İsmail Beşikci is the first social scientist in modern Turkey to analyze the oppression of Kurds, distributed across four nation states, through the concept of the “international colony.” In recent years, Beşikci has been celebrated among his peers and a younger generation of intellectuals in Turkey and beyond, who increasingly refer to the experience of colonialism in their analyses of Kurdish people’s lives and worlds.[1]

İsmail Beşikci speaks at the Buffett Institute at Northwestern University, November 2018. Courtesy of The Northwestern University Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs and photographer Michael Bacos.

As influential as Beşikci’s conceptualization of Kurdistan as an international colony has proven to be politically, younger scholars are conceptually more influenced by postcolonial and decolonial theories, critical whiteness studies and indigenous scholarship. Two particular areas of exploration stand out in such contemporary studies: the formation of colonizer and colonized subjectivities and the spatiality of Kurdistan as a colonized land.

An intentional reading of Beşikci’s work, however, reveals that both themes are discussed at length in his scholarship, albeit analyzed with a different terminology. Tracing these debates on spatiality to Beşikci’s discussion of the borders, nature and the material qualities of colonized lands and the debates on subjectivity to his analyses of assimilation, racism, the disruption of the social fabric and the relationship of colonized peoples to their language, culture and history could provide the first step for young scholars to establish a working genealogy.


Spatiality in an International Colony


Beşikci first analyzed northern Kurdistan as an internal colony of Turkey in the 1980s and then expanded his analysis to Kurdistan as an international colony of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. He stated that such an international colony should not be considered an aggregate of colonial structures since its international character qualitatively changed the content of colonization. As he saw it, the divided nature of political domination over Kurds was both the cause and effect of distinct power relations in the international arena. While in most anti-colonial national liberation struggles, the colonized people had to struggle against a single state, in Kurdistan the struggle is against four states, each with distinct relations and interests in the international arena. Moreover, although not the intention of the Kurdish movements in each of these countries, the struggle is perceived in the international arena as anti-Turkish, anti-Persian or anti-Arab. Therefore, any state desiring good relations with these four states is obliged to ignore the rights and demands of the Kurdish people. This is why he calls Kurds “a nation that could not even be a colony,” since a colony at least retains a political status, albeit a lowly one.

Inherent to the definition of a classical colony is its spatial characteristics, namely, its territorial unity within designated borders. Referring to Africa’s colonization, Beşikci cites the 1885 Berlin Conference as the key milestone, in which the borders of African colonies were drawn. Contrary to Africa’s colonies, Kurdistan never saw the formation of such a territory:

Even in Southern Kurdistan, Kurdistan Regional Government [in Iraq], it is a federation but we do not know where exactly the borders fall. It is your territory, your rule will reign there, but where? That is an issue of drawing boundaries, that is why we say, Kurdistan is not even a colony, as colonies have established borders.[2]

Beşikci’s analysis of the territorial character of the colonization of Kurdistan is also significant in the distinctions he draws between adjacent colonies and overseas colonies, not only in terms of the state capacity each enabled, but also in terms of their specific logics of repression and destruction. In overseas colonies there were immense distances between the colonizer metropole and the colonized land. In the 1960s and 1970s, when a colonizer state experienced a logistic or military gap, dominating those distances through the air force in all weather conditions was not easy, due to technological limitations. Moreover, in overseas colonies, colonial governments were more effective along seashores and rivers and started to lose their effectiveness further inland. Such factors of distance and territorial differentiation that hindered a colonial state’s capacity to implement and maintain domination did not exist in adjacent colonies:

For example, a war plane that departs from Baghdad starts to bomb Southern Kurdistan thirty minutes after departure (…) This is why oppression and violence are much more intense and penetrate into the capillaries of the [colonized] society.[3]

Beşikci also analyzed the relationship of the Kurdish people to the homeland, nature and other peoples of the land in relation to colonialism in ways that are relevant to the current debates on colonized spaces. He argued that in Kurdistan, divide-and-rule policies were implemented not directly by the imperialist Western states themselves, but by the four colonizer collaborator states in the region through divide-rule-and-annihilate policies. Such annihilation targeted not only the people but also the animals, villages and forests of Kurdistan, which were systematically burnt down and destroyed by these states.


