The Politics of being a Kurd in Today’s Turkey


The moment you speak Kurdish in Turkey, you are at a disadvantage. From the Turkish majority cities in the west of the country to the predominantly Kurdish region in the southeast, the Kurdish language is steeped in a history of humiliation. Years ago, I met a woman in Canada who presented herself as Turkish but confided in me that her Kurdish father had not wanted her to learn Kurdish so that she would lead a better life than him. It was not until I spent a year living in southeast Turkey, known as Northern Kurdistan by Kurds, that I understood the degree to which this mindset is ingrained among Kurds in Turkey.

I arrived in the city of Mardin in September of 2014 not knowing any Turkish, having been assured by my colleagues at Mardin Artuklu University that I could easily get by with Kurdish. At that time, Northern Kurdistan was coming back to life after decades of war and systematic Turkification. Protests over the stalled peace process between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Erdogan’s ruling AK Party had given rise to a “democracy package” in 2013 that saw the de-criminalization of Kurdish political speech, alphabet letters, and language classes in private schools. Just five months before my arrival, a young Syriac woman and a veteran Kurdish activist were elected co-mayors of the city on the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) ticket.

It was, to say the least, an exciting time to be in the region, but the wounds of a century of Turkification campaigns run deep. Taxi drivers, store owners, and public servants in Mardin were bemused by my insistence on speaking Kurdish. While most Kurdish adults that I encountered in Mardin were able to speak at least some Kurdish when pressed, very few did so voluntarily. Some found my inability to speak Turkish quaint, something they might associate with their grandparents or people from a remote village. Others were clearly uncomfortable, especially in the presence of Turks or Arabs.

Even Kurdish activists and intellectuals mainly spoke in Turkish amongst themselves, which for me was a source of continual confusion, given how confidently and fearlessly they advocated for Kurdish rights. It was even sadder to see that the children of these activists and intellectuals were not being taught any Kurdish, even at home. In other words, the cycle of Kurdish parents choosing not to pass on a language to their children that would only bring misery and suffering continues. With Turkification comes privileges, and privileges are what parents want for their children. On the surface, it would seem that the state’s Turkification project was a complete success: Kurdish is dying.

While I still mourn this loss, what I initially missed was that the generations of Kurds who have been denied the Kurdish language both by the state and, in many cases, their families, have created a new notion of Kurdishness independent of language. Educated in Turkish universities and armed with the language of the advantaged rather than the oppressed, these generations have rendered the Kurdish struggle more resistant to Turkish politics of eradication. Many of those who lead the contemporary Kurdish movement neither grew up in traditional Kurdish communities nor speak Kurdish. Nonetheless, they have driven the most popular pro-Kurdish and pro-diversity movement in the history of Turkey.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, just around the time that the state’s policies of Turkification should have borne its desired fruit, a new Kurdish revolutionary subject emerged. By virtue of the linguistic privilege afforded to Turkish-speaking Kurds, this emerging subject was able to create some distance from the humiliation attached to Kurdish identity. However, this subject was founded on a deep sense of social and political injustice intensified by her own crisis of identity. Like an “illegitimate” child betrayed by all sides, this new subject set out to turn the oppressive value system upside down.

Gultan Kisanak, the Alevi Kurdish woman who has been the co-mayor of Diyarbakir since 2014 and was arrested on October 25, is a notable example of the new Kurdish political subject. First imprisoned in 1980 at the age of 19 along with thousands of other Kurds in Diyarbakir, Kisanak has been relentlessly persecuted because of her Kurdishness. She was tortured and confined to an aggressive German Shepherd’s kennel for six months for refusing to proclaim “I am not a Kurd but a Turk.” Kisanak and other women in the prison were also sexually abused, which is a widely used tactic to “dishonor” imprisoned Kurdish women.

