Conferences : World Congress of KURDISH STUDIES : Janet KLEIN


Section PRESSE
World Congress of

Irbil, 6-9 September 2006

Organized by the Kurdish Institute of Paris in partnership with
Salahadin University (Irbil) and with the support of the
Kurdistan Regional Government and of the
French Ministry for Foreign Affairs

Kurdish militias and the Ottoman state:
Implication for prsent-day conflict resolution

By Janet KLEIN (*)

Esteemed colleagues,

I am very honored at the invitation to join you in what I am sure will be an engaging, productive, and valuable conference. I am very excited to hear about what all of you work on, and to have this opportunity to learn from your scholarship and experiences, particularly at this critical moment in Kurdish history. As a historian I am especially pleased to be in the historic city of Hawler, which has been continuously inhabited for over 8000 years. I would also like to share with you some of the ideas I’ve been working through. I will focus primarily on my book manuscript, which is tentatively titled Power in the Periphery: Kurdish Militias and the Ottoman State, 1890-1914, which is an outgrowth of my Ph.D. thesis

I’ll begin with a curious piece of writing from the turn of the 20th century that helped to inspire this project

In December, 1900, Abdurrahman Bedir Khan took a moment, while composing a critique of the Hamidiye Light Cavalry in his journal, Kurdistan, to write the following:

…Before [Abdülhamid II] ascended the throne, the Kurds were knowledgeable and civilized people, having brotherly relations with Armenians and avoiding any kind of confrontation. Then what happened? Did [Kurdish] civilization and knowledge turn into barbarity, ignorance, and organized rebellion? Who else carries out the atrocities in Kurdistan but the members of the Hamidiye divisions, who are armed by the sultan and proud of being loyal to him. For example, there is Mustafa Pasha, the head of the Mîran tribe, within the borders of Diyarbekir [province]. He used to be a shepherd ten or fifteen years ago in his tribe, and was called ‘Misto the Bald’ [Misto Keçelo]. We do not know what he did to become a favorite of the sultan, but his talent in creating scandals appealed to the sultan, who thought that he would assist in shedding blood and hurting people. He made him a pasha and introduced him with the title of Commander of a Hamidiye division. Now imagine what such a man is capable of doing—a traitor whose own son has even become an enemy to him, and a person who has outraged his daughter-in-law. Would he not butcher the Armenians and pillage the Muslims?

This strange little piece initially attracted my attention while I was researching and writing my M.A. Thesis on Kurdish nationalism and the Kurdish-Ottoman ten years ago. At the time, I believed that it held clues as to some of the not-so-obvious elements in the story of early Kurdish nationalism. But years later this piece stayed with me, and I increasingly came to think that its significance extended beyond the story of Kurdish nationalism. At the same time, it brought me to acknowledge that there were a number of other elements in the history of Kurdish nationalism that could only be understood by gaining a better picture of power relations in Kurdish society in the late Ottoman period. After all, the history behind this piece is as much, if not more, about these power relations and about important social, economic, and political transformations underway in Kurdish society, than it is about nationalism itself

I set out to study the transformation of the local power structure in Ottoman Kurdistan at the turn of the 20th century. But this piece, and many other sources continually pointed, even if between the lines, to the centrality of the Hamidiye Light Cavalry in their story. Finding that there was only a handful of studies on this Kurdish tribal militia, and also finding that whatever had been written about the Hamidiye mostly drafted the topic into other, largely nationalist, narratives, I chose to write its history as the topic for my dissertation. The more research I conducted, the more the significance of the institution was affirmed to me, not only in and of itself, but also for the light it could shed on numerous facets of Kurdish, Ottoman, and even Armenian, history. I also came to believe that its content is relevant to scholars of other peoples as it adds to the literature on the complicated interplay of center-periphery relations and addresses themes that relate to the many layers of conflict, and indeed collaboration, that can emerge between state and regional actors and how these multiple threads might interact

