By leaving Ankara, we became a party; by going into the Middle East, we became an army; when we go out into the world, we shall achieve a state.
―Abdullah Öcalan

The journey of Abdullah Öcalan out into the world ended not in a Kurdish state, but on the Turkish prison island of İmralı, where he is serving a life sentence. In 1998, with Turkish government pressure increasing, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) left his Syrian base for Russia, then Italy, Greece and, finally, Kenya, where he was seized in an international undercover operation and handed over to units of Turkish intelligence. Within hours of Öcalan’s capture, supporters of the PKK had ringed Greek, Kenyan, Israeli and Turkish embassies throughout Europe, as well as in Canada, Russia and Australia, demonstrating conclusively that the Kurdish issue had gone international. The protests continued around the globe for several months, replete with blocked highways, besieged offices of political parties, hunger strikes and even acts of self-immolation. Particularly in Europe, Kurds from Turkey came to be known as the immigrants who protest, at times violently.

While the public focused on the raucous demonstrations, the activities of Kurds resident in the countries of the European Union were much more far-reaching. It is estimated that at least 700,000 and maybe over one million Kurds are now living in Europe. [1] The figures are inexact because, with the exception of Sweden, no country registers the Kurds as Kurds. Estimates are based on the percentage of Kurds in the population of their countries of citizenship. Turkey does not record the Kurds as being Kurdish, either; for most of its history, the Turkish republic denied the very existence of Kurds. The situation of Kurds in Iraq, Iran and Syria was not too different. The unresolved Kurdish conflict in the Middle East has led to large-scale migration of Kurds, both voluntary and involuntary, not only abstracting the conflict beyond a single territory, but also creating new spaces of political and cultural expression for Kurdish identity.  Kurds from Turkey, for example, have been building what might be called “Euro-Kurdistan,” a network of political, cultural and social institutions advancing a process of nation formation. They have done this despite the lack of official recognition in Turkey, and across the European continent, of their sense of nationhood. Much of this activity has taken place through communications and information technology, leading scholars to identify a sovereign Kurdish space “in the air” [2] or a “virtual Kurdistan-West.” [3] But this space is not just virtual—it is actual.

Those Kurds from Turkey who wish to speak, write, read, print, broadcast or teach in Kurdish, rally for their rights as Kurds, join with fellow Kurds in professional associations or score goals for Kurdish soccer teams can do so freely and conveniently in Europe. In Turkey, they could easily face prosecution for similar activities. Compared with Turkey, the number of Kurdish institutions in Europe is vast. Although its candidacy for EU membership has led Turkey to pass laws opening political and cultural space for Kurds, the implementation of these laws is still hampered by pervasive suspicion directed at Kurdish political mobilization. Therefore, Europe continues to be a key base of transnational political, social and cultural activities of Kurds from Turkey—whether geared toward European host countries, the Kurdish diaspora, the Turkish state and civil society or Kurds living in the Middle East.

Foreshadowings

The beginnings of Kurdish transnational activism can be traced back to the era before the nation-state in the Middle East. The idea of Kurdish nationhood first emerged in intellectual clubs outside Kurdistan before spreading to local leaders in the Kurdish region. The first Kurdish organizations were founded around 1900, mainly in Istanbul and Cairo. [4] One prominent club, the Kurdish Society of Mutual Aid and Progress, was formed in 1908 in Istanbul. The first Kurdish-language newspaper, Kurdistan, began publishing in Arabic script in 1897 in Cairo. After the Ottoman sultan declined it permission to publish in Istanbul, Kurdistan moved first to Geneva, then back to Cairo, to Folkestone, England, and back to Geneva. [5] The newspaper’s itinerary would foreshadow later transnational efforts to promote the Kurdish cause.

