Keynote Speech Martin van Bruinessen - fhe

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Keynote Speech Martin van Bruinessen


Kurdish identities and Kurdish nationalisms in the early twenty-first
Martin van Bruinessen
I have been writing about Kurdish society and Kurdish history for more than forty years but
questions of what constitutes Kurdish identity or what the Kurds really want continue to elude
me. To most Kurds, it appears intuitively clear who is a Kurd and who is not, but one would
be hard pressed to find some characteristic that is shared by all Kurds and that distinguishes
them from other peoples in the region. In my first attempt to explain the Kurds for a European
public, I called them “a tribal people of nomads and semi-nomads whose desire for a nation
state of their own came too late, after the Middle East had been cut up into Persian, Turkish
and Arab states.” An older Middle Eastern expert, to whom I showed my text before
publication, pointed out that most Kurdish nomads had long been settled, and that I had
omitted the important factors of language and religion. He suggested calling the Kurds “a
people of Muslim peasants speaking an Indo-European language,” and I believe that that was
the formulation that ended up in my first, forgettable, publication.
In retrospect I remember that probably all the Kurds with whom I had until then had longer
conversations about Kurdistan and the Kurds were themselves neither nomads nor peasants
but educated townspeople – but it is true that those urban interlocutors also associated
Kurdishness with the tribes and the mountains and a long history of resistance against the
state rather than with their own, partially assimilated, way of life. I have since adopted the pragmatic solution of accepting people’s self-definition: a Kurd is a person who calls
himself/herself Kurdish and is considered as such by his/her surroundings. The Kurds are
amply documented in historical sources as a distinct population but never clearly defined.
Belonging to a tribe, a language, a religion and a territory (“homeland”) remain important
constituents of Kurdish identities, but attempts to define an unambiguous Kurdish identity by
these attributes are doomed to failure. Belonging to a Kurdish tribe inevitably places one in a
position of (at least potential) conflict with other Kurdish tribes and non-tribal communities;
language or dialect group as well as religious affiliation constitute major fault lines running
through the Kurdish nation as conceived by nationalists, and regional identities, as seen most
clearly in Iraqi Kurdistan, continue to override wider solidarities. Among those who are most
outspoken about their Kurdish identity, we find people who do not belong to a tribe, do not
speak Kurdish, are not Sunni Muslims, or have for generations lived far away from Kurdistan.
Kurdish political identity – by which I mean a degree of identifying oneself with, or
participating in the broader Kurdish movement – may unite Kurds of different languages or
dialects and religions, of rural as well as urban backgrounds, from different parts of Kurdistan
and from the diaspora. But that would exclude those Kurds who reject the largely secular
nationalist movements and identify themselves primarily as Muslims (or as Yezidis, or as
Alevis) and feel represented by religion-based movements and parties.
In practice, one’s identity is often more clearly defined by what one is
not than by any
positive attributes. People may define their identities by contrast with significant others;
depending on the situation, different others may be the most significant. A Kurd in Syria or
Iraq is, most obviously,
not an Arab, a Kurd in Iran is not an Azeri or a Persian, and a Kurd in
Turkey is
not a Turk – at least in some situations. But these ethnic identities are not mutually
exclusive; one of my interlocutors in Iran, in 1975, insisted on being Azeri and Persian as
well as Kurdish and appeared not even to understand my naïve question as to what he “really”
was, and I met Kurds in Turkey who appeared convinced that they were (ethnic) Turks. A
Kurdish migrant worker in Germany in the 1960s was definitely
not a German but would not
feel the need to distinguish himself strongly from Turkish migrant workers. The armed
conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s no doubt had a major impact on people’s sense of what they
are; I never met my Iranian interviewee again but it would surprise me if he had not felt
obliged to choose between the three ethnic identities, and the violence in Turkey similarly
“awakened” many people in the East to their ethnic identity. In the same period, a Kurdish diaspora emerged in Western Europe, which became increasingly distinct from the Turkish
These Others have been relevant in more than one sense: when Kurdish political identity
began taking shape, it did so in dialogue and debate with these others. The Kurdish movement
of Iraq developed its political ideas and forms of action in debates and polemics with Arab
socialist and nationalist movements and adopted much of their discourse. In Turkey, the
Kurdish movement developed in close relation with the Turkish left as well as in
communication with the Iraqi Kurdish movement, and the same can be said, mutatis
mutandis, of the development of Kurdish political identity in Iran and Syria. The Kurds in
these various countries, especially those who were educated and urbanised, developed
distinctly different habitus and political styles, in many ways more similar to those of their
Arab, Turkish or Persian counterparts than to those of the Kurds of neighbouring countries.
