The Kur­dish sit­u­a­tion in the Mid­dle East



İstanbul Bilgi Uni­ver­sity or­ga­nized a con­fer­ence called “Kurds Be­yond Bor­ders: Trans­form­ing Spa­ces and Iden­ti­ties” on Oct. 25, 2014. The con­fer­ence in­volved four the­matic pan­els which touched upon ex­tremely im­por­tant is­sues with re­gards to in­ter­pret­ing the past, present and fu­ture de­vel­op­ments in Kur­dish pol­i­tics, namely: “His­tory, Space and Di­as­pora,” “The Ro­java Ex­pe­ri­ence: Quest for Transna­tion­al­ism,” “Trans­for­ma­tion, Peace and Ne­olib­er­al­ism” and a closing panel that brought to­gether sig­nif­i­cant names from Turk­ish and Kur­dish me­dia. The or­ga­niz­ers did not fore­see that the Ro­java ex­pe­ri­ence would be in the head­lines of news­pa­pers on a daily ba­sis all around the world, that the peace process would be af­fected by the de­vel­op­ments in Kobane or that we would be dis­cussing “whether we were go­ing back to the 1990s” just a few weeks be­fore the con­fer­ence. Their aim was to or­ga­nize a con­fer­ence where is­sues re­lated to the Kur­dish sit­u­a­tion in the Mid­dle East would be dis­cussed in a com­pre­hen­sive man­ner through the par­tic­i­pa­tion of lo­cal and in­ter­na­tional schol­ars and, more im­por­tantly, would be dis­cussed freely and openly in an aca­demic en­vi­ron­ment; how­ever, the re­cent de­vel­op­ments made the con­fer­ence con­tent all the more im­por­tant and top­i­cal.

Bilgi is one of the very few aca­demic en­vi­ron­ments in Turkey where schol­ars can talk about is­sues that are con­sid­ered to be taboo, which makes it twice as im­por­tant for such a con­fer­ence to take place. As ev­ery­one would re­call, it was this uni­ver­sity that fear­lessly or­ga­nized a con­fer­ence where Ar­me­nian Geno­cide-re­lated is­sues were ex­ten­sively dis­cussed in 2005, de­spite the up­roar it caused among po­lit­i­cal and var­i­ous aca­demic cir­cles in Turkey. What made the con­fer­ence more in­ter­est­ing and im­por­tant were the in­vited speak­ers. The or­ga­niz­ers gave early ca­reer/young aca­demics the op­por­tu­nity to present their work and to po­ten­tially say some­thing new and dif­fer­ent with their wide ex­pe­ri­ence from “the field.”

The con­fer­ence started with Fuat Dun­dar’s pre­sen­ta­tion, ti­tled “Eth­nic and Sec­tar­ian ‘Con­flicts’ and Forced Mi­gra­tions in the Mid­dle East: A Cen­ten­nial Over­view,” which ex­am­ined the re­la­tion­ship be­tween con­flicts and forced mi­gra­tions that have hap­pened in the Mid­dle East since World War I. By putting the forced migration ex­pe­ri­ence into a his­tor­i­cal con­text, Dun­dar’s pre­sen­ta­tion com­pared the “eth­nic-na­tion­al­ist”-ori­ented forced mi­gra­tions of the Ke­mal­ist pol­icy in Turkey and the Baathist pol­icy in Iraq with the most re­cent “sec­tar­ian”-ori­ented forced mi­gra­tions in Iraq and Syria. For in­stance, by re­fer­ring to the Turk­i­fi­ca­tion poli­cies of the early years of the Turk­ish Repub­lic, the con­se­quences of the 1918 Peace Con­fer­ence or 1938 Der­sim

