Conferences : World Congress of KURDISH STUDIES : Keith HITCHINS


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


By Keith HITCHINS (*)

My primary aim in this paper is to suggest what the main features of Kurdish nation-formation were in Anatolia (Turkey) between the end of the nineteenth century and the 1930s by placing it within the broad framework of the ongoing scholarly debate about the modern nation. I want to gauge how well the Kurdish case fits one or another of the general theories about the origin and nature of nations and see what it can tell us about the process by which modern nations came into being. My approach to these matters is comparative. I wish, therefore, to examine Kurdish nation-formation from the perspective of a similar process taking place among the Romanians of Transylvania between the end of the eighteenth century and 1914 and the Jadids, the Muslim reformers of Central Asia, in the first three decades of the twentieth century.


Two questions come immediately to mind: First, are these three cases, in fact, comparable, and, second, if they are, will the exercise yield results sufficient to illumine the general process of nation-formation? My answer to both questions is a tentative “yes.” Despite differences of historical development, political environment, and sources of culture, the Kurds of Anatolia, the Romanians of Transylvania, and the Jadids of Central Asia shared, it seems to me, certain key characteristics: 1) Each was a minority in a multi-ethnic and, in greater or lesser degree, centralized or centralizing empire: the Kurds in the Ottoman Empire (after the First World War the Turkish Republic), the Romanians in the Habsburg Monarchy (after 1867 Austria-Hungary), and the Jadids in the Russian Empire (after the First World War the Soviet Union); 2) Religion, especially in the Romanian and Jadid cases was a defining marker of community, and it played a significant role in the Kurdish case; 3) Intellectuals, a term I use to describe a small, well-educated elite, took the lead in nation-formation in all three cases; 4) The majority of the population of all three peoples were either peasants or nomads and were dependent mainly on some form of agriculture or animal-raising for a livelihood, whereas modern industry and commerce and associated occupations were still modest in scope; 5) The majority of these peoples were culturally rural and were deeply attached to tradition, usually reinforced by religion, and were thus resistant to change; 6) The intellectual elites, by contrast, were open to currents of ideas and other influences from the outside, especially those coming from Europe, including in the Jadid case, Russia; 7) The process of nation-formation of all three peoples evolved within a broad international context that revealed not only the porousness of political and cultural boundaries but also the contagiousness of the idea of nation; and 8) All three cases of nation-formation were, in the final analysis, the responses of largely traditional societies to the challenge of modernity.


As I examine the three cases I shall keep a number of questions in mind about nation: 1) Are nations constructs based upon modern, that is, nineteenth- and twentieth-century economic and social conditions? More precisely, are they products of modern capitalist, industrial society? 2) Are nations essentially the creations of elites, “nationalist,” who were anxious to provide order in the unstable conditions brought on by the rapid growth of capitalism? 3) Or, were nations in existence for many centuries before the nineteenth century? 4) What, if anything, do modern nations owe to historical and cultural links to the past? 5) When exactly can we say that a nation has come into being? Can it be simply an idea entertained by a relatively small number of well-educated persons or must it also encompass the mass of the population who will have some consciousness of their common identity?


My paper is divided into five parts. The first is a discussion of the main theories about the origins and nature of nations, and the second, third, and fourth parts describe and analyze Romanian, Jadid, and Kurdish nation-formation. The fifth and final part consists of suggestions as to what the three cases may tell us about the origins and nature of nations and how well they fit in with general theories on the subject.




First of all, then, I want to discuss the theories of nation. As we are all aware, the origins of nations and the emergence of nationalism and national movements have been the subject of scholarly, and sometimes unscholarly, attention since the nineteenth century. At the theoretical level the debate about the nature and role of nations became especially sharp in the second half of the twentieth century, as modernists boldly challenged traditional conceptions. New explanations for the appearance of nations and their character and new estimates of their longevity held that they were constructs founded upon economic and social realities specific to the modern age. Such arguments clashed with the certainties of the so-called primordialisys and perennialists about the age-old existence, even the permanence, of nations in human society. Still another body of scholars –the historical ethnosymbolists—proposed what might be called a third way of approaching the matter. They emphasized historical and cultural connections to the past, but at the same time they accepted the essential modernity of nations.