Each part of Kurdistan had its own Kurdish movement, different in character from those of
the other parts – although there was communication and occasionally co-operation between
In each part of Kurdistan there are moreover groups and communities whose Kurdishness has
been contested or denied either by themselves or by their neighbours. Yezidis, Alevis,
speakers of Zaza or Gurani dialects (rather than Kurmanci or Sorani), and non-tribal peasants
of the region may or may not define themselves as Kurds. For all of them, Kurmancispeaking,
tribal Sunni Kurds have often been the most significant other, by contrast with
whom they defined their identities. Especially Yezidis and Alevis have, like the Christian
minorities, traumatic memories of mistreatment at the hands of their Sunni Kurdish
neighbours. Many members of these communities do not wish to be associated with the
(Sunni) Kurds and avoid all contact. Conversely, many conservative Sunni Kurds whom I met
in the 1970s refused to recognise Yezidis and Alevis as Kurds, in spite of their speaking
Kurdish. Among the leaders of the Kurdish political movements since the 1960s, however,
Yezidis and especially Alevis have been strongly represented, and these leaders have made
great efforts to awaken an awareness of Kurdish identity in their communities. They
experienced competition, increasingly strong from the 1980s onwards, from political activists
who insisted on other ethnic identities: Zaza, Alevi, or Yezidi.
It is thus possible to speak of the Kurdish people as consisting of a core, with a strong and
unambiguous Kurdish identity, and a large periphery of individuals and communities, with
varying degrees of attachment to Kurdish identity and with potentially other ethnic identities.

I mean the term periphery in a metaphorical sense, but many of these communities are in fact
also geographically peripheral. In Turkey the core corresponds rather closely with the region
of Southeast Anatolia, and the periphery with the ethnically mixed zone from Gaziantep to
Erzincan and Erzurum. In Iraq, the territory of the Kurdish Regional Government controls
most of the core, and large parts of Kirkuk and Mosul contain peripheral populations that
have a more ambivalent relation with Kurdish identity. Shi`i and Sunni leaders, Arab and
Turkish as well as Kurdish nationalists have made efforts to draw these populations into their
orbits. In Iran, there is a clear boundary between (Sunni) Kurds and (Shi`i) Azeris in the
north, but in southern Kurdistan the Kurdish core shades into a zone peopled by Kurdishspeaking
Shi`is and Ahl-i Haqq, and speakers of Hewrami, Gurani and Leki dialects, all of
whom have more than one identity option and have been relatively marginal in the Kurdish
Religion continues to constitute a more significant fault line than language/dialect. In Turkey
the Sunni-Alevi divide remains deep and marked by the absence of trust, and although there
have not been serious Sunni-Shi`i conflicts among the Iranian and Iraqi Kurds in recent times,
the communities nowadays appear to be more separate than they were before as a result of the
general Islamic resurgence. The Yezidis are the most strictly endogamous community,
maintaining a sharp boundary that separates them from Sunni Kurds, Christians and other
minority groups. The continuing threat of ISIS has made the Yezidis dependent on protection
by the (Iraqi and Syrian) Kurds, but due to the long history of maltreatment and abuse by
Sunni Kurds, and the more recent experience of abandonment of Sinjar by Iraqi peshmergas
when ISIS attacked, Yezidi-Kurdish relations are marked by a low level of trust. Other
religious minorities such as the Ahl-i Haqq (also known as Yarsan or Kaka’i), Shabak and
Sarli are similarly vulnerable, and have in the past sought protection by defining themselves
as Kurds or Turkoman or even Arabs and by associating themselves with Shi`i or Sunni
religious authorities.
