Pride, Prejudice and the Case of Kurdish ethnicity in Turkey
Pride, Prejudice and the Case of Kurdish ethnicity in Turkey
Eastern Mediterranean Gas: Accelerating Peace? (Online event, 5 June 2023)
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Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 8 minutes

Pride, Prejudice and the Case of Kurdish ethnicity in Turkey

Not much has been written about the 25-30 million Kurds of the Middle East, and academic presses rarely address specialized Kurdish sub-topics. Until recently, articles about one of the world’s largest peoples without a state were a tough sell for journalists, too. “Every time you use the word Kurd”, an editor of the Los Angeles Times once warned me as he voiced grave doubts about a story proposal in the 1990s, “all that it tells us is that whatever follows is about something we will not understand”.

Two new books now successfully shed light on two little-known subgroups of Turkey’s 15-20 per cent Kurdish population. One is a fascinating study of the way migrant Kurds are perceived in today’s Aegean port city of Izmir. The second is an insightful look at the Sunni branch of Zaza-speaking Kurds, a remote mountain society. Both books are based on research in the mid-2000s, and both also give overviews of the situation of Kurds in Turkey as a whole. Still, as so often with writing on the Kurds, or indeed about Turkey, the images, narratives and conclusions sometimes make one wonder if the same country and people are being described.

Cenk Saraçoğlu’s thesis about the rise of Turkish prejudices against Kurdish migrants in Izmir is straightforward. He believes that a first wave of migrants in the 1950s, 60s and 70s had some success in integrating. However, on the basis of detailed interviews with 90 middle-class Turks long resident in Izmir, he argues that migration since the 1980s has provoked “a form of cultural racism”. This is part of a phenomenon he calls “exclusive recognition” – an exclusionary prejudice defined and imposed from outside – which he thinks is probably widely prevalent in the rest of Turkey too.

Saraçoğlu says Izmirlis now typically pre-judge Kurds to be “ignorant and cultureless,” “benefit scroungers,” “disrupters of urban life,” “invaders” (with threateningly high birth rates), and “separatists” (who now all want a separate state). He then explains how the Izmir middle class feels that the Kurds threaten their established lifestyles, their formal salaries and their inclusion in the state social security network, and how those Izmirlis who have the angriest feelings towards Kurds are the ones who have done least well recently. He gives an excellent, clear account of Turkish attitudes toward Kurds in the past century or two, the internal contradictions of Turkish nationalism, and the republic’s ill-fated efforts at denial and assimilation. He adds in a useful, concise overview of the sometimes traumatic urban history of Izmir (only 40 per cent Muslim in the 1880s), how Kurdish migrants find themselves stuck in the poverty trap of gecekondu districts built on state land (in 1986, these housed 45 per cent of Izmir’s total population), and how this fed Izmirlis’ resentment. He notes the aggravating impact of post-1980s “neoliberal” economic policies and compares them to the preceding, more developmental ones. He describes how the Izmirli middle class voices its views of these migrants as Kurds; how this leads to exclusion; how this feeling is reinforced, for instance through over-generalized media headlines about “Kurds” in Iraq; and how this can be seen as a kind of ideology.

This account will be especially valuable for those seeking nuance about where the Turkish state and political elite is responsible for anti-Kurdish feelings, and where it can act to reduce them, especially if there is to be a long-term settlement of twin problems of Kurdish grievances and the PKK insurgency. It shows how surprisingly few ethnic distinctions were made historically between linguistically different Sunni Muslim peoples; how Turkey’s old-fashioned nationalist ideologies are not the source of the new prejudices; and how it is an error to see the frictions as a purely “ethnic conflict.” Nevertheless, Saraçoğlu shows how some Kurds became the object of elements of old-style state-driven racist narratives the state once used against (for instance) the Armenians. Yet, paradoxically, even Izmirlis prejudiced against the “Kurds” in their midst could voice positive feelings about the former Greeks and Armenians of the city and empathy for Germans reacting against migrant Turks in Germany.

Saraçoğlu insists that the concept of Kurdishness he describes is mostly externally generated, which raises the question of how much of Kurdishness is actually an artificial construct. But he also believes that “the Kurdish question has now gone beyond being merely an extension of the defects in the Turkish political and legal systems” and that “the recognition of political and cultural rights of the Kurds under a more democratic structure would [help but] not necessarily provide an absolute solution to these social and economic problems.”

Mehmed Kaya’s book is about the villages and the district town of Solhan, his birthplace in the Zaza Kurdish heartlands about halfway between Diyarbakır and Erzurum in eastern Turkey. The book has three main themes: a history of Zaza speakers in Turkey, an ethnographic study of life of one subsection of Zazas in Solhan’s remote villages and market towns, and an indictment of Turkish republican government and ideology.  An introduction sets the framework, and ten chapters explore kinship, tribalism, patriarchy, social self-sufficiency, reciprocity, economics, Turkish policies, culture and identity, gender relations and religion.