Since the middle of the twentieth century modernism has been the most influential paradigm explaining the emergence of nations. Its representatives generally agree on the approaches to the central issues of the debate: they oppose the theory of the existence of an essence of nation and insist on its constructed nature; they reject the antiquity of nations and agree on their relatively recent appearance; and they dismiss the historical and cultural, in favor of the economic and political foundations of nation. Modernists reject the idea, then, that nations are intrinsic to human society, that they are “natural phenomena.” They claim, instead, that nations and nationalism are products of the modern world and that they were formed in order to satisfy the peculiar needs of that world, and then, they predict, as times change nations will disappear, to be replaced by other forms of community organization appropriate to new ages. In this whole process they emphasize the key role of elites as the constructors of nations.


Ernest Gellner set forth the premises of modernism in radical form, first, in Thought and Change (1964) and, then, at greater length, in his well-known and controversial Nations and Nationalism (1983). He insisted that the rise of the nation cannot be explained satisfactorily either as an exercise of human will or by adherence to culture; such factors simply did not differentiate the origins of nations from those of other kinds of communities and movements. The crucial elements, in his view, were the economic and social circumstances of the modern age. Thus, nations and nationalism, for him, could only be products of modern, capitalist society. Nations, he reasoned, were, in fact, indispensable to modern society –a complex, mobile, and mass entity—if it was to function properly.[1]




I shall begin the investigation of the three cases of nation-formation with the Romanians of Transylvania. It is safe to say that during the entire period from the latter part of the eighteenth century to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 they were the least favored of the main ethnic communities in Transylvania. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Hungarian nobility and gentry and the Hungarian and Saxon (German) middle classes dominated political and economic life. Romanians during this long period were represented, first, by their Greek Catholic and Orthodox clergies, then by a lay intellectual elite, and, finally, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, by a small middle class.[2]


Violence by Romanians in the form of  a massive peasant uprising in 1784-1785 led by Horea and the national and liberal revolution of 1848-1849, the work mainly of intellectuals, brought little improvement in their status. Nor did reliance on the central authorities in Vienna ever since the end of the seventeenth century, when Transylvania was incorporated into the Habsburg Monarchy; only occasionally did the Romanians’ loyalty to the Habsburgs coincide with the Imperial Court’s interests. Far more important to it were the Hungarian ruling groups and the Monarchy’s international position. When the so-called Compromise of 1867 transformed the Habsburg Monarchy into a partnership between Austrians and Hungarians and integrated Transylvania into the new Hungary, the Hungarian government undertook a systematic campaign down to the First World War to Magyarize the Romanians and thereby extinguish their ethnic identity.[3] Romanian nation-formation for nearly two centuries thus took place under the most adverse conditions, becoming, in effect, a movement of political, cultural, and economic self-defense.


If we apply Miroslav Hroch’s paradigm of nation-formation to the Romanians of Transylvania during the period that concerns us, then two phases are discernible: phase A, from about the 1770s to the 1820s, a period of scholarly inquiry and the propagation of the new idea of community, and phase B, from about the 1830s to 1914, a period when the elite undertook to organize a national movement politically, culturally, and economically and to gain broad support for their endeavors. Yet, as Hroch (and the historical ethno-symbolists) would argue, these two phases rested upon a sense of community whose foundations could be traced back to the Middle Ages. For the Romanians it was a religious consciousness based on a deep attachment to their Eastern Orthodox faith and nurtured by the wider Orthodox community, especially Serbs and Russians. It was a solidarity that separated Romanians from their German and Magyar neighbors, who were Protestant and Roman Catholic, and thus reinforced their sense of their unique identity.


Leadership of the Romanian community came from successive generations of elites, who were distinguished by their higher education and their attraction to Western European ideas and models of development. The elites of the eighteenth century, in fact, owed their existence in large measure to a union of a part of the Orthodox clergy with the Roman Catholic Church, an event that allowed young Romanians, almost all of them Greek Catholic clergy, to study in Roman Catholic institutions in, among other places, Rome and Vienna and introduced them to the transforming currents of ideas of the European Enlightenment and early Romanticism. In these cosmopolitan centers they also became acquainted with the aspirations to nationhood similar to their own of Slav and Magyar elites.[4]


The Church Union with Rome provided a theoretical justification of their belief in historical progress and gave substance to the idea, “Romanian nation.” It explained the history of the Romanians since the Roman conquest of Dacia –their rise and fall- and presaged a new age of glory. The weaving of these ideas into a coherent doctrine signified the reconciliation between the Byzantine East and the Latin West, which provides the key to an understanding of modern theories of Romanian nationhood. In trying to harmonize the patriarchal Orthodox tradition of an essentially rural world with the dynamic spirit of urban Europe, Greek Catholic intellectuals made an indispensable contribution to the creation of a new, distinctive entity –“Romanian.”




