By: Nilay Özok Gündoğan
In the past decade or so, a new generation of scholars has expanded the field of Kurdish Studies. Challenging the hitherto marginalized position of Kurdish Studies in academia, these scholars have produced new work that offers new perspectives and sheds new light on many aspects of Kurdish society and politics in the modern era that have long remained unexplored. The growing significance of Kurds in the regional politics of the Middle East within the context of the Syrian War has further increased scholarly interest in the Kurds. Thanks to a young generation of scholars who completed their doctoral study in mostly North America and Europe, Kurdish Studies is finally finding its place in the Euro-American academia. Kurdish language courses are now offered alongside other Middle Eastern languages, and new academic positions, workshops, and conferences devoted specifically to Kurdish-related issues are on the upsurge, even if these changes are small in quantity. In North America, Kurdish Studies need more support from the universities as being the largest stateless group in the Middle East, Kurdish Studies lacks the steady flow of government funding that most other areas enjoy.[i] Regardless of the challenges that Kurdish Studies continues to face, the decades of work done by scholars in the field has made a perhaps unexpected impact on Turkish Studies. A field that had traditionally been closed to the study of non-Turkish groups (especially Kurds and Armenians) has now become more and more interested in the study of the Kurds.
While it has been a welcome development, Kurdish Studies’ slow but steady journey towards institutionalization and the increased contact with neighboring fields has also brought to fore several issues and opportunities for a self-reflective discussion within these fields, which have traditionally been averse to the study of minority groups, Turkish Studies, Iranian Studies, and Arab Studies, more specifically. Simply put, the budding interest in the study of Kurds in these fields could ultimately reproduce the age-old essentializing, dominating, and patronizing discourses towards Kurds, Kurdish Studies, and Kurdish Studies scholars. Hence, it is high time that this emerging conversation between Kurdish Studies and these more established fields also entails a self-reflective critique within these fields regarding their stance vis-à-vis Kurdish Studies at large.
Having worked on the history of Kurds and Kurdistan in the Ottoman Empire for over fifteen years, I continue to reflect on this vital concern in various ways. What has prompted me to pen this piece, however, are three Call for Papers (CfPs), each of which exemplifies some of these problematic attitudes towards Kurds and Kurdish Studies: marginalizing the field, reproducing essentializing discourses about Kurds as a monolithic analytical, historical, and sociological category reminiscent of long-lived Orientalist assumptions about the colonized peoples, or else, assuming the inferiority of Kurds as an ethnic group and Kurdish Studies as a scholarly field.
The first was a workshop convened in November 2018 at Utrecht University, the Netherlands; the second one was a conference organized by The Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (CAIS) at the Australian National University (ANU); and the last one is the Kurdish Studies Conference scheduled for June 2019 at the Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Program at Northwestern University’s Buffett Institute for Global Studies. These three events bring home the frustrations and perils of practicing Kurdish Studies within milieus stymied by explicit and implicit articulations of colonial Turkish, Arab, and Persian stances and paradigms.
CfPs: A Curious Genre
Call for Papers constitutes a curious genre. Typically, within a tight word count, facilitators must present a concise description of the conference. The conferences need to be framed broadly enough to attract participants yet specific enough to reflect the actual focus and the spirit of the event. Not an easy task. Beyond these practical constraints, however, CfPs can tell us a lot about the institutions, sponsors, and organizers—and their epistemological positions. Understanding them merely as technical tools leading towards the actual event would be underestimating their discursive power. While inviting people to present their work in a designated time and space, they also show how organizers define a problématique and frame the epistemic boundaries of the scholarly conversation on the said topic. As such, CFPs encourage scholars to see a problem from a defined angle and even tailor their perspective to fit the CfP.
