الرئيسية » English Articles » An apercu general of Kurdish nationalism till the end of the First War World

An apercu general of Kurdish nationalism till the end of the First War World

By: Dr. Nouri Talabany

Howar Talabany (*)

The end of World War I was the signal for the effective beginning of the great upsurge of nationalism, which reached its fruition after 1945.1 While Turkish and Arabic nationalisms were gaining a stronghold amongst the people, and establishing independent nation-states to determine their destiny, another minority within the Ottoman Empire was gradually and passionately emerging the awakening of the Kurds. Kurdish nationalism faced many obstacles; the Kurds were initially distributed between the Ottoman and Qajar empires, later divided between the newly established nation-states of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. The period of Kurdish nationalism provided a number of key figures who shaped the nation’s history; Sheikh Ubayd Allah Nehri (1880) and later Sheikh Said Piran (1925) who were prominent religious leaders who led nationalist rebellions; Sheikh Mahmud Hafid, another religious figure established an autonomous region in the 1920s in southern Kurdistan; and finally the short-lived Republic of Mahabad which was established by Qazi Muhammad in 1946.

Background to Kurdish Religion.

Religion plays a predominate role in Kurdish society. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but there are a number of minorities, some rooting from Islam such as the Alevis and Ahl i Haqq, while others include Christians, Jews and the pagan Yezidis that stem from Zoroastrism. It is believed that the majority of ‘ancient’ Kurds followed the Yezidi faith. However at the time of nationalist revival Sunni Islam had established itself amongst nearly two thirds of the population. The Kurdish concept of Islam derives from Sufism and many are affiliated with a tariqat led by sheikhs who are the spiritual guides of their disciples. By the nineteenth century the fall of the secularized Kurdish emirates of Baban and Badr Khan ensured that religious sheikhs remained the only source of power in the Kurdistan. Kurdish society was dominated by religious leaders, particularly the Qadiri and Naqashbandi orders, which only grew stronger with the demise of the Ottoman Empire. These orders have played an important social and political role in Kurdistan as they represent a pattern of social organisation independent of the tribes as well as the state.2 It is no coincidence that the early Kurdish nationalist uprisings were led by sheikhs, and as were the only leaders capable of mobilizing a significant section of the population.

No national movement and no persisting ethnic identity can emerge without bedrock of shared meanings and ideals, which guide action and determine the direction of social change.3 The national consciousness of the Kurdish people is no exception, and has developed its claim through a history rich with myths glorifying heroes and struggles that have come to result in the ethnic group now defined as ‘Kurds’. Many claim that their ethnic distinctiveness has been apparent for thousands of years, although the most renowned work, the Sharafnama by Sharaf Khan Biltisi, was written in 1597. The Sharafnama illustrates that the Kurds have identified their distinct differentiation from their neighbors, Persians, Arabs and Turks, despite being integrated in their empires. Moreover one of the earliest nationalist literatures emerged in the seventieth century by a Kurdish poet Ehmedê Xanî. He inscribed the eternal words of Kurdish patriotism in a section of his poem Mem-u-Zin, entitled ‘Derdê me’ (“our ills”), claiming that:

“Whenever the Ottoman Sea and Tajik Sea

Flow out and agitate,

The Kurds get soaked in blood

Seperating them like an isthmus”4

Mem-u-Zin illustrates the Kurds’ distinctness and seeks to separate them from their neighbors. This pattern has been apparent in Kurdish nationalism, particularly because Turkish and Persian nationalisms of the twentieth century have sought to define the Kurds as a section of their own ethnicity and deny them the right to social and political freedoms if they promote their ‘Kurdishness’. It is during the course of ethnic struggle that these ‘myths of origin and descent’ can inspire nationalists to recreate a heroic spirit. It is also this very sense of kinship that helps to account for the ugly manifestations of inhumanity that can erupt in the relations among national groups.5

The Rise of the Sheikh Boyd Allah of Nehri 1880.

By the end of the nineteenth century Kurdish leadership had effectively been transformed from a secular to a religious face. The secularists under Bedir Khan mir (prince) had attempted a revolution against the Ottoman central state in 1843, with the aspiration of achieving autonomy for a large part of Kurdistan stretching from Lakes Van to Rawandiz. The Ottoman authorities frowned upon this secessionism and defeated the Bedir Khan dynasty. This left a power vacuum in political leadership, and there was no longer a secular leader capable of commanding sufficient prestige among the people.6 It was in this context that Sheikh Ubayd Allah of Nehri came to dominate the nationalist leadership of the Kurdish people. In 1880 he led a rebellion against Persia in the name of Kurdish nationalism, corrupt Persian administration, and Sunni Islam against the Shia. The sheikh’s troops were organized into three armies and recruited from most of the tribes of the region and illustrated that his authority was capable of overcoming tribal divisions. The uprising was short-lived and brutality put down by the Persian troops, and the Sheikh was later exiled to the Hijaz under European influence. Surprisingly Sheikh Ubayd Allah never stopped proclaiming his loyalty to the Sultan, and his attitude to the Ottoman government during the time of the uprising was ambivalent.7 Sheikh Ubayd Allah was loyal to Islam but became the most prominent Kurdish nationalist of his time. He began a new phase of nationalism under the leadership of religious figures who no longer fought solely in the name of Islam, but called for an independent Kurdistan.