Next I would like to examine nation-formation carried out by the Jadids of Central Asia. In the first three decades of the twentieth century a small number of Muslim intellectuals, Turkic- (Uzbek) and Persian- (Tajik) speakers, in the Russian Governorate-General of Turkestan and the neighboring Emirate of Bukhara, a Russian protectorate, were engaged in a mission, Jadidism, to bring Central Asia into the modern world. Jadidism took its name from usul-i jadid (new method), which was applied to the modern schools that the reformers advocated in place of the “old” (qadim) schools, the traditional maktabs (Muslim primary schools) and madrasas (Muslim colleges). In time “Jadid” or “Jadidchi” became a synonym for reformer. The methods use by the Jadids to further their cause were didactic, and their chief instruments, besides schools, were books, newspapers, and the theater. They did not think of themselves as revolutionaries, but in time as their project gained strength and they themselves confidence the brand of enlightenment they preached constituted a fundamental challenge to the Russian colonial administration, the Emir of Bukhara’s authoritarian rule, and the traditional Muslim clergy, the ulama, and their near-monopoly of education and culture. The revolutions of February and October 1917 in Russia proved to be crucial turning-points for the Jadids, as they were drawn deeper and deeper into political struggle and had to confront rapid social and political change. Forced to adjust to the new Bolshevik order, they strove as never before to define themselves as a nation and to decide on a proper course of development. A few succeeded; most did not. Jadidism itself as a distinct movement of ideas disappeared into the general fabric of Soviet society.




If we turn now to Kurdish nation-formation and measure its evolution against Hroch’s paradigm, we can, I think, discern two phases: A, roughly from the 1890s to 1918, and B, 1918 to 1938. As we proceed numerous parallels with the Romanian and Jadid cases will be evident.[5]


During the first phase Kurdish intellectuals laid the ideological and organizational foundations of nation-formation. They thought of their mission, first of all, as one of education and persuasion, and thus they embarked on the tasks of enlightenment by establishing the first Kurdish newspapers and journals, through which they intended to disseminate their vision of a future Kurdish nation and awaken Kurds to a consciousness of having a common destiny and of belonging to the same ethnic community. They also created political and cultural associations to coordinate all their endeavors. Not least of all they sketched the outlines of an idea of community that was essentially ethnic. Although the period was, then, mainly one of intellectual and cultural mobilization, the Kurdish elite also put forward proposals for new political arrangements that would assure the integrity of the Kurdish community. In so doing, they recognized the impossibility of separating political construction from intellectual and cultural initiatives.


The Kurdish elite undertook their activities at a time of growing ferment among the diverse peoples of the Ottoman Empire and in neighboring regions: in the Balkans the Albanians and in Eastern Anatolia the Armenians asserted their ethnic individuality and strove to assure their survival as distinct political communities; in Iran after the turn of the century the constitutional movement gained strength; in India the struggle of both Muslims and Hindus against British colonialism intensified; and in Central Asia, as we have seen, Muslim intellectuals confronted Russian dominance and native despotism. But above all, the Young Turk movement, both at home in Istanbul and other cities and in Europe, influenced Kurdish intellectuals to assert their identity and aspire to some form of nationhood.


The structure of Kurdish society itself greatly influenced the course of Kurdish nation-formation[6] and accounts in part for the successes and failures of its leaders (I shall refer to them from now on as “intellectuals” or “the elite”). The membership of this elite, which had committed itself to the raising, or one might almost say, the creation of a Kurdish national consciousness, was small, and a middle class conscious of its wider social role, which had become the chief nation-builders for the Romanians of Transylvania by the latter decades of the nineteenth century, was also small and lacked cohesion and sufficient awareness of a national mission. The traditional tribal organization of Kurdish society, the pervasive influence of religion and the power of the sheikhs, whose prestige rested largely on their leadership of Sufi orders, were all formidable obstacles to innovation.[7]