When I came across Utrecht University’s workshop announcement on H-Announce a few months ago, I was puzzled—and not in a good way. The title of the workshop was “Mass Violence and the Kurds: From the Late Ottoman Empire to Modern Turkey.” Before reading the themes, participants, and presentations, I spent a few minutes reflecting on the title. What does “Mass Violence and the Kurds” mean? Are the Kurds victims of mass violence or are they the perpetrators? Or does the title refer to the Kurds’ approach to mass violence? I immediately put keywords in the Google search bar to see if I could find the equivalent of this in other groups that have been victims of mass violence in the modern era: “Armenians and Mass Violence.” Nothing came up. Google wanted me to remove the quotation marks. I tried “Jews and Mass Violence.” The only result that came up included “Genocide of Jews and Mass Violence,” which clearly refers to the Holocaust. Then, I thought, maybe the title refers to the Kurds as perpetrators within the context of the Armenian Genocide. If that is the case, maybe I can search for “Turks and Mass Violence.” Google responded: “No results found for ‘Turks and mass violence.’” I decided to give it one more attempt. Based on a more recent case, I tried “Serbs and Mass Violence,” Google’s response was the same: No results found. This, I thought, is getting more and more interesting. To what do the Kurds owe this honor of being the only group whose name was hastily linked to the concept of “mass violence” whereby they are featured in the title of an academic event (that left a digital imprint among the c.30 trillion google pages!) by virtue of this nebulous historical position attributed to them?
The second part of the title, which denotes the temporal scope of the conference, is no less worrisome: “From the Late Ottoman Empire to Modern Turkey.” With this title, not only are Kurdish history and agency reduced to the history of “mass violence,” but this identity also takes on a linear, even interminable character, from the late Ottoman era to the contemporary period. One of the sessions of the workshop, “Violence and the Kurds in Republican Turkey,” presented a more defined temporal focus but at the same time suggested an equally blurred proposition as to where the Kurds stand with respect to the topic of violence in Republican Turkey; one wonders whether as perpetrators, bystanders, or victims. It is perfectly possible for any ethnic group to have played all of these roles in moments of “mass violence.” The difficulty stems partly from the use of “mass violence” in such a broad way to refer to very diverse cases in different contexts in the said time period in a way that blurs their historical specificity. As such, the presentations included topics ranging from the 1895 massacres of the Armenians to village guards and even PKK defectors in the 1990s. Clearly, in the minds of the organizers, all of these cases presumably had something to do with “mass violence.” Why did the organizers subsume all of these cases, whose only commonality is being related to Kurds, under the concept of mass violence?
Not having participated in the workshop, I cannot speak to the actual content of the presentations or whether the participants problematized the concept of “mass violence” which defined the major theme of the workshop. The individual presentations may or may not have situated their works within a mass violence framework. Regardless of what is actually discussed at any conference, CfPs themselves become vehicles to circulate, and hence reproduce, dominating discourses about the Kurds to an audience even larger than the audience of the actual conference itself. In this case specifically, what I find problematic is the overriding view in the historical scholarship which almost intuitively reduces Kurdish history to episodes of violent encounters, however defined. The title of this CfP certainly reflects this dominant perspective. Understanding specific historical episodes of mass violence in the history of Kurds through a nuanced historical perspective is paramount. Only in this way can we debunk this problematic “Mass violence and Kurds” outlook which reduces the complex histories of the Kurds, as well as their neighboring ethnic groups, to either perpetrators or victims in an ongoing history of violence.
