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2018 | Book

Comparative Kurdish Politics in the Middle East

Actors, Ideas, and Interests


About this book

This edited volume introduces the political, social and economic intra-Kurdish dynamics in the Middle East by comparatively analyzing the main actors, their ideas, and political interests. As an ethnic group and a nation in the making, Kurds are not homogeneous and united but rather the Kurdish Middle East is home to various competing political groups, leaderships, ideologies, and interests. Although many existing studies focus on the Kurds and their relations with the nation-states that they populate, few studies analyze the Kurdish Middle East within its own debates, conflicts and interests from a comparative perspective across Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria. This book analyzes the intra-Kurdish dynamics with historically-grounded, theoretically-informed, and conceptually-relevant scholarship that prioritizes comparative politics over international relations.

Table of Contents



Chapter 1. Iraqi Kurdistan’s Statehood Aspirations and Non-Kurdish Actors: The Case of the Turkomans
The concept of state-building has acquired political, economic, and social dimensions, all of which are required to explain the state-building patterns in the Middle East. This chapter will examine some of the key theories of state-building and how certain theories have been applied to the Middle East and Iraq. I will then consider how these thematic areas relate to the core focus of the analysis: the state-building efforts in Iraqi Kurdistan. I will concentrate on the sociopolitical factors and, in particular, the role of the Turkoman people in this process. The northern part of Iraq, which is known as Iraqi Kurdistan, is a region rich in ethnoreligious diversity. However, the role of the Kurds in state-building, for example, has been well researched. The Turkomans are the third-largest ethnic group in Iraq; yet, we know relatively little about their role in constructing a successful Iraqi Kurdistan. This chapter aims to take a closer look at this group as their participation is vital in a number of different areas. As the Turkomans are politically very active, we are interested in their attitudes and role in Kurdish state-building. The chapter will examine demographic and related political questions, religious, cultural and ethnic matters, the role of language, and the vital connection to Turkey. The central argument presented here is that while there are a number of complex problems for Turkoman integration (in addition to current issues related to ISIS, economic recession, and the refugee crisis), in many of these areas, there are also several reasons for optimism within KRG that has often shown both tolerance and respect for the Turkoman population.
Emel Elif Tugdar
Chapter 2. Kurdish Political Parties in Syria: Past Struggles and Future Expectations
The high-profile geography where the Kurdish people reside on has increased its importance in different nation-states of the Middle East with legal and illegal Kurdish political formations in the twenty-first century. Especially, during the Arab Revolts and afterward, while the winds of change in the region brought down the existing authoritarian regimes one by one, it helped many historically isolated and oppressed groups such as the Kurds to take an active place in the political arena of the region. Despite many sociopolitical cleavages that occurred in various ways in the Syrian community due to the 2011 uprising, Syrian Kurds have caught the historic opportunity to defend their rights to self-determination. In other words, the Kurds that were historically oppressed and manipulated by the Assad regime have relatively begun to act on their behalf in northern Syria. This Kurdish self-determination move has been significantly affecting the strategic policies of the most local, regional, and international actors that deeply advocate change in the region. However, Kurdish political presence in post-uprising Syria has not been homogenous. Based on an extensive field research, this chapter presents an overview of competing Kurdish political parties in Syria in order to determine their demands, similarities, differences, and the organization styles. In addition, the chapter analyzes the relationship of Syrian Kurdish groups with Iraqi, Iranian, and Turkish Kurds. Syrian Kurdish parties are discussed in the historical context of Syria by analyzing the developments in the Kurdish political sphere at the regional level. Finally, regional and international relations are contextualized by explaining the road maps of Kurdish political parties in Syria.
Bekir Halhalli


