Kurds in Turkey: Identity and Nationalism in Academic Discourse

Updated: Nov 11, 2016

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Kurds Identity

Before the 1980s, little was known about the Kurds, a large ethnic group living in southeastern Turkey, due to the lack of academic institutions to fund and coordinate research, and other barriers. For instance, as the existence of a Kurdish nation in Turkey was traditionally ignored and being pursued as an official policy, the Turkish government limits the scope of studies on all aspects of Kurdish life.

Academic debate and research were also severely suppressed by the hegemonic representation of the Kurds in the state’s discourse as a case of separatism, terrorism, and so on. Moreover, since the basis of this hegemonic representation was a state-sponsored classified research, it prevented researchers from questioning the officially recognized representation of the Kurds or engage in issues related to Kurdish society and culture.    

However, when the Kurdish national movement emerged and political activism in Turkey increased in the 1980s, studies addressing various issues and focusing on aspects of Kurdish society and politics were freely carried out and published. Some of these studies focus on Kurd's origin and identity while others are more interested in conflict analysis, re-emergence, and evolution of Kurdish nationalism.

As a stateless people who have been exposed to oppression, suffering, subordination, and forced migration, Kurd's history, and origin, according to the literature relates to their struggles to gain independence and freedom. For this reason, the main components of Kurds identity include their homeland, the memory of the past, shared experiences, language, and national symbols. Their homeland, according to the literature is “Kurdistan”, a territory delineated by the Allies after World War I.  Kurdistan consist of a two hundred thousand square miles of mountainous expanse and some 550,000 square kilometers of land  spanning the present state boundaries of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. However, there are no internationally recognized Kurdistan territories and the term “Kurdistan” has been banned in Turkey since the 1920s.


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The delineation of Kurdistan resulted to the dispersal of the Kurds into nearby territories where they need to cope with varying socio-political and cultural conditions imposed on them. The dispersion in a way negates the possibility for the Kurds to have a fixed and essentialist Kurdish identity. Although most Kurds consider themselves as descendants of the ancient Medes, researchers view of Kurds identity still revolved around the demarcation of their homeland due to lack of written historical sources that could link them to ancient periods.

Kurdish Nationalism

Kurdish nationalism according to literature is one the most controversial and critical predicaments in the Middle East. For instance, since  there are about 20 to 25 million Kurds live mostly in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, Kurds effort to establish their own state not only resulted in numerous clashes with the government of the states in which the Kurds reside but claimed tens of thousands of lives. However, despite being a direct threat to the territorial integrity of the above states, the nature and origin of Kurdish nationalism remain unexplained and poorly studied.

As a political ideology, Kurdish nationalism is inspired by collective identities, traditions, self-awareness, and imagined communities. In 1878 for instance, the Kurds who rebelled against the Ottoman Empire and invaded the Urmia region in Iran used the term “Kurdish nation” and expressed the need to unify the Kurds and create a Kurdish state. A Kurdish poet, on the other hand, edited and republished an epic poem in 1695 containing expressions of an independent Kurdish identity and need for a Kurdish ruler.  Similarly, “Kurdistan”, the first newspaper in the Kurdish language published in Cairo in 1898 was a step toward Kurdish self-awareness or awakening possibly leading the creation of a Kurdish state.  

The Kurdish question in Turkey is still defined by the separatist tracks of Kurdish nationalism, but with less radical inkling and seeks cultural recognition and political equality within the confines of democracy. In fact, many scholars believed that since violent demands for recognition is often met with equally violent Turkish strategies, Kurdish nationalism needs to be decoupled from ethnic violence and essentialism.   

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