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The Kurdish National Movement in Turkey: From Protest to Resistance

October 6, 2014 at 4:20 pm

  • Book Author(s): Cengiz Güneş
  • Published Date: 2013-08-15 23:00:00
  • Publisher: Routledge
  • Hardback: 304 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415830157

Today, as the violence of the so-called Islamic State targets Kurds in Iraq and Syria, and Turkey’s pro-Kurdish groups are frustrated by this violence against their brethren, the question of Kurdish rights and nationalism is once again a hotly-debated issue among policy-makers, scholars and state officials. Even so, Kurdish nationalism is still surrounded by myths. While it is assumed to be ethnically and territorially “romanticized”—yet not explicitly demonstrated—Kurdish identity and Kurds are seen as an internally monolithic-homogenous and externally bounded group.[1] Cengiz Güneş sheds light on this and shows how diverse dynamics are at play in the making of Kurdish identity and Kurdish nationalism. His study analyses post-1960s Kurdish political activism in Turkey and its discursive shifts over time through extensive research based on primary sources that the leading political actors have published. His research seeks explanations for questions such as “how the Kurds interpreted or saw their experience as oppression and how they proposed to challenge it”. (p.10)

Güneş begins his argument by deconstructing the academic discourses on Kurdish identity and nationalism, especially the misleading essentialist approaches, where he argues that the ideological foundations of Kurdish nationalism have been understudied. Thus, he analyses “how Kurdish political practices, by proposing and undertaking to build a new political community—a united, socialist and independent Kurdistan in the early years of the movement, and seeking to transform Turkey to a democratic republic at the present—problematised and altered the existing ‘Kemalist’ regime and its social practices, and the Kurdish ‘feudal’ social practices.” (p.37) He focuses on “the political frontiers” in pro-Kurdish political activism. Analysing the discourses of intellectuals such as Faik Bucak, Musa Anter and Kemal Burkay, and the print media example of Kurdish advocacy journalism by the likes of Dicle-Firat in the 1960s, he argues that the concerns over the socio-economic development in southeast Turkey constituted the formative years of Kurdish political activism. Through the end of the 1970s, Kurdish political activists emphasised a discourse of an amalgamation of socialism and anti-colonialism where national liberation was one of the rhetorical choices. The neglect of a separate Kurdish identity by Turkish socialists, Güneş argues, led their Kurdish counterparts to operate within their own independent political agenda. This was the turning point within which Kurdish identity began to lean towards an ethnic perception more than a class position aligned with socialists. Kurdistan, seen as the homeland, was being articulated as colonised by the Kemalist regime and its Kurdish feudal collaborators in which the origins of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known as PKK) were seeded in the late 70s.

In Chapter 5 and 6, the Gramscian hegemonic leadership of the PKK is deconstructed, in which political violence, new year celebrations (“Newroz”), cultural activism, and print and visual media in Turkey and Europe are articulated as symbolic and practical tools for constructing a distinct Kurdish identity where “the myth of resistance” fostered recruitment to the PKK. After the 1990s, the national liberation discourse of the PKK, with the ultimate goal of a socialist Kurdish state, was shattered after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, Islamic revivalism in the Kurdish regions and heavy military operations by the Turkish Armed Forces. After the decline of the PKK’s capacity for war-making as a strategy of redefining Turkish polity, pro-Kurdish democratic discourse prevailed as the movement and its leader, Abdullah Öcalan, reconsidered its organisational and ideological capacities in the struggle against the Turkish state.

Güneş concludes his analysis by presenting pro-Kurdish electoral politics in Turkey, starting with the People’s Labour Party (HEP in Turkish) since the 1990s. As a political alternative to the PKK’s armed insurgency and its hegemonic position, pro-Kurdish political parties contested in an electoral milieu promoting democratic inclusion and recognition with particular references to Kurdish identity, despite its relative success in building empathy within the masses of the people in Turkey. In the concluding chapter, articulating opportunities, difficulties and challenges for pro-Kurdish activism in Turkey, Güneş argues that the antagonistic nature of the inclusion, but not recognition, policies of Turkey’s political elites and the recognition demands of the pro-Kurdish political movements cannot be overcome in an environment wherein the construction of a common civic identity without destabilising the territorial integrity and unity of Turkey has yet to be seen.

The Kurdish National Movement in Turkey is an insightful interpretive study based on primary sources where the historical evolution of pro-Kurdish political activism in Turkey and its two fringes between national liberation and democratic discourses are analysed well. Yet, its theoretical insight is not as sophisticated as its historical-interpretive comprehension. For instance, there is hardly any reference to the theoretical insights of social movement literature or theories of nationalism. Perhaps attempts to understand and explain what Kurdish nationalism is not rather than what it is and a paradigm on “ethnic and communal peace” despite the protracted armed conflict would contribute to our understanding of the dynamics within the Turkish-Kurdish question and the nature of pro-Kurdish mobilisation. Moreover, the question of Islam among Kurdish communities and how this affects or may affect the evolution of Kurdish nationalism, not just of the PKK but in general, needs further attention.

Overall, this book sheds an insightful historical-interpretive light on the internal dynamics of the Kurdish national movement and its interaction with the Turkish state. The future of the recent “peace process” between the PKK and the Turkish state within the chaos of “Islamic State” violence against the Kurds in Iraq and Syria is likely to create contingencies in the evolution of Kurdish nationalism across borders in the Middle East.

[1] See Roger Brubaker’s Ethnicity Without Groups. Harvard University Press. 2004. He shows that how seeing ethnic groups as a monolithic and homogenous entity is theoretically misleading in the studies of nationalism, ethnicity, and ethnic conflict.