One of the difficulties confronting the elite as they proceeded with national mobilization was to determine who precisely was a Kurd. Religion and language, often the markers of nationhood elsewhere, were not uniformly helpful in this case. Although the majority of Kurds in Turkey were Sunni Muslims and followers of the Shafi’i mezhep (creed), there were significant communities of Alevis, whom many Shafi’I Kurds would not accept as Kurds. Then, too, religious distinctions between Kurds and others were sometimes blurred. For example, Kurdish Alevis had much in common culturally with Turkish Alevis, while many Sunni Kurds and their sheikhs were anxious to preserve the Caliphate and were thus willing to cooperate with the Ottoman or Turkish Republican government, at least before the secularization campaign of the Republic in the 1920s. As for language, the majority of Kurds in Turkey spoke Kurmanji, but the Zazas spoke a language of their own, which, being unintelligible to Kurmanji-speakers, helped to keep the two parties separate. Besides the absence of distinct religious and ethnic indicators, simple membership in a tribe or links to one of the traditional prominent families was often enough to establish one’s Kurdishness, regardless of ethnicity or other criteria.[8] The enormousness of the task that lay before those who were intent on creating a modern nation out of such diversity is evident.


Yet, in a curious way, religion helped to draw Kurds from many parts of Kurdistan together, despite their different religious and cultural traditions. Madrasas and the Sufi orders enabled Kurds from various Kurdish regions to become acquainted with one another and thus contributed to the creation of a common, even “national,” identity.It was not by chance, then, that many of the rebellions against Ottoman and, later, Turkish Republican rule were led by the sheikhs of Sufi brotherhoods.[9]


The leaders of Kurdish nation-formation in its early phase belonged to the upper strata of Kurdish society. They came from aristocratic great families such as the Badrkhans and Babans, or they were army officers or government officials. Some were mollahs such  as Said Nursi (1876-1960), a moderate who had committed himself to improving the status of the Kurds and belonged to a number of Kurdish associations in Istanbul before the First World War.[10] They had all had a superior and, to some degree, cosmopolitan education. Many had spent time in Europe, where they had come under the influence of Western liberal, enlightened ideas or had joined progressive Turkish and Armenian intellectuals to oppose the Sultan’s authoritarian rule.[11]


Kurdish leaders were guided in their activities by a sense of being Kurdish. Yet, this conviction, rather than being based on a well-reasoned theory of nation or precise notions of ethnic community, was more a spontaneous feeling that had been nurtured on historical and literary sources such as Ehmedî Xanî’s (ca. 1650/1651-1706-1707) great epic, Mem û Zîn, and the poetry of Hacî Qadrî Koyî (1817-1897). The elite interpreted Xanî’s references to Kurds and to their need for unity as recognition that as early as the seventeenth century a Kurdish nation existed, when what in fact he had in mind by “Kurd” was mainly the tribes and some intellectuals, but not the peasantry.[12] Haci Qadri Koyi, who went to Istanbul and became associated with the Badrkhan family later in his career, evoked a romantic nationalism in his poetry that appealed to a young generation of Kurdish intellectuals.[13]


The elite itself did not yet conceive of nation in fully modern terms. The evidence lies in their attitude toward the mass of the Kurdish people, tribal and peasant alike. They displayed a kind of paternalism that viewed the mass of the population as children who had to be led and protected. Not surprisingly, they assigned to themselves the task of leading their people as a right because of their education and experience. Disdainful of the rural world because of what they saw as its ignorance and superstition and its unthinking attachment to tradition, they themselves took pride in being urban and even European and thus progressive, and they relished Istanbul as their base.[14]


This elite used modern means to advance their cause: they formed the first Kurdish political organizations, and they laid the foundations of the Kurdish newspaper press. At first, then, they conceived of themselves primarily as enlighteners, and in politics they practiced moderation.