Kurdish identity (or identities) and Kurdish nationalism (or nationalisms) have been
articulated differently in different circumstances, and the demands associated with that
identity have been changing accordingly. Two major developments of the early twenty-first
century, the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq and the
declaration of self-governing cantons in the Kurdish zones of Syria, have clearly brought out
the existence of competing visions of Kurdish political self-expression. The dominant
political movements in these two regions represent fundamentally different versions of Kurdish nationalism. Besides these two, there is yet a third variety of Kurdish ethnic selfassertion
that has become increasingly significant since the Iranian Revolution, namely
Kurdish Islamism. In the following sections of this article, I shall sketch how these three
varieties of Kurdish nationalism, as well as other identity claims, have taken shape in the
major political upheavals of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.
“Classical” Kurdish nationalism and nation-formation
The experience of political and military struggle has resulted in at least three varieties of
Kurdish political identity, which find their purest organisational expression in the Iraqi KDP,
the PKK, and Hizbullah but exist in all parts of Kurdistan. The years of guerrilla struggle led
by Mulla Mustafa Barzani in Iraq, 1961-1975, were a crucial period in shaping a shared
Kurdish political identity. By the beginning of the period, tribal conflicts predominated, and
within the party there was rivalry between educated urban elites and tribal warriors. The
Baghdad regime successfully recruited ever larger groups of pro-government militias (jash or
fursan Salah al-Din) against the Kurdish movement but nonetheless, the struggle strengthened
an awareness of Kurdish identity even among those formally allied with the government. The
struggle in Iraq also stimulated nationalist sentiment among the Kurds in neighbouring
countries. After the defeat of 1975, there was vocal criticism of Barzani in all four parts, but it
cannot be denied that the political thought and activism of most of the critics had been
galvanised by the Kurdish struggle in Iraq. In an important sense, Barzani’s struggle
overcame many of the differences that kept the Kurds divided and created a sense of common
Political exile, which became a mass phenomenon after 1975, has been another important
factor contributing to strengthening this sense of a common destiny and shared identity. The
defeat of 1975 was accompanied by a mass flight of perhaps fifty thousand Iraqi Kurds into
Iran, hundreds of whom later ended up in Western Europe, where they established contact
with Kurdish migrant workers from Turkey. Turkey’s military coup of 1980 sent tens of
thousands into exile, many of whom spent time in Iran, Iraq and Syria before also ending up
in Europe. During the Iraq-Iran war of 1980-88, numerous Iranian Kurds sought refuge in
Iraqi Kurdistan. Many of these refugees learned to speak other dialects besides their own,
gained a better understanding of conditions in other parts of Kurdistan, and contributed to
shaping a shared Kurdish narrative. Refugees and other migrants in Europe (and later in the

USA, Australia, and even Japan) were to a much lesser degree subject to the assimilating
policies of Iraq, Iran or Turkey.
The sense of common Kurdish identity and shared destiny received its strongest impetus,
however, from a series of traumatic events. Halabja and the Anfal operations of 1988 was the
most dramatic of these events. Importantly, the bombing of Halabja with poison gas was
witnessed by the entire world, as shocking photos and video images were shown, and
frequently repeated, in news media. It was not only Iraqi Kurds, but also Kurds in Turkey,
Iran and Syria who responded to Halabja, feeling that this was not just one town suffering
indiscriminate extermination but it was an assault on the Kurds as a people. Halabja soon
became an icon of Kurdish history, Kurdish suffering, and Kurdish identity. The siege of
Kobani by ISIS and its ultimate liberation (2014-15) made Kobani a similar pan-Kurdish
icon. The participation of Iraqi Kurdish peshmergas in the defence of Kobani, cheered on
enthusiastically by Turkish Kurds during their passage through Turkish Kurdistan, suggested
that the state boundaries dividing the Kurds could, at least symbolically be overcome.