The Kurds in the Ottoman Empire had long had amicable relations with the Sublime Porte, due to their strategic location in the buffer zone between the Ottomans and Russian and Persian foes, as well as the assumption that they were more loyal than the non-Muslim Armenians, Assyrians and Nestorians of the region. This relationship changed with the Young Turks’ revolution of 1908 and the disintegration of the Empire. When the map of the Middle East was redrawn after World War I, Kurdish leaders claimed an independent state based on principles of self-determination. The claim was considered in the Treaty in Sevres of 1920, but abandoned three years later in the Treaty of Lausanne, which erased the term “Kurdistan” from the map. The breakup of the Ottoman Empire not only birthed the new nation-states of Iraq, Syria and Turkey, but also resulted in the apportionment of a transnational (though hardly monolithic) community of Kurds among those three countries and Iran. The Kurds were everywhere a minority.

In Turkey, home to the largest segment of this community, the new republic soon clashed with its Kurds. Several Kurdish uprisings were met with harsh state violence, culminating in the 1938 Dersim massacres during which villages were bombed and thousands resettled to the west. From the 1930s onward, the state framed the “Kurdish question” as one of backwardness: The term “Kurd” was replaced by the term “mountain Turk,” use of the Kurdish language prohibited, Kurdish villages and towns renamed, and the Kurdish provinces ruled by a special decree, all of which steps effectively suppressed the emergence of Kurdish movements for decades. [6] Given these oppressive conditions—that also existed to varying degrees in Iran, Iraq and Syria—Kurdish political activities slowly shifted to Europe, where organizations and intellectuals could meet without the restrictions existing in their countries of citizenship. This movement can be classified into three waves of Kurdish migration to Europe: a first wave (1950s-1970s) consisting of students, a second wave of labor migrants coming from the 1960s onward and, finally, a third wave of refugees arriving after the military coup in Turkey in 1980.

Students, Workers and Fugitives

In 1956, in the German city of Wiesbaden, the pioneering Kurdish Students’ Society in Europe was formed. Here over 3,000 students from different parts of Kurdistan, part of the first wave of Kurdish immigration to Europe, met for the first time after the partition into four nation-states. Ironically, many of the Society’s meetings were held in Berlin, a city itself divided. Rather than an association concerned with quotidian needs, the Society was a political forum. Rivalries soon split the group, but in the meantime, many members were induced to develop Kurdish national sentiments for the first time.

A case in point is Canip Yıldırım, an intellectual from Diyarbakır, the city often referred to as the secret capital of the Kurds in Turkey. After studying law in Ankara, the rather apolitical Yıldırım went to Switzerland and then moved to Paris to obtain his doctorate. There he met members of the Bedirxan family from Syria, who had published the newspaper Kurdistan, and other prominent Kurdish intellectuals. Upon his return home, he had developed a highly politicized Kurdish identity and became engaged in Kurdish affairs, prompting his troubled father to exclaim: “I thought I sent you to Lausanne; instead, you went to Zozan!” [7] (Zozan is a popular name for Kurdish women used here as a metaphor for Kurdistan.) Yıldırım soon became an important figure in Kurdish politics in Turkey.

The numbers of Kurdish students in Europe were too small to be noted by the European public. The second wave of Kurdish immigrants arrived in the 1960s and 1970s, as part of European countries’ active search for “guest workers.” Most of these people were politically quiescent and did not claim a separate identity as Kurds. In the 1980s, however, a third wave of Kurds came from Turkey—refugees who brought the conflict in the Kurdish regions along with them. It was only with the arrival of Kurdish refugees in the 1980s that an active mobilization of Kurds in Europe took place. Not surprisingly, this development was closely linked to events in Turkey, where an armed Kurdish organization, the PKK, was radically challenging the ethno-nationalist conception of Turkish nation-state.

In the aftermath of the 1980 military coup, the PKK launched a series of attacks on Turkish army posts. The organization started out as Marxist-Leninist, but soon replaced its socialist aims with a national liberation ideology that, in its view, justified the use of violence. Despite the military imbalance, in the first years of the war the PKK inflicted serious pain upon Turkish troops, who were inexperienced in and ill equipped for irregular combat. [8] At first the army portrayed the PKK as a gang of bandits that lacked popular support. In reality, the PKK was quickly gaining in strength, with students and villagers—especially young women—joining in large numbers. By 1991, the organization was estimated to have 11,000 active militants in the mountains, with many more supporters in the villages and cities. [9] In light of this rapid growth, the army adopted the strategy of low-intensity conflict, setting up paramilitary forces and systematically depopulating the region.