The Young Turks and Nationalism.

The Young Turk revolution of 1908 led by junior officers and minor bureaucrats, they were determined to restore the Ottoman Empire. They recalled the idea of ‘Ottomanism’ as an ideal for preserving all Ottoman territory, but this soon emerged into an exclusive Turkish cultural movement. The Ottoman nation initially aimed to incorporate all national and religious communities within the empire, but there was always a certain level of supremacy for Turks and Muslims. However, the ideology nationalism must appeal to a common platform to coordinate and legitimize its claim to the state, such as language, religion, culture, or ethnicity. It was due to this lack of unifying objective that the idea of an ‘Ottoman’ nationalism failed to bring together the subjects of the empire. Consequently the idea of an ethnic Turkish nationalism emerged: Turkish CUP (Committee of Union and Progress) members, famously Ziya Gökalp, called for the rise of the Turkish homeland based on ethnicity and language and developed the idea of ‘myth-making’ by ‘examining the history of pre-Islamic Turks’.8 Hourani identifies that ‘by reaction against the new Turkish nationalism, that of the Armenians was strengthened, that of the Arabs, Albanians, and Kurds came to political life.’9 Arab nationalism appealed to the primitive purity of ‘Arab’ Islam and the history of the umma, particularly because there was a belief that the Turks had decayed the Islamic empire. On the other hands, the Turks came to believe that further secularization was the way forward for an ethnically pure Turkish state. In the midst of all this Kurdish nationalism had to decide on the identity it would pursuer, but inevitably choose a religious framework as a society dominated by its religious leaders could not secularize overnight.

The revolution of the Young Turks resulted in the rise of the urban notables and established public Kurdish nationalist organizations, especially in the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul. The Turkish assertion of ethnic identity made it inevitable that other members of the Muslim umma should follow their example10, giving further leverage to the Kurdish nationalist identity. The most important factor that transformed under the influence of the Young Turks was the establishment of the political organizations, which were headed by urbanized elites mainly from the former Kurdish emirs. The first Kurdish political society, Kurdistan Taali ve Terakki Jam’iyati (Society for the Rise and Progress of Kurdistan) was founded in Istanbul, thus awakening a long silent and articulate face of Kurdish nationalism.11 The Young Turks were strongly influenced by French liberalism and positivist philosophy12; however they found no advantage in allowing these ideas to extend to Kurdish nationalism. On the contrary, they were cautious of such activity and closed down Kurdistan Taali ve Terakki Jam’iyati in 1909. Such hostility only made the new urbanized notables more eager to re-assemble their cause, and founded a second organization – Hevi-i-Kürt (Kurdish Hope Society) in 1912. However these ‘Western’ intellectuals had limited support amongst the grassroots of Kurdish society who were still traditional and religious. The link between these urban notables and tribal and religious leaders had not yet formed, thus making mobilisation difficult as the founders of the organisations were divorced from their people.

The development of Pan-Kurdish Nationalism.

A distinguishing feature of the Kurdish religious leaders lies in their less orthodox approach to Islam, allowing room for developments in nationalism without compromising their beliefs. Although the early religious leaders fought in the name of Islam and had hopes of reviving a Pan-Islamist state, such aims were abandoned with the spread of Turkish nationalism. This meant that they were willing to support the Kurdish nationalist movements, and in doing so after the Young Turk revolution, formed a link between the urbanized notables. By giving their support to the nationalist movements, the sheikhs contributed to the spread of these ideas among an overwhelmingly illiterate population that the urbanized notables had no access to. Not only did they raise awareness amongst the masses, as they were loyal to the sheikhs and thus would willing participate in an uprising, but the takiyas (dervish meeting place) were given relative immunity from harassment by the authorities. The involvement of the sheikhs proved that the Kurdish nationalist movement could not be directed by the urbanized notables, as they failed to gain active support amongst the masses.

The First World War.

The outbreak of the First World War proved to be a powerful check on Kurdish nationalism, but it also sealed their faith in the long-term, resulting in a partition of the lands of Kurdistan that became irreversible. The eventual disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of nation-sates based on exclusionary ethnic identities were appropriate for the Turkish state, many other ethnic groups faced difficulties in claiming a territory to legitimize their nationalism. Once again tribal leaders proved to be of great service to the Ottoman state and undermined the principles for Kurdish nationalism, as they fought for the Young Turks. It must be noted that these were tribal aghas, not religious sheikhs, and had agreed to offer assistance due to tribal politics: they could undermine more influential tribes had they won the war. Those tribes that had failed to benefit from the presence of Russian troops since 1909 now had an opportunity to fight them.

