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"The Kurdish identity is marked by oppression and resistance, silence and cry"


Standpoint of Turkey

"The Kurdish identity is marked by oppression and resistance, silence and cry"

Irfan Aktan


Irfan Aktan


According to the journalist Irfan Aktan, Kurdish identity has been shaped through the resistance developed against the denial. But denial is not over, it has simply changed it's form. When completed and there will be a normalisation, a live debate about the Kurdish identity will start. According to Aktan, Kurds, who want to be "from Turkey" while they become "Kurdistani" are much more willing than the Turks to face the past.


REPAIR : Is the denial of the Kurds' existence by the Turkish state shaped their identity? Can we say it was a determining factor ?

Irfan Aktan : I think so. We can say that the Kurdish identity was shaped primarily through resistance developed against the denial. Before the Republic, and even for some time after, the existence of the Kurdish identity is not denied. Negation is only a practice of the model of homogeneous nation-state discovered later by the Turkish Republic. A story told in the book "Ataturk nationalism" by Hikmet Tanyu, published in 1961, summarize, in my opinion, the beginning of the denial of Kurdish identity. I can read the story.

Tanyu tells about the "Event ": "Two soldiers of the regiment of the Republican Guard were doing a wrestling competition in the garden of the Presidential Palace of Cankaya, other soldiers were watching them. When they heard the sound of cars arrival, the soldiers stop wretsling and began to running. Ataturk arrived at the palace. Great Ataturk stopped his car and by a hand sign, called the running soldiers. A wrestler soldier, who didn't have time to put his shirt, approaches timidly Ataturk. "What are you doing here ?" ,asked Ataturk. Corporal replied : "We were wrestling my Pacha!". The answer pleased Ataturk because he liked the wrestling sport. "Okay, then continue". Seeing that soldiers were hesitant, Ataturk insisted: "Continue the wretling. I'll watch you. But I want to know who is the chief wrestler". The soldier, who could not put his shirt , make a step forward. "This is me Sir". "What 's your name ? "Memet The Kurd". By the pronunciation of the word "Kurd " Ataturk frowned, but a moment later, he continues to speak with a smiling face. "They call you "Kurt Memet" ("wolf" in Turkish), because you are strong as a wolf, is not it ?". Memet the Kurd came from a vilage, he did not studied, but he understood immediately what Ataturk meant. "Yes, Pasha" he has said. "My name is Memet the Wolf. I misspoke earlier."

The story told by Hikmet Tanyu summarizes very well the relations of the state with the Kurds. First, the state does not deny, can not deny its existence. There is a population, territory and Kurdish history so extensive that it is impossible to deny. But on the other hand, the emphasis on the fact that the Memet the Kurd is a peasant and he did not studied highlights the perception of the Kurds by the state. In the early years of the Republic, the fact that the Kurds are "ignorant peasants" were one of the pillars of the assimilationist policy. It was thought that it will be "easy to dupe or intimidate the ignorant." But they forgot, or despised that Memet the Kurd was "chief wrestler. For this reason, the elite of the Republic had the illusion that the Kurds would easily accept the denial.

After the revolt of Seyh Said and Dersim massacres, the state thought it had defeated Kurds militarily. Indeed, political denial, threats and sanctions gived fruit in the short term, the Kurds remain silent and even submit for a long time to the authority of the state. But this situation did not last. Kurds began to move slowly in the first stage through the populism of the Democratic Party, then raise their voices with the Workers' Party of Turkey and later to reorganize, to accept their existence, to find solutions to their problems through small structures such as Revolutionary houses of culture of the East. The grouping of Kurds in different organizations from 1960 and a little ideological support of the socialist movement in Turkey has led to the outbreak of a new rebellion. The 1980s can be considered as the end of "Memet the Wolf"s silence and the beginning of its transformation into "Memet the Kurd". The Kurdish identity has a particular structure, it is marked by oppression and resistance, and at the same time by silence and cry. In this historical context, we can easily say that the denial was detreminant for the Kurdish identity.

Does the identity définiton has changed with the partial end of the denial ?

I think the change has not been experienced with the end of the denial, but with the Kurdish revolt. Negation is not over, it has simply changed form. When it will be completed, being a Kurd will normalize and it is only then that we will be close to a solution. I do not think we are at that stage today. The Kurdish movement thinks as well and that's why it does not loosens its position. But when there is a normalization, a lively debate will begin about the content of Kurdish identity. This debate will be conducted between the Kurds, particularly on the basis of social class. But the Kurds hand, yet partially, these debates later because of the pressure and attacks of the state.

