There are roughly 20-25 million Kurds across the Middle East, almost half of whom live in southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northern Syria and northwestern Iran, a region that some Kurds refer to as Kurdistan. Kurds make up around 18% of Turkey’s population; Turkey’s largest Kurdish population lives in Istanbul (2 million). The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim, with Alevi Shi’a Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Yezidi communities. Religious divergences as well as varying political viewpoints account for a wide variety of Kurdish perspectives vis-à-vis the state, though political discourse is dominated by the Kurdish nationalist PKK. As with other minority struggles, conversations about Kurdish rights are often dominated by ultranationalist Kemalist voices reacting to Kurdish nationalist demands.
An independent Kurdish nationalist movement emerged in the 1830s in response to Tanzimat Reforms. In 1925, the new secular state crushed a rebellion in eastern Turkey led by Sufi sheikhs with strong Kurdish nationalist implications, which set the tone for state relations with Kurds across Turkey. Like other Turkish minorities, Kurds were subjected to Turkification policies under early nationalist regimes. A unique Kurdish ethnic identity was discouraged or officially prohibited by the Turkish state until the 1990s, which included banning Kurdish publications, radio and television programs, and Kurdish-language devotional activities, as well as various forms of political and economic repression. Following decades of repression, the Kurdish separatist movement was revived in the 1970s, the PKK emerged in 1978, and swiftly all other views were marginalized, alienating large segments of the Kurdish population. On account of violent acts committed by the PKK against the Turkish military and security forces, any support for Kurdish rights was framed as a form a criminal sympathy. With decades of immense suffering now past, many Kurds feel that violence is an ineffectual means of achieving rights and it is common to see political engagement and are supportive of Turkish democracy.
While the PKK offered a radical leftist perspective, Islamic Kurdish groups also emerged in the 1980s, including Hizbullah (unrelated to the Shi’a Hizbullah of Lebanon). Hizbullah launched attacks against the PKK during the 1980s, accusing it of divisiveness, secularism, and for murdering Muslims, for which it was supported by the Turkish government. The Hizbullah lost favor in the 1990s after kidnapping and executing individuals in the Southeast, and has since reorganized as an Islamic social services organization. Its interpretation of Islam has limited appeal for its vilification of Sufism. The Gülen Movement has perhaps made the largest impact on the Kurdish nationalist discourse, which has absorbed the movement’s emphasis on nonviolence. Kurdish youth who attend the movement’s schools, which they do in large number, are unlikely to join the PKK, and police reports cite a drop in PKK violence anywhere that a Gülen-inspired school opens. As such, Gülen-inspired schools have been targeted by the PKK.
Mustafa Gürbüz, “Revitalization of Kurdish Islamic Sphere and Revival of Hizbullah in Turkey,” Understanding Turkey’s Kurdish Question, eds. Fevzi Bilgin and Ali Sarihan (New York: Lexington Books, 2013), pp. 167-178.
Doğan Koҫ, “The Hizment Movement and the Kurdish Question,” Understanding Turkey’s Kurdish Question, eds. Fevzi Bilgin and Ali Sarihan (New York: Lexington Books, 2013), pp. 179-194.
Neophytos G. Loizides, “State Ideology and the Kurds in Turkey,” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4 (2010), pp. 513-527.