This project began with this trek of mine through various sources, including the Kurdish-Ottoman press, which sparked the topic, as well as various archives, travel literature, missionary reports, and secondary sources

The story of the Hamidiye Light Cavalry, which I will tell you a little bit about today, also began with a journey—the voyage of select Kurdish chiefs and their retainers from the empire’s remote eastern regions to the capital to meet their sultan and caliph, Abdülhamid II. The chiefs had been chosen to gather their tribesmen into irregular cavalry regiments, which the chiefs themselves would head. The sultan named this organization, which would come to be widely regarded as one of his most prized projects, after himself—Hamidiye—to emphasize the personal relationship and bond of loyalty he wanted the Kurdish tribes to recognize not only to the empire, but to his person

The Hamidiye Light Cavalry was formed with a number of objectives in mind. The idea for the cavalry likely came from one of the sultan’s close advisors, Sakir Pasha, who had served in the Ottoman diplomatic service in Russia and who thought that a Cossack-like institution for the empire’s tribal peoples would help to address a number of issues the central Ottoman government viewed as being of primary importance with regard to the Russian and Iranian frontier districts and the peoples who lived there. In spite of the centralizing reforms aimed at bringing the region closer within the grasp of the central government, promoted throughout much of the nineteenth century, significant segments of the population remained quite beyond the state’s reach, not only in body, but also in spirit. This was the case not only for the mostly Kurdish mobile tribal population, whom the government was barely able to tax, let alone conscript, but also for the Armenian and Kurdish peasantry, for whom the state seemed largely redundant as they were already taxed by local notables and Kurdish aghas. There was the additional wariness of Russia’s designs on the region, as Russia had been steadily moving southwards with its eye on the eastern regions of the Ottoman Empire. For several decades, the Russians had formed relationships not only with the Armenians, whose blossoming nationalist movement Russia sought to advance for its own ends, but also with Kurdish tribal leaders as far in the interior of the Ottoman dominions as Dersim. Thus, while the ostensible aim of the new tribal cavalry formation was to increase the forces in existence along the frontier regions, which could serve in case of need against an invasion by Russia, the Hamidiye Light Cavalry was, as I have demonstrated in Chapter 1 of my manuscript, a much more manifold mission than this.

It was also to act as a check on this Armenian-Russian alliance and the slow but steady spread of Armenian nationalism in the eastern regions, and particularly against Armenian revolutionary activities, which although minimal in the years immediately preceding the formation of the irregular cavalry units, began to step up in pace around the time the Hamidiye was created, and which, in the following years, then, only reinforced this aspect of the militia’s raison d’etre.

I should pause for a moment to elaborate on this point, as it has been one of the most controversial in the literature on the Hamidiye. Armenian scholarship has generally presented the Hamidiye as being concrete evidence of a long-standing Ottoman policy to uproot and annihilate the Armenian population of the empire, particularly those who lived in historical Armenia and its environs. But proponents of this view have generally offered little evidence to support this claim, aside from citing the role of the Hamidiye in the massacres of Armenians that bloodied the region from 1894 to 1896. In other words, they are citing a post-facto event in order to assert what the agendas of the militia’s organizers were. I mapped the Hamidiye Regiments in order to assess this, and other claims. What I have found is that while the aim of the state at this point seems not to have been the annihilation of the Armenian population of the eastern provinces, the Hamidiye was certainly put together with the so-called Armenian conspiracy in mind. Most of the regiments were in areas where there were substantial Armenian populations, and perhaps more significantly, around points where Armenian revolutionaries were active or which they traversed as they smuggled men and weapons into the empire from across the borders. This is why, incidentally, although the initial plans for the Hamidiye also included Arab and Turkmen tribes, it was Kurdish tribes who formed the overwhelming bulk of these regiments. This is because they were the ones who lived along the threatened and fluid frontier, and they were the ones who lived near and amidst the perceived Armenian threat

