Thomas Schmidinger: On Kurdish Nationalism Post-Lausanne

Interviewed by KCS Editorial Board

The following is an exclusive interview with professor Thomas Schmidinger following his presentation during a two day international conference on the centenary of the Lausanne Treaty held in Hasaka, Rojava (Northeastern Syria). The international conference was organized by The Rojava Center for Strategic Studies and held on the 7th-8th of July. Professor Schmidinger is a Political Scientist and Cultural Anthropologist based at the University of Vienna. He is the Secretary General of the Austrian Association for Kurdish studies. His research topics range from the Kurdish region to Jihadism and Migration. His research in Kurdistan began when he was still a student in 1999, when he visited Rojava for the first time. He is the author of Rojava: Revolution, War and the Future of Syria’s Kurds (Pluto, 2018), which received the Mezlum Bagok award as well as The Battle for the Mountain of the Kurds: Self-Determination and Ethnic Cleansing in Rojava (PM Press, 2019). The interview has been edited by KCS for flow and legibility. 

KCS: In your speech you speak of the ways in which the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi regimes suppressed the Kurds who were either seen as dangerous and dissenting elements, or their very existence denied as in the case of Turkey following the establishment of the Treaty of Lausanne. What in your opinion are some of the geopolitical mistakes made by the Kurds at the time that prevented them from gaining self-determination?

First of all, partly as a result of the tribal nature of the Kurdish society but also as a result of the geography there was never something like ‘Kurdish unity’. So even at the period when the Kurds had more political freedom, until mid-19th century, where there were Kurdish emirates in both the Ottoman Empire and the Persian Empire, there was never political unity of the Kurds. So there were a lot of regional and tribal differences and most of the Kurds only had a very regional perspective. So for example, the Kurds from the Baban region did not want to cooperate with the Kurds in the Bahdinan region, or the Kurds from the cezire Botan did not cooperate with Kurds from the Soran Emirates and so on. And this continued even after the demolishment of the emirates. So even in the period after WWI, when the new order of states was created in the Middle East there was actually a chance to regain at least some autonomy for the Kurds, but at least in part of the Kurdish territories. The situation was especially good in what is today, Iraqi Kurdistan, in Basur for the Kurds to gain at least some autonomy. The problem was even in this part of Kurdistan that is now Basur, the Kurds never found a common political platform. For example, when Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji, the national leader of the Kurds from Sulaimani, tried to create his kingdom of Kurdistan, the Kurds from Kirkuk from Rawanduz, or the Kurds in Bahdinan did not support it. And the other way round, the big Jaff tribes, fought on the side of the British against Mahmoud Barzanji. The British colonial administration, or protectorate administration of Iraq, saw that all the Kurdish tribes in the Kurdish regions were following their own very particular interests. This was definitely one of the main reasons the Kurds of Basur did not gain any autonomy from the British. And now I am only talking about Basur and not the Greater Kurdistan.

The second thing was that during this period, most of the Kurds, but not all of them, were Sunni Muslims. Especially after the abolishment of the Emirates, also Sufi tariqas became very important as political factions, especially the Naqshbandi tariqas. The Naqshabandis were very loyal to the Ottoman Empire, and in this period between the end of WWI and Lausanne, Mustafa Kamal used this loyalty of the Sunni Muslim Kurds towards the Ottoman Empire to mobilize them against the western powers and for his political movements; of course many of these Kurds didn’t think that at the end of this would be a Turkish nation state because they were promised things like the brotherhood of Kurds and Turks and things like that and that it would be a Kurdish-Turkish state. Mustafa Kamal even tried to use the Kurds in Basur to integrate the Mosul Vilayet into Turkey, which failed because of course there were Kurds who were also pro-British. So this disunity and the belief of many of the conservative Kurds that the political movement of Mustafa Kamal is to re-establish the caliphate and not to establish the Turkish nation-state helped to divide the Kurds in the region and no European power, neither the Britain nor France, saw any change to establish a Kurdish nation state. And to be honest, I think even today, if all the states were to withdraw from the Kurdistan region, it would be a big struggle between different Kurdish political groups what kind of Kurdistan would emerge, you know. Just think back to the 1990s when the first autonomous region was established in Iraq, what happened was that very soon after the withdraw of the Iraqi army a civil war between the two leading parties started. So this problem with disunity exists to a certain degree until today.

