Kurdish nationalism from World War I through 2007: An incomplete historical narrative - II

  • KurdishMedia.com - By Benjamin Kweskin
  • 31/03/2008 00:00:00

Ottoman Rule and Turkey

History describes Kurdish power and centuries-old regional autonomy in a different manner. In general, Kurds as well as other ethnic minorities did not fully conceptualize a separate nation-state for themselves. Even the terrorist organization Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) does not call for an independent Kurdistan, instead asking for equality within the Turkish system. [1]

From the 16th to 19th centuries, the Ottomans had allowed various Kurdish emirates to be established among the population; this was only allowed in exchange for taxes and soldiers. [2] Religious differences and privileges were distinguishing factors among the citizens of the Ottoman Empire, not ethnic distinctions; by this definition there was not a great deal of difference among Turks and Kurds. Moreover, the rulers of these fiefdoms were concerned about their own status quo power, and less about separate national identity. Tribal leadership were also often at odds with one another, and despite a shared history and culture, internecine battles were the norm, demonstrating at the very least a lack of unifying leadership that would last well through the Kurdish civil war of the mid-late 1990s between Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) militias.

Perhaps one of the most intriguing facts revolves around the numerous Kurdish rebellions against the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. All in all, there were a total of fifty various Kurdish insurrections. [3] They were, however, mostly non-nationalistic in nature. This could be explained by looking at the perspective of the traditional feudal lords, who saw themselves as Muslim subjects of a fundamentally Islamic empire and had no interest in an unpredictable Kurdish entity in which their own status would perhaps diminish significantly.” [4]

Influenced by European nationalism and the simmering (and at times boiling) consciousness of the Armenians who were also Ottoman subjects, Kurds began to realize that “The old man of Europe” would not last for much longer. It is during the latter period of the 19th century that the awakening of modern Kurdish nationalism evolved, as the first Kurdish national newspaper, Kurdistan, was published (1898) in Cairo because it was illegal to print Kurdish in the Empire. [6,7] With the advent of the “Young Turk” revolution in 1908, the former traditional and political emphasis on Islam was replaced with secularism and constitutionalism, anathema to the religious and tribal leaders among the then-still mostly nomadic population.

As a result Kurdish national aspirations increased and became further articulated when many Kurdish intellectuals looked upon Ottoman liberal movements and constitutional reform as the best means to achieve greater national rights. Kurdish political and cultural societies flourished, not only in Istanbul and other large cities in Anatolia, but also in the large towns of the southeast such as Diyarbakir (Amed), and “Iraqi” cities such as Sulaimaniyah, Erbil (Hawler), and Mosul.

After the Ottoman loss in World War I and the subsequent breakup of the empire in 1918, many ethnic groups that lived within the previous border were offered independent statehood by the victorious Allied powers through the newly formed League of Nations, such as the Armenians and later the Greeks, much to the dismay of the nascent Turkish republic led by Mustafa Kemal Attaturk. The Kurds themselves were offered independence, a move even sanctioned by the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. [8] Woodrow Wilson, famous for his “14 point plan” at the end of the Great War, even called for self-determination of “minorities living in Turkey.” [9]

This offer was withdrawn and rebuked once the Turks, Arabs, British, and French realized a vast amount of oil and water rested where historical Kurdistan was situated, namely in Southeastern Turkey and Northern Iraqi cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. Author Nader Entessar states that:

“…after several ill-fated attempts to resolve the Kurdish question, the Council of the League of Nations, in December 1925, voted in favor of maintaining the status quo and allowing Turkey and the newly independent Iraq to control their Kurdish areas on the vague condition that minority rights be guaranteed for the Kurds.” [10]

In attempts to consolidate power, Attaturk spoke of Turkish and Kurdish equality and promised Kurds autonomy in areas where they remained the majority population. [11] However, both Kurds and Attaturk miscalculated each other’s overall objectives. Attaturk proclaimed in 1924 that the word citizen was from that point on to be equated with Turkishness. Kurds were faced with a dilemma they never expected.