However, while this was certainly an important component of the Hamidiye mission, the project did have more than simply the so-called Armenian conspiracy in mind when it was in its various stages of planning and implementation. Like many of their contemporaries around the globe, the sultan and his advisors envisioned the militia as part of a larger civilizing mission—a means to bring the tribal population into the fold, “morally and materially” as they would have said, and to encourage the tribes to settle and become controllable and productive agriculturalists. A parallel institution created around the same time was the Imperial School for Tribes, which was intended to bring the children of select tribal chiefs to Istanbul to become educated not only in military matters, but also in the curriculum of Ottoman civilization. It was hoped that they would return to their tribes, serve as loyal agents of the state, and act as models for others in their tribes to emulate. Although this school was meant primarily for the Arab population of the empire, it also had a significant body of Kurdish students, many of whom were the sons of Hamidiye chiefs. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the Hamidiye mission sought to build bonds of loyalty to the state and to the personage of the sultan. As many observers, foreign and Ottoman alike, later commented on the utter military worthlessness of the organization, through the vast privileges the sultan and Zeki Pasha, who he had placed in charge of the project, extended to Kurdish chiefs for their participation in the militia, it was hoped that at the very least in the event of a war with Russia, they would find it in their interests not to form alliances with the enemy

As the chiefs who had been recruited for the project by Zeki Pasha made their way to the capital, they may have known that they were going to become part of a very important project in their day. However, neither the chiefs nor the sultan and his advisors who created the regiments could have fathomed at the time the larger impact the Hamidiye Light Cavalry organization would have on the trajectory of life and politics in the region not only for the Hamidian period, but quite beyond. While Chapter 1 discusses the motives behind the creation of the militia, the remainder of my study is devoted to an analysis of the myriad ways in which the Hamidiye organization played a key role in certain social, economic, and political transformations within Kurdish society quite beyond anything that had been envisioned by its creators or participants at the time of their formation

In order to illustrate the specific themes that fall under the broader categories of the transformation of the local power structure and changes in the nature of land-tenure that were impacted by the Hamidiye organization, I chose to organize each chapter around the story of a particular Hamidiye pasha, whose career best exemplifies the theme in that chapter

Chapter 2 highlights the career of Mustafa Pasha, head of the Mîran tribe of Cizre, who received the dubious honor of mention in the journal, Kurdistan, cited at the opening of this presentation. Mustafa Agha, or Misto Agha as he was known before he became a Hamidiye commander, was a notorious bandit in his region, and was on the government’s “most wanted” list for the numerous crimes he had committed, including theft, murder, and pillage. In the deal that he and many other Kurdish chiefs in similar positions were able to negotiate with Zeki Pasha, he was not only granted a pardon for his crimes in exchange for raising two regiments for the new Hamidiye cavalry from his tribesmen, but in the years to follow, was given numerous titles and ranks, gifts from the sultan, and, most importantly, complete freedom of action in his pursuit of wealth and power at the expense of his own and neighboring clients and other tribes. Through his official status, Mustafa Pasha and certain other Hamidiye chieftains were able to expand their power bases and wealth, taking on, in a sense the power that had previously been held by the traditional Kurdish emirates, the last of which had been destroyed by the central Ottoman government earlier in the century. The Bedir Khan brothers, who wrote bitterly about Mustafa Pasha and the Hamidiye were, in fact, the sons of the legendary Mîr Bedir Khan, who represented the last of the traditional arrangement between the state and its Kurdish periphery, in which the Kurdish dynasts had pledged formal allegiance to the state, but continued to maintain their large degree of autonomy. Mustafa Pasha, whose tribe had been a rival of the Bedir Khan family before the last emirate’s downfall, now held power over the Cizre-Botan region, which the Bedir Khans had previously controlled. The bitterness of the Bedir Khans against Mustafa Pasha, the Hamidiye, and the regime that supported this system is clear with this history in mind. What they were protesting was their marginalization in a new power structure that had developed after the destruction of the emirates, after which tribal chiefs came to fill the vacuum left by the dismantling of these dynasties. As tribes became the increasingly key units in the region, there was an accompanying increase in the level of tribalization in Kurdish society, a process recently observed by Martin van Bruinessen, for one. The Hamidiye played an important part in these transformations as it represented the extent to which tribes, particularly their chiefs, were increasingly the key actors on the local scene, and seemed, with the vast power and privilege they were able to accrue through their official status, to take on the role of the traditional emirates on certain levels. The rivalry between the Bedir Khan family and the Mîran tribe headed by Mustafa Pasha was a reflection, then, not only of a personal or familial feud, but also of larger dynamics experienced by Kurdish society in the nineteenth century. The Bedir Khans were not, however, the only elements to complain about the Hamidiye organization. Nor were European consular officials the only ones to remark on the serious abuses committed repeatedly by these regiments. Opposition came from many circles, particularly from the peasants and non-Hamidiye tribes in the region who suffered at the hands of this militia, but also from Ottoman governors, whose attempts to promote security and effective administration in their provinces were repeatedly thwarted by Zeki Pasha, who protected his Hamidiye tribes against all detractors, and by Ottoman soldiers of the regular army, who could not fail to contrast their often miserable situation with the privilege bestowed upon these tribal regiments

