The Kurdish situation in the Middle East
THE ORGANIZERS DID NOT FORESEE THAT ROJAVA WOULD BE IN THE HEADLINES OF NEWSPAPERS AROUND THE WORLD JUST A FEW WEEKS BEFORE THE CONFERENCE
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
EACH PRESENTATION SAID SOMETHING NEW TO THE AUDIENCE AND PUSHED THE BOUNDARIES OF CONVENTIONAL WISDOM ON CERTAIN ISSUES
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 CLOSING PANEL HOSTED THREE JOURNALISTS: FEHİM TAŞTEKİN, FREDERIKE GEERDINK AND İRFAN AKTAN
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
MOST IMPORTANTLY, THE CONFERENCE ENGENDERED NUMEROUS SIGNIFICANT QUESTIONS THAT ARE YET TO BE ANSWERED
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).