Kurds, of course, could in theory “become” Turks, though this was implicitly at the expense of their Kurdish identity. Initially, Kurds were more accommodating and willing to support the Ottomans and followers of Kemal due to their mutual Islamic identity. However, upon the abrogation of the Caliphate in that same year, many Kurds reasoned that this was yet another concrete measure taken against anyone who was not “pure” Turkish, and ipso facto, became a separating and discriminating mechanism against them.

Discriminatory measures exercised against them upon the victory and establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923 caused them to reevaluate their relationship with Turkey and other Middle Eastern nations where Kurds made up a significant minority. As late as 1984, they were denied even the name “Kurd,” instead pejoratively referred to as “Mountain Turks.” [12]

Over the next few decades, Kurds maintained their struggle for at least minority rights, though their status dramatically decreased, especially as any form of Kurdish identity was repressed. Some Kurds chose to “sell out,” by assimilating entirely, thereby neglecting their Kurdishness; in exchange, they were rewarded with full rights, and were/have been able to succeed in every aspect within Turkish society, including politically and militarily. [13]

For those Kurds who refused Turkification, they remain[ed] on the periphery figuratively and literally, marginalized in every way from Turkish society. The southern and southeastern parts of Turkey remain the most impoverished and economically neglected regions of the country. Indeed, many of the inhabitants are only still only able to speak Kurdish, [14] and are generally looked upon with great disdain among the establishment. In Turkey, Kurds face daily discrimination, torture, and sometimes even death for even speaking Kurdish. It is problematic for people retaining Kurdish names, teaching their children Kurdish customs, traditions, and history. [15]

It was through this climate of Turkification, secularization, and Kemalism, that Kurds in Turkey began to express themselves politically. Although it is still illegal to form all-Kurdish parties, and speak of a separate Kurdish nation, political parties (mainly leftist-leaning ones) began forming in the late 1960s, especially among students and intellectuals. It was through this politicization process that the youth began to take the reigns out of the hands of the traditional mullahs and sheikhs in an attempt to control their own destiny. The PKK originated in 1974 as a group of Kurdish students calling themselves the “Ankara Democratic Patriotic Association of Higher Education,” demanding that Turkey recognize Kurdish cultural and linguistic rights. [16]

Roughly 15-20 million Kurds currently live in Turkey, a key NATO affiliate and hopeful EU member state. [17] With decades of the West looking the other way at such discriminatory policies, up until 1991 Kurds were not allowed to speak Kurdish, and any separate nationalist sentiment was grounds for imprisonment. The situation has somewhat improved, yet Turkey’s Kurdish problem persists. In 1992 the Turkish government again mounted an attack on its Kurdish minority (20 per cent of the overall population), killing more than 20,000 civilians.[18] Three years later, Turkey waged a military campaign against PKK terrorist camps in Northern Iraq, crossing the international border.

While one definition of terrorism could include that such organizations deliberately target civilians as the PKK does, one member of the group stated to BBC News correspondent Crispin Thorold, "We have a right to defend our nationality…the Turkish government has for many years stood against the Kurds. There are no schools, no Kurdish language, and no rights for the Kurds.” He later claimed “PKK does not target civilians.” [19]

In recent years, an estimated 1-2 million Kurds have been displaced by the Turkish army, approximately 2,500 Kurdish villages have been destroyed through a “scorched earth” policy, and nearly 30,000 Kurds have been killed. [20] In 1999, Turkish security forces (with the assistance of the Israeli Mossad, CIA, and Kenya’s National Security Intelligence Service) captured PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan at the Greek embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, who was later condemned to death but is still sitting in prison. [21] As a result of his capture, the Democratic Society party (DTP) is now the main “legitimate” voice of Kurdish nationalism within Turkey today. [22]

Reforms passed through the Turkish Parliament in 2002 and 2003 in attempts to hasten eventual Turkish entrance in the European Union. This resulted in the positive steps ending previous bans on private education in Kurdish, speaking the language in public, and allowing children to have Kurdish names. Kurds contend these concessions were not gestures of good will benefiting the Kurdish people, but to help Turkey receive EU funding and win international praise. Lucidly exemplified by widespread poverty in Turkish Kurdistan, many residents are unemployed, and the region remains economically underdeveloped, despite government official’s desire to prove to the EU they are worthy of acceptance. [23]

Since the governing Justice and Development (AKP) party denied Washington the use of Turkish land to be used against Saddam Hussein in 2003, and opposed the war outright, Turkey has steadily normalized relations with their remaining neighbors, Syria and Iran. [24] Convinced the EU will never accept them, and burdened with continued US demands as well as Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorism, Turkey has slowly crept towards the (Middle) East, slowly backing away from the West.