mas­sacres, among other ex­am­ples, he men­tioned a re­cur­ring but at the same time trans­form­ing pat­tern of forced migration in Turkey. The sec­ond pre­sen­ta­tion was Joost Jonger­den’s pre­sen­ta­tion on “Spa­tial Pol­i­tics of Rad­i­cal Democ­racy: Re­think­ing The Re­la­tions Be­tween Place And Peo­ple.” His pre­sen­ta­tion is highly sig­nif­i­cant be­cause he is one of the schol­ars who greatly con­trib­uted to the aca­demic lit­er­a­ture re­gard­ing how to un­der­stand the Kur­dis­tan Work­ers’ Party’s (PKK) self-per­cep­tion and its po­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion through the years. He dis­cussed grounded ini­tia­tives for a re-fram­ing and re-do­ing of geo-pol­i­tics and the Kur­dish is­sue in Turkey and Syria. In par­tic­u­lar he re­ferred to the peo­ple’s coun­cils that have been es­tab­lished in var­i­ous places. He un­der­lined the fact that peo­ple took re­spon­si­bil­ity for the places they live and an­a­lyzed how peo­ple who take part in th­ese coun­cils re­late to one an­other, work on is­sues re­lated to gen­der equal­ity, equal­ity in gen­eral and work to­wards no ex­ploita­tion of la­bor. His take on the PKK was that per­ceiv­ing the or­ga­ni­za­tion as a sep­a­ratist and na­tion­al­ist move­ment was not a cor­rect start­ing point and one should put more em­pha­sis on un­der­stand­ing the way in which the PKK looks at it­self. He also em­pha­sized that the PKK is more than a rebel move­ment be­cause it does not just re­sist some­thing but rather de­vel­ops al­ter­na­tives to an al­ready ex­ist­ing sys­tem by cre­at­ing al­ter­na­tive mech­a­nisms and in­sti­tu­tions, or re­gains con­trol of the econ­omy. His pre­sen­ta­tion was also highly in­ter­est­ing in the sense that he put the con­cept of “rad­i­cal democ­racy” in a the­o­ret­i­cal con­text by pro­vid­ing ex­am­ples from dif­fer­ent case stud­ies as well as the­o­ret­i­cal dis­cus­sions brought into the lit­er­a­ture by var­i­ous in­tel­lec­tu­als.

The third pre­sen­ta­tion came from this re­viewer, ti­tled “The Kur­dish Di­as­pora in Europe and its Po­ten­tial Con­tri­bu­tions to the Peace Process in Turkey,” where he dis­cussed the Kur­dish di­as­pora’s in­volve­ment in the “process” since the be­gin­ning of the “Kur­dish ini­tia­tive” in 2009. He put the di­as­pora in­volve­ment in peace pro­cesses in a wider con­text by giv­ing ex­am­ples from dif­fer­ent case stud­ies in­clud­ing the Is­rael-Pales­tine con­flict and peace pro­cesses and/or ini­tia­tives in Kosovo, Su­dan, So­ma­lia, Haiti, Liberia and Ethiopia. Rather than re­fer­ring to the widely used ex­am­ples of South Africa and North­ern Ire­land, he tried to show other cases which in­volved a di­as­pora in po­lit­i­cal pro­cesses. He un­der­lined that the Kur­dish di­as­pora has al­ways been ac­tive and mo­bi­lized in or­der to make the Kur­dish voice heard out­side Turk­ish bor­ders; how­ever, when it comes to the peace process, they should also have some agency in how things take place as their di­as­poric con­di­tion was mostly as a re­sult of this very con­flict in the home­land. He fo­cused on the dec­la­ra­tions of

the peace con­fer­ence in Brussels, which was or­ga­nized as a re­sult of a call from PKK leader Ab­dul­lah Öcalan in June 2013. As the PKK, the Peace and Democ­racy Party (BDP), the Peo­ples’ Demo­cratic Party (HDP) and the di­as­pora called for the for­ma­tion of truth com­mis­sions as part of the peace process in Turkey, he dis­cussed how fea­si­ble it is for the di­as­pora to take the ini­tia­tive and di­rectly par­tic­i­pate in th­ese tran­si­tional jus­tice pro­cesses. He sug­gested that there should be a more sys­tem­atic ap­proach to­wards di­as­pora in­volve­ment as cur­rently there is only lip ser­vice to­wards the di­as­pora’s role and there is no proper ac­knowl­edge­ment of their ac­tive part­ner­ship at the ne­go­ti­a­tion ta­ble, ei­ther by the PKK-re­lated ac­tors or the Turk­ish state it­self.

