INTERVIEW: Cuma Çiçek on national, religious and economic fissures among Turkey’s Kurds

INTERVIEW: Cuma Çiçek on national, religious and economic fissures among Turkey’s Kurds

William Armstrong -
INTERVIEW: Cuma Çiçek on national, religious and economic fissures among Turkey’s Kurds

Activists gather in the troubled Sur district of Diyarbakır on International Women's Day, March 8. AFP photo

Kurdish politics in Turkey and elsewhere is a notoriously complicated acronym soup of allied and competing groups. “The Kurds of Turkey: National, Religious and Economic Identities” by Cuma Çiçek charts a course through this bewildering landscape, complicating simple, homogenous ideas of “the Kurds.” 

The book is released at a particularly uncertain time, after the collapse of the peace process between Turkey and the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in summer 2015, with Kurdish issue-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leaders now arrested, MPs in jail, and local administrations replaced by appointees from Ankara across the southeast. 

Çiçek spoke to the Hürriyet Daily News about the book (reviewed in HDN here), contemporary Kurdish politics in Turkey, and implications for next month’s referendum on shifting to an executive presidential system.

The book focuses on economic, religious, and national divides among Kurds in Turkey. Outline these divides and how your research explored them.

When I analyzed the main conflicts and negotiations between Kurdish groups, I saw that there were many different groups. I classified them into three basic blocs: The Kurdish national bloc, the religious bloc containing Alevi Kurds and Sunni Muslim Kurds, and the economic elite bloc. When I say the Kurdish national group I'm mainly referring to the groups that frame the Kurdish issue as a national liberation issue, with a left-wing and secular heritage. Today the HDP and the Democratic Regions Party [DBP] constitute the leading national groups, along with several other smaller groups. 

There are also some groups that have a position in the political sphere in accordance with their Sunni Muslim or Alevi religious identity. And there are also economic elites, which are not homogeneous and contain several different groups. These economic elites mostly concentrate on the socio-political aspect of the Kurdish issue and have to have a good relation with the central state because of the Kurdish region's dependent economy.

How does that divide between the secular left-wing nature of the main Kurdish nationalist movement limit its appeal among traditional religiously conservative Kurds?

Looking at the historical background of the main Kurdish movement, it can't be reduced to just a national movement. It's also left-wing political movement. In the 1980s and 90s it was basically a socialist movement and the socialist idea was one of the main motivations of most actors in it. It also has a highly secular heritage. Indeed, until the 1990s its relationship with Sunni Muslim political groups was very limited. But after the 1990s it started to revise this and it tried to build an alternative Sunni Islam. [Jailed PKK leader Abdullah] Öcalan started to talk about "revolutionary Islam." But religion was really just used an instrument to enlarge Kurdish nationalist mobilization. After 2002, when the [Justice and Development Party] AK Party came to power, the Kurdish movement faced a real challenge: A pro-Islamist and liberal AK Party. 

Looking at the current situation, there has been a remarkable revision regarding Islam. The HDP was also a part of this project, building a multi-actor movement that also contained Islamic or Sunni Muslim mobilization. But in the end the relationship between the Kurdish movement and Islam is still problematic. The national movement hasn't moved passed an instrumentalist and sporadic perspective about religion, so the conflict between Islam and the left-wing Kurdish political mobilization is still ongoing.

Another crucial divide is the split between the economically left-wing stance of the national movement and the Kurdish economic elite. Could you go into a bit of detail about that?

The Kurdish region is the most underdeveloped region in Turkey. This situation provoked some important results. The first is that after the 1980s the Kurdish movement was overwhelmingly left-wing; the socio-economic condition of the southeast prompted the emergence of a left-wing movement based on lower and middle-class Kurdish society. 

The Kurdish economic elites, meanwhile, are mostly weak actors because of the region's poor socio-economic condition. In the Kurdish region the state-based economy plays a big role, and if you want to become an economic player and increase your financial or institutional capacity you need to have a good relationship with the government. Also, in contrast with the left-wing national movement, the economic elite has a liberal perspective and wants to integrate into the global market.

So there is a big normative division. When you ask about the main aspect of the Kurdish issue they underline different things. For the Kurdish movement the identity issue is most important, but for the economic elite it is not just an identity issue - it is about the underdevelopment of the Kurdish region, which they want to integrate into the global economy with the cooperation of the central state.

What about the question of tribal influence? How are traditional tribal ties still important in the southeast? And does this have a significant political effect?

I didn't focus on the tribal issue because I carried out the research in other areas. I don't think the tribal issue is so important in the construction of the Kurdish political sphere, mainly because most of the Kurdish population today - over 70 percent - lives in urban areas. The tribal issue does not have a huge influence because Kurdish politics has become mostly urbanized and the Kurdish population is largely based in metropolitan cities like Diyarbakır, Mardin or Van.   

