- One Kurdish Nation and 1,001 Kurdish Politics
Popular and scholarly interest in the Kurds has exploded of late. In academia, this interest began even before the rise of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the Kurds’ checking of the jihadis’ ambitions in Syria and Iraq. This contrasts starkly with the situation only 20 years ago, when this reviewer was in the midst of his doctoral studies and could find only six books (in English or French) dealing with modern Kurdish issues in the University of Toronto’s library, the largest library collection in Canada.
Popular discourse on the Kurds understandably sees the forest rather than the trees and treats them as one group, having only recently discovered them in the first place. Pan-Kurdish nationalists and those sympathetic to the Kurds also often speak of them as if they were a homogenous entity. Academics not working on Kurdish issues usually manage a more sophisticated view, at least differentiating between different principal Kurdish political movements in Turkey and Iraq. Critics and states seeking to contain Kurdish challenges, on the other hand, would have us see only the trees of a plethora of political groups with some kind of supposed “Kurdish” component to them, multiple languages rather than a Kurdish language with several dialects, and a mosaic of identities too muddled to constitute a single Kurdish nation or group.
The three books reviewed here do not adopt any of these approaches. Michael Eppel, in his A People Without a State, exemplifies the manner in which all three works focus on the nuances and divisions of identities in Kurdistan and Kurdish politics while still keeping the forest in view:
Under some conditions, however, collective identities have appeared since ancient times, even if they have not displayed modern national characteristics. In daily life and social and political activities, the central role in these communities is taken by tribal, familial, regional, or class-related identities, loyalties and interests. At times, however, broader collective identities — social, cultural, religious, and ethnic-linguistic — have appeared and come to play a role in social discourse and even political practice.
… Modern national movements gave political significance to these distinctions. That cultural distinctiveness and identity, on the one hand, must be correlated with statehood, on the other, is a concept of modern nationalism. Socioeconomic [End Page 301] contrasts between strata, social classes, and groups — such as between pastoral tribes and settled populations — have sometimes developed into cultural identities on which proto-national distinctions and signifiers and, in the modern era, nation-building have been based(p. 2).
Eppel’s approach — which is also clear enough in Mustafa Gürbüz’s Rival Kurdish Movements in Turkey but remains more implicit in Gunter’s Out of Nowhere — centers on the notion that while Kurdish identity may or may not be politicized depending on the individual, the time, and the place, there does exist a Kurdish distinctiveness from neighboring groups that dates back centuries. Eppel’s purpose is:
to examine Kurdish distinctiveness and identity from the rise of Islam to the development of the modern Kurdish national movement after World War I.1 An additional objective is to describe the historical, social, and political conditions in Kurdistan and Kurdistani society in which the Kurds’ ethno-linguistic distinctiveness was manifested, the modern Kurdish national movement emerged, and the developments that might have led to a Kurdish state in the early twentieth century begun but then were halted(p. 3).
Like others, Kurds always possessed choices regarding their identities. Especially in the premodern age, ethnicity (as opposed to religion, tribe and class, for instance) did not stand out as particularly relevant political identity one could adopt. More often than not, it requires a modern nationalist...