Subjectivities of Internationally Colonized Peoples


Similar to Frantz Fanon’s analysis of Algeria’s colonization, Beşikci’s framework ventured beyond the material exploitation, political domination and state violence targeting Kurds to also underscore the effects of humiliation and shame on the subjectivities of the colonized. It was these experiences that lead to the Kurdish movement’s voicing of collective symbolic demands like honor and dignity and mobilizing them in Kurdish political consciousness:

A nation whose name has been banned. A nation whose honor has been usurped, a nation whose self-betrayal has been facilitated, a humiliated nation. The Kurds have not only realized the state they are in and the status seen fit for them. They have also begun to feel shame at their slavery. In which case, they should remedy the situation. They need to find a way to live in dignity. The present struggle is a struggle for equality with all nations and peoples.[4]

Beşikci argued that the collective affective states of joy, sorrow and pride were important not only for the awakening of the Kurdish people but were also mobilized to construct the Turkish nation as an ethno-racially homogeneous group of citizens who are united by the very sharing of these states. The denial of racism is a major pillar in the subjectivity of the Turkish colonizer that upholds the fantasy of equal citizenship and an inclusive civic community, while still asserting the superiority of Turkishness.

The denial of racism is a major pillar in the subjectivity of the Turkish colonizer that upholds the fantasy of equal citizenship and an inclusive civic community, while still asserting the superiority of Turkishness.
Beşikci identified the peculiarities of the discursive formation of denial specific to Turkish racism. He argued that replacing the word Kurdish with the phrase “of Kurdish origin” was a central symbolic element of the racism particular to Turkish official ideology. This phrase, “of Kurdish origin,” is a specific discursive device that reduces one’s ethnic identity to origins in the past, which, according to official ideology, can and should be left behind.

In Turkey a person “of Kurdish origin” who denies his identity becomes like a Turk, furthers propaganda for Turkish nationalism, and can achieve anything. There is no doubt about that, but that is not equality. This means enslaving this society, destroying it, facilitating its self-betrayal, and humiliating the nation and its people. According to Turkish university professors, the Turkish press, Turkish diplomats, and Turkish writers this is “equality”… This shows just how official ideology has blunted intellects.[5]

It was not only the right-wing Turkish nationalists, but also Turkish and Kurdish leftists and intellectuals who reproduced the racism of this official ideology. Moreover, as is generally the case with colonized societies, many upper-class Kurds (along with some Kurdish intellectuals, bureaucrats and civil servants) made alliances with consecutive Turkish governments, reproduced the stereotypes attached to Kurdishness and tried to erase it from their identity in order to pass as Turkish.


Kurdistan as a Colony in the Kurdish National Liberation Paradigm


Beşikci was not the first to claim that Kurdistan was a colony but he was among the very few who never backed away from the colony thesis over the decades. The Kurdish political movement, along with some factions of the Turkish left from the 1970s onward, argued that the Turkish state was a colonizer of Kurdistan. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), in the early stages of its foundation in the late 1970s as a Marxist-Leninist party, voiced this argument in its manifesto and it formed the basis of Kurds’ claims to self-determination.[6] The PKK argued that the history of Kurdistan was a history of colonization, identifying the period from 1925 until the 1940s as characterized by military occupation, the 1940s to 1960s as the era of assimilation and the 1960s onward as the era of economic colonization.[7] Abdullah Öcalan, the founding leader of the PKK, developed the colonialism thesis in his writings and identified Turkish state enterprises in Kurdistan, such as the mining companies, power distribution companies, state farms and state banks as colonial institutions.