We see that some of Kurds are positioned on the side of the AKP and another part in the BDP. Even these positions are showing signs of potential debates that will take place on the Kurdish identity. When the denial of the state will be defeated, the Kurds who position themselves on the side of the AKP, so on the side of the state, will have to explain their positions. But I think there is still time for this debate. When this debate will take place, the story of "Memet the Wolf" and "Memet the Kurd" will also begin to be clearer. "Memet the Wolf" will explain to the Kurds who rebelled why he submitted to Mustafa Kemal and is resigned to become the " Wolf". This explanation will determine, at the long term, the new definition of Kurdish identity.

What is the importance of religion in this identity?

There is an interesting similarity between the form of the social organization of Kurds and communitarianism of religious groups. Many religious communities have taken their roots in Kurdish. The Kurds have a degree of social organization based on the tribes and confederations of tribes. It is this organization that has avoided, in my opinion, the rapid dispersal of the Kurds against the attacks of the state. In the past, tribal leaders were also religious leaders. Seyh Said, for example, is a religious man, while he is a political figure. But the state has attempted to submit the Kurdish society, bringing on his side or intimidating both tribal leaders and religious communities. And he had some success. For this reason, the current Kurdish revolt could not be launched by a tribal chief or religious leader. Thus, the PKK, which has emerged as a socialist movement, has rapidly gained strength among the Kurds who are mostly pious and conservative.

Abdullah Öcalan comes from a poor family. This is an important detail in the history of Kurdish revolt. While the oppressed classes flocked to the PKK as butterflies that saw the light, tribal leaders have transformed their vassals in village guards and placed themselves on the side of the state. Because "feets" tried to become the "head". The first actions of the PKK were against the tribes, but they never attacked religious leaders. Because although it is a Marxist movement, the PKK was created with an understanding of the conservative structrure of Kurdish society and did not take anti-religion discourse. With the PKK, a still unfinished transformation of Kurdish identity began. This transformation will be accelerated when the denial is over. What will be the impact of the religion factor in this process? This will be determined by the approach of the Kurdish movement. I think, because of its structure, the PKK will not consider religion as a determinant of reconstruction of identity. But that does not mean they will exclude or will conflict with the communities that are aligned on the same line as the state.

What about relations with others? Who are the "others" for the Kurds ?

It depends on who is designated as "Others ". Kurds also have "Other". For example, some of the Kurds, "others" are those who support the PKK, while another part sees supporters of the state as "other". In the cities of Hakkari, Sirnak, Cizre, in Agri, Van, Mardin, Urfa and Diyarbakir part, the "other" are the Arabs and the Turks. But there is no direct conflict with the "other". Busy with their own state of " others" and because they are not sovereign even in areas where they are the majority, the Kurds do not perturb the "other". Anyway, the "Other" exists only when there is a sovereignty. Kurds are not sovereign. It is the state that dominates all aspects of daily life and the Kurds are "Other" even on their own land.

If there is an "Other" for the Kurds, it is the state itself. Neither the Turks, nor Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians and Alevis. But when the Kurds will be sovereign over their land and if they do not achieve democratic governance, then they will discover the "Other". For exemple, the Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) offers very important data about this subject. This is also the case of Iraqi Kurdistan. In both parts of Kurdistan, we can see that the authorities respect the existence of other ethnic and religious structures. I think the holders of an identity that suffered from exclusion are not very enthusiastic to create their own "others". In Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurds have a much more peaceful approach towards ethnic and religious structures compared to the attitude of Turkey, Iran, Iraq or Syria. From the historical point of view, the PKK, which excluded all other organizations, don't have the same approach towards the peoples and beliefs. I think that the reason lies in both the ideological structure of the PKK and that the Kurds themselves were excluded.

What is the relationship with the four parts of Kurdistan and the notion of "being from Turkey" ? (The concept of "being from Turkey" was proposed in 2004 as an appellation instead of the word "Turk", which, instead of simply representing the citizenship of Turkey, had, because of assimilationist policies, took an ethnic and discriminatory connotation).

The "being from Turkey" is a compulsory situation. The main reason for the migration of Kurds to territories outside Kurdistan is the assimilationist policies of the state and the poverty to that Kurdistan was sentenced. Especially from the 1980s, the emigration of Kurdish peasants to the west of Turkey was made by a state policy. Since the first years of the Republic, the Kurds have been forced or convinced to "being from Turkey". After all these policies, the Kurds are now become "from Turkey". For Iraq, Iran and Syria, the situation is different. Instead of assimilation, these countries have conducted a policy of direct persecution and tried to defeat the Kurds by imprisoning them in their land. The Turkish policy was, from this point of view, a little different. For this reason, we do not use the terms "being from Syria, Iraq or Iran " for the Kurds living in Syria and other countries.