In 1987, the state established the system of village guards, offering Kurdish civilians weapons and high salaries to support the military in fighting the PKK. The system put the Kurdish population in the rural areas in a difficult position: Villages that agreed to set up a local armed force were assaulted by the PKK, while villages that refused were harassed by the military. The military suspected these latter villages of providing logistical support for the PKK and regarded them as hostile. Starting in 1991, these hamlets and villages, as well as others in strategic locations, were forcibly evacuated and often burned to the ground. Over 3,400 of the 5,000 villages and hamlets in the region were eventually destroyed. [10] A study commissioned by the Turkish government in 2004 concluded that over one million people were displaced, but human rights organizations estimate the number to be much higher. [11] The bulk of the displaced Kurds remained in Turkey, settling in cities like Istanbul, Mersin or Van. About 14,000 fled to Iraq and presently live there in UN refugee camps. No one knows how many made it to Europe; many of the Kurds resident there are undocumented. In Germany alone, however, some 300,000 mostly Kurdish refugees applied for asylum between 1987 and 2000. [12] The displacement of Kurds in Turkey received hardly any attention in the Turkish and international media, especially when compared to the coverage of the plight of the Kurds of Iraq. The Turkish state denied that forced migration had taken place at all until 2002, and in the intervening years obstructed an accurate determination of the extent of the destruction and the displacement. Though the government has lately initiated reforms regarding Kurdish-language broadcasting and passed a law on the compensation of internally displaced people, the overall situation of Kurds in Turkey—particularly the displaced—is framed by a heightened sensitivity to “national security” in daily politics. Expressions of Kurdish identity are readily perceived as a threat to the unity of the Turkish nation-state. In Europe, Kurds have found a much more receptive climate for their political and cultural activities.

A Rough Guide Through Euro-Kurdistan

From 1984-1993, Europe was fertile soil for the PKK itself, which planned actions and raised money with next to no restrictions. The PKK understood the potential for mobilization in Europe early on and made sure that a tight organizational network was built up to support their activities in Turkey. [13] In 1993, however, the PKK began to attack Turkish institutions in Europe, and, subsequently, Germany, Belgium and Great Britain outlawed the organization. Kurdish organizations suspected to have links with the PKK were shut down. Germany, home to the largest Kurdish population, has been particularly wary: Several court cases against PKK members continue to this day, while offices of Kurdish organizations are subject to frequent raids by the authorities. The discourse and practices of “Euro-Kurdistan” have arisen against the backdrop of the host countries’ anxieties.

To be sure, “Euro-Kurdistan” does not take shape through a concerted, centralized effort by a single political force. It is much more an effect or byproduct of the political aims of many different Kurdish individuals and organizations, whose aims range from creating an independent Kurdistan to democratizing the politics of Turkey to securing political rights for Kurdish immigrants. While the PKK is certainly a key actor in many of the institutions and organizations, the fact remains that numerous, often opposing Kurdish groups and individuals have also used the space of Europe to advance their cause. “Euro-Kurdistan” emerges as a conglomerate of all these diverse activities.

One important province of “Euro-Kurdistan” is cultural nationalism. Restrictions on the use of Kurdish in Turkey have prevented standardization of the language, which (as in other countries where Kurds live) has more than one dialect. It has been left to Kurdish institutes in France, Belgium, Sweden and Germany to adopt the task of teaching and developing the Kurdish language. These institutes conduct research on Kurdish syntax and grammar, translate key documents and print books in Kurdish. The Kurdish Institute in Paris, for instance, was founded in 1983 with the explicit aim of developing agreed-upon standards in the most commonly spoken dialect, Kurmanci. [14] It has a well-stocked Kurdish library and organizes many cultural and political events. Further Kurdish libraries can be found in Stockholm, Berlin and Basel. [15] Kurdish and German scholars have founded the European Center for Kurdish Studies, which offers courses at the Free University in Berlin, maintains a large library and publishes an academic journal, as well as a book series.