Yet such barbaric attempts to strip these and other women (and men) of their dignity, to break their spirit, backfired. They not only survived the years of imprisonment and torture but turned their source of humiliation into a source of liberation. The pro-Kurdish, pro-minority, pro-women, pro-LGBTQ movement has become the natural political space for all of Turkey’s oppressed. From university campuses to hole-in-the-wall cafés, the public space in the cities of North Kurdistan is shaped by those for whom resistance is simply a way of life, a mode of existence.

The German translation of this article was published in the Huffington Post on October 31, 2016.  

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Being a Kurdish-Turkish mistake | openDemocracy

As a Kurdish child, I grew up in Kirkuk under the Baath regime thinking I was an existential mistake: but I liked being a mistake. I still like being a mistake.

Source: Being a Kurdish-Turkish mistake | openDemocracy

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The Left’s Fatal Dismissal of Islamic Imperialism


There is a general dearth of leftist discourse critical of Islamism in the English speaking West. In fact, the dominant leftist discourse in that regard is characterized by a mixture of portraying Islam as the ultimate victim and Islamism as a force of resistance to, or at least an excusable reaction to, Western policies. Meanwhile, millions of people throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) continue to struggle against the rising wave of Islamism on a daily basis in the absence of acknowledgment or support from the Western left.

For the colonized peoples of the MENA region such as Amazighs, Assyro-Chaldeans, Copts, Nubis, Kurds, and Yezidis, Islamic imperialism is the most serious threat to their very existence. One would hope that the situation of these peoples would form the foundational parameters of the international left’s outlook on the MENA region. However, it is far more often the right in the West that takes issue with the genocidal campaigns waged against these peoples.

Likewise, the growing number of women and men from the MENA region who have bravely stood against the oppressive Islamic value system have typically found more support among the Western right than the left. As a case in point, activists, intellectuals, and ordinary citizens in the Islamic Republic of Iran continue to be executed for their alleged “enmity against God” (Moharebeh), yet the lives of those victims seem to matter much less than a Hamas militant who targets Jews indiscriminately. Even vocal critics of Islam/ism such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maryam Namazie, Hamed Abdel-Samad, Tarek Fatah, Brother Rachid, and Raif Badawi have been largely discounted by the Western left.

Despite the fact that imperial nationalist trends run through the right and the left alike in the MENA region, entailing a general denial of indigenous and minority rights, most progressive forces adopt a clear stance in opposition to the Islamic establishment. Radical feminism has also long played a vital role in the struggle against Islamic hegemony. Indeed, at the forefront of progressive revolutionary movements is the women’s liberation movement in Northern and Western Kurdistan, which is physically fighting Islamism as part of a broader revolution to emancipate all oppressed groups and colonized peoples of the region.

And yet, criticism of Islam/ism is still largely considered politically incorrect by the Western left. A major reason for this, I argue, lies in the West’s reductionist image of the myriad peoples of the MENA region as the Arab-Muslim Other, the West’s ultimate colonized Other. To this already problematic portrayal of the Other, the dogmatic Western left then adds a layer of permanent victimhood. It should be obvious that the main problem with this Othering process is the oversimplification of entire societies shaped by complex historical contradictions and ideological conflicts.

This oversimplification has typically resulted in the dismissal of not only Pan-Arab-Islamic imperialism within the MENA region but also the anti-Islamist left. By reducing entire societies, classes, and, most importantly, individuals, to an image of a Muslim victim, the dogmatic Western leftist view does not negate Western imperialism. On the contrary, that view is rooted in Eurocentrism insofar as it sees the Other only in relation to the European colonizer’s self. The left should instead commit itself to a universal negation of imperialism in all its forms, including Islamic imperialism.

Leftists who fail to acknowledge the magnitude of Islamist crimes in the MENA region or continue to blame Americans and Israelis for the rise of Islamism will only further render their politics obsolete. In fact, failing to recognize the complex ideological map in the MENA region, and, thus, continuing to see the region through Islamic lenses amounts to submitting to the hegemony of our age’s most barbaric and fascist force: Islamism.


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