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Genesis of the Problem: The Roots of Kurdish Nationalism

The Kurds nowadays are experiencing the period of the deep reawakening of the national consciousness as the populace. They have been aware of themselves as the separate populace and community for well over one thousand years – linguistically sharply dissimilar from the Turkish and Arab neighbors and the separate division between dissimilar populaces. In the end of 19th and 20th centuries, the Kurds have at different periods of times agitated for the local or state rights. Nowadays, faced with the mixture of dramatic national political alterations and deep global evolvements, the Kurds of Turkey have entered a novel level of national consciousness. National assertiveness has developed in the context of the current globe of the nation states, the increase of human rights and democratization, augmented communication between all Kurds, and augmented political expectations. According to Othman, the appearance of novel Kurdish political self-awareness is a political development largely permanent in character: one does not willingly unlearn obtained ethnicity (Othman1989, p.39-59).

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The Delayed Domestic Emergency

Why have Kurds, who comprise the major ethnic bloc after the Arabs, Turks and Persians in the Middle East, been comparatively late in evolving the current nationalist movement? Dissimilar populaces of course experience dissimilar models of nationalist development, consistent with the historical circumstances and also geography. The Kurds’ delay in evolving the strong nationalist movement results from many factors. Geography heads the list: As populace living in the mainly mountainous area, the Kurds have been isolated from one another, with no strong central state organization like those, which evolved in the great plains of the Tigris and Euphrates or in the Nile valley of Egypt. Geography and the nomadic way of existence for long time periods strengthened the deviation of some Kurdish dialects, many of them not willingly mutually comprehensible nowadays. In political terms, for at least the last 500 years Kurds have been separated among Ottoman Empires and Persian; in the past 70 years, they have been yet further separated between the states of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. What is more, McDowall asserts that these political separations, not astonishingly, seriously constrained chances to evolve the more comprehensive national image; at the same time, the states involved have been obviously intent upon inhibiting Kurdish nationalism within the boundaries (McDowall 1996, p. 21-42). Needless to mention that the Kurds have also generally existed in the more isolated areas of larger empires, for instance, the Persian, the Arab Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, or the Ottoman; isolation from imperial centers demonstrated the evolvement as the united and strongly self-conscious populace. Isolation and the usual pastoral manner of living in many spheres contributed to the evolvement of the strong clan and tribal organization, which perpetuated regional and also political divisions.

During the period of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurds, together with the other Muslims, were a part of the larger Sunni Muslim center of the multi ethnic empire. The empire was totally cognizant of the minorities – but it defined them in the religious, not the ethnic, terms. Therefore, the existence of Jewish and Christian minorities was legally accepted. For Muslim ethnic groups, nevertheless, the notion of minority status in legal terms did not actually exist: the Muslim social and religious basis of the empire was made up of Kurds, Turks and Arabs. Even if the tongues and cultures varied, the religion fundamentally did not: Sunnis were all evenly Muslims and believers; ethnic and linguistic dissimilarities between them were no legal result.

Kurds, as the fraction of the Sunni community of the Ottoman Empire, were already treated as the separate group by the Sultan in the 16th century, when many independent principalities or the Emirates were created. Used by Sultan to guarantee the stability of the boundaries, the Emirates were autonomous in the internal affairs. In exchange for the autonomy, they provided sultan soldiers and taxes. Though the relations among the Kurdish lords and Sultan were not at all times free of trouble, the system survived into the 19th century.

Of course, Kurdish clans and tribes were well aware of the linguistic or cultural distinctiveness, but this was not a period in which “national” notions were well formed. The autonomous Kurdish lords were not chiefly kind to their own populaces either. Generally, Kurds were identified with the larger Ottoman society, but, far more crucial, at the local degree they were identified with dissimilar religious orders or tribal groups. These tribal groups were frequently in conflict with one another, forming shifting models of alliances; indeed, the primary social cleavage lay among tribal fighter and the sedentary cultivator.

McDowall asserts that by the 19th century, the novel aspects induced gradual political alteration in the relations among Kurds and Ottoman administration: augmented imperial interference in the Kurdish areas, levies for the troops, and warfare among Russia, the Ottoman Empire and Iran, which touched Kurdish areas increased challenges to the privileges of Kurdish overlords and the wider model of rebellion against Turkish rule throughout the empire. The empire’s effort at centralization was met with amplified conflict in Kurdish districts, some of which was an outcome of recklessness by Kurdish chieftains intent on pursuing own aggrandizement (McDowall 1996, p. 21-42).

Among the rebellious leaders, Bedirhan Bey of Cizre and Mir Mehmet Pasha of Rewanduz are the most famous. The revolts were suppressed at a cost of many livings. There were a total of 50 dissimilar Kurdish insurrections against the Ottoman state, many involving Kurds of today’s Iraq as well. The revolts, nevertheless, were not nationalistic in character and their repression led to the strengthening of religious orders (shaykhs and tariqats) leaders, who would later play a crucial role in fomenting novel rebellions (McDowall 1992, p. 17). By and large, the conventional feudal Kurdish lords in the districts, the aghas, perceived themselves as Sunni Muslim subjects of basically Islamic empire and had no interest in the random Kurdish entity in which their own position may alter for the worse (McDowall 1992, p. 17).