The sec­ond panel was about the Ro­java ex­pe­ri­ence and hosted three im­por­tant schol­ars whose pre­sen­ta­tions were the re­sult of their fan­tas­tic field­work ex­pe­ri­ence. Each pre­sen­ta­tion said some­thing new to the au­di­ence and pushed the bound­aries of con­ven­tional wis­dom on cer­tain is­sues. Ba­yar Dosky’s pre­sen­ta­tion was called “The Kurds and the Mid­dle East: From Be­ing a Fac­tor to an Ac­tor” and mostly fo­cused on Iraq’s Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment (KRG) and how it con­trib­utes to rais­ing the im­age of Kurds in Europe, the US and else­where. His ar­gu­ment was that Kurds are turn­ing into an im­por­tant ac­tor in the re­gion rather than be­ing a pas­sive “fac­tor” of Mid­dle East pol­i­tics. He re­ferred to the Ro­java ex­pe­ri­ence, the semi-state struc­ture of the KRG and the cur­rent de­vel­op­ments re­gard­ing the peace process in Turkey and ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween Ira­nian Kur­dish po­lit­i­cal par­ties and Ira­nian of­fi­cials and drew at­ten­tion to the ever-chang­ing dy­nam­ics in Kur­dis­tan. Among them, he found the KRG ex­pe­ri­ence to be the most im­por­tant and un­der­lined that de­spite be­ing an ac­tor with­out a state (and that a dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence is a mat­ter of when), it man­ages to shift al­liances in the re­gion and pushes for a change in con­ven­tional poli­cies to­wards Kurds. Af­ter Dosky’s


pre­sen­ta­tion, Thomas Sch­midinger talked about “Ro­java and its In­ter­de­pen­den­cies.” As a re­searcher who has con­ducted ex­ten­sive field­work in Ro­java, he dis­cussed var­i­ous po­lit­i­cal par­ties and po­lit­i­cal groups and their his­tor­i­cal in­ter­de­pen­den­cies. He is one of the very few aca­demics who fol­lowed the po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments in the re­gion for an ex­ten­sive pe­riod with first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence, so his orig­i­nal pre­sen­ta­tion con­trib­uted im­mensely to the dis­cus­sions at the con­fer­ence. For those who are cu­ri­ous about his ar­gu­ments, his re­cent book -- called “Krieg und Revo­lu­tion in Syrisch-Kur­dis­tan: Anal­y­sen und Stim­men aus Ro­java” (pub­lished in Novem­ber 2014, un­for­tu­nately only in Ger­man) -- in­cludes a deeper anal­y­sis of his work.

Fi­nally, Cuma Çiçek pre­sented part of his re­cently com­pleted Ph.D the­sis. His pre­sen­ta­tion was called “Kurds In Turkey: Ro­java, KRG, In­ter­nal and Ex­ter­nal Bor­ders” and he an­a­lyzed how dif­fer­ent Kur­dish or­ga­ni­za­tions and po­lit­i­cal ac­tors re­late to the cur­rent de­vel­op­ments in other parts of Kur­dis­tan, such as the emer­gence of the KRG as a sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal ac­tor in the re­gion. He ar­gued that there is not a sin­gle “Kur­dish is­sue” but rather “Kur­dish is­sues” and that there are a va­ri­ety of ac­tors in Turk­ish Kur­dis­tan who have dif­fer­ent ide­o­log­i­cal ap­proaches for how to ame­lio­rate the Kur­dish sit­u­a­tion in the Mid­dle East due to their own in­ter­ests and re­la­tions with the state au­thor­i­ties or eth­nic and re­li­gious iden­tity. Drawing at­ten­tion to the de­vel­op­ments in Ro­java and the KRG, he ar­gued that Kur­dish po­lit­i­cal ac­tors in Turkey were highly af­fected by them and trans­formed their poli­cies ac­cord­ingly. His work is ex­tremely im­por­tant as it in­cludes the self-per­cep­tions and as­pi­ra­tions of var­i­ous Kur­dish move­ments that are un­der­stud­ied, such as Hezbol­lah, Azadi, Kur­dish Ale­vites or other so­cial­ist blocks.