The first, informal association they formed was linked to the newspaper Kurdistan, which began publication in Kurdish (Kurmanji) and Turkish in Cairo in 1898. Its publisher and editor was Mikdat Midhat Badrkhan, one of the sons of Badrkhan, the Emir of the former Kurdish principality of Botan. It did not represent any particular political organization, and therefore it offered intellectuals of various ideological hues a forum for the exchange of ideas. In time, its publisher hoped, it might provide a base from which he and his colleagues could undertake sustained public initiatives. At first, Badrkhan focused on cultural and educational goals. He was particularly eager to acquaint his readers with the accomplishments of contemporary European civilization and science and to raise their general cultural level.[15] Eventually, Kurdistan, after brief stays in London and Folkstone in England, moved to Geneva, Switzerland. The new editor, until the newspaper closed in 1902, was another son of Emir Badrkhan, Abdurrahman Bey, who was convinced that he could not effectively pursue an exclusively Kurdish program. He chose, therefore, to cooperate with the Young Turks in exile and to urge that the Ottoman Empire become a federated state in which all its peoples should have autonomy.[16]


The elite increasingly felt the need for a permanent organization to mobilize their forces and coordinate their activities and founded Kürt Teavün ve Terakki Cemiyeti (Association for Kurdish Mutual Assistance and Progress) in Istanbul in September 1908. Their immediate aim was to take advantage of the new freedom for social and political action made possible in the wake of the Young Turk revolution. They were particularly eager to unite various small Kurdish groups with the representatives of leading families. The immediate initiative for the association’s founding seems to have come from prominent Kurds recently returned from Europe, who were determined to turn their watchword, “Unity and Progress,” into reality.


Cultural goals continued to come first, as is evident from the articles of the newspaper they published for nine months beginning in November 1908, Kürt Teavün ve Terakki Gazetesi, whose publisher, by most accounts, was Abdul Qadır, the son of Sheikh Ubaydullah, the leader of a rebellion in 1880, and a member of later Kurdish national committees. The association promoted education as an essential means of bring about national unity and insisted that Kurdish children pursue their studies in all subjects in their own language. The elite thus gave continuous attention to the cultivation of the Kurdish literary language, a task they intended to carry out by collecting folk stories and legends about the Kurdish past and by writing a history of the language.[17]


The association soon felt the force of Turkish nationalism and had to curtail its activities. A serious rupture between the Young Turks and the Kurdish elite took place in 1909. Where once the Young Turks had been allied with the Kurds against the Sultan, now they could no longer ignore the centrifugal tendencies they discerned in the association’s promotion of the Kurdish language and strengthening of Kurdish culture. They began to treat Kurds as subversives, and, as a result, the Kürt Teavün ve Terakki Cemiyeti and its newspaper closed in 1909. For a time its members carried on educational work in another association, Kürt Neşr-i Maarif Cemiyeti (Association for Kurdish Educational Publications), which founded schools and published books in Kurdish.[18] But continued Young Turk pressure forced it to cease activities in 1910.


Subsequent associations were short-lived. The most important of these was Heviya Kurd (Kurdish Hope), which was founded in Istanbul in 1912. It, too, pursued cultural goals in order to arouse and strengthen a sense of Kurdish identity and unity in the broader population. It published the first Kurdish journal, Roja Kurd (Kurdish Day; three issues in 1913) and its successor, Hetawî Kurd (Kurdish Sun; ten issues in 1913), both of which promoted Kurdish education, literature, and language.[19] The association broke up at the start of the First World War when many of its members entered military service.[20] These events and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the war signaled the close of the first phase of Kurdish nation-formation.


Despite the efforts of urban intellectuals to disseminate a new, national sense of community among Kurds and create a common Kurdish culture, it must be said that they had had little success. For example, they had established branches of the Association for Union and Progress in the eastern part of the Ottoman Empire, but these “clubs,” in Diyarbekir, Bitlis, and other towns lacked regular links with the center in Istanbul or among themselves. They became, in effect, local organizations, where, in the absence of intellectuals of the sort active in Istanbul, local elites, espousing more traditional views, used the clubs in their own interest. Nor were the intellectuals in Istanbul successful in establishing contacts with ordinary Kurds in the capital or anywhere else. Their program did not deal with the social and economic issues that were of most concern to the mass of Kurds, and they themselves showed little inclination to meet with the poor and uneducated. In Istanbul Abdul Qadır was almost alone as an intellectual who developed a rapport with ordinary Kurds, but it was mainly because they saw him as a holy man, not because he could connect them to a Kurdish national committee.[21]


The next phase, phase B, of Kurdish nation-formation covers the period roughly between 1918 and 1938 and is distinguished by a breakdown of the traditional relationship, or “tacit contract,”[22] between the Ottoman government and the minorities of the empire, which had enabled the Kurds to preserve a large measure of autonomy within long-established political, social, and religious structures. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire as a consequence of defeat in the First World War, and its replacement by an increasingly nationalistic and secularizing Turkish Republic added new strains to the relations between Kurds and Turks. As the Republic limited Kurdish cultural expression and undermined existing autonomies and abolished the Caliphate, which had joined Kurds and Turks in a common Muslim community, the Kurds responded with violence.


