Orientalism in the study of the "Kurdish problem"

Kurdishaspect.com - By Serhat Daran

Serhat Daran of Mana reviews Michael M. Gunter's "The A to Z of the Kurds"

"The section of geography?which includes equal information on the demography of the Kurds, reveals little of the forced displacement policies carried out by the colonizing states."-Serhat Daran

Before anything else, the reader of Michael M. Gunter's "The A to Z of the Kurds," essentially with identical content as his "Historical Dictionary of the Kurds (2003)," ought to have a look at the back of the book jacket. This will first and foremost give a fairly accurate impression of its content, or at least the publisher's marketing of the book. The veracity of the latter claim is more distinguishable. The publisher claims the book is addressed to "[s]cholars, government officials who deal with the Middle East and the Kurds, the media" and others with a general interest in the Kurdish people. It should also be "an accessible historical account of a group of people who are becoming increasingly important for the future of the strategic Middle East." This trite and condescending view of the Kurds in the English-speaking academia-which ultimately only reflects the prevailing ideology within international politics as a whole-has been out in the open for some years already. But here my somewhat lucid perceptions of things are exchanged for concrete formulations. An ill-considered phrasing it may seem, but the conditions of politics in relation to Kurdistan are and have always been predestined by global interests.

Conveying the unconventional

In my judgement, the constrictions imposed by the publisher can be seen in effect by leafing through the hastily written introduction (pp. xxvii-xl), which contains no footnotes. It devotes barely a full page to Eastern and Western Kurdistan (pp. xxxviii-xxxix) and emphatically underestimates the Kurdish populace to "25-28 million" (p. xxvii)-a figure that does not reflect the demographic changes in Kurdistan in the last 20 years, i.e., population growth1 or the assimilation policies of the colonizing states.2 Gunter's argument is further on explained in the introduction (p. xxix). We are also told that "[i]f the Arab-Israeli [sic] dispute slowly winds down, the Kurdish issue will bid to replace it as a leading factor of instability in the geostrategically important Middle East" (p. xxvii). In a millisecond the tables have turned; the de facto colonization and assimilation of the Kurdish nation are not the problem after all, but the recalcitrant targets of subjugation. It is when armed resistance is organized against the already ongoing racist violence that an ethical problem arises for the Westerner: Should the monopoly on violence be questioned? 3 This logic explicitly proposes that colonized nations acquiesce to the status quo, leaving the choice over modes of resistance to the often white observer. As Fanon put it: "Nonviolence is an attempt to settle the colonial problem around the negotiating table before the irreparable is done, before any bloodshed or regrettable act is committed."4 However, in the case of Kurdistan, the colonialists seek no settlement as such, only ways to make the colonization more manageable.5

The section of geography (pp. xxvii-xxviii), which includes equal information on the demography of the Kurds, reveals little of the forced displacement policies carried out by the colonizing states. 6 Economical underdevelopment is then discussed, ending with an odd insight that "Turkish Kurdistan" is not seeing the same booming prosperity as "Iraqi Kurdistan" has since the oil for food program "despite the Guneydogu Anadolu Projesi (GAP), or Southeast Anatolia Project, for harnessing the Euphrates and Tigris rivers through the construction of gigantic dams" (p. xxxi). One might ask in whose interest the project would be constructed and who would benefit from it. Kurds en masse would very unlikely be one of the benefiters. Colonial regimes do not share equally the natural resources it exploits from its colonies. 7