The third panel in­cluded the pre­sen­ta­tions of Nes­rin Uçar­lar, Ayşe Seda Yük­sel and Arzu Yıl­maz. Uçar­lar’s pre­sen­ta­tion was called “The Miss­ing Agenda of the Ne­go­ti­a­tion Process: Vil­lage Guard Sys­tem as a Para-Mil­i­tary

Struc­ture” and it was based on a re­cently pub­lished Di­yarbakir In­sti­tute for Po­lit­i­cal and So­cial Re­search (DİSA) re­port (“Geçmişten Günümüze Türkiye’de Paramiliter Bir Yapılanma: Köy

Koru­cu­luğu Sis­temi,” 2013). Uçar­lar gave a his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive of the vil­lage-guard sys­tem in Turkey, bas­ing her ar­gu­ments on the par­lia­men­tary dis­cus­sions since this sys­tem was first es­tab­lished. Her ar­gu­ment was that the vil­lage-guard sys­tem should be an­a­lyzed within a wider de­bate of para­mil­i­tary sys­tems rather than ac­cept­ing them as Turkey-spe­cific. Hav­ing said that, she un­der­lined that their in­ter­views with the vil­lage guards showed they had a va­ri­ety of rea­sons to be­come vil­lage guards and col­lab­o­rate with the state and that th­ese could be de­fined as both forced and vol­un­tary. She men­tioned that state poli­cies are not ad­e­quate to deal with the “vil­lage-guard prob­lem” once the con­flict is over. There are also sig­nif­i­cant crimes that have been com­mit­ted by vil­lage guards since the sys­tem was first es­tab­lished and this should also be in­cluded in a tran­si­tional jus­tice mech­a­nism. This pre­sen­ta­tion was highly im­por­tant in the sense that it shows there are more than two main po­lit­i­cal ac­tors in the peace process and a com­pre­hen­sive res­o­lu­tion to the con­flict should in­clude a wider pop­u­la­tion of ac­tors who were di­rectly or in­di­rectly af­fected by the con­flict. Yük­sel’s pa­per was called “Ne­olib­er­al­iza­tion and the Chang­ing Stakes of Lo­cal Pol­i­tics: Lo­cal Busi­ness­men As­so­ci­a­tions in Kur­dis­tan.” She con­ducted ex­ten­sive field­work in Di­yarbakır and Gaziantep be­tween 2007 and 2010, in­ves­ti­gat­ing the trans­for­ma­tion of lo­cal busi­ness in the re­gion dur­ing the last 10 years. She an­a­lyzed eco­nomic growth in the re­gion from a po­lit­i­cal econ­omy per­spec­tive by sup­port­ing her find­ings with sta­tis­ti­cal data. She re­lated her find­ings to the emer­gence of the KRG as an im­por­tant ac­tor in the re­gion and trade re­la­tions be­tween Turkey and


the KRG. Yıl­maz’s pa­per was also an in­ter­est­ing at­tempt to un­der­stand the in­tra-Kur­dish dy­nam­ics in the re­gion. Ti­tled “The New Kur­dish Iden­tity and Na­tion­al­ism of Kur­dis­tan,” her pre­sen­ta­tion fo­cused on the en­coun­ters be­tween the Kurds from north­ern and south­ern Kur­dis­tan by look­ing at the in­ter­nal migration ex­pe­ri­ences of Kurds. She con­ducted field­work in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan dur­ing a three-year stay in Duhok and pre­sented her first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence and in­ter­vie­wee nar­ra­tives. She sug­gests that a Kur­dis­tani iden­tity is in the mak­ing and the clashes be­tween party pol­i­tics within the Kur­dish move­ments are be­ing erased as con­flicts are turn­ing into co­op­er­a­tion due to re­cent de­vel­op­ments.

