. Women are recognised as equal citizens, with a law requiring that a minimum of 30 per cent of National Assembly seats must be taken by women. Furthermore, seats are also reserved for minority communities, with the Christian and Turkmen communities guaranteed at least five seats each. These values mirror our values.

We should adequately arm the Kurdish forces of the YPG and Peshmerga to adequately protect their lands. We must do whatever it takes to ensure Isis is restricted from further post-liberation resurgences, as was seen in the Kobanî region following the redeployment of Kurdish forces to Iraq. Over 350 were killed or injured in that resurgence, simply because YPG and Peshmerga forces are overstretched.

We should also seriously consider supporting Iraqi Kurdistan in its long-term ambition to be an independent state – when the time is right. No other people deserves it as do the Kurds. It is the largest homogenous nation on earth not represented by a unified state. They have a right to determine their own future. True, there are major issues to contend with – most notably corruption, political infighting and the continued presidency of Masoud Barzani beyond his legal mandate – however these issues can be overcome with the close help and guidance of the international community.

Outside of Kurdish controlled-areas lie lands ridden with conflict. We have seen our fellow citizens, friends and trading partners have their lives ruined by the twisted and hate-filled soldiers of Isis. In Syria, close to Kurdish cities, pro-democratic forces have been wiped out by Isis or other Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda. The rest of Syria is pock-marked with the barrel bombs dropped by Assad’s forces. Even within Kurdish-controlled areas, bombs have been dropped from Turkish planes on Kurdish YPG soldiers fighting for values which we would call our own. The region is highly complex and constantly changing.

Turkey is therefore a key player. Yet in recent years President Erdogan’s administration has escalated the conflict with the Kurdish citizens it represents. Peace talks between Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) and the Turkish government ended unsuccessfully in 2015. Erdogan appears determined to militarily crush the PKK before any negotiations around a lasting peace can recommence.

Turkey has refused to recognise either the YPG or the PYD – the main political party of Kurds in Syria – as a legitimate force on the ground, due to its concerns that any Kurdish autonomy in Syria may motivate Kurds in Turkey to demand similar rights. Before the Syrian civil war there were thought to be between 16-20 million Kurds resident in Turkey, in contrast to just two million in Syria.

For Erdogan, this issue is of greater importance than what is occurring in Syria and Iraq. During the Siege of Kobanî, Ankara refused Kurdish YPG fighters the right to travel across the border into Kobanî to fight Isis forces. Rather than allow them to protect their families and friends, Turkey sprayed them with tear gas and removed their weapons. Significant international pressure belatedly led to Ankara allowing Peshmerga Forces to travel from Iraqi Kurdistan and enter Kobanî through Turkey – and just in time to save the city from Isis. In the interim period, Isis recruits routinely crossed over the border with ease.

The Erdogan administration’s conflict with its own Kurdish citizens is undoubtedly complex. Many Kurds in Turkey want some level of recognition and autonomy but it is not known how many desire outright independence. A free and fair poll has never been carried out and would not be tolerated by Ankara. President Erdogan prefers to suppress opinion rather than encourage it. Where is our solidarity for people demanding human rights?

While Turkey’s air forces have been bombing the Kurdish-controlled Kandil mountainous areas in Iraq, often missing Kurdish forces, Ankara has remained a strong ally of the government in Iraqi Kurdistan, which it sees as a correcting force against the regional influences of Riyadh and Tehran. However, Ankara fears an independent Kurdistan and the effects this may have on the Kurdish populations of Turkey and Syria. Ankara fears the establishment of a Greater Kurdistan, an option which is not on the table and most Kurds do not think is achievable.

Each of these issues is interconnected. Though Kurds in Iraq may carry different passports to those in Syria and Turkey, they similarly identify as Kurdish peoples. They share a culture, a religion and a language. The challenges faced by Kurds in Syria are of utmost concern to Kurds in neighbouring countries. There is a fraternity that must not be dismissed.

The Kurdish question in Turkey is obviously complicated. Turkey remains a critical member for the NATO alliance with its landing strips used to carry out bombing raids on Isis. Therefore, keeping Ankara on side is important to Washington. This is why we in the West have been relatively silent on the Kurdish issue. Meanwhile, the international and national boundaries of Iraq and Syria are now so distorted to be almost beyond repair. Kurds control areas beyond that of Kurdistan, with no other force strong enough to protect people in those areas. In our determination not to ‘put boots on the ground’, we ask Peshmerga and YPG forces to do the heavy lifting and endure the casualties of a conflict we in part caused. This is unfair to the Kurdish people.

We must encourage Turkey to end the Kurdish conflict within its borders. Ankara must resume peace talks with Abdullah Ocalan and the HDP – now the third biggest group in the grand assembly of Turkey. Ankara should accept that the Kurdish question cannot be resolved by militarily means. The overarching issues of inequality, equal citizenship and minority rights are beyond the control of even the strongest of strongmen.

The UK can help resolve the Kurdish question. We have long been a supporter of Turkey’s aspiration to become an EU member. We should agree to accelerate that process in return for allowing the EU to broker a peace. We have a duty to the citizens of any state which harbours ambition to join us. We have a duty to protect people’s human rights.

At the same time, we should support the Peshmerga and YPG as they fight a common foe. Defeating Isis forces in Iraq and Syria would reduce the Islamists’ ability to train home-grown jihadists and send them back to European cities. We should support them with weapons and finances in return for guarantees over human rights and post-conflict governance of the areas they retake from Isis.

The Kurdish people have shown themselves to be a small beacon of light in a sea of darkness. If we believe in the values of democracy, tolerance and freedom of expression – we must support those peoples that practice them. There are small steps we can take to show them our solidarity. We must do what we can to support them.

Ibrahim Dogus is the Director of the Centre for Turkey Studies (www.ceftus.org) and the Director of the Centre for Kurdish Progress (www.kurdishprogress.org).