As I was still trying to wrap my head around the epistemological and ideological implications of that CfP title, I ran into yet another example of the Middle Eastern Studies’ approach to Kurds and Kurdish Studies in a different CfP. The dominant approach in the Middle East Studies is that Turks, Arabs, and Persians constitute the primary elements of the study of the Middle East, which excludes the Kurds (and other non-state groups) from the spatio-geographical category of the “Middle East.” Another recent conference entitled “Three Languages – Three Cultures: Narratives from the Middle East” organized by The Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (CAIS) at the Australian National University (ANU) in November 2018 further attests to this dilemma in the field. The CfP for this conference invites participants who have “an interest in the three Middle Eastern languages: Arabic, Persian and Turkish as well as their respective cultures.” “Others,” not just Kurds but also Armenians, Assyrians, Yezidis, and Romanis, to name a few, struggle to find space within the field of Middle Eastern Studies because of this explicit bias, which does not perceive non-state groups as equal components of the field, apparent in the hegemonic positioning of the nations of Arabs, Turks, and Persians, along with their cultures and languages, in a major academic conference. A painful irony arises in the conference description:
The term ‘Orient’ and the academic field ‘Oriental Studies’ pertaining to mainstream 19th and 20th-century Western academia have turned respectively into ‘Middle East’ and ‘Middle Eastern Studies’. The inherent orientalism in the naming of the region as the ‘east of the west’, situating it relative to Europe, has been increasingly questioned, particularly after the publication of Edward Said’s influential book Orientalism. Yet the region is mostly studied and referred to through the prism of the political and economic implications of regional developments, for outsiders, above all for the Western world. Similarly, topics like extremism, sectarianism, autocratic regimes endemic to the region, oil and energy security, rentierism and ethnic conflicts are abundant in the research on the Middle East. The multiplicity of cultures in the area has been easily stereotyped, mostly as an undesirable ‘other’, in the political and economic fields of research.” (emphasis mine)
I disagree with nothing in this description—Orientalist origins of the Middle East (as a field and as a geographical category), the political nature of naming, the dominant scholarly trends which reduce the study of the Middle East to its contemporary economic and political significance, etc. Alas, the last sentence of the cited paragraph is where the irony strikes: The CfP criticizes political and economic fields of research in Middle Eastern Studies for reducing the “multiplicity of cultures in an area” to an “undesirable ‘other’.” However, looking at how CFP defines the scope of their own conference (“Three Middle Eastern languages: Arabic, Persian and Turkish as well as their respective cultures”), one cannot help but notice the uncanny resemblance between the approach they criticize and what they offer as an alternative. The description of the conference reduces the complexity and diversity of the Middle Eastern cultures and languages into dominant Arab, Persian, and Turkish elements and in this way creates a discursive field in which all the other cultures and languages of the Middle East are rendered an “undesirable ‘other’.” The conference program further reinforces this view. The keynote speeches are designated as “Arabic” “Turkish” and “Persian” keynote speeches. There are two presentations related to Kurds and housed under the “Turkish Panel”: Scott Patton’s talk named “The intersection of identity: Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic, Persian, and their attempted synergy” and “House of Kurds in Turkey: The Use of Security Narrative in Contemporary Politics” by Tamas Dudlak).
While criticizing Orientalist and Middle Eastern Area Studies for their approach to the region and its peoples as homogenizing and essentializing the cultures of the region, Turkish, Arab, and Persian scholars treat non-state peoples and actors in the region in a similarly dominating and patronizing manner. This approach is nothing more than a reflection of the Arab, Persian, and Turkish Studies scholars’ belief that their fields constitute the primary fields in the study of the Middle East. This blatant exclusion of Kurds (and other stateless groups) from the conference reflects the dominant colonial stance of nation-state nationalisms towards minority groups in the region.
Likewise, attempts to “include” or open room for Kurdish Studies have the potential to wittingly or unwittingly create a scholarly context for similar dominating perspectives towards the field. The CfP of the Kurdish Studies Conference to be held in June 2019 at the Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Program at Northwestern University exemplifies this second type:
Inspired by postcolonial, indigenous, and critical race studies, there has been a growing interest among Kurdish Studies scholars on topics such as racialized citizenship, colonial state power, anti-colonial struggles, and the right to self-determination.
I read this first sentence of the CfP with great interest. Last year, I was one of the participants, and I left the conference energized and uplifted. In the short assessment that I penned in the aftermath of the conference, I emphasized the significance of this initiative, as I saw it as a “welcome opportunity to advance the field through productive, cross-disciplinary exchange among scholars from a variety of backgrounds.” In my mind, the conference was also important because it signified the willingness of a US-based Turkish-studies program to confront its own approach to Kurds and scholarship on the Kurds through interaction with the scholars of Kurdish Studies.
In the second sentence of the CfP, however, my enthusiasm vanished and left in its place disappointment and dismay:
However, Kurdish Studies as a field has not yet established a solid dialogue with these literatures. Nor has it fully benefitted from historical experiences around the world, which led to the development of these literatures in the first place.