The closing panel hosted three jour­nal­ists: Fe­him Taştekin, Fred­erike Geerdink and İr­fan Ak­tan, who are ex­perts on the Kur­dish is­sue in Turkey and the wider Mid­dle East and have sig­nif­i­cant ex­pe­ri­ence in the re­gion. Taştekin talked about the re­spect and le­git­i­macy that the PKK re­ceives even out­side Turk­ish bor­ders, es­pe­cially in Ro­java. He dis­cussed his own vis­its to the re­gion and how the PKK ide­ol­ogy and phi­los­o­phy was em­braced by the prom­i­nent fig­ures of the Kur­dish move­ment in Syria. Geerdink ex­plained her own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence as a jour­nal­ist in Kur­dis­tan and how her thoughts had de­vel­oped since she moved to Turkey in 2006 and then to Kur­dis­tan in 2012.2 Ak­tan pre­sented a rather pes­simistic view about the cur­rent peace process for all the right rea­sons. He crit­i­cized the cur­rent for­eign pol­icy ob­jec­tives of Turkey in Syria and un­der­lined that Turkey still did not fully grasp the po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics of the Mid­dle East, es­pe­cially those re­lated to the Kurds. He re­ferred to the ab­sence of a solid roadmap that would re­solve the con­flict at hand and he said he finds the Jus­tice and Devel­op­ment


Party’s (AK Party) ap­proach prag­matic rather than gen­uine when it comes to ame­lio­rat­ing the sit­u­a­tion of Kurds in Turkey.

All in all, each pre­sen­ta­tion had orig­i­nal con­tri­bu­tions and field­work ex­pe­ri­ences that brought a fresh di­men­sion to the dis­cus­sions. Although each pre­sen­ta­tion fo­cused on dif­fer­ent top­ics, there were still some over­ar­ch­ing themes that can pro­vide clues about the di­rec­tion fu­ture de­bates will be head­ing. First, it was in­ter­est­ing to no­tice that the so-called Kur­dish is­sue in Turkey is no longer dis­cussed within the realm of Turk­ish bor­ders but rather each scholar refers to Kur­dis­tan as a whole when they dis­cuss the new dy­nam­ics, the peace process in Turkey and the Ro­java ex­pe­ri­ence. Kur­dis­tan’s sep­a­ra­tion by bor­ders does not hold for aca­demic stud­ies re­lated to this topic now be­cause dis­cus­sions also tran­scend bor­ders. The com­plex­ity of the Kur­dish sit­u­a­tion in the Mid­dle East and its his­tor­i­cal com­po­nents was dis­cussed thor­oughly in the de­bates. Sec­ond, the mul­ti­plic­ity of the ac­tors is also em­pha­sized in the pre­sen­ta­tions. There is no one sin­gle Kur­dish move­ment but there are Kur­dish move­ments, there are mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties among Kur­dish groups and more im­por­tantly a po­ten­tial peace process also has to have mul­ti­ple ac­tors that have dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ences, ide­olo­gies and sug­ges­tions for a res­o­lu­tion process. Third, the im­por­tance of the KRG as a ris­ing power in the re­gion is fre­quently men­tioned be­cause it is vi­tal for any dis­cus­sion re­gard­ing Kur­dish pol­i­tics in other parts of Kur­dis­tan. The con­fer­ence gath­ered young aca­demics who had a lot to say about the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in the re­gion, but most im­por­tantly it en­gen­dered nu­mer­ous sig­nif­i­cant ques­tions that are yet to be an­swered.

WHAT: Kurds Be­yond Bor­ders: Trans­form­ing Spa­ces and Iden­ti­ties WHO: İstanbul Bilgi

Uni­ver­sity Depart­ment of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions

WHERE: Bilgi Uni­ver­sity WHEN: Oct. 25, 2014


Four the­matic pan­els touched upon ex­tremely im­por­tant is­sues with re­gards to in­ter­pret­ing the past, present and fu­ture de­vel­op­ments in Kur­dish pol­i­tics.


Sev­eral pre­sen­ta­tions fo­cused on the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment (KRG).

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