Research Paper 03
By Raagini Sharma, Edited by Akshay Kumar
Kurds as an ethnic group have always demanded the creation of a Kurdish nation-state, and with it, territorial autonomy, democratic freedom and cultural rights. Presently, the Kurds are stateless and battling for their mere survival. Three of the most potent factors in the Levant region today - the rise of ISIS, the Syrian civil war, and political flux in Turkey – have placed the Kurds, especially in a precarious position with lurching consequences for the fate of one of the Middle East’s largest ethnic groups (Bohn, Lauren, 2015). Michael Gunter claims, ‘Kurdish nationalism largely developed in the 20th century as a stateless ethnic reaction against the repressive “official state nationalisms” of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria’ (Tezcur, 2009).
The durability of Turkish-Kurdish peace and the very future of Turkey is at stake in the fight (Bohn, Lauren, 2015). In the following paper, I would examine several issues concerning the Kurds - What is the genesis of their problem? Have the Kurds not been given a rightful place in Turkey, if not, then why? Is Turkey’s nationalism overbearing and partial to Kurds? Does Turkey consider Kurds as a security problem? What is the status of Kurds imbroglio presently and is there any viable solution in near future? This paper will analyse the Kurds conundrum considering the intrinsic factors mainly driven by Turkey’s nationalism and extrinsic factors in the Levant region to control ISIS.
Background: Kurds in Turkey
Kurds are an ethnic group based in the mountainous region of Western Asia known as Kurdistan, bounded by geographical, cultural and historical ties. This geo-cultural historical region of Kurdistan spans South-Eastern Turkey, North-Western Iran, Northern Iraq and North-Eastern Syria. For more than a thousand years, the bulk of the Kurds defied invasion or assimilation from mainly three threatening forces; the Turkish Ottomans in the northwest, the Persians in the east, and the Arabs in the south and southwest. Regional Kurdish leaders- Aghas, Mirs, Begs, Shaikhs, however, often recognised power and battled in the name of neighbouring states' sovereignty.
The sense of Kurdish nationalism arose in the last quarter of the 19th century with the emergence of sporadic revolts against the strong Ottoman Empire, demanding separate ethnic status and statehood. Kurdish ethno-nationalist movement further gained momentum during the 20th century and was augmented by the watershed events like the first world war and the consequent fall of the Ottoman Empire. Though the Sevres Peace Treaty signed in August 1920 between the Allied and Central powers carved out a separate Kurdish state, the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne signed in July 1923 between the Allied Powers and Turkey reversed this earlier territorial arrangement. It granted Turkish sovereignty and made no mention of any obligation to create a separate Kurdish state (Mansbach, Shana, 2019). Consequently, Turkey as a republic with its current borders came into existence on 29 October 1923.
Some Kurds were drawn towards the Turkish nationalist dream of creating a society in which Turks and Kurds have equal standing. Yet freedom was an independent idea from the Turkish point of view and the Kurds were forced to integrate into the Turkish society, while their distinct heritage was dismissed. When the last vestige of Ottoman rule, the Caliphate, was abolished in March 1924, all public traces of a separate Kurdish identity were also crushed. Kurdish schools, associations, publications, religious fraternities and teaching foundations were all banned (McDowall, The Kurds, 2004, p.36). Soon after the Republic of Turkey came into existence, Mustafa Kamel Ataturk, the founder of this modern Turkish state, denied the Kurdish statehood and suppressed all the revolts by the Kurdish people.
Between 1924 and 1990, as part of the effort to create a unified Turkish nation, the independent nationality of Kurds was systematically rejected. Since World War I, Kurds in Turkey have been the victim of persistent assaults on their ethnic, cultural and religious identity, alongside economic and political suppression by successive Turkish governments (Callimanopulos; Dominique, 1982). The atrocities against Kurds and non-acknowledgement of their culture severely alienated the community and resulted in widespread Kurds’ resentment. This also sowed the seeds for an armed organization that masters the art of guerrilla warfare - Partiya Karkara Kurdistan (PKK) – also referred to as Kurdistan Workers Party (Barkey and Fuller,1998; McDowall,1997).
Since its founding, Turkey has always neglected the systemic inclusion of both religious and ethnic minorities (Kilinc, 2014; Yegen, 2007). Therefore, Kurds as an ethnic group was never recognized within its borders. So much so that, when Turkey adopted its current constitution in 1982, it forbade the Kurdish identity and implemented martial law in all the areas dominated by the Kurds. The Kurdish people were left out from the purview of the constitution as Turkey believed that they could threaten the nationalist model of the state. Consequently, since the formation of the modern state of Turkey, Kurds has been in constant tension with the state and has experienced severe military and political oppression to various degrees (Çifçi, D, 2019)
From the identity point of view, Kurds are predominantly separated by the language from their neighbours. The dialectical variations amongst Kurds also restrict the common sense of unified ethnic identity, which is also further exacerbated by the split in their religious beliefs. The overwhelming Kurdish majority are Sunni of Shafii faith, a version of Islam not widely practised in the region by others. Nonetheless, large divisive impulses come into play at the level of customs in tribal groups and adherence to spiritual orders. The Kurds seem overwhelmingly attracted to different dervish societies and unorthodox Islamic sects, resulting in a categorical distinction amongst them.
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Raagini Sharma works as a senior analyst at the Greek-based think tank - Research Institute for European and American Studies. She is currently pursuing a Diploma course in International Affairs and Diplomacy from the Indian Institute of Governance and Leadership, along with a certificate course on Public Policy and Administration from St. Stephens College, Delhi.
Disclaimer: This paper is the author’s individual scholastic contribution and does not necessarily reflect the organisation’s viewpoint.