Bibliography of part II

1. “Turkish success and the “separatist” PKK.” Akpinar, Hüseyin. Kurdishmedia.com. Http://www.kurdmedia.com/article.aspx?id=14135. October 12, 2007.

2. ibid, pp. 6-7. Originally cited in David McDowall, A Modern History of the Kurds (London: I. B. Tauris, 1996), 21–37.

3. “Origins of the Problem: Kurdish Nationalism.” Wilson Center. Www.wilsoncenter.org/subsites/ccpdc/pubs/kur/chap01.pdf . Accessed September 31, 2007. p. 6.; Also see Kendal, ‘‘The Kurds under the Ottoman Empire,’’ p. 17.

4. ibid. P. 7; David McDowall, ‘‘the Kurdish Question: A Historical Review,’’ in The Kurds: A Contemporary Overview, ed. Philip Kreyenbroek and Stefan Sperl (London: Routledge, 1992), p. 17.

5. Ibid, pp. 8-9; See also Othman, “Kurdish Nationalsism,” p. 8.

6. Kreyenbrock, Phillip, and Christine Allison, p. 57.

7. Ibid, p. 9.

8. Ibid.

9. El Amir, Ayman, “Who wants another Israel?” Al-Ahram Weekly Online. Http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2007/870/op1.htm. Issue No. 870, Nov. 8-14, 2007.

10. Entessar, Nader “The Kurds in Post-revolutionary Iran and Iraq,” p. 916.

11. Ibid; see also Cumhur Keskin, ‘‘Türkiye’nin Kürt Politikasi ve Resmi Ideoloji’’ (Turkey’s Kurdish policy and official ideology in Turkey’s Kurdish problem), in Türkiye’nin Kürt Sorunu, ed. Seyfettin Gürsel et al. (Istanbul: TUSES, 1996), 52–54 and also Mustafa Kemal, Eskisehir-Izmit Konusmalari (1923) (The Eskisehir-Izmit speeches) (Ankara: Kaynak Yayinlari, 1993), 104–5; Kirisci and Winrow, 96.

12. Entessar, Nader, “The Kurds in Post-revolutionary Iran and Iraq, p. 911.

13. Ibid, p. 12.

14. Ibid, p. 13.

15. Ibid.

16. Entessar, Nader, “The Kurdish Mosaic of Discord, p. 94.

17. “The Kurds in Turkey.” Federation of American Scientists. Http://www.fas.org/asmp/profiles/turkey_background_kurds.htm. March 12, 2005; See also Nader Entessar, “The Kurdish Mosaic of Discord, p. 94.

18. IOPHIR: “History of the Kurds.” http://students.washington.edu/mmaurus/history/msg.htm. March 19, 2004.

19. “A mountain meeting with the PKK.” Thorold, Crispin. BBC News online. Http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7065431.stm. October 27, 2007.

20. Atroushi, Alex, Outlines of Kurdish Chronology. Http://www.kdp.pp.se/chronog.html. March, 20, 2004.

21. Ibid.

22. “Are the recent terrorist actions revenge for the elections?” Bagli, Mazhar. Today’s Zaman online. Http://www.todayszaman.com/tz-web/detaylar.do?load=detay&link=124213. October 9, 2007.

23. IOPHIR: “History of the Kurds.” http://students.washington.edu/mmaurus/history/msg.htm. March 19, 2004.

24. “The Kurdish Factor in Middle Eastern Developments.” Michaletos, Ioannis. Kurdishmedai.com. Http://www.kurdmedia.com/article.aspx?id=14152 . October 17, 2007. Originally published in World Press Review.

  • KurdishMedia.com - By Benjamin Kweskin
  • 31/03/2008 00:00:00