In many respects Phase B represented no serious break with the continuity Kurdish nation-formation. The leadership remained largely the same as before the First World War. The well-educated elite of Istanbul –high functionaries, military officers, academics, wealthy aristocrats, and some religious figures—were the guiding force. Their methods and goals were, at first, little changed from those of the first phase. They formed a coordinating committee, Kurdistan Teâli Cemiyeti (The Association for the Rise of Kurdistan) in Istanbul in December 1918 under the chairmanship of Abdul Qadır,[23] and they pursued cultural goals, as their predecessors had. Influenced by Western models, they were intent on raising their people to a high level of civilization. To this end, they published a cultural and political journal, Jîn (Life; 1919) to disseminate their ideas and reinforce a sense of Kurdishness among broader, literate elements of the population.[24] Indicative of their commitment to a Kurdish national consciousness was their sponsorship of the first printed edition of Xanî’s Mem û Zîn in 1919. Their focus on it may also reflect the same anxiety that Xanî expressed for the Kurds’ lack of unity and for the need for a strong leader, a king, to liberate them from the domination of others. They thus seem to have accepted the principle that their own fledgling national movement had its roots in much earlier times, the seventeenth century.


The elite’s attention to history suggests a strengthened national consciousness and the acceptance of history as a valuable instrument for mobilizing public opinion, even though none among them had the time to write his own work of history.[25]  They thus could not separate the cultural from the political. Their political awareness found expression, in particular, in their apparent authorization of Şerif Pasha, a liberal opponent of the former Ottoman government, to present demands for Kurdish independence at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.[26]  At this critical moment (1920) the Kurdistan Teali Cemiyeti, already divided between those who wanted an independent state and others who were satisfied with some form of autonomy and continued cooperation with reformist Turks, broke apart in a dispute over recognition of an Armenian state.


The Kurdish elite soon regrouped. Led by army officers, they founded the Ciwata Azadi Kurd (Society for Kurdish Freedom), known simply as Azadi, in 1923 to coordinate more aggressive resistance to the Turkicization campaign undertaken by the increasingly nationalist Republican government,[27] a campaign that severely curtailed Kurdish cultural activities and aimed at the dissolution of Kurdish tribes and even Muslim religious orders. In response, the men of Azadi organized a local rebellion at Beyt Sebab in 1924, which may have been a rehearsal for a more general uprising that they hoped would bring Kurds together from all over Turkish Kurdistan for a common struggle.[28] It failed, and its leaders were executed, but armed opposition continued.


The rebellion led by Sheikh Said in 1925, which Azadi helped to organize with the expectation that it would unite the Kurds of Turkey and perhaps even attract support from those of Iraq and Iran, pursued both nationalist and traditional objectives. Sheikh Said himself was guided more by nationalist than religious concerns and tried to arouse his fellow Kurds to action by citing Ehmedî Xanî’s appeal for Kurdish brotherhood and for political solidarity.[29] But the rebellion was not a nationalist uprising. Its main support came from Zaza-speaking tribes, and their chiefs and many sheikhs and the majority of villagers displayed no enthusiasm for the nationalist cause of self-government. Rather, they fought to uphold the traditional order of society against the drastic changes being imposed upon them by the Turkish Republic.[30] The underlying cause of their rebellion, then, was opposition to modernism and secularism, which threatened to destroy their tradition way of life and their religion.[31]


Other rebellions followed. The most important were those near Mount Ararat in 1929-1930[32] and in Dersim in 1937-1938.[33] Yet, as with Sheikh Said’s rebellion, neither was national in the sense that it enlisted wide support across religious and tribal boundaries and pursued general Kurdish as opposed to local tribal or religious goals. Only in the Ararat rebellion did Kurdish political groups have even a modest role, and members of the urban elite and army officers who participated in it had no significant support among peasants and nomads.[34] Significant Kurdish rebellions ended with the Turkish army’s brutal suppression of the Dersim revolt in 1938.