One European country that has been particularly involved in Kurdish cultural activities is Sweden, where the relatively small Kurdish exile community consists mainly of artists, journalists and intellectuals. This vibrant community has been publishing busily, with an annual output of 40 or 50 books and dozens of journals. The Kurdish section of PEN, the international writers’ association, was founded in Stockholm. Martin van Bruinessen argues that in Sweden, where immigrants are given the resources to sustain their mother tongues, Kurdish writers found a “much more stimulating environment for developing Kurdish into a modern literary language than they would have found back in Turkey, even if the language had not been banned there.” He notes that the readership has remained limited, but ascribes a crucial role to these linguistic activities in updating Kurmanci. [16]

Probably the most effective and consequential instrument of the spread and standardization of the Kurdish language has been satellite broadcasting, which Turkish authorities have energetically tried to block through a series of diplomatic efforts. In 1995, MED-TV began test transmissions from London. In a statement, the producers candidly described the idea behind their project: “The Kurds, numbering 35 million worldwide…are the largest nation in the world today without a recognized homeland.… For the first time in history, the Kurdish people can now see their own lives, their own reality, reflected on television screens across the world. MED-TV hopes to assist in the regeneration of the Kurdish language and the identity of this nation while informing the Kurdish public of the world, national and international events.” [17] The broadcasts eventually reached over 16 million viewers from Europe to the Middle East and Asia.

Daily programming began with the Kurdish anthem, and the channel’s logo was etched in red, yellow and green, the colors of the Kurdish national flag. The lineup included Kurdish lessons for children, talk shows and newscasts in Kurmanci, the Sorani dialect and Turkish. There were also programs in Zazaki and Arabic, and shows aimed at religious minorities such as Alevis and Assyrians. The Turkish government argued that MED-TV was a propaganda outlet for the PKK and pressed the British government to disallow the broadcasts. After the British revoked its broadcasting license in 1996, the channel moved its base of operations to France, then the Netherlands, Belgium and, finally, Austria—evoking the travels of the newspaper Kurdistan nearly a century before. Currently, the channel broadcasts under the name Roj TV. Its programs are produced in a large studio in Belgium, under a broadcasting license obtained from Denmark. While MED-TV’s international staff received assistance from fellow broadcasters among the Basques and other minority populations, Roj TV has established itself as a successful channel that assists the development of Kurdish-language broadcasting in the Kurdistan Regional Government areas in northern Iraq.

Transnational Advocacy in Europe

The Kurdish movement has also adapted to the times by dropping the language of national liberation and substituting the language of human rights. One example is the London-based Kurdish Human Rights Project (KHRP), founded in 1992 at the height of the Kurdish conflict in Turkey. The KHRP has developed into a key institution, going before the European Court of Human Rights to seek justice for Kurdish victims of human rights violations in Turkey, and winning dozens of judgments. The KHRP is also training lawyers and human rights activists in Turkey and has entered numerous coalitions with international human rights advocacy networks. In 2001, it was involved in 90 percent of the relevant fact-finding hearings at the European Court of Human Rights and has been called to hearings of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe as well. [18]

Another important institution is the Kurdish Parliament in Exile, set up in 1995, and renamed in 1999 as the Kurdish National Congress. The Congress claims to represent Kurds from Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, but the majority of the 65 elected members are Kurds from Turkey. It lobbies the supranational institutions of Europe to exert pressure on Turkey and also is in close contact with the European human rights advocacy network. The gatherings of the Congress have repeatedly caused diplomatic tensions; Turkey once suspended relations with the Netherlands because that country had allowed the impromptu body to convene on its territory.

A further set of institutions is the Kurdish information and documentation centers throughout Europe, which aim to provide alternative perspectives upon Turkey’s policy toward the Kurds, including the neglected ongoing effects of the internal displacement of the 1990s. [19] These centers are closely affiliated with the PKK, disseminating its press releases. Mainstream media and politicians generally ignore these centers, but they cooperate extensively with radical left-wing parties and NGOs that support the Kurdish movement. The information produced by these centers pops up in the leaflets of groups in Germany or Great Britain that campaign for Kurdish refugee rights or call for diplomatic measures against Turkey.

