Identity Shifts

The Evolution of Kurdish Nationalism: The Shift from Ottoman to Kurdish “rebel”

The strong Kurdish national identity that can be witnessed today is a contemporary phenomenon. A series of events and movements have played their role in both shaping Kurdish identity, and and strengthening the Kurdish separatist movement.

Kurdish nationals at a protest.

The Ottoman empire was a multiethnic state that incorporated many cultures under an imperial umbrella. Its disintegration in the aftermath of World War I sparked a shift in national policy away from multiculturalism towards homogenization (Yavuz). The creation of the Turkish state came along with insecurities of stability and longevity. As a result, the Turkish government began pushing a united Turkish identity, and rejecting all others. The Kurds, who had lived in tribes in the East, had maintained a certain level of autonomy under the Ottoman Empire. When, they requested the preservation of their autonomy, they became the victims of suppression (Yanuz).

The new constitution of 1924 established Turkish as the official language and “turk” as the official national identity, encompassing all members of the Turkish community “regardless of race” (Constitution 1924). Though this seems like a unifying measure, it in reality was a dividing one. The new constitution enabled a system of forcible assimilation, in which the Kurdish language and nationalism could be banned (KHRP). So, in order to be a to become a citizen, or even a member of Turkish society, Kurds would need to relinquish their language, culture, and national identity. The reaction to Turkization was different among Sunni and Alevi Kurds. Though the Alevi supported some aspects of assimilation and the Turkish government, the Sunni Kurds were in opposition (Yanuz). This divided the Kurds into two separate factions, and split the country into those considered loyal Turks, and those considered rebellious Kurds.

The emergence of a unified Kurdish separatist movement, and a secular Kurdish identity, largely began in the 1970s.  During that time, both Alevi and Sunni Kurdish intellectuals and elites began shaping Kurdish identify in place of tribe leaders (Yanuz). This shift in leadership led to a change in Kurdish identity. Instead of a focusing on religious divisions, the Kurdish elites emphasized the preservation of a shared Kurdish culture and language (Yanuz). From this newfound unity, the Kurdish identity became political, as the Kurds began to unitedly challenge assimilation and formulated a belief in their right to self-rule.

Ultimately, the unification of Kurdish identity was brought on by the oppressive nature of the Turkish government. In many ways, the government’s attempt to create a unified Turkish culture makes it similar to France. Like France, the Turkish government neglected the existence of separate racial groups in order to catalyze a national identity. The major difference is that French ethnic groups did not develop a belief in their right to self rule;  they therefore had to accept unjust assimilation under the french ideal of “Laicite”(See France page). In Turkey, the Kurdish ethnic group responded in opposition to the Turkish government policies, with radical fragments resorting to violence in a desperate attempt to separate from an oppressive ruler.

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