Turkey’s current offensive against the Syrian Kurds may turn out to become a similar
identity-strengthening icon.
I stated at the beginning that it may be impossible to find a characteristic that is shared by all
Kurds and that distinguishes them from non-Kurds. The memory of Halabja and Kobani,
however, is precisely such a characteristic. The Jewish and Armenian peoples have ancient
roots and richly documented histories, but modern Jewish and Armenian identity have been
indelibly shaped by their history of genocide. Traumatic events such as Halabja and Kobani
have in a similar way contributed to a shared sense of destiny among the Kurds.
But not every traumatic event unifies: the most traumatic event of recent years, the genocide
and enslavement of Yezidi men and women by ISIS did affect all Kurds but strengthened the
Yezidis’ sense of isolation. This serves as a reminder that we should not think of identity in
essentialist terms. There is nothing self-evident in an all-embracing, pan-Kurdish identity, and
there is no reason to expect that this broadest possible Kurdish identity will gradually be
consolidated. Symbols of national identity may divide as well as unite. It is good to remember
that ISIS also had Kurdish men in its ranks, some of them from Halabja.
Kurdish post-nationalism
A bit earlier I spoke of three varieties of Kurdish political identity, associated with three
modalities of Kurdish political action. What has been said so far is mainly relevant to the first,

“classical” mode of Kurdish nationalism, focused on the liberation of a territory and dreaming
of political boundaries corresponding to ethnic boundaries. The PKK’s ideology has from the
beginning been somewhat different, but only after the adoption of Murray Bookchin’s
ecological anarcho-socialism in the late 2000s did it become a radical alternative to
“classical” nationalism focused on the building of a Kurdish nation-state.
The PKK was from the beginning a multi-ethnic movement, in which Turks as well as
religious minorities (Alevis, Yezidis) were strongly represented. Around 1980 it briefly
cooperated with the radical Armenian organisation ASALA; both agreed to postpone debates
on the demarcation of a future Armenia and Kurdistan and were not bothered by the
enormous overlap of Armenian and Kurdish territorial claims. Rather than referring to the
Christian minorities in Kurdistan as “Christian Kurds” (as the KDP did in the 1970s), the
PKK spoke early of “the peoples of Kurdistan” to whom it promised equal rights. In the
course of the 1990s, the PKK renounced on the ideal of a united and independent Kurdistan
and began speaking of seeking accommodation with Turkey within the existing state
boundaries. Organisationally, there was close cooperation with Turkish left movements
(which gained influence in the organisation’s publications, for instance).
The concepts of “democratic autonomy” and “democratic confederalism” that came to define
the “new” PKK from around 2008 onward, brought with them an emphasis on grassroots
organisation and federal alliance across all sorts of boundaries: state, regional or ethnic.
Although the word “Kurdistan” remained in the name of the clandestine party (i.e., PKK), the
legal party that it endorses, HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) is explicitly a multi-ethnic
party, in which non-Kurdish left activists have a significant influence – a fact that has been
criticised and denounced as a major political error by many Kurdish nationalists outside the
PKK. In Syria, the PYD organised three Kurdish-inhabited areas of northern Syria into selfgoverning
cantons that were initially referred to collectively as Rojava (i.e. West Kurdistan, a
remnant of “classical” Kurdish nationalist discourse), but the PYD also increasingly stressed
its multi-ethnic character. Gradually the YPG, the military arm of the PYD, brought more
districts of ethnically mixed population under its control. Incorporating non-Kurdish fighting
units into the broader multi-ethnic force the SDF that, with US support, defeated ISIS, the
PYD/YPG came to control a huge part of north-eastern Syria, within which Kurds were
probably a minority of the population. Even though only temporarily, the political boundaries
were completely independent of ethnic boundaries and reflected the experience of a joint
struggle against a shared enemy (as well as ancient geography: the Euphrates river was a

natural boundary). The movement appeared eager to dissociate political identity from its
ethnic roots.