As a history of all Zaza speakers – Kaya counts three million in Turkey’s population of 75 million - the book falls short. This is not because of any particular error, but rather for lack of material that might give context and lack of a confident view of the direction that Zaza society may take in the future. In particular, Kaya doesn’t come down firmly on whether he sees further Zaza integration into Turkey as being the main likely dynamic, or whether the Zazas are coalescing into a more autonomous identity.

Zaza unity is an elusive idea, after all. Kaya uses linguistic and genetic arguments to make no distinction between “Zazas” and “Kurds”, but this is by no means an established equivalence in Turkey. As Kaya points out, the Zazas of Solhan are Sunni Muslims, while the other half of Zazas are Alevis, who have a different history and view themselves differently. It was Sunni Zazas who mounted the rebellion of 1925 under Sheikh Said, who hailed from Palu, not far from Solhan. The Alevi Zazas revolted against the state in 1937 and were put down amid massacres two years later. But how this fits into the general flow of events in Turkey is not fully explored. Kaya also portrays Zazas in relative isolation from the rest of Turkey, for instance, making no mention of the impact of supercharged Turkish TV stations on general rural life.

The Armenians are also surprisingly absent from the narrative. The Zaza lands Kaya describes were substantially shared by the Armenians until the 1915 genocide. What role did the Zazas play in the 1915 events; did seizures of Armenian property impact Zaza history; and what does the legacy of these events say about Zaza relations with the Turkish state? 

On a number of occasions, Kaya appears to see the insurgency of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) as a dynamic that has shown a path forward for the Zazas, both as a political force that can give Zaza society some heft against the Turkish state and as a bridge between Sunni and Alevi communities. However, these are throwaway lines and there is no examination of how the PKK’s Marxist ideology, its Stalinist leadership, and its past violent methods sit with the very traditional tribal, religious society that Kaya so well describes. My own reading of Kaya’s evidence – portraying a society now more ready to live near main roads, the fading influence of Islamic obscurantism, increased contact with the outside world, the way only half of Zazas vote for the pro-PKK political party, the way the PKK operates as its own tribe – seemed to support a narrative of Zaza integration into Turkey as well.

One reason for this oversight appears to be the main flaw in the book, which is Kaya’s deep antipathy for the Turkish republic and its ideology. I stopped counting the number of times epithets like “brutal” and “oppressive” were used. The thirty-five pages of sweeping condemnation in the chapter on “Turkey, a nationalist state in conflict” abandon the careful, evidence-based method of the preceding descriptions of Zaza life. I spotted several exaggerations as he denounced “an extremely fascistic core that has placed intolerance and oriental racism at the heart of a state-authorized system.” For instance, there is no blanket exclusion of ethnic Kurds as university teachers; decentralization and Kurdish ethnicity have become accepted concepts; and raping politically active women is now almost unknown. Turkey has done terrible things to Kurds, no doubt, but Kaya would have been far more convincing if had focused on what impacted specifically in his Zaza area of study. His constant refrain of “the military leaders are the real masters of Turkey” was always debatable and now looks dated.

In one fascinating glimpse when the Turkish state does appear as an actor, after half a village is forcibly taken over by one Zaza faction, it is hard for a reader to decide whether to assign blame on the unjust selfishness of Zaza tribal leaders, honestly described by Kaya, or on the Turkish administrative system, which allowed itself to be corrupted and thus to amplify this example of Zaza local tyranny. And the way Zaza society both distrusts and insulates itself from the state, at the same time as its elite tries undemocratically to seize control of its share of Turkish politics, is a countrywide rural phenomenon.

The best, main chapters of the book describe the mostly poor, village-based, badly educated Solhan subsection of Zaza society in which 40 per cent marrying close relatives; half live mainly subsistence life off animals or small farms; the other half landless due to population growth; and all are subject to ruthless bazaar middlemen and lenders . Here Kaya is cogent and convincing.

Kaya describes how kinship and the male line are the most powerful determinants in life, an ideology in which “your relatives are your backbone,” as Zazas say. He shows how male descent trumps merit in all three main Zaza social structures: the sheikhdom, the tribe and the priesthood whose “organization consists of spiritual- and kinship-based authorities similar to feudal systems.” Again and again, collectivism beats individual expression; honor and reputation are paramount; and in return clan solidarity offers influence and security. To a shocking extent, Kaya repeatedly shows exactly how “women are defined as irrelevant or outsiders.”

His chapters on religion and the priesthood are highly revealing about how Islam is used to collect “money, sheep, goats, corn and, sometimes, clothes,” how a hypocritical sheikh with phony apocalyptic powers preaches against women’s education although his own granddaughter went to university in Ankara; the interplay between Zaza religious, tribal and political leaders, and how male solidarity and threats of violence reinforce patriarchal traditional power structures. While all this is clearly applicable to Zaza speakers, other population groups in Anatolia are very similar. But Kaya is no doubt right to point to the increasing use of nationalism, not Islam, as a force for mass mobilisation. As he observes: “Other Muslim societies use Islam gladly as an important propaganda instrument against what they perceive as western occupation or oppression, but in relation to the Kurds, the same religion is used both by Turks, Arabs and Persians to legitimize their oppression of the Kurds”.

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