Kurdish nation-formation in Turkey did not make the transition to Phase C of Hroch’s paradigm: that of a mass national movement. We may even doubt that it had met all the criteria of Phase B. As of 1938, when it entered upon nearly a quarter-century of relative quiescence, the urban elite, the “nationalists,” either civilians or army officers, had had little success in establishing contact with the Kurdish masses. They could not overcome tribal structures and the pervasive influence of the sheikhs. The liberal, cosmopolitan ideas that the urban elite espoused would undoubtedly have appealed to a well-established middle class, but Kurdish society lacked the so-called “middle stratum”; the conservative tribes and peasants could hardly be receptive to new European social theories. In fact, the anti-Kurdish policies of the Turkish government itself encouraged a contrary process: the “ruralization” of Kurdish nation-formation. It was not the urban elites in the 1920s and 1930s, but the Kurdish tribes and religious orders that mounted the most stubborn resistance to Turkicization and thus offered the most effective defense of Kurdish culture and identity.[35]




By way of conclusion, what can we say about the origins and development of nations? The three cases we have sketched suggest that the roots of modern ethnic nations go back to a time before the nineteenth century, that the memory of past greatness or of a shared history and culture or of a sense of religious community drew people together and suggested, at least to the elites among them, that they possessed a common identity. But it is also evident that the idea of nation in its ethnic sense –whether Romanian, Uzbek, Tajik, or Kurdish—emerged relatively recently, and in the period we have investigated it hardly encompassed all members of the ethnic community in equal measure. In the early twentieth century the mass of the population had yet to be persuaded to embrace the nation at the expense of other, more traditional allegiances.


All three cases provide convincing evidence that the modern nation was the creation of a relatively small number of well-educated persons. It was this elite that undertook the task of cultivating those features of nationhood –history, language, culture—that would strengthen the sense of common identity. It was this elite who thought about nation in broad terms as embracing all members of the supposed ethnic community, and it was they who made efforts to extend the sentiment of ethnic identity to the mass of the population by all manner of means. It was also they who sought to organize the nation through associations and institutions and strove to protect the nation by engaging in politics and, sometimes, violence, and it was they who formulated the immediate goal of autonomy and the long-term aspiration of independence. Yet, their own sense of nationhood was deficient, as they were reluctant to treat the masses as full members of the nation, as their equals. Nonetheless, we may rightly conclude that elites played the crucial role in nation-formation. Yet, it is also true that they did not construct nations out of whole cloth. Rather, they took certain raw materials, for example, existing sentiments of historical or religious community and tried to mold and expand these sentiments into an idea of nation, ethnically based and secular, to which everyone in the community in question could give allegiance.


I would thus date the origins of nations earlier than the nineteenth century, and I find it difficult in the three cases we have observed to attribute nation-formation solely to modern economic and social development, since the regions with which we are concerned were largely agricultural and rural. Nonetheless, the course of nation-formation was greatly affected by growing capitalist and industrial development and urbanization. The composition of the elites themselves was steadily changing, and new generations adapted their methods and goals to fit new circumstances and opportunities.


It seems to me that the theoretical explanation for the origins and development of nations that best fits the Kurdish case, and the Romanian and Jadid case as well, is that proposed by Anthony Smith and the historical ethno-symbolists. I think they rightly judge nation-formation to be a long-term process subject to a great variety of influences, political, economic, social, and emotional, as conditions in the respective communities evolved and required elites continuously to adjust their means and goals accordingly.







[5] Most recently, M. Hakan Yavuz has offered a different chronology for the first two phases of nation-formation, one covering the period 1878-1924, and the other 1925-1961: “Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey,” in Maya Shatzmiller, ed., Nationalism and Minority Identities in Islamic Societies (Montreal and Kingston, 2005), pp. 234-239.

[6] On the organization  of Kurdish society, see Wadie Jwaideh, The Kurdish National Movement. Its Origins and Development (Syracuse, N.Y., 2006), pp. 27-53.

[7] See the many-sided discussion in Martin van Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh and State (London and New Jersey, 1992), pp. 203-264.

[8] Martin van Bruinessen, “The Ethnic Identity of the Kurds,” in Idem, Kurdish Ethno-Nationalism versus Nation-Building States. Collected Articles (Istanbul, 2000), pp. 13-15.