In 1908, with the Young Turk revolution and the reinstatement of the Ottoman constitution, there was a general rejoicing among many Ottoman groups, who believed that a new era of freedom had been ushered in and that their grievances against the Hamidian regime were to be remedied by the new administration. Hamidiye chieftains, however, feared that the era of privilege they had enjoyed for the previous two decades was about to come to an end. And, at least for first two years of the new regime’s rule, their fears proved to be largely correct. First, the new powers dismissed the Hamidiye supreme commander, Zeki Pasha, from his post. For many Kurdish chiefs this was a devastating move as he had been their most powerful patron for nearly two decades. Next, the new regime turned its attention to bringing down Ibrahim Pasha, head of the Millî tribe based in Viransehir. Chapter 3 follows the rise and fall of Ibrahim Pasha and the significance of the new regime’s crackdowns on the Kurdish chiefs and their privileges. The government now arrested criminals and made it clear that it was going to make a determined effort to collect taxes, enforce conscription, and most significant, to amend the Hamidiye program to be in accordance with their goals. Disgruntled, the Kurdish chiefs, in their turn, gathered to protest, this time under the umbrella of modern political committees and publications—the very same means that their detractors had turned to employ in their campaign against the Hamidiye. However, in the end, the government determined that it could not afford to alienate this powerful and now increasingly disaffected element, which was coming to be regarded as “a Kurdish movement,” and slowly abandoned its efforts at reform

One of the primary concerns of the Kurdish chiefs had been the attempt by the new regime to force them to return the numerous tracts of land that they had been able, due to their Hamidiye connections, to appropriate from Armenian and Kurdish peasants over the previous decades. Chapter 4 traces the career of Hüseyin Pasha, chief of the powerful Hayderan tribe, in its discussion of the so-called “agrarian question” and the role the Hamidiye played in this important part of regional history. Scholars working on other regions of the Ottoman Empire during the same time period have begun to observe the trend of land-grabbing, as with the onset of agrarian capitalism, the value of land and land ownership took on new importance. I have added to this discussion first for showing that not only did this take place on what for now appears to be a rather large scale in Kurdistan, but I have also given good space to outlining the diverse methods used by land-grabbers to exploit loopholes in the system in order to usurp land from the peasantry. Hamidiye chieftains were specially advantaged in this pursuit as they were allowed a free hand in their activities. While the Armenian massacres of 1894-96 certainly provided the occasion for a large-scale transfer of land from Armenian peasants to Kurdish chiefs such as Hüseyin Pasha, I add two things, which must be remembered. First, the violence that bloodied significant parts of the region for the period under review was not simply a matter of the state versus the Armenians or an issue of primordial ethnic or religious conflict. Rather, there was something substantial behind the violence, this being a conflict over concrete resources. Second, although Armenians suffered enormously as a result of this trend, they were not the only ones. Kurdish and other Muslim peasants also saw their lands taken over by Hamidiye and other Kurdish chieftains in this process. Therefore, we might question how “ethnic” the “ethnic conflict” was