Abdullah Öcalan developed the colonialism thesis in his writings and identified Turkish state enterprises in Kurdistan, such as the mining companies, power distribution companies, state farms and state banks as colonial institutions.
After the mid-1990s, however, there was a shift in PKK discourse, in line with the global shift from Marxist national liberation movements to grassroots autonomist movements. In this era, the party replaced its vision of socialism and liberation from the colonizer and adopted a Democratic Confederalism discourse featuring a vision to create an alternative political economy through anti-capitalist, ecological communes.

After the capture and imprisonment of Öcalan in 1999 by the Turkish state, the PKK—following Öcalan’s writings in support of his legal defense—gave up on the ideal of the formation of a new Kurdish nation-state and instead argued that the Kurdish question could be resolved without partition, through the processes of democratization within existing nation-states.[8] But with the escalating war in Rojava (the Kurdish region of Syria), the end of a more than decade long peace process between the PKK and the Turkish state in July 2015 and the immense intensification of the military occupation of the Kurdish region by the Turkish state, the Kurdish movement increasingly turned back to the discourse that defined itself as a movement struggling against colonizer states. This shift can be clearly seen in the speeches of the highest cadres of the guerilla army as well as in the theoretical and political journals close to the movement.[9]

The main contemporary rift between the Kurdish political movement and Beşikci is in their different projects of decolonization much more than their analyses of the problem. While the Kurdish movement envisions emancipation through Democratic Confederalism, Beşikci insists that in an imperialist world order enforced by nation-states, nothing less than national liberation and the formation of a Kurdish state will complete the task of decolonization. Regardless of their political projects, these intellectual traditions can provide the groundwork for the analysis of the past and present of a colonized people and land.


Contemporary Research on Colonized Kurdistan


Although in the last few years there has been an increased focus on the colonial character of the military occupation and governance of Kurdistan, racism and colonialism are often seen as outmoded paradigms of the 1970s left and those who bring them up are seen as overly political and not sufficiently academic.[10] The few scholars who discuss racism also directly reference Beşikci’s analysis of racism and Turkish colonizer subjectivities.[11] Building on the concept of whiteness, Barış Ünlü defines Turkishness as “having access to certain privileges, sharing certain emotions, and possessing and taking for granted certain ways of thinking.”[12] He argues that Beşikci was able to see clearly the foundations of the colonizer’s subjectivity because he himself abandoned those privileges.

Kurdistan was never formally declared a colony, yet contemporary historians have discovered several secret military and administrative reports from the first few decades of the Turkish Republic advising consecutive governments to rule Kurdistan as an internal colony. Echoing Beşikci, researchers like Ümit Uğur Üngör and Güllistan Yarkın argue that this secrecy and denial of colonialism in Kurdistan was inherent to its mode of operation, just like it was for the Armenian Genocide preceding it.[13] Özgür Sevgi Göral argues that the interplay between secrecy and blatancy was crucial for the colonial effect, a specific combination of disciplinary, biopolitical and necropolitical strategies of governing Kurdistan.[14]

The republican period’s cultural and language policies introduced governmental practices like changing Kurdish place names into Turkish, preventing Kurdish people from giving their children Kurdish names and banning the Kurdish language. Welat Zeydanlıoğlu calls the Kemalist Turkish elites’ mimicry of Western colonial language policies “white Turkish man’s burden,” which reflects their ethno-colonial mentality.[15] Zeynep Türkyılmaz uses the concept of “maternal colonialism” to examine a Turkish woman colonizer figure, Sıdıka Avar, the principle of a girls’ boarding school in Dersim in the republican era. Avar identified with her civilizing mission of educating, modernizing and Turkifying these non-Turkish and non-Sunni girls, who she described as, in her words, savage, underdeveloped and rebellious Mountain Flowers. She saw her role as “superimposing the new national female identity” defined through Turkishness, civilization, motherhood and family.[16] As Murat Devres shows, Dersim was the only region in Kurdistan not along international borders, which allowed the Turkish state to implement its internal colonial policies more forcefully.[17]