The other side of the coin included the urban, increasingly westernized, notables working in the name of Kurdish nationalism. The most influential organizations at the time was Kurdistan Taali Djemiyeti (Society for the Recovery of Kurdistan), headed by Sheikh Abdul Qadyr of Nehri. Although from a religious background, the founders of the organization (amongst them Mullah Said and Khalil Hayali) were influence by western philosophies, most importantly Wilson’s Fourteen Points on self-determination, which claimed that “the other nationalities which are now under Turkish rule should be assured an undoubted security of life and an absolutely unmolested opportunity of an autonomous development”. The organization felt satisfied with the idea of autonomy within an Ottoman framework, and during the war the president of Kurdistan Taali Djemiyeti, Abdul Qadyr, claimed ‘to desert the Turks in their hour of need and to deal them a fatal blow by proclaiming the independence of Kurdistan would be unworthy of our honour as Kurds’.13 The idea of an autonomous Kurdish nation was put on hold for a cause that would later betray the urban notables.

The war cost the Kurdish population an extensive loss of life, and as it progressed famine and disease as well as failed harvests resulted in a death toll estimated at 500,000.14 The loss was greatest amongst the poor; ‘The villages had been gutted by the passing armies; Russian and Turkish, the roof beams and all wooden fittings torn out and used as fuel, and the rain and snow of winter had completed the destruction of unprotected mud walls’.15

However all did not seem lost for the Kurdish cause in the Treaty of Sèvres, signed 10 August 1920. Article 62 of the Treaty promised autonomy ‘for the predominantly Kurdish areas lying east of the Euphrates, south of the southern boundary of Armenia as may hereafter be determined, and north of the frontier of Turkey with Syria and Mesopotamia’. This was a milestone in Kurdish history, finally providing for the establishment of a Kurdish national state. In 1919, the Kurdish and Armenian delegations had settled their differences after General Sharif Pasha at the Peace Conference in Istanbul. Sharif Pasha was an urban notable who regretted the overthrow of the sultan, but nonetheless eager to represent the Kurdish nationalist cause and ‘succeeded in gaining the sympathy of the powers and the friendship of the Armenians’.16 The only problem for the acceptance of the Treaty of Sèvres was that the newly established leadership of Turkey, under Kemal Ataturk, rejected the treaty and used the opportunity to advance the Turkish republican movement.

End of the Ottoman Empire.

The partition of the Ottoman Empire had vast consequences for the spread of nationalism amongst all the ethnic minorities, most particularly the Kurds. This is apparent in the various revolts that took place in Turkey and former Mesopotamia, particularly after the Treaty of Sèvres collapsed and the subsequent Treaty of Lausanne, signed in 1923, destroyed all Kurdish aspirations for a unified, independent Kurdistan. However, such a devastating blow to Kurdish nationalism only encouraged these ideas to spread amongst the people, creating more vibrant and determined movements to emerge. Theorists on nationalism believe that if a national identity has survived into the new century, it cannot be pressured into relinquishing its desire for national autonomy.17 This was indeed the case for the Kurds; however the partition of the empire resulted in Kurdistan being separated amongst four states, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, thus making a pan-Kurdish movement much more difficult to mobilize as it created inconstant political space. Such a divisive factor, combined with increasing tribal and religious tensions, produced different national movements under uncoordinated leadership.

Kurds in Iraq – Sheikh Mahmud Hafid.

The British invasion and occupation of the three Ottoman provinces, Baghdad, Basra and later Mosul, dramatically changed the fate of the Kurds in Southern Kurdistan. Although many welcomed the end of Ottoman control, they were apprehensive of British military occupation.18 The Kurdish leaders in Sulaymani viewed this as an opportunity to establish their control over the region. The most prominent of these, Sheikh Mahmud established a friendly relationship with the British, and the British in return hoped that they could exert their influence in the region via indirect rule by appointing him hukmdar (governor) of Sulaymani. However, Sheikh Mahmud’s support was limited to Sulaymani, and despite his religious background he could not affectively coordinate an uprising amongst the Kurds in Iraq, let alone a wider pan-Kurdish movement.

After an unsuccessful rebellion in 1919, Sheikh Mahmud was reinstated by the spring of 1922 in order to maintain stability in the region. He concentrated on re-tribalising in order to exert his authority, and although this was encouraged by the British forces Major Soane (a British Political Officer), was highly critical of Sheikh Mahmud’s rule. Soane had returned to Sulaymani after the rebellion to administer the city ‘with a rod of iron’19, and his hostility for Sheikh Mahmud is renowned. He goes on further to highlight his disapproval of the Shaikh’s use of personal patronage.