KCS: The Treaty of Lausanne separated the Kurds from each other geographically through colonial and artificial borders and suddenly an entirely new system of governance and co-existence from the previous Ottoman era was established which was for the most part foreign. You outline how the Kurds received various forms of oppressive and assimilative policies by the regimes that now dominated them. Why has this mutual experience of suppression by the various regime not formulated a more coherent and united form of Kurdish unity for the political parties across the states?

Because first of all, the oppression was very selective and different in different parts of Kurdistan. So the states always tried, especially Turkey and in Iraq- the situation was different in Syria- the Kurds were smaller and geographically more divided groups so the Syrian regime never saw the Kurds as a serious threat. But in Turkey and in Iraq they were seen as a serious threat for the national unity. So they did not only oppress the Kurds, but also used this internal division I mentioned already to strengthen and increase the divisions and to use the Kurds against Kurds. For instance, I mentioned in my speech there were more Kurdish Jash, the collaborators of the Iraqi Ba’ath regime then there were Kurdish Peshmerga fighting the Iraqi Ba’ath regime. In Turkey we have the system of the village guards and when you see the election results in southeastern Anatolia, although these are not completely democratic elections as we know, there are still a lot of Kurds voting for the AKP who join the government, who are yes religiously conservative and prefer to have Erdogan than HDP or Yeşil Sol Parti, as is now called. So the particularistic interests of the Kurds is more important than a big vision of the liberation of the Kurdish nation. So, it was more important, especially in Iraq where tribalism was stronger than in Turkey; in Iraq it was more important how to fight your rival tribe than the regime. So if the Barzan tribe is against the regime then the Zebaris are for the regime because they have a long conflict with them. And in Turkey, it’s not that much different, between the tribes there is still a lot of political and religious divisions. Keeping in mind that today HDP is not anti-religious at all, but in the 1980’s when the PKK were established as a Marxist-Leninist organization many religious Kurds were against the PKK just because they thought they were against Islam. So conservative Kurds were rather joining, even Kurdish Islamist movements like Hezbollahi Kurdi for example, there were a lot of potential divisions. And the state used these divisions to divide and rule and this worked well for one hundred years and still works well to make it difficult across the border here for example, between Basur and Rojava.

Yes, there was oppression, but the oppression was very rarely against all Kurds and they used Kurdish groups within Kurdish society that profited in helping the regime against other parts of society. But historically it is very complicated and you cannot just say that they were traitors because they often switched sides. For example the uprising in Iraq in 1991would have never been successful if the Jash did not change sides and went to the side of the uprising against Saddam. They played a very crucial role in that and it’s also why they were re-integrated into the political system after 1991.

KCS: Why do you think that Turkey’s treatment of its Kurdish population has differed so much from that of the other regimes under which the Kurds resided? How successful has this approach been in assimilating the Kurds into the ‘Turkish nation’?

First of all, the Turkish nation was much more precarious than the Arab nations. The Arabs didn’t have an identity issue. It was clear that I am an Arab, I speak the language of the Quran, the language of Islam, although I didn’t have an Arab empire for many centuries, I am proud of being an Arab. For Turkey this was completely different. This was the left-over of a huge empire, where many of the people didn’t even speak Turkish and didn’t consider themselves as Turks. So Mustafa Kamal wanted to create a new nation from very disparate and different parts of the left-over of an empire. Plus this empire had a history of shrinking because every decade or so some parts of the empire created a new nation state and left. So the impression of Mustafa Kamal was that any diversity already had the potential of separatism. So if I allow in my nation state for people to speak a different language they will in the future seek to create their own nation-state. So if I want to keep the territorial integrity of the Turkish state I have to make all the people who live here Turkish. And it actually worked for many people for the smaller minorities, for the muhajireen who came from Russia and the Balkans they became Turks. And if you ask about today’s Turks about the language their grandfather or great grandmother spoke many will tell you that they were Slavs or Albanian or Crimean Tartars or Chechens or circassians. They became Turks. The only ones who did not really became Turks were the Kurds and this made them the enemy of the nation-building project. However, for many Kurds the assimilation policies has sadly worked. Today at least in the cities of Bakur, the Kurdish language is not very present and there are people who consider themselves as Kurds who don’t or cannot speak Kurdish in their daily life or speak it well enough to use it as a written language for example. I don’t know any numbers, and I don’t know if anyone has done any research on this- it would be very difficult to do this; but I estimate that at least half of the Kurdish descendants in Turkey do not speak Kurdish anymore. So it has partly worked, the oppression, but only partly because even many of the Kurds who do not speak Kurdish anymore, thanks to the political movements, consider themselves as Kurdish. But culturally they are alienated especially from the language and I don’t know how, I mean at the end of the day the language is the main difference between Kurds and Turks so if your Kurdishness means only to vote for HDP the question is how long this will extend. So in Turkey it’s definitely the strongest assimilation of the Kurds across the four parts of Kurdistan.