Mohamed A. Salih maintains that Turkey’s colonial cultural policies aim to erase not only cultural but also regional identity through deeply hegemonic and violent center-periphery relations.[18] Although these policies seem to have changed on paper, both Zeydanlıoğlu and Arpacık argue that they continued into the Justice and Development Party (AKP) era (post-2002) since the Kurdish political movement was still being prosecuted for speaking in Kurdish and fighting for Kurdish language rights.[19] Mehmet Kurt states that the AKP maintained and legitimized internal colonization by using Islamist ideology as an instrument of governmentality.[20]

Colonial strategies of domination by the Turkish state include spatial components to transform the Kurdish sense of belonging to Kurdistan. These strategies range from inscribing Turkish national iconography into the land and imposing the aesthetics of the Turkish state’s presence on Kurdish cities to forced migration from villages, resettlement and military occupation.[21] As pro-Kurdish political parties were increasingly elected to serve in the municipalities in Kurdistan since the early 2000s, they have implemented cultural decolonization tactics to re-appropriate the urban space and reclaim that sense of belonging.

As pro-Kurdish political parties were increasingly elected to serve in the municipalities in Kurdistan since the early 2000s, they have implemented cultural decolonization tactics to re-appropriate the urban space and reclaim that sense of belonging.
Nevertheless, as Ayşe Seda Yüksel shows, the municipalities had to constantly negotiate with the Kurdish elite and the Turkish state in line with neoliberal demands.[22] Total destruction of Kurdish cities by the AKP government following urban warfare between the Turkish state and Kurdish youth in the cities of Kurdistan (2015–2016) constitute the most recent example of these strategies. Haydar Darıcı argues that in these urban wars the Kurdish youth implemented the spatial tactics that the Kurdish movement developed while fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Rojava, like digging trenches in the streets, in order to create stateless spaces freed from the colonial violence of the Turkish state.[23]

Since the construction of gendered subjects was a major strategy of colonization, the Kurdish movement sees it as a pressing issue of decolonization. Nükhet Sirman writes about the conversation between the Kurdish women’s movement Free Women’s Congress (KJA) and other feminist circles in Turkey and describes how feminists interpreted jineoloji, “the science of woman” initially proposed by Öcalan, as producing an essentializing discourse on “the culture of rape” and “woman” as universal categories. [24] Sirman, however, sees a decolonizing potential in jineoloji because it opens up the possibility of an immediate transgression of the gender norms of the nation and kinship. Jineoloji also creates an unknowable space of transgression and the possibility for knowledge production (both academic and feminist) and a new field of political praxis. Similarly, Nazan Üstündağ contends that jineoloji pushes the limits both of male science and the secular nature of Western feminism. It does so by drawing on the myths of a golden age of matriarchal societies in the Neolithic period, constructing an anti-developmentalist narrative of the present by appealing to people’s intuitions, emotions, beliefs and desires.[25]

Jineoloji is part of a larger project of democratic autonomy or Democratic Confederalism, which is a methodology to decolonize Kurds and Kurdistan. Bülent Küçük and Ceren Özselçuk argue that democratic autonomy has potential precisely because it proceeds “from the ambivalence of democratic demands and their openness for becoming.”[26] Üstündağ adds that democratic autonomy is a project of creating alternative spaces to those dominated by capitalism, the nation state and the patriarchal family.[27]

Although this prolific body of scholarship on colonization and decolonization in Kurdistan is inspired by a completely different literature of postcolonial and decolonial theories, a thematic engagement with Beşikci’s analysis of the experiences of Kurds across national borders as a colony could provide a critical genealogy of colonialism for Kurdish Studies.


[Deniz Duruiz is a cultural anthropologist and Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at Northwestern University.]