Chapter 3. Human Security Versus National Security: Kurds, Turkey and Syrian Rojava
This chapter emphasizes the human security concerns of the Kurds and how it shapes their threat perception in the Middle East. The security dimension of nationalism has been mostly understudied as many studies on nationalism have focused on the political and social dimensions. However, both for state nationalisms and minority nationalisms, security aspect remains an important dimension in the emergence and path dependency of nationalist discourses. Yet, what these nationalisms understand from security differ to a great extent. While state nationalism prioritizes the security of the state in the sense of its territorial integrity and the interests of “national security” defined by state actors, minority nationalisms tend to define security in broader terms which is beyond the state-centric approach. The security understanding of minority nationalisms tend to be closer to what the United Nations Development Programme framed as “human security.” This article attempts to examine the function of nationalism as an instrument of security which is understood differently by state and minority group actors through an analysis of the emergence and historical evolution of Turkey’s Kurdish question. Recent events such as the so-called Kurdish Opening, peace process with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), renewed violence and Turkey’s ambiguous approach to the Kurds under the Islamic State threat in Syria, and the rising popularity of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) will be discussed within the theoretical framework of competing security understandings of state and non-state actors.
Serhun Al
Chapter 4. Kurdish Nationalist Organizations, Neighboring States, and “Ideological Distance”
Especially since 2014, the relations between Kurdish populations with other Kurdish cross-border populations and neighboring states have never received more public attention. Strategic decisions made by the elites of these communities have often confounded analysts approaching the developments in Kurdish-populated areas with latent assumptions of primordial identities or at least with the assumption that peoples with shared ethnic identities will have monolithic aims and agendas. Using the rich existing theory on nationalist identity development and nationalist projects, this chapter argues that Kurdish identities, like all national identities, are political and thus, while often constructed from pre-existing elements like language, shared traditions, etc., these elements are selected or constructed contextually within a nationalist package that is glued together implicitly or explicitly by a politically and ideologically framed image of an ideal nation. With this in mind, the chapter will explore how these elite-led nationalist endeavors intersect with how these nationalist communities interact with other Kurdish nationalist communities and neighboring states. Using Mark Haas’s “ideological distance” hypothesis and its three posited causal mechanisms—demonstration effects, social identity theory, and the communications mechanism—we will discuss Kurdish cross-communal and extra-communal relations. In general, “ideological distance” seems to be a good fit in explaining the interaction between Kurdish nationalist political groups in the twenty-first century, and it also helps to explain why the current Turkish government seems to have real preferences among the various Kurdish political organizations—i.e., it appears to explain why Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) appear to have distinguished between “good Kurds” and “bad Kurds.”
F. Michael Wuthrich
Chapter 5. Statehood, Autonomy, or Unitary Coexistence? A Comparative Analysis of How Kurdish Groups Approach the Idea of Self-Determination
Self-determination still remains a vague and controversial term in both international legal scholarship and the political science literature. Attributed either a fairly negative or positive connotation, the concept, for this reason, suffers from analytical inadequacy in the academic discussions. Proponents, from either a moralistic or legalistic perspective, often tend to view it as an absolute and inherent right that particularly ethnic minorities can and should exercise. Opponents, on the other hand, are of the opinion that the notion, in fact, refers to a very ambiguous legal and political framework that it cannot serve as a basis for any nationalist or ethnic aspirations for full or partial independence, autonomy, or further recognition as a separate entity within a certain political sphere of authority. These two extreme approaches have so far been raised in both popular and academic debates in the case of the political rights of the Kurds, including the right to self-determination. A denialist rhetoric (which sometimes even amounts to the level of assimilationism) suggests that the Kurds may not become eligible, under international law, to have a separate state of their own, or that they should not be recognized certain political rights as a separate political group. A pro-Kurdish view, however, underlines that the Kurds, for the sake of being a political group (either minority, people or even a nation), have the inherent indispensable right regardless of the political hurdles emanating from the intricacy of the interstate relations or regional affairs. This study seeks to investigate how the notion of self-determination has been used or framed by pro-Kurdish groups in their political discourses. As part of a comparative analysis, the paper is focused on how three major Kurdish groups or political movements have employed a discourse of self-determination to achieve their political goals, and tries to identify the conditions under which different political claims have been made. I, for this purpose, analyze how pro-Barzani groups and entities (including himself, and the Kurdistan Regional Government in general), the pro-Öcalan groups (including the PKK, HDP and YPG), and the Kurdish Islamist groups view the idea of self-determination to shed light on their political vision. A pro-Kurdish agenda may be attentive to the attainment of one of the three political outcomes: an independent state, political autonomy as either a minority or a constituent of the state, or greater recognition of group rights. The study investigates which group exercised a discourse of self-determination for which political outcome and under what conditions.
Cenap Çakmak