But the tribal issue may be important for several other reasons. One of the most important social bases of Kurdish pro-Islamism is the tribe-based relationship. Looking at the historical background of Kurdish Islamism, the "tarikats" [religious orders] are one of the social bases where Kurdish Islamist groups have organized. 

A second issue relates to security: In rural areas there is ongoing conflict between the PKK and the central state and in rural areas tribal relations are still very important in constructing the conflict. That is particularly true in terms of the local "village guards" employed by the state against the PKK. You can't consider the question of village guards without considering the tribal issue. There are around 10,000 armed PKK militants but there are over 60,000 village guards. 

The HDP gained more support by transcending the traditional Kurdish national limit and appealing to Turkish leftists as well as conservative Kurds. However, its progress was halted after the end of the peace process and it is now under immense pressure, with its leaders and many MPs jailed and local administrations overthrown. Could you talk about that trajectory? 

Many Kurdish nationalists think the HDP is a left-wing project working against Kurdish national liberation. But I don't think that is right. I define the HDP project as two parallel processes: On the one hand the leading Kurdish movement tried to build a "Kurdistanization" process, trying to build an autonomous political sphere in the Kurdish region. But at the same time they tried to build a left-wing political movement across Turkey that included Kurds, socialists, feminists and democratic Sunni Muslims. In one article I have conceptualized this as a process of "Turkey-fication" and "Kurdistan-ization." In the June 2015 parliamentary election the HDP achieved these two aims: At the national level it passed the 10 percent electoral threshold and won over 13 percent of the vote. In the Kurdish region, it was to top party in 12 provinces and an important party in 11 provinces behind the AKP. So it enlarged and deepened its hegemony in the Kurdish region while also becoming a remarkable opposition movement at the national level.

Also, alongside the leading Kurdish movement there is a process of a “second Kurdish social imaginary” in the southeast: A conservative, pro-Islamist notion of Kurdishness is ongoing in the region. Kurds who support the AKP also talk about Kurdish self-government and Kurdish identity and education in their mother tongue. 

We should also note the trans-border dynamics and the geopolitical aspect. In Syria and Iraq there are processes of de facto Kurdish self-rule. This directly influences all Kurdish political groups in Turkey, including Kurdish nationalists and pro-Islamist Kurds. There is indeed a big political crisis in the southeast today with the replacement of elected officials by appointees during the state of emergency. Among ordinary people, emergency rule has increased the emotion and sensitiveness of the Kurdish issue. 

Conservative Kurdish voters returning to the AKP were crucial in bringing it back to power in the November 2015 election. Polls are obviously quite unreliable but I read somewhere that around 25 percent of Turkish Kurds are planning to vote “yes” in the upcoming referendum on the presidential system. What role do you think Kurds will play in the referendum? How will the Turkish nationalist alliance between the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party [MHP] affect their decision-making? 

The urban conflicts since the collapse of the peace process have decreased the importance of politics in most of Kurdish society. Ordinary people have many questions about the role of politics in solving the Kurdish issue. The clashes have damaged their hope in politics and in the reliability of politics. Most people believed in the leading Kurdish movement and supported the HDP. But conflict started again in the southeast just a few weeks after it passed the threshold and entered parliament. So people are now questioning why they should even vote in the referendum on constitutional changes; they don't believe politics can play a critical role. 

What’s more, over 500,000 people have been forced to leave their homes since clashes restarted. Thousands of people have been killed. People saw that the AK Party government also has a role in this destructive process. So overall trust in politics in the Kurdish region is very low and I think most people won't participate in the referendum. The fact that over 500,000 people left their homes means that many won't even be able to participate because they do not have a legal address anymore. 

Another important factor is the coalition between the AK Party and the MHP. In the Kurdish region this coalition has a clear negative effect on people. If you want to solve the Kurdish issue politically you need to move beyond ideas that frame the issue primarily as a security threat. So this coalition is also having a negative effect among Kurdish people and it will influence many people to not vote in favor of the AK Party. Among the Kurdish supporters of the AK Party there is not even a visible campaign in the Kurdish region. The current AK Party-MHP coalition and the recent clashes have made it difficult to organize a pro-government campaign in much of Kurdish society. 

But the same is true for the HDP. Many people criticize the HDP for not doing enough to prevent the urban conflict and they don’t trust it anymore because of this urban conflict. The current institutional capacity of the HDP is also very weak because of the state of emergency: Many MPs have been put in jail, many municipalities have been taken under state control, and many political activists have been detained, jailed, or left the country. So in the Kurdish region we see there's not the right kind of atmosphere for a campaign, and I think participation will be very low. Both the AK Party and the HDP have lost support amid a broader decline of trust in politics. 

* Follow the Turkey Book Talk podcast via TwitteriTunesStitcherPodbeanAcast, or Facebook.