In 1923, Sheikh Mahmud led the second rebellion against the British forces, in the name of Kurdish nationalism and Wilson’s Fourteen Points of self-determination. He seemed to be in a stronger position, due to backing from the tribes surrounding Sulaymani district who were resentful of imperial control and willing to fight in the name of an independent Kurdistan.

Kurds in Turkey – Azadi and Sheikh Said.

The disintegration of the Ottoman Empire had created separate movements in the various Kurdish regions. During the establishment of the Turkish republic, the Kemalist regime carried out a rigorous campaign based on the rejection of the past and the regeneration of ‘Turkification’. This embarked a racist policy on the Kurdish ethnic identity, prohibiting the use of the Kurdish language in education, as well as many other political and social reforms that would effectively replace the Kurdish identity with a Turkish one. However, the secular-mined Kemalists also vigorously attacked religion, condemning it as a primitive ideology and one which would divert attention away from loyalty to the Turkish nation. In 1924, Mustafa Kemal abolished the caliphate, this move was pivotal for Kurdish nationalism in Turkey, as the most important symbol of Turkish-Kurdish brotherhood disappeared20, leaving behind an ideal situation to promote nationalist propaganda. It was under the climax of exclusionary Turkish nationalism that a new secretive nationalist organisation was established in 1923 under the name of Azadi (Freedom). This political organisation differentiated from the ones in Istanbul during the Young Turks, as it was not solely confined to urban notables but openly aimed to attract Kurdish religious leaders. Azadi was very much a nationalist movement and had the advantage of military men as the nucleus of its organisation. However despite their nationalist fervour Azadi members were well aware that they did not as yet have the support of the Kurdish masses, and lacked the power and appeal necessary to enlist mass support.21 They tactfully sought the religious sheikhs as the figurehead of the movement in order to gain mass support from the religiously minded people. These included Yusuf Zia Beg, Khalid Beg Jibran and Sheikh Said of Piran, a sheikh with great local influence. Azadi made a considerable impact to the spread of Kurdish nationalism and actively supported tribal rebellions in Turkey. Such enthusiasm by the armed tribesmen enhanced the buoyancy of Azadi, despite the efforts of the Turkish state to suppress their activity. With the abolition of the caliphate, Azadi under the leadership of Sheikh Said revolted in a large area of Turkish Kurdistan in February 1925.

The Sheikh Said rebellion was a hybrid of nationalist aspirations and a desire to restore religion, with the hope of creating an independent Kurdistan. There is a little evidence inciting the establishment of a theocratic state, although the leadership of the rebellion was headed primarily by religious sheikhs. The Turkish authorities reacted to the rebellion in a brutal manner via a massive troop operation, which soon brought the revolt to an end with the hanging of Sheikh Said and the other prominent leaders. Despite this, the rebellion proved that Kurdish nationalism was now a strong mobilizing force although it technically remained a tribal affair. Sheikh Said had disregarded the role of non-tribal peasants, as they were controlled by landowners unwilling to risk their position with the Turkish state. Moreover, the majority of the tribesmen viewed the peasants’ combat skills as worthless: ‘tribesmen are warriors and do not toil, non-tribal is thought unfit to fight’.22 The rebellion also lacked open support from the Kurdish notables who did not want to ‘jeopardize their position with tribal forces led by sheikhs [sic] or the unproven strengths of Kurdish nationalism’.23 Nonetheless, it seems that support from other tribes – particularly the Alvais – would have been a far more beneficial factor in terms of warfare, rather than the support of the peasants and notables, as it was the tribesmen who traditionally knew how to fight battles.

While the Sheikh Said rebellion can be identified as the first large-scale nationalist rebellion, it effectively used religion to mobilize and spread nationalist propaganda. At a time when the only viable leadership came from sheikhs, religion could not be separated from nationalist movements. The people only identified with local authority, and nationalism as a movement was not effective motivation to charge a rebellion: on the other hand, religion which was central and stimulated by primordial loyalties to the sheikhs, proved far more powerful. However the primary aim of both Sheikh Said and the Azadi leaders was the establishment of an independent Kurdistan rather than the spread of a pan-Islamic movement. After the Sheikhs had given their approval, nationalist loyalties began to lead a life of their own without religious association. If the sheikhs had frowned on such a movement, it is doubtful whether the Azadi leaders would have had such an impact of the spread of Kurdish nationalism.


(*) Nouti Talabany, Professor of Law, Member of the Kurdish Academy, MKP ( Kurdistan Parliament).

Miss Howar Nouri Talabany, MB Political Sciences, University of London.

‘Acque & Terre’ Magazine, No 6, December, 2007, Italy.