In the original CfP, in place of “fully benefitted from” was “learned from,” which initially prompted me to write this piece in an effort to question the position that this CfP offers on Kurdish Studies. I then contacted the organizers of the conference, and they kindly and positively responded to my critique of the CfP by changing the wording to the way it appears above.[ii] Beyond this, they also invited me to submit an abstract to the conference to discuss the issues that I raise here. This change in wording notwithstanding, the epistemological position that the CfP offers still awaits critical self-reflection. Thus, I hope this piece is construed as a step toward a constructive conversation among Turkish and Kurdish Studies scholars.
Given the historically negative and dismissing stance of Turkish Studies towards Kurds and Kurdish-related issues, Keyman Turkish Studies’ attempt to open space for this hitherto marginalized field is a welcome effort. At the same time, it presents us with an opportunity to critically reflect on the historical evolutions of these two fields, their relationship to one another, and how this relationship continues to shape their stance vis-à-vis one another. But can these new efforts to put Kurdish and Turkish Studies scholars in the same room potentially create a space in which this historically unequal (colonial, if you will) relationship will be reproduced? How can we decolonize these spaces and turn them into milieus for productive exchange that both fields can “fully benefit from”? These questions, I hope, will be on the agenda of the conference and on the longer-term agenda of Turkish Studies at large. To encourage the kind of self-reflection I have in mind for Turkish Studies scholars, let us consider this question based solely on the CfP. For a second, let us imagine that this CfP was written by British scholars inviting Indian historians “to foster such a scholarly dialogue” before India became independent. Assume it was the British scholars criticizing South Asian scholars for “not having fully benefitted” from other colonized peoples’ experiences while at exactly the same time British military forces were leveling Indian cities and imprisoning their politicians. Imagine British scholars castigating South Asian Studies “as a field” for “not establishing a solid dialogue” with the “postcolonial, indigenous, and critical race studies.” Would we not expect the British scholars who penned this CfP to reveal a self-reflective stance on the colonial position of their field vis-à-vis South Asian Studies?
This CfP would benefit from a few revisions so that the conference from its outset can create a decolonized, equalized space for Kurdish Studies scholars. The most obvious issue in the CfP is the role expected from Kurdish Studies: instead of engaging in a scholarly exchange with the scholars working on the said fields, Kurdish Studies is expected to “benefit from” these experiences. Furthermore, the language in the same sentence creates the impression that a field other than Kurdish Studies (in this case it happens to be Turkish Studies) can gauge the extent of Kurdish Studies’ ability (or inability) to learn “fully” from other experiences. No matter how good-willed the effort itself is, the tone set in the CfP has the ability to create a space conducive to reproducing a hierarchical relationship between the Kurdish Studies scholars and their hosts in which case the Kurdish Studies scholars would be “showcasing” their ability to benefit from other cases or proving the breadth and depth of their work to actors who feel like they are in a position to assess their performance.
So the question is how can we stop this from happening? Are there ways that we can use this milieu as a space where Kurdish Studies scholars and Turkish Studies scholars exchange their work in an equal setting? What are the possibilities for creating a scholarly language free of the historically colonial relationship that defined the relationship of the two groups with one another? One way of doing that, I believe, is to invite Turkish Studies scholars to engage in a long-awaited self-reflective critique of their field’s stance towards the study of Kurds and other minority groups.
Can we safely assume that Turkish Studies—as a field at large—has fully benefitted from critiques provided by the postcolonial perspectives that question how the colonial relationship manifests itself in the realm of knowledge production? There are individual efforts and studies coming from Turkish scholars to that effect, but should we not expect a more systematic approach here? Is it not high time that we have conferences, edited volumes, or special journal issues in which Turkish Studies scholars reflect on the foundational epistemological assumptions of their field in an effort to create decolonized scholarly milieus and discourses? Or from a different angle, can Kurdish Studies benefit from scholarship on other colonized people in the absence of systematic efforts which explore, for example, the Turkish state’s policies in Kurdistan from the perspective of comparative colonialisms? It would also be useful if the CfP included some indication as to how this “dialogue” can potentially transform Turkish Studies. In other words, should we not be able to expect this invitation to acknowledge Kurdish Studies’ potential to help scholars of Turkish Studies confront the epistemological positioning of their own field?