KCS: The Kurds in northern Iraq (Basur) are widely seen as the most successful of the four regions in gaining autonomy and a semblance of self-determination. Do you think that this is accurate?

Well, formally and politically it is because they are the only region that is recognized by the states they are within. There is also the de-facto autonomy of the region here in the Syrian Kurdistan but the Syrian regime in Damascus does not recognize it. In Iraq, and also in the Arab sections of Iraq and Najaf, Baghdad, Mosul whatever, you hardly find any Arab in Iraq who does not accept some kind of autonomy for the Kurds. It is clear that this autonomy will last. It is not clear what the borders of the autonomy are. So the Kurds would like Kirkuk for example, most Arabs will say no and most of the Turkmans would say no. It is not clear to what extent the rights of this autonomous region should be. So most of the people in federal Iraq would say that Iraq should at least control its borders because at the moment the autonomous region is completely de-facto independent.

But if you look deeper into the political structure and the problems in the region, there are a lot of problems. Of course, we can see that that the region is doing better than the region here (Rojava). That’s clear, but actually it is de-facto two different regions. Everybody knows when we talk about the Yellow Zone and the Green Zone, what we are talking about. There is a zone that is controlled by PUK and there is a zone that is controlled by KDP. And there are a lot of differences between the two zones, there are even people who are not allowed to go to the other side who are exiled from one region to the other. So they are de-facto two different autonomous regions. They formally still have a common government and especially in the last year the relationship between the two parties became worse and a big problem is that since 1991 the autonomous region is not governed by institutions but by party agreements, so its PUK-KDP who agree about something and not the Kurdistan parliament who issues a law. So there is the Peshmerga of the PUK and the Peshmerga of the KDP and the Assayish of the PUK and Assayish of the KDP. So they don’t have a common structure as in an autonomous region and this weakens them a lot; and something as well that I mentioned in my speech that both of them have strong relations to different states. So the PUK has strong relations with Iran and the KDP has strong economic relations also with Turkey. They both depend economically on Turkey, which of course decreases also the conflict between the Kurdish parties. So, although yes, they are more institutionalized and recognized than the entity here (Rojava), and they are economically richer, but they are still governed by two parties and their militias. And these two parties are led by two families so we are still far away from an institutionalized democratic autonomous region with fixed borders. There are still disputed territories, where the KRG wants to control them but the Iraqi state does not recognize it. So there is still a lot of very open questions.

KCS: In your speech you mention the class structured nature of Kurdish society and that the feudal struggle over land ownership impacted Kurdish nationalist aspirations negatively. Can you elaborate on this further?

Yes, this is also something especially so in Iraq and also relevant for here in Syria but in 1958 the monarchy in Iraq was overthrown, by Abdul Karim Qasim. The issue of land reforms was since then an important issue for Iraqi politics, not just for Kurdish politics but for all Iraq. The Aghas owned most of the land, and the people were in a feudal relationship with the Aghas. And the plans for land reforms played some role for the uprising of Mala Mustafa who was an Agha and was against land reforms. On the other side, many Kurds were organised in left wing political parties for example in Iraq. The Iraqi Communist Party and also here the Syrian Communist Party before the Kurdish parties were established. So these left wing Kurds were against the Aghas and they wanted to have a social revolution and land reforms. So within the Kurdish political scene and the Kurdish political parties that were emerging it was always a question of should we first make a social revolution, take this land away from the Aghas and maybe even support the state in doing that; or should we make an alliance with the Aghas against the state to liberate the Kurdish nation. So what is first? Social revolution or national revolution. So should we ally with our feudal lords against the state or should we ally with the state against our feudal lords in order to enforce land reforms? Because both Arab regimes then, Iraqi and the Syrian regimes, had some kind of a very nationalist and also some socialist leanings. So they had different approach towards land, and the land reforms were partly also used of course to take Kurdish lands away and given to Arabs. But not only that, but also poorer Kurds gained lands that was taken away from the Arabs. So this was a very dividing line within Kurdish politics. And the question was yes, at the end of the day, as simple as that should we ally with our landlords against the states and create a Kurdish state first or should we maybe even work against our Aghas to redistribute the land and then later on take on the national issue.

KCS: You mention how the tribal nature of the Kurds in Iraq contributed to further division and inter-ethnic conflict. We often hear this narrative about the Kurdish culture and society. However, has there been any positives in which the tribal nature of Kurdish society has actually protected Kurdish identity?