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The altering fortunes of an empire at the finale of the 19th century together with nationalist stirrings of Armenians in areas also inhabited by Kurds provided some of the other grounds for Kurdish disappointment. With the ascension to the throne in 1876, Sultan Abdulhamid II sought to harden the foundation of the Ottoman state by stressing Islamic character of the empire. Between those to be co-opted were Kurdish leaders and elites. Yet, simultaneously, seeds of differentiation were also being sown by a state. Between the primary cases of the direct interference and differentiation in Kurdish area by the imperial state in Istanbul was the development in 1891 of Kurdish soldiered Hamidiye regiments. Established to keep order in the eastern provinces, the battalions were finally utilized by the Ottoman state in its campaign against the Armenians. Meanwhile, the armed organized battalions became the resource of the state-sponsored division within the Kurdish community as those Kurds bene%uFB01ting from the state patronage and arms would provoke and tyrannize those who did not. They also reflected an effort by the state unintentionally perhaps to differentiate among Kurds and non-Kurds, counting Turks (McDowall 1996, p. 21-42).

The Hamidiye, just like the village guard system one century later, further reinforced the tribal ties between Kurds. Whilst there is a discussion over the level of ethnic awareness exhibited by Kurds during the second part of the century, from the augmented political activities in Istanbul and elsewhere, it is obvious that something was afoot. The empire was experiencing turmoil at the center: The Committee of Union and Progress had started to agitate for a return to constitutional rule, which sultan had abrogated. It is during this time period that the initial Kurdish national newspaper, Kurdistan, was issued in 1898 by Kurdish exiles in Cairo, later transferred to Geneva and to England. Indeed, much of the Kurdish elite went into exile in dissimilar parts of the Middle East, Turkey, and Europe.

It is interesting that with Young Turk rebellion in 1908, two opposing trends emerged. On the one hand, the stress on Islam was substituted by the secularism and constitutionalism. In the ensuing environment of liberalism, “Kurdish” national activities increased when lost of Kurdish intellectuals who had abandoned hope in the efficacy of nationalist revolt looked to constitutional reform and Ottoman liberal movements as the best ways to accomplish the greater national rights. Kurdish cultural and political societies burgeoned, not merely in Istanbul, but also in the large cities of the Kurdish southeast. The primary nationalist grouping, the Kurdish Society for the Rise and Progress, was established in 1908. But “Constantinople Spring” was soon repressed in 1910 (Othman 1989, p. 39-59).


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On the other hand, whilst return to constitutionalism served the more current aspects of the Kurdish elite, it did lead to an anti-regime reaction between the shaykhs and religious orders. Some of them engaged in the open rebellion. The Young Turk regime, discovering itself besieged internationally and also domestically, increasingly turned to pan-Turk-ism as a way to consolidate its power. In the finale, when the Young Turks dragged the empire in the First World War, the Kurds proved to be loyal subjects: they actually fought in and alongside the Ottoman armies (Othman 1989, p. 39-59).

It is important to add that the defeat of Ottomans in 1918 and the signing of the 1920 Sevres Treaty provided the turning point for Kurds. The winning allies had occupied huge parts of an empire with the aim of dismembering it. By the way, the Sevres Treaty not only offered Armenians statehood out of the areas carved from the Ottoman Empire but also “imagined temporary autonomy for predominantly Kurdish districts of Turkey with a view to the complete independence of the inhabitants of these districts wanted this” (McDowall 1992, p. 17).  

That, naturally, never got materialized as the Turkish nationalist movement, under control of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, revolted against Sultan and the occupying Western powers. In a process of rebellion, Ataturk was successful in enlisting the support of the Kurds in his mission. In the beginning of the War of Independence, Kemal usually invoked the party of Turks and Kurds, the commonality of the struggle, and the brotherhood of the two populaces (Keskin 1996, p. 52-54).

What is more important, in his primary speech to the newly gathered parliament in 1920, Kemal argued the parliament was not composed of the representative of Turks, Circassians, Kurds, but rather the representatives of the strongly united Islamic Community. Kemal had even envisaged, according to some accounts of his speeches with journalists, that where Kurds were in the majority they would govern themselves autonomously (McDowall 1996, p. 21-42).

Kemal together with the rebellious forces, experiencing the lack of men and material, could not estrange the Kurds: they required Kurdish assistance to maintain the struggle against the foreign invaders. The Kurds assert they provided the support on the understanding a common Muslim cause existed against Western interventionists, and that future Turkish-Kurdish common multi ethnic state would appear. However, some Kurds did revolt against Kemal: among the revolts, that of the Kocgiri in 1920 was the most crucial, as it forced Kemal to redirect the soldiers from the major theater of war to deal with what could potentially have led to the serious division within Kurdish/Turkish ranks (McDowall 1996, p. 21-42).