Chapter 6. Islam and the Kurdish Peace Process in Turkey (2013–2015)
This chapter seeks to analyze the role of religion in the peace-building efforts in Turkey related to the so-called “Kurdish Opening” (2013–2015). It asks the question whether Islam has been a constituent of peace-building given its unique place in the Turkish polity, both paradoxically incorporated in the governance of a legally secular state through the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) and spanning a vast horizontal system of networks through numerous Islamic schools, civil society organizations, and various tariqas. Since the majority of the Turks and Kurds belong to the dominant Sunni Islam which has enjoyed unprecedented material and ideological support in the last decade by the governing Justice and Development Party, the chapter seeks to establish to what extent the Islamic leaders and actors have utilized their resources to diversify the top-down approach to the Kurdish–Turkish peace process and to bring the two divided communities closer together, while also reaching out to the smaller ethnoreligious groups. Drawing on original ethnographic research, the author argues that Islam was infrequently and selectively employed as a mobilizing force in the cause of peace, and its employment differed significantly between the Diyanet and the Kurdish Islamic actors. As for the minority religions, they saw little opportunity for participation in the peace process, even though they had certain expectations from it. The chapter contends that the peace process in Turkey needs to be pursued in a holistic way that goes beyond the solution of the “Kurdish issue” alone and guarantees equal rights and inclusive citizenship for all. While the “Kurdish Opening” remains central in efforts to bring stability and peace to the polarized society in Turkey, it also needs to address the problems of other minority groups.
Ina Merdjanova
Chapter 7. Ethnic Capital Across Borders and Regional Development: A Comparative Analysis of Kurds in Iraq and Turkey
This chapter analyzes how economic and trade relations among Kurds across borders are promoted via ethnic capital. Assimilation as a means toward an end of homogenization is assumed to minimize transaction costs that would otherwise be higher under multiethnic and multilinguistic social order. This is why homogenizing national outlook through assimilation has been the conventional governing mechanism of the nation-states in the twentieth century. However, scholars of ethnicity and migration have shown that how ethnic distinctiveness within the conceptual framework of ethnic capital can lead to better socioeconomic mobility among migrant communities. Although the role of ethnic capital among migrant communities have been studied extensively, the ways that how and when ethnic capital would function in a nonmigrant transnational setting—that is a geographical-cultural context within which a single ethnic group dominantly populates and cuts across national borders—have mostly been neglected. By taking the case of Kurdish identity in the Middle East, this article analyzes the role of ethnic capital among Kurds across borders in their trading and labor market activities. It is argued that as assimilation policies by the nation-states decline, opportunity spaces for the use of ethnic capital across borders increases with the outcome of regional economic development.
Serhun Al, Emel Elif Tugdar
Chapter 8. In Search of Futures: Uncertain Neoliberal Times, Speculations, and the Economic Crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan
In 2014–2016, during my fieldwork in Erbil, the city was filled with public speculation about schemes for economic prosperity and the birth of an independent Kurdistan. Liberalization and the opening of petroleum fields since 2005 brought new public–private, global–local partnerships through production-sharing agreements (PSAs) and volatile enterprise to Iraqi Kurdistan. Being in a transition period from a marginalized region within the old Iraq to a new autonomous region within a federal Iraq, the Kurdish government has seen its goal as promoting entrepreneurship at every level, supposedly to speed up the development of an economically self-sustainable polity in the north of Iraq. Economic expansion through international companies and their investments has been considered an essential condition for the establishment of an independent state. The most debated issue at that time was the question of when does Kurdistan become an independent state given the level of progress achieved after multinational oil companies like ExxonMobil have accepted KRG legitimacy through independent contracts, infuriating Iraq by crediting regional relations over federal power. Longstanding gossips for Kurdish independence gained impetus when an independence referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan was planned to be held in 2014 amidst controversy and dispute between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the federal government of Iraq. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the local, national time for long-awaited independence seemed to be coincided with the global capitalist time which has transformed the marginalized region into a new frontier for oil exploration, multimillion dollar construction contracts, and cheap imports from Turkey, Iran, and China. In this chapter, I explore the concrete experiences and social rhythms of time among the Kurds coming into conflict with the global capitalist time, which acts as a universal measure of value in labour, debt, and exchange in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Umut Kuruuzum
Chapter 9. The Stateless and Why Some Gain and Others not: The Case of Iranian Kurdistan
This chapter aims to develop a theory for the purpose of explaining variation in political gains among stateless nations. It is limited to a study on the Kurds in Iran, and seeks to explain their gains in the past, as well why they are lagging behind compared to their fellow Kurds in the Middle East. Three arguments are advanced. First, variation in political gains reflects the distribution of power or, alternatively, the balance of power between ethnic groups within a state. Second, the historical record shows that opportunities for political gains for the Kurds in Iran (and in neighboring countries) arise during circumstances when the balance of power between the Kurds and the ruling state is upset. These pertain, respectively, to external intervention by great powers; internal upheaval or revolution; and sustained guerilla warfare facilitated by rivalries between regional states. Third, the current (im)balance of power between the Kurds and the Iranian state account for their disadvantageous position compared to their fellow Kurds. In the absence of a shift in the balance of power in favor of the Kurds, this situation is likely to remain unchanged in the foreseeable future.
Idris Ahmedi
Comparative Kurdish Politics in the Middle East
Dr. Emel Elif Tugdar
Dr. Serhun Al
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