Meritoriously the author mentions the still-in-place constitution from the 1982 military coup d'état in Turkey, with its racist and anti-Kurdish provisions. And ideologically related to it, Gunter brings up the anti-terrorism law and the Turkish Penal Code that criminalizes critical thought and activism (p. xxxiii). Not as meritoriously Gunter writes on the current armed resistance in Northern Kurdistan that "by the beginning of 2000 [the PKK insurgency] had resulted in more than 37,000 deaths, the partial or complete destruction of as many as 3,000 villages, and the internal displacement of some 3 million people" (p. xxxiii). Suggesting the PKK guerrillas had killed all of those people, caused all that destruction and misery while "the state had killed no one." 8 Finally, it ends with a section on Syria by stating how "the Kurds in Syria are not as important a problem as they are in the other three states" (p. xxxix). Here the colonial control over mass-produced intellectual discourse becomes evident, as it constantly reproduces itself and determines the view that the intelligentsia embraces. It would in contrast be more beneficial to slightly rephrase the question van Bruinessen put forward, namely: "Whose problem, [and] whose answers?" 9

A mishmash of content

But how well does the work in question live up to the promise of being a summary of the Kurds "A to Z"? Not without limitations. The book should be seen as an abridgment of the historical narrative of the Kurdish nation, which (mostly) aspires to index the political history of the Kurds. Yet there are some pressing questions about the composition of the book. With its 219 pages (not counting the introduction, bibliography, etc.), the book feels far too brief. In addition to that I cannot help questioning the lack of depth and detail in most of the entries. Concerning Musa Anter, the entry stretches barely over two lines (Anter is again briefly mentioned on p. 128), with the remaining two lines describing the Hizbullah contra guerrillas (p. 9). A very telling example of the tendencies in this book: Incompleteness remains the book's biggest Achilles heel.

In addition to that, one marvels over some of the entries that include Richard Nixon (p. 148), Amnesty International (p. 6), Chaldeans (p. 32), khutba (p. 99), akrad (p. 4), and Fadime Şahindal (p. 178). The choice to include singers Şivan Perwer (p. 165) and Ibrahim Tatlises (p. 199) makes it even more sprawling if not confusing. In the absence of a more stringent plan, unavoidably, the miscellaneous selection of subjects and individuals seem arbitrary. This in turn makes the book falter on the whole rather than pace forward with confidence and logic. Otherwise, "The A to Z of the Kurds" includes everything there is to expect in the form of detailed maps of Kurdistan, a list of acronyms and a historical chronology. The hope to find obscure facts, such as those of the Soviet Republic of Red Kurdistan (p. 122), is partly fulfilled. But on the whole, the entries are concise repetitions of well-known facts from renowned academic publications. It is noteworthy that, e.g., Kamuran Bedirxan, Nûrî Dêrsimî, Taufiq Wahby, Şerif Paşa, Mazlum Dogan, Osman Sebrî, Alîşêr Efendî, Ahmet Türk, or Malmîsanij (pseudonym for Mehmed Tayfun) are not mentioned. Nor is there anything written on the crucial student and cultural societies such as Kürt Teavün ve Terakki Cemiyeti, Kürdistan Teali Cemiyeti, Hêvî Kurd, and Kurdish Students Society in Europe, which during various stages of the 20th century were mainly established in Istanbul and Europe. This volume also lacks certain female figures that deserve recognition, including Asenath Barzani, Mastoureh Ardalan, Zarîfe Xanim, and Leyla Qasim, to mention just a few.

The occurrence of very peculiar ways to write certain names also appear throughout the book--Kuchgiri instead Kochgiri (p. 104), josh instead of jash (p. 91), Djaladat Badrkhani instead of Jeladet Bedirkhan, and Thurayya Badrkhani instead of Süreyya Bedirkhan (pp. 17). For simplicity, it would be much easier if Gunter and other Kurdologists used the Kurdish spellings of names as often as possible. Kurmancî (kurmanji) is, after all, written using the Latin alphabet, not hieroglyphics. It is quite frustrating, moving on to the linguistic entries, when kurmancî is considered to be interchangeable with what Gunter calls "bahdinani," from the southern region of Kurdistan where kurmancî is spoken (p. 121). Or when he informs the reader that some (ambiguous as to whom he is referring) would designate the dimilî (dimili) dialect as an individual language (p. 43). The same comment is, yet again, made on the goranî dialect (gurani) (p. 58). The relevance of this, at least in a scholarly work, could rightfully be questioned. Without a proper description of the "debate," as such, it leaves the reader with more questions than answers. However, Gunter pays attention to the Turkish regime's attempt to divide and rule the dimilî-speaking Kurds by classifying them as a people apart (pp. 43-44).