Keeping the Diaspora Alive

For years, the Kurds in Europe were seen as a subgroup of Turkish immigrants. With the arrival of the third wave of migrants, Kurdish activists persistently labored for recognition as a distinct group. In Germany, for example, the organization KOMKAR began lobbying in 1980 for the teaching of Kurdish as a mother tongue in schools. [20] Several German states now acknowledge the parenting association YEKMAL, founded in 1994, as the representative of Kurdish immigrant schoolchildren. At present, schools in the states of Bremen, Hamburg, Lower Saxony and North-Rhine Westphalia offer education in Kurdish as part of the curriculum for Kurdish children.

A number of elected Kurdish representatives in regional legislatures in Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and Great Britain, mostly from left-wing parties, point frequently to their Kurdishness and are pushing for immigrant and minority rights for Kurds in Europe. One example is the guidebook “Kurds in Berlin,” supported by two MPs of Kurdish background. The city of Berlin had previously published “Turks in Berlin” as a well-meaning effort to acknowledge the multicultural population of Berlin, yet without mentioning the Kurds as a distinct group. Elected representatives also appear often as guests at Kurdish events, such as the festivals that take place every year all over Europe, at times attracting as many as 100,000 people.

These festivals are cultural events and political mass meetings at the same time. People come from near and far to listen and dance to Kurdish music, purchase books and other materials, and meet with friends and relatives. Meanwhile, rallies address demands to European host governments and, more importantly, seek to instill a sense of collective power among Kurdish immigrants and refugees. Some of the festivals are held upon the occasion of Newroz—the Kurdish (and Persian) new year whose celebration was long prohibited in Turkey—as collaborative efforts by several, often competing Kurdish organizations. The major figures and events of Kurdish history are marked as well. The PKK in particular has created a “ceremonial calendar,” including its first day of armed struggle in 1984 and days of commemoration for the organization’s “martyrs.” Kurdish groups also organize Kurdish-only soccer tournaments, dance and song contests, and film festivals, partly so as not to “lose” the younger generation to the culture of the host societies. As a Kurdish-German member of the European Parliament, Feleknas Uca, said in a speech at a dance competition: “Kurdish culture has been assimilated for years. Kurdish culture was expressed in Turkish. But in Europe, it is managing the challenge and is preserving itself. The greatest honor is not to become the winner of this competition, but the act of preserving one’s own culture.” [21] Kurdish film festivals organized in London, Berlin, Rome, Basel, Paris and many other European cities have played a crucial role in developing a Kurdish film industry. Kurdish directors from Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria as well as young Kurdish filmmakers born in Europe come together at these festivals to screen their films and to meet with the (mainly Kurdish) audience. At the May opening of the Fifth Kurdish Film Festival in Berlin, the Norwegian-Kurdish director Hisham Zaman exclaimed that the event “makes you feel like you are in your own country.” [22]

In “Euro-Kurdistan,” Kurds from Turkey engage in a host of activities that might bring criminal sanctions or, at least, be subject to severe political constraints in their home country. Indeed, Kurdish demands for cultural and political rights that have yet to be realized in Turkey have been achieved in Europe. In the more liberal European environment, exiled and immigrant Kurds can more effectively pursue their claim to nationhood and cultivate their resources.