It cannot be denied, however, that PKK-aligned organisations were at best partially successful
in playing down the significance of ethnic background and ethno-nationalism as a motivating
force. Many of the rank-and-file, even while being indoctrinated in the new ideology,
remained nationalists at heart and considered the war in Syria as a phase in the larger struggle
for an independent Kurdistan. Similarly, though there was genuine grassroots organisation
going on and women were genuinely empowered as political actors, in line with the official
ideology, the older centralised and authoritarian party organisation of the PKK remained in
place, and remained the ultimate decision-maker.
Islamic Kurdish nationalism: a contradiction in terms?
The majority of the Kurds are orthodox Sunni Muslims and Islam has long played an
important part in the social life of the Kurds, but until recently all Kurdish political parties
have been secular. The separation of religion and politics appeared natural to most Kurds, and
many who were personally very pious had no problems working together in politics with
people of less religious persuasions.
Since the 1960s, however, Islamist groups of various persuasions (but all more or less
influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood) have gained a considerable following among the
Kurds, especially in Turkey, but usually these groups have been opposed to (Kurdish)
nationalism and have denied the relevance of ethnic identity. These groups typically either
stayed aloof from politics altogether or actively opposed Kurdish nationalist political
activism. In the Islamist view, Kurds and Turks, Persians and Arabs are brothers and
nationalism is an alien ideology that sows disunity and enmity among Muslims in order to
divide, weaken and dominate them.
In the past few decades, however, a number of movements have emerged among the Kurds
that define themselves primarily as Islamic while at the same time taking pride in their
distinct Kurdish identity. I am inclined to call these movements “Islamic nationalist”,
although most of them remain in principle opposed to all forms of nationalism. In Turkish
Kurdistan, this concerns minor sub-groups of the Nurcu movement, a recent, loosely
organised movement called the Azadi Initiative and, more surprisingly, the reformed
Hizbullah movement of the 2010s. A common rallying symbol for them is the figure of
Shaykh Said, a religious personality who in 1925 led a large uprising against the anti-religious

and anti-Kurdish policies of Turkey’s Kemalist regime. In Iran the most prominent group is
the Maktab-i Qur’an, established by the late Ahmad Muftizade, and in Iraqi Kurdistan the
dominant groups are Ali Bapir’s Islamic Group of Kurdistan (Komalî Îslamî Kurdistan) and
the Islamic Union of Kurdistan (Yekgirtûy Îslamî Kurdistan). I believe that this Kurdish
Islamic nationalism represents an important third variety of Kurdish nationalism, which may
well gain more influence in the coming decades.
The most significant Islamist movement to emerge in Turkish Kurdistan was Hizbullah,
which in the 1990s became embroiled in a violent conflict with the PKK. Hizbullah then cooperated
closely with the state’s counter-insurgency forces (“Kontrgerilla”) during those years
and was widely perceived as a puppet of those forces, earning it the nickname of “Hizbi
Kontra”. Besides Kurdish nationalists, Hizbullah also targeted rival Muslim groups, including
the Islamist faction Menzil and the Kurdish Nurcu group Zehra, whose leader
Yıldırım it kidnapped, tortured and killed.
The year 2000, when Hizbullah’s leader Hüseyin Velio
ğlu was killed in a shootout with the
police in Istanbul and other top leaders were arrested, was a turning point in the history of the
organisation. Under a younger new leadership, it attempted to transform itself from a
secretive clandestine sect into a civil society organisation (Mustazaf Der, Association of the
Powerless), and sought a public mass base. The Danish cartoon crisis of 2006 provided it with
the opportunity to organise a protest meeting, its first successful attempt at mass mobilisation.