[9] Martin van Bruinessen, “The Kurds and Islam,” in Idem, Mullas, Sufis and Heretics: The Role of Religion in Kurdish Society. Collected Articles (Istanbul, 2000), p. 37.

[10] Malmîsanij, Said-i Nursi ve Kürt Soronu (Uppsala, Sweden, 1991), pp. 21-28.

[11] Nacı Kutlay, Ittihat-Terakki ve Kürtler, 2nd ed. (Istanbul, 1991), pp. 23-39.

[12] Martin van Bruinessen, “Ehmedî Xanî’s Mem û Zîn and Its Role in the Emergence of Kurdish National Awareness,” in Abbas Vali, ed., Essays on the Origins of Kurdish Nationalism (Costa Mesa, California, 2003), pp. 41-45; Medeni Ayhan, Kurdistanlı filozof Ehmedî Xanî (Ankara, 1996), pp. 121-130.

[13] Van Bruinessen, “Ehmedî Xanî’s Mem û Zîn,” p. 50.

[14] Günter Behrendt, Nationalismus in Kurdistan (Hamburg, 1993), pp. 272-274; Dzhalile Dzhalil, Iz istorii

obshchestvenno-politicheskoi zhizni kurdov v kontse XIX-nachala XX vv. (St. Petersburg, 1997), pp. 15-16, 19.

[15] Malmîsanij, Abdurrahman Bedirhan ve İlk Kürt Gazetesi Kurdistan Sayı: 17 ve 18 (Spånga. Sweden, 1992), pp. 29-39.

[16] See an analysis of the content of Kurdistan in Dzhalil, Iz istorii, pp. 29-36.

[17] Ibid., p. 57.

[18] Ibid., pp. 62-63.

[19] Malmîsanij, İlk Legal Kürt Öğrenci Derneği. Kürt Talebe-Hêvî Cemiyeti (1912-1922) (Istanbul, 2002), pp. 99-106, 138-146, 150-160.

[20] Behrendt, Nationalismus in Kurdistan, pp. 281-283.

[21] Martin van Bruinessen, “Origins and Development of Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey,” Arbeitsheft des Berliner Instituts für vergleichende Sozialforschung (Berlin, 1981), p. 6.

[22] Hamit Bozarslan, “Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey: From Tacit Contract to Rebellion (1919-1925),” in Vali, Essays, pp. 185-189.

[23] On the formation of the association and its leading figures, see Ismail Göldaş, Kürdistan Teâli Cemiyeti (Istanbul, 1991), pp. 11-77.

[24] Malmîsanij and Mahmûd Lewendî, Li Kurdistana Bakur û li Tirkiyê. Rojnamegeriya Kurdî (1908-1922), 2nd ed., Vol. 1 (Ankara, 1992), pp. 65-75.

[25] Hamit Bozarslan, “Some Remarks on Kurdish Historiographical Discourse in Turkey,” in Vali, Essays, pp. 24-25.

[26] Behrendt, Nationalismus in Kurdistan, pp. 312-315. See also, M. S. Lazarev, Imperializm i kurdskii vopros (1917-1923) (Moscow, 1989), pp. 96-111.

[27] On the activities of Azadi, see Robert Olson, The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion, 1880-1925 (Austin, 1989), pp. 41-51.

[28] Bozarslan, “Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey,” p. 176.

[29] Ibid., p. 177.

[30] On the nature of the rebellion, see Martin van Bruinessen, Agha, Shaikh and State, pp. 291-299. On the revolt from an international perspective, see also M. S. Lazarev, Kurdistan i kurdskii vopros (Moscow, 2005), pp. 46-71.

[31] Martin van Bruinessen, “Popular Islam, Kurdish Nationalism and Rural Revolt: The Rebellion of Shaikh Said in Turkey (1925),” in Idem, Mullas, Sufis and Heretics, p. 154.

[32] M. S. Lazarev, Kurdistan i kurdskii vopros (1923-1945), pp. 123-155.

[33] Ibid., pp. 170-178.

[34] Van Bruinessen, “Kurdish Society and the Modern State: Ethnic Nationalism versus Nation-Building,” in Idem, Kurdish Ethno-Nationalism, p. 53.

[35] Bozarslan, “Kurdish Nationalism in Turkey,” p. 189.

(*) Professor at Illinois University