Huseyin Yildirim carries a heavy weight on his shoulders. While he says he never killed a man, he was jailed for membership in Kurdish Hizbullah, a radical Sunni Islamist group that was reputedly connected to about 500 murders in the 1990s. Now, he heads a countrywide NGO that he insists is dedicated to peace.
"Yes, some of our members were Hizbullah, but we are opposed to violence, categorically," Yildirim says, speaking in his office at the headquarters of the Association for the Oppressed, or Mustazaflar-Der, in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey's biggest city. "Our fight is against poverty, ignorance and all sources of social conflict."
In the region, where memories remain fresh of the conflict between Hizbullah and the left-wing separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, many remain skeptical. "Hizbullah did all this killing in the name of Islam", says Celal Aygan, head of another Islamic-minded association in Diyarbakir. "People do not trust [it]."
Others fear they might just be beginning to. When police found torture chambers and grave-filled safe houses during a massive crackdown on Hizbullah in 2000 that led to the arrest of roughly 6,000 members, the group was nicknamed "Hizbatrocity." Now, some observers say, the NGO seems to be able to pull crowds bigger than the PKK, traditionally the strongest group in the region.
In February, during a Turkish army incursion against PKK camps in northern Iraq, 40,000 Islamists marched in Batman, near Diyarbakir, to protest Israeli attacks on Palestine. Thousands also turned out in late April in towns across Turkey when the NGO organized celebrations for the Prophet Mohammed's birthday.
The group "can become an influential power in southeast Turkey in the mold of Lebanon's Hizballah, Iraq's Mahdi Army, and Hamas" in Palestine, warned a policy paper published last September by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Many local analysts think this sort of talk is a knee-jerk reaction to the religious-minded AK Party government's tripling of its Kurdish vote at general elections last summer.
When 100,000 gathered in February 2006 during the Danish cartoon crisis, the media presented it as a Hizbullah march, says Bulent Yilmaz, head of a conservative local NGO. "In fact, 95 percent were ordinary people -- Kurds are close to their religion and always have been. None of the groups you see today -- including this one -- have come out of nowhere," Yilmaz said.
"Personally, I'd be delighted to see signs of the Islamization the media is talking about. But I don't," Yilmaz continued.
Ideology-wise, Kurdish Hizbullah seems as radical as ever. The group's publications refer to Turkey's secular government as 'taguti', or sinful. "If Islam comes to the fore, there won't be any need left for fighting and killing", says Sait Sahin, the soft-spoken head of the group's Istanbul branch office. In a book published in 2004, Hizbullah's Germany-based leader Isa Altsoy is more forthright. "Imperialists and Zionists [used the September 11 attacks to] launch a [global] war against Muslims. ... Those who oppress us should know that if they don't stop, we will turn their world into hell."
Despite such inflammatory rhetoric, the NGO's activities in Turkey appear peaceful enough. "We are a bridge between rich and poor", Yildirim says, explaining how his group provides basic food for 300 poor families in Diyarbakir every month, working at night so as not to cause tensions with equally needy neighbors. With permission from the local governor, eight doctors volunteering for the organization do medical tours of surrounding villages.
Nesip Yildirim, a local human rights activist, suggested that Mustazaflar serves an important purpose. "Hizbullah was like a closed box", he says. "Coming out onto the street, as the NGO is doing, starts the socialization process, and that leads to moderation. That should be supported. These people must not be convinced they were wrong to choose the path of legality."
Question marks do remain about the group Turkey: An Islamic Radical Group Resurfaces, Striving to Embrace Peaceful Change not least in its ambiguous attitude towards its brutal past. Celal Aygan, a lawyer who has talked to former members of Hizbullah's armed wing in jail, says many appear to regret what they did. Asked about the group's notorious torture cells, though, Mustazaflar's Yildirim argues that the worst atrocities were the work of state agents in the group. "The Community only killed because it was attacked," he says of Hizbullah's PKK war.
The group's failure to renounce its brutal past makes some nervous about Mustazaflar's future direction. One local journalist cites the recent police confiscation of Russian-made guns being imported from Syria as evidence that the group is rearming.
A prominent Kurdish intellectual and former politician, Hasim Hasimi thinks more violence is unlikely. "War has brought suffering to the people of this region for 25 years," he says. "Everybody knows supporting another [conflict] means losing [popular] support."
Author of a book on the group, journalist Rusen Cakir agrees that the fading away of the two main causes of Hizbullah radicalism -- the Iranian Revolution and the PKK war -- reduce the chances of a second bout of brutality. Yet, while he believes the group's leaders are sincerely trying to keep it away from violence, he can't help feeling a little nervous. "A Hizbullah member told me recently how much the majority of Community members appreciated my articles," he says. "I said I was afraid of the minority."
While most members may now eschew violence, "some of them can kill people," he added.
Nicolas Birch specializes in Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.