In a new form of rivalry with the secular Kurdish movement, which had adopted Newroz as
the major occasion of mass mobilisation, Hizbullah started organising similar mass meetings
(in Diyarbakir taking place in the same location, and almost exactly a month after Newroz) in
commemoration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birth, the Kutlu Do
ğum celebrations. It showed
that it could mobilise significant numbers of people for these religiously defined occasions –
perhaps not as many as came to the Newroz celebrations but enough to fill the same large
open spaces. (According to local observers, quite a few people participated in both Newroz
and Kutlu Do
ğum meetings.)
It was the search for a mass following that made Hizbullah give more importance to Kurdish
identity. In 2010, Hizbullah organised another mass meeting, which appeared to indicate an
increasing identification with Kurdish national concerns: a meeting to commemorate Shaykh
Said. Internally, Hizbullah’s followers communicate with each other in Kurdish; in its mass
mobilisation, it appeals to Islamic as well as Kurdish identity. Many of its organisers and
propagandists are Kurdish
mele, medrese graduates. In a book published by Hizbullah’s own
publishing house that explicitly addresses Kurdish identity, the author is fiercely critical of
secular nationalism (which he calls
ulusalcılık), which he claims will not be able to realize the
“liberation of the Kurds” – implying that Hizbullah considers the liberation of the Kurds,
whatever it means by these words, as one of its objectives.
Similarly, Komalî Islam and Yekgirtû, the two leading Islamist parties of Iraqi Kurdistan,
have to some exten broken with the internationalist Islamism from which they emerged and
adopted an explicitly Kurdish, or Kurdistani, Islamic identity. Unlike Hizbullah, they have
sought accommodation with the dominant secular Kurdish nationalist parties in the Kurdistan
region, and explicitly speak of equal citizen’s rights for religious minorities.
So far, these groups have not developed a coherent, explicit ideology, except for a stronger
emphasis on Islamic identity and practice. The Iraqi Kurdish groups appear to have adopted
much of the “classical” nationalist discourse. Hizbullah has remained supportive of Recep
Tayyip Erdo
ǧan after the abrupt collapse of the peace process in 2015 (but it has seen
defections, as members disagreed with this political attitude and refused to take position
against the secular Kurdish movement). It is not at all unlikely that Islamic Kurdish
nationalism may continue attracting people who are disaffected with the established
nationalist parties and/or PKK-style post-nationalism. This third variety of nationalism has
inherently great difficulties with religious minorities, especially the heterodox minorities that
are not recognized as “people of the book,” i.e., Alevis, Yezidis, Shabak, Kaka’is, etc. The
future of these minorities is precarious; the process of modernisation, further compounded by
the effects of political conflicts and wars, has increased pressure towards assimilation and
adoption of orthodox Islam. Islamic Kurdish nationalism is both a factor and a beneficiary of
these processes.
Presently the most significant ideological debate and power struggle among the Kurds is that
between the varieties of nationalism represented by the KDP and the PKK. In Syria and
Turkey, movements that have adopted the PKK’s concept of democratic autonomy and
confederalism are the dominant or mainstream ones, but in both there are many individuals
and groups that reject the PKK and its ideas of reorganising society and look towards the
KDP as the only alternative with sufficient power. This includes, in Turkey, what remains of
the earlier Kurdish political movements as well as dissidents who have broken away from the
PKK, but also many of those whom I have called Kurdish “Islamic nationalists.” Masud

Barzani, perceived to be a conservative and religious-minded leader, is more acceptable to the
last-named group than any of the other Kurdish political leaders.
The growing importance of Islamic and Islamist groups (cemaat) among the Kurds seems to
have several implications for Kurdish identity movements and Kurdish nationalism. On the
one hand, some of the Islamic groups appear to place more emphasis of Kurdish identity and
perhaps even adopt a form of Kurdish “Islamic nationalism.” On the other hand, the secular
Kurdish movements have seen themselves forced to make symbolic gestures of acceptance of
Islamic discourse and conservative values. This may in turn lead to some strain with the non-
Sunni minorities.

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