As someone who works on Kurdish history, frankly, “victim” would be my last choice for describing the Kurdish situation in the past century. I would rather submit to the term “struggle” (but this is the topic of a separate op-ed). The approach reflected in this particular CfP could also be received as “victim-blaming” in the way it is formulated. One way of preventing that from happening would be to consider the evolution of Kurdish Studies and Turkish Studies in relation to one another. While inviting Kurdish scholars to this dialogue, the CfP would also gauge the willingness of Turkish Studies scholars to discuss the historical role of Turkish Studies in the marginalization of Kurdish Studies from within the larger discussions on Turkey and the Middle East. It is not a secret that while Turkish Studies developed with governmental and private funding in and outside of Turkey across generations, Kurdish Studies not only lacked any comparable support, but it was also banned in Turkish institutions. Not incorporating this context into our thinking on the Kurdish Studies would not only be ahistorical but also runs the risk of furthering the marginalized position Kurdish Studies in Middle Eastern Studies in North America, Europe, and elsewhere. If we approach it from a purely epistemological perspective, it is the Turkish Studies’ decades of denial of Kurdish identity and Kurdish related subjects that put the Kurdish Studies scholars in a position of feeling the need to “prove” that Kurds existed and are worthy of scholarly inquiry. This dynamic shaped the studies on Kurds for so long that it needs to be considered in the discussions on the current state of Kurdish Studies as a field of scholarly inquiry. I am not saying that Kurdish Studies scholars have defined their work solely in relation to Turkish Studies—this would be a similarly ahistorical argument. Nevertheless, one cannot underestimate the impact of the Turkish Studies long-lived Turkish-centeredness when it comes to the scholarship of the minority groups; Kurdish and Armenian Studies are equally relevant examples here.
In this context, defined by institutionalized marginalization, stereotypical and essentialist portrayals of Kurds in scholarly discussions still find fertile ground in Middle Eastern Studies at large. Ottoman, Turkish, Armenian, and Kurdish, yes even Kurdish scholars themselves, tend to reproduce these images (like the Mass Violence conference that I mentioned above). It is an undeniable fact that Kurdish Studies has grown in the past few decades. While small in number, new works on Kurdish history have shed new light on old questions and have uncovered the previously unearthed aspects of the history of Kurds and Kurdistan (which the CfP also recognizes). However, their revisionist approaches and new findings have not found their way into most scholarship outside of Kurdish Studies.[iii]
Given the current position of Kurdish Studies within the larger body of Middle Eastern scholarship, then, the meager milieus in which the Kurdish Studies scholars find an opportunity to share their research should be encouraged, supported, and expanded. At the same time, these milieus in which Kurdish Studies scholars find a voice cannot turn into mechanisms for reproducing the domination of the field by the Turkish Studies’ patronizing and hegemonic attitudes that potentially silence their voices and suppress alternative imaginations. CfPs are important, particularly for this reason. They have the power to set the epistemological stance of an academic meeting. The ways in which one frames a scholarly problematique in such an invitation are critical in defining the tone of the exchange that takes place in that space and the subsequent scholarly discourse that comes out of that exchange.
As a scholar whose work stands at the intersection of Kurdish and Ottoman Studies, I would like to extend my call to Turkish Studies’ scholars at large to organize a workshop or conference in which they would take it upon themselves to question and confront their field’s approach to Kurdish Studies in a self-reflective way. Recognizing historical responsibility while also seeking ways to create a milieu free of the historically hierarchical relationship with the scholars working on Kurds and other minority groups, I would suggest, should be the priority in this endeavor.
[ii] For the other two conferences that I discuss here, I did not contact the organizers to convey my critique. Only after seeing the CfP for the Keyman conference the pattern became more noticeable and caught my attention and I felt the need to contact them.
[iii] For Kurdish Studies, there is also the question of how we can build our field as an independent field within area studies and challenge the problems of the area studies paradigm itself in terms of its propensity to reify these ethnic and national identities. In other words, how can we open up space for the scholarship on Kurds and Kurdistan within Middle Eastern Studies while acknowledging and problematizing the limitations of area studies perspectives at large? From an epistemological perspective, this can be possible with more conceptually—and theoretically—informed, and globally situated critical knowledge production.