Review of Hakan Yavuz: Five Stages of Construction of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey

Published in 2001, this is one of many articles Yavuz has published about Kurdish issues in Turkey. While not unfamiliar with Yavuz’s other work, I had somehow not seen this one before. I just read it a couple weeks ago and feel the strong need to comment. This article provoked me in ways that others haven’t for a while. If you’ve read it, please post your thoughts, too.

First, a little about Hakan Yavuz. At the present time, Yavuz is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Utah. He did his undergraduate work at the University of Ankara in Turkey and his MA and PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the US. He has written a book entitled Islamic Political Identity in Turkey and has more than two dozen articles and scholarly papers on topics such as Turkey, Islam, identity, and nationalism.

So, the article. Yavuz provides a chronological framework for understanding the development of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey. He tries to answer the question of how Kurdish nationalism developed by examining different stages of history, which range from the late Ottoman Empire to the emergence of the modern Turkish republic and through to shortly before the publication of the article.

What I read is a carefully crafted essay, weaving fact and supposition. The undercurrent is emotional rhetoric, innuendo, a juxtaposition of facts, and blame shifting.

Just for sake of time and space, I’m just going to cover the emotional language and innuendo. The others I’ll mention but briefly. Read the article for yourself and you’ll understand what I’m talking about.

Let me start with what really got me going in the first place. On page 15 Yavuz writes, “The 6th PKK Congress authorized its military arm the Peoples Liberation Army of Kurdistan (ARGK) ‘to wage a war that will make the Turkish state tremble’ and called for a serhildan (Kurdish intifadah).”

So what’s the issue here? For me it was the way in which Yavuz decided to highlight the Kurdish word serhildan. Serhildan means rebellion or revolt. By inserting the Kurdish word into the text and linking it to the concept of intifadah, he mystifies and politicizes it, injecting implications that would otherwise not be there. Could he not have simply stated “…and called for a revolt?” Revolt, after all, is what serhildan means. Why not use the actual translation?

Next is his choice to use the term “identity entrepreneurs”. Nationalism “is always constructed by identity entrepreneurs” (p 3). “Identity entrepreneur” is another loaded term. The phrase “identity entrepreneur” is one often associated with the military and terrorism. It is used in intelligence lingo when speaking of violent non-state actors (VNSAs), another military term, who rally nationalist feelings. So then the underlying implication here is that the Kurds are VNSAs? The Turks are fighting a war on terror against the Kurds?

Yavuz’s words throughout the article gloss over Turkish wrongdoing and continuously politicize Kurdish actions. Example: Yavuz writes that the Turkish government since 1984 has “displaced and vacated a total of 4,000 villages and other hamlets, and approximately one million people were relocated to cities for security reasons” (p 14). Other literature when referring to the same events uses language such as “raze” (for vacate) and “forcibly deport” (for relocate). His cleansed version of events sounds almost pleasant.

Additionally, his tendency throughout the article is to negate or downplay the responsibility of Turkish nationalism in the formation of Kurdish nationalism. Neither does he acknowledge the Turkish state’s denial of Kurds and Kurdish culture. He claims the “Republic did not deny the existence of the Kurds.”

When discussing Atatürk’s modernization projects in education, urbanization, and communication he deems them “relatively successful.” But how does he measure success? And for whom? The “success” left the Kurdish regions of the country underdeveloped and without minimally functioning educational systems.

Yavuz concludes that this “relatively successful” modernization is what mobilized ethnic Kurdish consciousness and radicalized Kurdish nationalism. Then it was the Kurdish nationalism, in turn, that politicized and popularized Turkish nationalism.

Nationalist conceptions in Turkey wield tremendous influence on perspective and discourse of the Kurds living within its borders. The relationship between state and Kurdish minority has been forged through ethnic tensions therein.

Turkey, since its inception in 1923, has created clear, exclusionary political boundaries based on ethnicity and it was made very clear that there was no room for minority groups or other ethnicities. Turkey has routinely denied the existence of the Kurds in an attempt to destroy Kurdish ethnicity through forced assimilation. Kurdish nationalism in Turkey has responded to the circumstances of the state, shifting in its ideology and strength, parrying state attempts to wipe it out.

Yavuz blames fragmented Kurdish identity on the Kurds. “The sources of these divisions [within Kurdish identity] are socio-historical, and they prevent the emergence of a full-fledged Kurdish identity.” While these divisions certainly affect the ability of a cohesive national identity, Yavuz’s research would be furthered by more in-depth exploration of other factors involved in this fragmentation.

His arguments regarding the development of Kurdish nationalism reflect an almost polar opposite of accepted norms or even theories of nationalism. Where the normative is that state nationalism triggers stateless nationalism, Yavuz has shifted blame to the Kurdish minority.

Yavuz actually does admit that a problem exists within the Turkish state, “Turkey needs a new social contract.” But then he adamantly declares in his conclusion that the “Kurds need to recognize that there is no territorial or political room in the Middle East for an independent state of Kurdistan.”

While the article itself only speaks of Turkey, he suddenly expands his geography to include all of the Middle East in what appears to be a stern warning to Kurdish nationalists about an independent state. Is this scholarly research or the author advocating a position? Perhaps he himself does not desire a solution to the Kurdish issue in Turkey. In fact, the penultimate section of the article is entitled “How to Manage Turkey’s Kurdish Problem.” Manage as in “regulate or maintain control over”?; definitely not “solve or resolve.” If such is the case that his opinion is that there is no room in the Middle East for a Kurdish state, then this statement should not have a place in this article.

This article, in my mind, should be called the “Five Stages of Construction of Turkish Mythology in Kurdistan.”

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10 thoughts on “Review of Hakan Yavuz: Five Stages of Construction of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey

  1. I currently writing a paper on perversions of turkish ethnic identity and I cite yavuz’s article. It’s interesting that you feel this way because I sensed a sympathetic tone in the essay and assumed Yavuz was a Kurd. I also get that idea from, Islamic political identity in Turkey, a book he also wrote – in which he seems sympathetic to the detrimental effects of the social pressures of secularization on the Kurds.

  2. hi i am just writing a paper on framing identities by pkk and teh turkish state. i also felt very uncomfortable in yavus tone, but was not sure why. coming across your analysis i understand my tensity towards his use of language better. thanks for sharing these thoughts, now i dont feel like i am being crazy or oversensitive.

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