On the uprisings in Northern Kurdistan

Concerning the first recognized Kurdish nationalist uprising, the Koçgîrî rebellion from 1920, Gunter writes that "Sunnis [sic] Kurds did not join the rebellion because they still supported the Kemalists" (p. 104). Noteworthy is that the Koçgîrî were "a confederation of Kurdish (kurmancî)-speaking [sic] Alevi tribes" 10 and that they in fact did receive considerable external support from other Kurdish tribes.11 In the light of these facts Gunter's further comment on the composition of the rebellion (p.104), is very much askew. Neither is anything said on the involvement of the Kürdistan Teali Cemiyeti, where several members "were directly involved in the Koçgiri uprising: first, Haydar, a student in Istanbul at the time, the son of Mustafa Paşa, the leader of the Koçgiri tribe" and so "was Baytar Nuri, later known as Nuri Dersimi." 12

Regarding the 1925 uprising of Şêx Seîdê Pîran (Sheikh Said of Piran; referred to its Turkish name, Palu, by Gunter), the entry tells us that it was in fact planned by the Azadî (Azadi), a clandestine Kurdish nationalist organization (p. 179). Together with the outspoken goal to establish a Kurdish state in Northern Kurdistan by ridding itself of foreign forces, the nationalist authenticity of the rebellion seems robust.13 Gunter then correctly adds that Islamic principles would be respected within this hypothetical state, which had clearly been violated by the Kemalist movement-in particular as a move to blanket ban Kurdish identity.14 To be sure, these Islamic institutions' capability to mobilize opposition against the consolidation of the Kemalist state acted as an incentive as well. The uprising garnered strength from "all the Zaza and two Kormanji [sic] tribes,"15 although the infiltration of spies and saboteurs 16 played a significant role in stamping out the fire of rebellion alongside foreign intervention.17 Points that are not discussed by Gunter, who decides to rely more on displaying the rift between Sunni and Alevi Kurds and leaves out the feudal dimensions.18

On Dersîm, Gunter declares clumsily: "[f]ormer Kurdish name of the mountainous, isolated, present-day Turkish province of Tunceli" (p. 39). Although replaced 19 Dersîm is still the name of the region for the Kurds, and more recently has become a name of public property in the Turkish media, in the aftermath of CHP vice-chairman Onur Öymen's call for "a new Dersim."20 Admittedly, a somewhat unforeseeable turn of events. Gunter then moves on to make a very dubious claim, to put it mildly; Şêx Seîdê Pîran (Sheikh Said of Piran) is here referred to as a leader of a "Sunni Kurdish revolt" (p. 40). That is to say, the rebellion of 1925,21 to which the author insinuates was not supported by the Dersîm Kurds. The comment is a source of grave simplification. Furthermore, it should be underlined that Şêx Seîd was a dimilî-speaking Kurd like his counterparts in Dersîm. The level of involvement of the Dersîm Kurds can be debated; however, during the summer of 1924 before the rebellion broke out, Şêx Seîd travelled to Dersîm to meet with Seyîd Riza (Seyid Riza) and reach a mutual agreement. 22 The worn-out claim of a rebellion in the case of Dersîm, between 1936 and 1938, is also of dubious character. Further inquiry has shown that it was in fact a planned Kemalist annihilation of the Dersîm Kurds that took place.23 Resistance toward genocide is not the same as a rebellion. Of course this does not overshadow the quiescent kurdîyatî of the Dersîm population; rather it entails a radically different role of the Turkish Republic. Manafy partly confirms this.24

