Kurds, state elites, and patterns of nationhood in Iraq and Turkey

By Serhun Al, University of Utah

 * This memo was prepared for the “Rethinking Nation and Nationalism” workshop held at the University of Southern California, February 6, 2015.  


Today, both Iraq and Turkey falter with the dilemma of accommodating their Kurdish populations into the common national community on the one hand and preventing any current and future risks of territorial loss and ethnic violence on the other. Turkey’s limping peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Iraq’s unsteady relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) reflect the unintended consequences of these states’ nation-building strategies in their post-Ottoman eras. While modern Iraqi national identity was mostly affiliated with Arab identity by state elites throughout the 20th century, the monolithic construction of Turkish national identity lacked any space for the expression of Kurdish identity in the public sphere. As the gradual partition and the final demise of the Ottoman Empire occurred amidst wars and conflicts over identity claim-makings by a variety of external powers and internal communities, the quest for an appropriate nationhood has become a question of ontological (in)security for the post-Ottoman state elites in Iraq and Turkey.

Thus, the cycle of construction, persistence, and change of modern Iraqi and Turkish national identities, particularly in relation to the competing modern Kurdish identity, entails analytical and theoretical exploration in the sense of revealing what actually motivates state elites in accepting or rejecting an identity category other than the one defined by the state. Challenging the conventional security versus liberty dichotomy as a mutually exclusive policy options in dealing with minority identities, this article argues in a macro-historical trajectory that the logic of state elites in Iraq and Turkey in granting liberty for the Kurdish identity has also been primarily motivated by the state security. Thus, liberty itself has functioned as an instrument for the security of the state in the sense of protecting the territorial integrity and preventing future anti-state uprisings.

Post-Ottoman Iraq and Two Visions of Nationhood

Historically, there have been two major competing visions of Iraqiness. The first is Iraqi patriotism (wataniya), which is more favorable to cultural diversity since it promotes an overarching Iraqi identity without prioritizing the Arab culture, history, and language. This approach crosscuts group identities such as Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis in order to strengthen a sense of belonging to the Iraqi state rather than to a particularistic collective group. The second vision of Iraqi nationhood is based on Arab nationalism (qawmiyya), which envisions a homogenous nation by placing Arab identity as the dominant marker of the state in addition to the pan-Arab unity with other states in the region.[1]

During the British mandate (until 1932) and under the monarchical rule (1921-1958), Iraq was governed by the Arab Hashemite dynasty, which primarily idealized an (Sunni) Arab state especially through the means of public education and army.[2] The ruling elites of the Iraqi monarchy were intermittently challenged by tribal Kurdish opposition such as the Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji uprisings in the 1920s and the Kurdish revolt by Mullah Mustafa Barzani in 1943 that later led to the foundation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in 1946. These anti-state challenges reinforced the securitization of Kurdish identity on the one hand and the concern for the security of the state on the other.

It was only after the regime change in 1958 under the leadership of General Abd al-Karim Qasim who established the republic that patriotic Iraqi identity was endorsed. The new constitution of 1958 recognized Kurds and Arabs as the equal partners of the Iraqi state. This paradigmatic policy change toward Iraqi nationhood was not independent of the transnational context of other anti-colonial liberation movements as it was in tandem with socialist worldviews in the bipolar world of the Cold War.[3] Due to this anti-colonial nature of the new regime, pan-Arabists also showed some support to Qasim. However, their reference of national development was Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt whose policies were fostering pan-Arab unity as seen in the short-lived United Arab Republic of Egypt and Syria (1958-1961). On the other hand, Qasim and his core coalition of power consisted of Iraqi Communist Party (ICP), Kurds and other non-Arab communities who were not in favor of pan-Arabism.[4]

Despite the inter-ethnic euphoria of the 1958 revolution, the rule of Qasim was far from stable and sustainable since pan-Arabists, especially through their influence in the military, functioned as veto players to the development of Iraqi patriotism. Besides, demands for Kurdish autonomy by KDP would hardly find support from pro-Qasim supporters. Thus, the Baghdad-Kurdish conflict broke out again in 1961. Qasim and many of his supporters were removed from government by the Baath party in 1963, yet the Baathists could only control the state in 1968.[5] Amidst these chaotic decades of elite changes, military coups, and power struggles, the pan-Arabist Baath Party gradually consolidated its power along with the rise of Saddam Hussein to the presidency in 1979. In between, two accommodation attempts with Kurdish opposition failed that proposed autonomy and national rights for the Kurds (e.g., al-Bazzaz Declaration of June 29 in 1966 and the Manifesto of March 1970). These attempts were more an outcome of security-driven concerns of the ruling elites in the sense that both territorial integrity of the state and survival of the regime would be at risk unless the strong Kurdish opposition in northern Iraq was appeased. For instance, even after the Gulf War (1990-1991), Saddam’s regime was voluntarily ready to leave northern Iraq to the control of the Kurds in order to survive the regime in the rest of the country.[6] It was only after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that the Baath regime was toppled and the de facto Kurdish autonomy became officially and constitutionally secured.

Turkey’s Puzzle between Ottoman Future/Past and Kemalist Past/Future

Post-Ottoman Turkey has also become a site of competing visions of collective identity for building the ideal nation. There have been basically two powerful currents. The first and historically dominant one has been the founding ideology of Kemalism. which envisioned a strictly secular, linguistically homogenous nation which would culturally face towards Europe. The collective memory building was mostly based on rejecting the Ottoman past which was seen as ‘backward’, ‘despotic’, and culturally too heterogonous. Especially the idea of ethnically heterogeneous society was seen as the main reason behind a weak state. A strong state for the republican founding elites was possible only through a homogenous nation and a unitary state. This Kemalist worldview became the raison d’état throughout the twentieth century under the firm protectorate of the military.