These are the specific themes I covered in my chapters, but I should conclude by mentioning that my dissertation also addresses larger issues, one being the relationship of states to their populations on the social, political, and geographical margins of society. A study of the Hamidiye sheds new light on the story of Ottoman centralization efforts of the nineteenth century, and helps us understand both the manners in which these attempts failed, and how the state then worked to incorporate the groups whose power it ultimately sought to eradicate. And the Hamidiye simultaneously presents the other side of this equation—how those groups who seek autonomy from the state find it most useful to go through state channels in order to empower and enrich themselves. On one level, Power in the Periphery describes the specificity of the Kurdish-Ottoman case, and in doing so attempts to add color to the shape of Ottoman and Kurdish histories as elaborated by fine scholars such as Martin van Bruinessen, Robert Olson, and Hakan Özoglu, among others, but it also addresses larger issues of state-building and local power dynamics, as well as ethnic conflict, violence, and dispossession, and refines them in a fashion that I hope sits well with the original and nuanced work of Hamit Bozarslan, which has inspired me in many ways. In this latter field, for example, this study’s look into the Kurdish-Armenian violence of the late 19th and early 20th centuries steps beyond the parameters of the debates as set by many scholars and politicians to date. Instead of focusing merely on assigning blame, Power in the Periphery attempts to discover the complex and nuanced set of events surrounding the violence that took place on both quotidian and massive scales and strives to situate anti-Armenian violence in the larger context of Ottoman state-building as well as the more local pursuit of power and privilege

And the Hamidiye left an important legacy. Although it officially ceased to exist some time after the First World War, it was revived, in a sense, in the Village Guards, which were created in 1984 to combat the PKK. This fact is what makes the Hamidiye such an evocative institution for many in Turkey today. But that is another story

I will leave that story out of my book manuscript, but would like to develop it elsewhere and am especially interested in exploring the similarities in the dynamics of conflict and collaboration not only between different groups of Kurds and the Turkish state, but also to use insights I gained from my study of the Hamidiye to help the direction of research on the conflict in Darfur, Sudan, where there are striking parallels in the convoluted dynamics of conflict currently taking place. By locating the similarities and differences in the stories of groups as diverse as Armenians, Turks, Kurds, and Sudanese, we might arrive at a more nuanced understanding of the ingredients in conflict in order to better effect conflict prevention and resolution. At present it is most pressing that humanitarian aid and peacekeepers are sent to Darfur to stop the violence already underway. But my research on the Kurdish-Armenian-state conflict as it played out before the Armenian genocide of 1915 shows that it is equally important that we understand conflict before it erupts into full-scale genocide and that we are aware of how governments can find “willing executioners” to assist in the promotion of their own aims. We can do this by not simply focusing on the victims; we must also take the perpetrators as historical subjects valid of study. Specifically, we can better understand how and why states sponsor (tribal) militias and why they are so difficult to disband. Peacekeepers will be in a better position to prompt change if we are not so quick to label conflicts such as those in the present study as “age-old,” “sectarian,” or “ethnic.” Identifying the moments of collusion between “strange bedfellows” helps us to discover that if looked at differently, i.e., recognizing the convoluted components in civil war, these alliances may not be so strange. Peace and conflict studies tends to focus on “presentist” concerns, naturally because the aim is to resolve current conflicts. But bringing a stronger focus on historical analysis and comparing historical conflicts can help us raise better questions and set a more effective and nuanced agenda for peace

Thank you again for inviting me to your beautiful land, for listening to my presentation, and for sharing your thoughts with me. I wish you peace and prosperity

(*) Assistant Professor at the University of Akron, Ohio