A crucible

Whilst there is considerable information on human rights (pp. 67-71), barely anything is said on the subject of colonialism. In absence of any discourse on the colonization of Kurdistan, we are readily left without the analytical tools of understanding the partition of the Kurdish nation.25 Neither can we fully grasp the emergence and ambivalence of Kurdish nationalism 26 (Kurdish nationalism discussed by Gunter on pp.105-106 & 143-146) without a colonial perspective as a starting point. Thus, "the Kurdish question" evolves into an enigma, indistinguishable from any other minority or human rights question in the developing world. 27

Unfortunately the body of the book is stuck within the outline of orientalist thought, once championed by Silvestre de Sacy, by succinctly trying to compile all that is Kurdish--that is to say, Middle Eastern.28 Undeniably there exists a need in Western academia to unravel the Middle East and once and for all explain its essence-not to mention the act of trying to compress a history filled with complexities into an intellectual commodity. Going even further, one might even claim that compilations of this sort inevitably function as a panopticon, where the (colonial) subject is viewed from head to toe and is then scientifically examined.29 It is without doubt a relationship worth further inquiry in the future.

In the end, the book's potential as a piece of enriching literature depends entirely on the reader's prior knowledge. What value may be found lies in the work's popular academic character more than anything else.


1- In David McDowall's The Kurds, A Nation Denied (London: Minority Rights Publication, 1992), 12, the Kurdish population in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria is moderately estimated to 21,400,000 as of 1991.

2- A. Manafy, The Kurdish Political Struggles (Maryland: UPA, 2005), 101.

3- Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State (Cambridge, MA: South End, 2007), 23-44.
4- Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove, 2004), 23.

5- Gelderloos, ibid., 60.

6- Noam Chomsky, The New Military Humanism (London: Pluto, 1999), 53-57, and Kerim Yildiz, The Kurds in Syria (London: Pluto, 2005), 117.

7- Nader Entessar, Kurdish Politics in the Middle East (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2009), 119-120.

8- David Romano, The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (New York: Cambridge, 2006), 148-149.

9- Martin van Bruinessen, The Kurdish Question: Whose Question, Whose Answers? Wadie Jwaideh Memorial Lecture in Arabic and Islamic Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington, Nov. 19, 2004, http://www.let.uu.nl/~martin.vanbruinessen/personal/
publications/Jwaideh_memorial_lecture.htm#_ftn1, accessed May 9, 2010.

10- Elise Massicard, The Repression of the Koçgiri Rebellion, 1920-1921, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, published Sep. 28, 2009, accessed May 7, 2010, http://www.massviolence.org/The-Koçgiri-massacre-of-Kurds-in-1925, 2.

11- Massicard, ibid., 4.

12- Massicard, ibid., 2.

13- Entessar, ibid., 112.

14- Entessar, ibid., 111.

15- Touraj Atabaki, The State and the Subaltern (London: I.B, 2007), 129.

16- Ahmet Kahraman, Uprising, Suppression, Retribution (Reading: Taderon, 2007), 32-35.

17- Wadie Jwaideh, The Kurdish National Movement (New York: Syracuse, 2006), 205.

18- Manafy, ibid., 96-97.

19- Ismail Beşikçi, Tunceli Kanunu (1935) ve Dersim Jenosidi (Istanbul: Belge, 1990)

20- Gündem Online, Nov. 17, 2009, http://www.gundem-online.net/haber.asp?haberid=82006,
accessed May 7, 2010.

21- Robert W. Olson, The emergence of Kurdish nationalism and the Sheikh Said rebellion, 1880-1925
(Austin: UTP, 1989)

22- Ahmet Kahraman, ibid., 24-26.

23- Kahraman, ibid., 142, 168-175.

24- A. Manafy, ibid., 100.

25- Beşikçi, International Colony Kurdistan (Reading: Taderon, 2004), 29-32.

26- Manafy, ibid., 40-54.

27- Beşikçi, International Colony Kurdistan, 26-27.

28- Edward W. Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin, 2003), 63-64, 126-127.

29- Meyda Yeğenoğlu, Colonial Fantasies (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), 40, 108.

First published on Kurdish Globe


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May 27, 2010
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