Definitely, I am not completely anti tribe, you know. I am just trying to analyze the structure. I think the tribes played an important role in the preservation of Kurdish culture and their ability to resist totalitarian regimes also. Tribes are always ambiguous. On one side you cannot make a state with tribes. That means that you cannot make the Kurdish nation state, right? But it also means that you cannot completely control a tribal group if you are an oppressive state like Iraq or Syria, or you know, Turkey. Tribes definitely have an aspect of resilience because they are an alternative form of solidarity. Not a solidarity between equals because there is the Sheikh, there is the Agha and other people, but it’s still a very strong and a very reliable form of solidarity because you will not betray your relatives, you know? And especially if you want to create a totalitarian state, like we had here with the two Arab states with the Ba’ath parties, the Ba’athist party was definitely a totalitarian party with a strong aspect of an illogical fascism. Then such tribes can be helpful to survive for individuals but also for cultural groups and reserve your traditions and your languages. I don’t think the tribes are necessarily a bad thing. They are just a form of organization or a form of organizing people who don’t have a state.

I am also not a fan of states. States can be very oppressive. I don’t think the state is the last or the wisest thing man-kind develops you know? The interesting thing is if I may discuss in the end is a utopian idea. The interesting thing is how we may democratize these tribes. How could we organize society in a way with no, or a weak state, but a strong society that is more equal than the traditional tribal society. More equal between men and women, as women do not play an important role in tribes. More equal also between different social classes, you know? Just a personal note, I mean I am a political scientist and social anthropologist but because I have also my political opinions and when I was young the first group I organised was a small anarchist group and am not a friend of the state as such. But the question is, are there better alternatives than the state? Yes, there are, but there are also worse alternatives to the state. A dysfunctional state where there is only a monopoly of violence and where the guys who have more guns win is also not a good alternative. So this is a debate. I am not worshiping the state. The relationship between organized people, in a non-state way such as tribes and the state and is something that requires more discussion and needs more social anthropologists and political scientists to discuss this for a long time. So, not I don’t necessarily think that the tribes are always bad.

KCS: Finally, this month marks the centenary of the Lausanne Treaty. We’ve seen in Kurdish regions of Northern Syria (Rojava) a new model of autonomy and ethno-religious self-representation emerge which is radically different from the previous nationalist goals of the Kurdish parties. How do you envision that this new, alternative model will impact the post-Lausanne nation-state model in the region?

This model is definitely is one example for such an alternative model that is not a state, but still a way to organize society. In theory I like most aspect of this model. However, I know the region too well to be one of these left wing enthusiasts that think this is a revolutionary paradise, you know? So I see that in practice the idea of democratic confederalism, how Abdullah Ocalan writes about it is of course not completely implemented here. Why? Because it is a very difficult environment and it is a very idealistic approach. And so I see some progress here definitely and one of the most impressive progress here is that this system recognizes different ethnic and religious groups. That you even see on the license plate of cars, three languages and the three alphabets. The Latin based Kurmanci, the Aramaic alphabet and the Syriac alphabet as well. This is something that is very unique for the region, and the whole of the Middle East. I also think that the system in practice encouraged women to struggle for their own rights but it did not immediately change the whole society which is logical because patriarchal families continue to be patriarchal families even if the new government says please treat it all differently. So these things need a long time. However, I also see a lot of shortcomings in the reality here. Especially when it comes to democracy and the human rights of the opponents of the system. Let’s say it like this, if you are a supporter of the ENKS you can live here but there might be a group of people burning down your party office you know? So this is definitely at least, not yet a democratic paradise. But I think the idea would be definitely an idea that is worthy of discussion. Plus even the reality here is much better than the reality in any part of Syria so we cannot only compare the reality only to the ideal idea but we also have to compare it to other realities in Syria. And when you compare the northeastern Syria with the regime Syria or Turkish occupied territories then every person will agree that this territory has much more freedom and more democracy than any other part of Syria. But it still needs some development.


  • KCS Editorial Board

    The KCS Editorial Board consists of a number of international editors located globally who blind review and read articles as they are submitted. The Board involves individuals with a PhD or Master's level of education relating to the Kurdish issue, political theory, economics, conflict theory, democracy, state and nation building amongst other disciplines. At times the board will co-publish articles in order to protect the privacy of contributors or if a topic is of extreme importance and requires urgent attention. Feel free to submit proposals or articles to the Board at [email protected].

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