What precedes the empowerment of Kurds in Europe, of course, is the fact of their persecution and unlawful displacement from their homes in Turkey. “Euro-Kurdistan” is thus no transnational land of enchantment for the Kurds, but a space where painful experiences are channeled into a creative process of nation building driven from below. From the perspective of the Turkish nation-state, “Euro-Kurdistan” is a place where all that that was suppressed by the exclusivist nation-building project is flourishing and being beamed back to Turkey. The displacement of Kurds might have served the state’s quest for territorial control in the southeast, but the dispersion of Kurds to Europe mounts a challenge to the Turkish nation-state on a daily basis. In the words of Khachig Tölölyan, it has become the “the paradigmatic Other of the nation-state.” [23]

Endnotes

[1]  Between 500,000 and 700,000 Kurds live in Germany alone. Eva Ostergaard-Nielsen, Transnational Politics: Turks and Kurds in Germany (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 61. An estimated 60,000 are in France, 30,000 or 40,000 in the Netherlands, 20,000-30,000 in Austria, 20,000 in Great Britain, 15,000-20,000 in Switzerland, 16,000-18,000 in Sweden, 12,000-13,000 in Denmark, 10,000 in Belgium and 7,000 in Finland. Östen Wahlbeck, Kurdish Diasporas: A Comparative Study of Kurdish Refugee Communities (London: Macmillan Press, 1999), p. 62.
[2] Amir Hassanpour, “Satellite Footprints and National Borders: MED-TV and the Extraterritoriality of State Sovereignty,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 18/1 (1998).
[3] Nicole Watts, “Institutionalizing Virtual Kurdistan West. Transnational Networks and Ethnic Contention in International Affairs,” in Joel Migdal, ed., Boundaries and Belonging: States and Societies in the Struggle to Shape Identities and Local Practices (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
[4] See Ruşen Aslan, “Kürt Legal Hareketinin Tarihsel Gelişimi” (2006), at http://www.gelawej.org, and Janet Klein, “Kurdish Nationalists and Non-Nationalist Kurdists: Rethinking Minority Nationalism and the Dissolution of the Ottoman Empire,” Nations and Nationalism 13/1 (January 2007).
[5] C. J. Edmonds, “Kurdish Nationalism,” Journal of Contemporary History 6/1 (1971).
[6] Mesut Yeğen, Müstakbel Türk’ten Sözde Vatandaşa (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2006).
[7] Cited in Orhan Miroğlu, Hevsel Bahçesinde Bir Dut Ağacı (Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2005), p. 54.
[8] Doğu Ergil, “The Kurdish Question in Turkey,” Journal of Democracy 11/3 (July 2000).
[9] Michael Radu, “The Rise and Fall of the PKK,” Orbis 45/1 (January 2001).
[10] For a detailed account of the internal displacement, see Bilgin Ayata and Deniz Yükseker, “A Belated Awakening: National and International Responses to the Internal Displacement of Kurds in Turkey,” New Perspectives on Turkey 32/1 (Spring 2005).
[11] Hacettepe University Institute of Population Studies, Türkiye Göç ve Yerinden Olmuş Nüfus Araştırması (Ankara, 2006).
[12] Ostergaard-Nielsen, p. 135.
[13] See Vera Eccarius-Kelly, “Radical Consequences of Benign Neglect: The Rise of the PKK in Germany,” Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 24/1 (Spring 2000).
[14] Martin van Bruinessen, The Kurds in Movement: Migrations, Mobilizations, Communications and the Globalization of the Kurdish Question, Islamic Area Studies Working Paper 14, Tokyo, 1999.
[15] An overview of different Kurdish institutes and organizations can be found at the website of the Washington Kurdish Institute: http://www.kurd.org/kurdlinks.html.
[16] Martin van Bruinessen, “Shifting National and Ethnic Identities: The Kurds in Turkey and the European Diaspora,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 18/1 (1998).
[17] Hassanpour, p. 11.
[18] Watts, pp. 133-134.
[19] An overview of these centers is online at http://kurdistan-solidaritaet.de/links.htm.
[20] Sabine Skubsch, Kurdische Migration und deutsche (Bildungs-)Politik (Münster: Unrast Verlag, 2002), p. 301.
[21] Özgürpolitika, May 24, 2005.
[22] Firat News Agency, May 25, 2008.
[23] Khachig Tölölyan, “The Nation-State and Its Others: In Lieu of a Preface,” Diaspora 1/1 (1991).

How to cite this article:

Bilgin Ayata "Mapping Euro-Kurdistan," Middle East Report 247 (Summer 2008).
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