The notion that the trajectory of Kurdish political activism inevitably leads to separatism is widely held amongst political elites in Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad, and Damascus. Indeed, in certain ways, they share this view with the most ardent of Kurdish nationalists who see the creation of a sovereign Kurdish nation-state as the only possible definitive solution to the Middle East’s “Kurdish question”.
This binary, as one might expect, is an obfuscation of a far more complex reality. For instance, individuals of Kurdish origin have played important roles in formally “anti-nationalist” movements and parties ranging from the Iraqi Communist Party to the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, individuals who might have claimed a Kurdish ethnic origin have at times played not insignificant roles in the development and articulation of Arab, Turkish, and Persian nationalisms.
In fact, even within the Kurdish movement, the “Kurdish question” has always been conceived of more broadly than simply the issue of Kurdish statehood. At its most fundamental level, it revolves around the questions of whether the Kurds constitute a nation and, if they do, what are the political implications that flow from that realization. Nevertheless, separatist nationalism, whether regional or pan-Kurdish, has only ever been one strand of a broader form of nationality politics; political mobilization predicated on Kurdish nationhood. In recent times, such differences are most starkly illustrated in the different political orientation amongst the Kurdish movements in Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. While the Iraqi Kurdish movement has tended towards a separatist nationalist ideological orientation, in both Turkey and Syria, the Kurdish movement has explicitly rejected the nation-state (or quasi-nation-state) as a paradigm for the resolution of the Kurdish question.
Far from being a new development, these kinds of ambiguities have existed since the very inception of the Kurdish movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It is this early phase of Kurdish political activism and the debates between separatist nationalists and those who expressed different forms of nationality politics as well as how such debates prefigured those in later eras that will be explored in this presentation.
Djene Rhys Bajalan
Djene Rhys Bajalan is an Associate Professor of History at Missouri State University in Springfield. He has written extensively on the origins of the Kurdish question and is the author of Jön Kürtler: Birinci Dünya Savaşı’ndan Önce Kürt Hareketi 1898-1914 [The Young Kurds: The Kurdish Movement before the First World War, 1898 to 1914] (2010). He is also an editor at the journal Kurdish Studies, the managing editor of Sublation Magazine, and is a co-host on the This is Revolution Podcast.