The second discourse of nationhood, which has become hegemonic by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) since 2002, envisions a nation with Ottoman nostalgia and neo-Ottoman future along with Islamic undertones.[7] Under this framework, public expression of the Kurdish identity has found more refuge due to the emphasis on the overarching Muslim identity on the one hand and the common Ottoman heritage on the other. This is why the AKP government since 2002 has uttered the notion of “new Turkey” to make a sharp distinction with the old regime.[8] Recent steps such as state promotion of the Kurdish TV channel, the foundation of living languages institute, and the ease on the public expression of Kurdish identity have led to the de facto recognition of the Kurds by the state.[9] Additionally, the recent ambiguous peace process with the PKK has become the most efficient propaganda apparatus of AKP’s ‘new Turkey.’

It was within these two visions of nationhood in the post-Ottoman Turkey that the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion have become a contested zone. In the first two decades of the Republic, tribal Kurdish uprisings were harshly suppressed (e.g., Sheikh Said rebellion in 1925, Agri rebellion in 1930, and Dersim rebellion in 1937-38). The possibility of an independent Kurdish state as stated in the “infamous” Treaty of Sevres in 1920 along with local uprisings convinced the founding elites of the Turkish Republic that any recognition of Kurdish identity would endanger the territorial integrity of this newly established post-Ottoman state. As a reaction, the politicization of the Kurdish identity and mass-mobilization of pro-Kurdish political movement in Turkey has been a late-comer compared to the Iraqi Kurds. Until the late 1980s, there was neither a strong, well-organized, externally networked party such as the KDP nor a national figure like Mullah Mustafa Barzani. The rise of the PKK, the personality cult of Abdullah Ocalan as its founder, and pro-Kurdish legal parties constituted the major challenge to the Turkish state after the 1980s.[10]

Patterns of Nationhood and the Logic of the State Elites

If one looks at the ebbs and flows within the boundaries of nationhood in these two states, there seems to be a common pattern of policy change toward the Kurds in the name of national security. However, what is interesting is that both exclusionary and inclusionary policies have been primarily motivated by state security concerns rather than rights-based concerns. As the Kurdish opposition in Iraq has historically been more threatening (or more beneficial) to the central state and survival of particular regimes, fluctuations between carrot and stick policies seem to be more frequent throughout the twentieth century than that of in Turkey. When exclusion and repression was thought to be more useful to secure the central state, regime power, and territorial integrity, the framework of the Iraqi nation (more pan-Arabist) was adjusted accordingly. However, when appeasement and accommodation was considered to be serving the state security and particular regimes, Iraq was envisioned more as a land of both Arabs and Kurds. Similarly, if the Kurdish identity has been de facto recognized in Turkey after the 2000s, it is mostly because the status quo policy throughout the 20th century has itself become a threat to the security of the state (devletin bekaası).

In other words, state elites have been more pragmatic and strategic actors than blindfolded nationalists or wholehearted democrats. Overall, either in excluding Kurds from the narratives of nationhood or incorporating them within the boundaries of nationhood, the logic of the state elites in Iraq and in Turkey has been primarily based on securing the state from potential territorial disintegration and anti-state oppositions. Then, the conventional dichotomy of security versus liberty should not be necessarily seen mutually exclusive in this context since liberty is an instrument of security as well. Unless this security pattern is overcome, distrust rather than mutual assurance is more likely to prevail between the state actors and non-state ethnic agents in Iraq and in Turkey.

Serhun Al is a PhD candidate in the department of political science at the University of Utah.



[1] Eric Davis (2005). Memories of State: Politics, History, and Collective Identity in Modern Iraq. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[2] Eli Amarilyo (2015) “History, Memory and Commemoration: The Iraqi Revolution of 1920 and the Process of Nation Building in Iraq,” Middle Eastern Studies, 51:1, 72-92.

[3] Orit Bashkin. (2011). “Hybrid Nationalisms: Watani and Qawmi Visions In Iraq under ‘Abd Al-Karim Qasim, 1958–61,” IJMES 43, No. 2, 293-313.

[4] Sami Zubaida (2002). “The Fragments Imagine the Nation: The Case of Iraq,” IJMES 34, 205-215.

[5] Marion Farouk-Sluglett and Peter Sluglett (2003). Iraq Since 1958: From Revolution to Dictatorship. New York: I.B. Tauris.

[6] Burak Kadercan (2013). “Making Sense of Survival: Refining the Treatment of State Preferences in Neorealist Theory,” Review of International Studies, 39 (4): 1005-1037.

[7] Jenny White (2012). Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[8] M. Hakan Yavuz, Ed. (2006). The Emergence of New Turkey: Democracy and AK Parti. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

[9] Serhun Al (2015). “Elite Discourses, Nationalism and Moderation: A Dialectical Analysis of Turkish and Kurdish Nationalisms,” Ethnopolitics, 14 (1): 94-112.

[10] Serhun Al (2015). “Local Armed Uprisings and the Transnational Image of Claim Making: The Kurds of Turkey and the Zapatistas of Mexico in Comparative Perspective,” Globalizations, DOI:10.1080/14747731.2014.991541.

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