The notion of "being from Turkey" is in fact the expression of a speech that was developed against the Kurds demand on independent state. But the Kurdish movement, advancing on another path of liberation that the idea of an independent Kurdistan, knows they must become "from Turkey". Thus, "being from Turkey" becomes a determinant of Kurdish identity. Kurds are already sociologically "from  Turkey". If the Kurds living in the west will not return to Kurdistan, it is inevitable for the Kurdish identity to shape itself based on this acceptance. Wishing becoming "Turkey" while preserving their colors, the Kurds draw the contours of their identity. But the Kurds don't want to just "become from Turkey" they also want  to "being from Kurdistan". They want to develop their cultural, economic, social relations with the regions of Kurdistan located within the borders of Iraq, Iran and Syria. For this, it is necessary to reformat the nation-state. This is what Abdullah Öcalan means when he speaks of the "democratic confederalism ". In short, the current process of political and social transformation will give a new shape to the Kurdish identity.

What are the changes that have occurred in the Kurdish identity in the present period that some analysts call the "post-kemalism" ?

I think we didn't yet passed to the post-kemalist era. Erdogan said he "ended the denial" but the only concrete step is the TRT6 tv channel, which does not even have a legal status, and Kurdish language courses in some universities. Negation can only end with the change of the constitution in favor of Kurdish rights, the corrosion of the borders of nation-state, by properly facing the war that lasted more than thirty years, by giving back the name of "Memet the Kurd" to "chief wrestler" who was transformed to " Memet the Wolf " and by several other reforms. We did not yet approached this stage. The state remains in the same position for a hundred years, with the same mentality and the same policy. Some governments have been forced to make some steps, but the continuity of the state policy on the Kurds is still the rule. If this was not the case, the preparation of a new constitution, the promulgation of some laws requested by the Kurdish movement and several other regulatory laws would not be made so difficult. I can even say that while the prefect of Diyarbakir, which is a state official, continues to have more power than the mayor elected by the people, we can not speak about a post-kemalist process.

How 1915 and the fact that the Kurds continued to live on the land where Armenians lived had an impact on the formation of their identity?

Kurds who participated in the Armenian Genocide quickly saw that they could undergo the same fate. After the oppression of Seyh Said revolt, some Kurdish elites who fled to Syria organized Agri revolt by an alliance with the Armenians and creating with them the Xoybûn organization. The animosity of Kurds with the Armenians was short, while their friendship lasted long time. For this reason, you can not see a systematic attitude against the Armenians between Kurds. On the other hand, although Kurdish people tended to forget the genodice immediately after it happened as the same as in Turks, we know that they are more openminded than Turkish people in this matter.  Reasons of this fact deserve to be researched. But, I guess, soon afterwards the genocide, the state supression started leaning to Kurds and this fact has an effect on the abovementioned situation. In fact, when examining the process of involving Kurds in Armenian genocide, two important factors come to the fore : fear and prosperity. Kurdish people were convinced by Istanbul Government that Armenian people would establish a state and oppress them . Moreove, it was heralded that, if Kurdish people shall involve in exiling Armenians, the “booty” that was left by Armenians shall be shared with them. But, shortly after the genocide, as I said before, Kurdish people faced with the state supression that time. I think, this could be one of those reasons why Kurdish people hide Armenian Genocide. 

We can see that the Kurds are more advanced compared to the Turks in the process of dealing with the Armenian Genocide. Dealing with the past can prevent damages in identity?

The Kurds have not yet been able to face their past, but they are much more willing to do compared to the Turks. Because the Kurds have no state that could direct their perception. From this point of view, the Kurds, even if they seem prisoners, are free in their will. The fact that Kurdish people relayed the information about the subject via oral culture rather than cover it up, made Kurdish people yarer to the acceptance of genocide today. While a part of Turkish people learn recently about what their anchestors did in the history, Kurdish people already heard what happened that time from their grandparents.

Moreover, Kurdish people know that they will be stronger when they face with the fact that the differentiation, betrayal and division among themselves contributed to their worse luck. In other words, they are always face with not only about Armenian Genocide, but also with themselves. In 1990s, police in Kurdistan made propaganda by introducing members of PKK as “Armenian grain”. Only this was enough for Kurdish people to empathize with the Armenians.  

A Turk living in Yozgat, Tokat or Karaman knows that he will be designated as a "traitor" by the state first, then by his neighbor, if he says that "the Armenian genocide is true." They keep, for this reason, the silence. But the Kurds have long since crossed the threshold of fear related to being stamped "traitor". The Kurds have been accused of treachery enough while defending their rights. This state can intimidate the Turks with a speech on trahision, but the Kurds have passed that stage. From this point of view, while the Turks and the state are reluctant to face the past to avoid potential damage to their identity, the Kurds are forced to face the past to rebuild their identity.




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