Kurdish cavalry in the Ottoman Empire, early 20th century
Newroz is the Persian New Year, which is celebrated by Kurds in Turkey. In 2021 it came on 20 March, at a time when Kurdish people in Turkey are facing increased state repression: the judiciary has now begun in earnest its attempt to ban the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), and the pro-Kurdish news agency Mezopotamya Ajensi is facing continued police harassment.
A new government-prepared textbook about the predominantly Kurdish city Diyarbakır, which says that the language spoken in the region is “Baku Turkish”, neglecting to mention the Kurds or Kurdish throughout the entire textbook. The book also mentions Newroz, but says merely that the tradition originates in Central Asia, and writes it as “Nevruz”.
Many words are “Turkified” when they are translated into Turkish, but this has a special significance with Kurdish words such as Newroz. The letters Q, W, and X are used in Kurdish but not Turkish, so their use has often been deeply political and heavily policed: in 2007 the mayor of Diyarbakır was prosecuted for sending out Newroz cards with the letter W, and twenty Kurds were fined in 2005 for holding placards at Newroz celebrations with slogans containing Q and W.
Throughout the twentieth century, the Turkish Republic has repressed Kurdish people, their political organisations, and their cultural self expression. For a long time it denied the very fact of their existence. It has also carried out brutal military campaigns against the Kurdish population of southeastern Turkey and the broader Middle East, which is ongoing in occupied northern Syria. It would not be an exaggeration to describe many of these campaigns as ethnic cleansing. They have been used in concert with forced assimilation.
In the Ottoman Empire, the Tanzimat (in English, “reorganisation”) period took place from 1839 to 1876. The imperial state attempted to modernise the empire in the face of two existential threats: the European imperial powers, and growing internal nationalist movements. In 1876 Sultan Abdulaziz was overthrown, and replaced by his nephew Abdülhamid II, at the head of a constitutional monarchy. Two years later Abdülhamid suspended the constitution and restored the absolute monarchy.
Humanitarian intervention was a common pretext for inter-imperial conflict in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, just as it is today. Usually along religious lines, imperial powers would champion the cause of oppressed national minorities within a rival empire, and use this to threaten their territorial integrity, whether through outright support of separatist movements, or demanding that they be made protector for particular minorities. William Gladstone, as part of the British political debates on whether to align themselves with the Russian or the Ottoman Empire, attacked the “unspeakable Turk” for the treatment of Christians in the Balkans. Abdülhamid was also able to do this as Caliph, by promoting pan-Islamism to Kurds living in the Russian Caucasus, and Muslims in British India.
Ottoman Empire supported some community self-rule for minorities, allowing them to have parallel legal structures, and giving certain powers to religious leaders. This is often referred to as the millet system, but this was not a uniform system until the nineteenth century. This codification and extension of the millet system also coincided with the centralisation of the Ottoman state, and the promotion of a civic “Ottoman” identity.
Kurds in the Ottoman Empire had traditionally enjoyed considerable autonomy, in large part because of their military power. However, from the early nineteenth century onwards there was conflict between Kurdish rulers and the central state: much of the previously Ottoman-controlled Balkans had gained independence through national revolutions, so the Empire focused on maintaining its Middle Eastern holdings.
Traditionally, the Kurdish leaders were “Mirs”, aristocratic landlords who derived their authority from a senior tribal position, or a position in the religious hierarchy. For a long time the Ottoman state was content to give these Mirs financial and administrative freedom. Through centralising reforms, military attacks, and land confiscations the Ottomans weakened the Mirs’ power. “Aghas”, usually from commercial or farming backgrounds, filled this vacuum, displacing the Mirs with the support of the Ottoman state. The leftist Turkish sociologist İsmail Beşikçi argues that these Aghas were much more reliable agents of the Ottoman state, as they were dependent on it for their position.
In 1891 Sultan Abdülhamid II founded the Hamidiye cavalry regiments out of Aghas and remaining loyal Mirs. They were based on the Tsarist Empire’s Cossack units, composed mainly of Kurdish tribesmen. Much of the Hamidiye was formed simply by giving official status to existing bandit groups, who had been involved in looting and border clashes with Armenians in Eastern Anatolia. Under the direction of the sultan, these units massacred tens of thousands of Armenians during the 1890s, with some estimates putting the dead at 300,000.
The Young Turk Revolution in 1908 restored the Ottoman Constitution of 1876, forcing Abdülhamid back into the status of constitutional monarch. The following year an attempted coup tried to restore Abdülhamid’s power, but it failed and he was replaced as sultan by his younger brother, Mehmed V. The Ottoman Empire briefly functioned as a parliamentary democracy until 1913, when three members of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, the official name of the Young Turk organisation) seized power.
The Armenian Genocide
The Three Pashas, Talaat Pasha; Enver Pasha; and Cemal Pasha, ruled the Ottoman Empire from their coup until the Ottoman defeat in World War 1. Their most famous atrocity during this time was the Armenian Genocide, where over a million Armenians were deported or murdered under the pretext that they were a disloyal element in the empire.
The Young Turks challenged the multicultural nature of Ottoman society, and sought to “Turkify” its population. Some ethnicities, such as Armenians, were simply (and violently) excluded from this project. With others, such as the Muslim Kurds, they attempted a policy of forced assimilation and ethnic cleansing. Additionally, by the time of the First World War the government was worried about Kurdish nationalism, fearing that Kurds might ally with Armenians or the Russian army.
In May 1916, Talaat Pasha ordered that Ottoman Kurds should be deported west to central cities such as Konya, and Turkish refugees (often Balkan Muslim refugees in reality) should be settled in their old homes. The widespread policy of deportations during the war sought to move potentially “problematic” minorities into areas where they could do no damage. Armenians were deported to Arab cities such as Deir ez-Zor, whereas it was thought that if Kurds were moved there they would become Arabised, defeating the purpose of their deportation. Just as important was the purposeful dispersion of Kurdish people, who could not exceed 10% of the population in the areas they were deported to.
Deportees died of starvation, freezing, and exhaustion. One deportee reported that of the 787 people deported from his village, only 23 had survived. The numbers are hazy, but it is likely that about 700,000 Kurds were deported.
The demographic engineering carried out by the Young Turks was sophisticated and cutting-edge. This incredibly precise use of ethnic cleansing to culturally and ethnically homogenise Turkey did not go unnoticed. The historian Stefan Ihrig has written in detail about the influence that the Armenian Genocide had on the Nazi destruction of European Jews, but the similarities do not end there. Both the Ottoman Empire and the Third Reich carried out mass policies of racial engineering in their colonised territory, categorising different ethnicities and moving them around the map accordingly. The twentieth century would see these methods used to disastrous effect, by the Nazis and in Stalin’s Russia too.
• This is the first of several articles discussing the history of the Kurdish people within what is now Turkey. The next one will look at the treatment of Kurds in the early Turkish Republic.