[1] Ozan Değer and Barış Ünlü, eds. İsmail Beşikci (İletişim, 2011). Martin van Bruinessen, “Ismail Beşikci: Turkish Sociologist, Critic of Kemalism, and Kurdologist,” The Journal of Kurdish Studies 5 (2005).

[2] Beşikci’s talk at Northwestern University, “Kurds’ Right to Self-Determination and the International Political Order,” November 28, 2018.

[3] Ibid.

[4] İsmail Beşikci, Hayali Kürdistan’ın Dirilişi (Aram, 1998).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Güllistan Yarkın, “The Ideological Transformation of the PKK Regarding the Political Economy of the Kurdish Region in Turkey,” Kurdish Studies 3/1 (2015).

[7] Ahmet Hamdi Akkaya and Joost Jongerden, “Reassembling the Political: The PKK and the Project of Radical Democracy,” European Journal of Turkish Studies, Social Sciences on Contemporary Turkey 14 (2012).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Cemil Bayık, “Bayık’tan Köln’deki festivale mesaj: Sömürgeciler kaybedecek,” ANF News Center, September 16, 2017. Duran Kalkan, “AKP’ye dur denilmezse bir değil bin Ankara olabilir,” ANF News Center, February 24, 2016. Abdullah Öcalan, “Sömürge Kürdistan Teorisi Doğru Bir Başlangıçtı,” Demokratik Modernite. Sömürgecilik ve Demokratik Siyaset 14/4 (2015).

[10] Güllistan Yarkın, “İnkâr Edilen Hakikat: Sömürge Kuzey Kürdistan,” Kürd Araştırmaları (2019). Bülent Küçük, “Ismail Besikci and the Reality of Kurdistan,” Jadaliyya, December 24, 2013.

[11] Bülent Küçük, “Yerelleşmenin ve Evrenselleşmenin Ötesinde Kürt Sorununu Yeniden Düşünmek,” Mülkiye Dergisi 39/2 (2015). Bülent Gökay and Darrell Whitman, “‘No Racism Here’: Modern Turkey and the Question of Race and National Identity,” Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal (2017). Barış Ünlü, “The Kurdish Struggle and the Crisis of the Turkishness Contract” Philosophy and Social Criticism 42/4-5 (2016).

[12] Barış Ünlü. “Ismail Besikci as a Discomforting Intellectual,” Borderlands 11/2 (2012).

[13] Ümit Uğur Üngör, The Making of Modern Turkey: Nation and State in Eastern Anatolia 1913-1950 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Güllistan Yarkın, “İnkâr Edilen Hakikat: Sömürge Kuzey Kürdistan,” Kürd Araştırmaları (2019).

[14] Özgur Sevgi Göral, “Enforced Disappearance and Forced Migration in the Context of Kurdish Conflict: Loss, Mourning and Politics at the Margin,” PhD dissertation, Paris, EHESS, 2017.

[15] Welat Zeydanlıoğlu, “The White Turkish Man’s Burden: Orientalism, Kemalism and the Kurds in Turkey,” Neo-colonial Mentalities in Contemporary Europe 4/2 (2008).

[16] Zeynep Türkyılmaz, “Maternal Colonialism and Turkish Woman’s Burden in Dersim: Educating the ‘Mountain Flowers’ of Dersim,” Journal of Women’s History 28/3 (2016).

[17] Murat Devres, “Internal Colonial Rule in Dersim (1927-1952),” ASN World Convention May 2–4, 2019.

[18] Mohammed A. Salih, “Internal Cultural Imperialism: The Case of the Kurds in Turkey,” International Communication Gazette (2020).

[19] Welat Zeydanlıoǧlu, “Turkey’s Kurdish Language Policy,” International Journal of the Sociology of Language (2012). Demet Arpacık, “Disguised Resistance: Transformation of Kurdish Schools Under Colonial Conditions in Turkey,” Zurich Conference on Colonial and Postcolonial Language Studies—Changes and Challenges, June 4–6, 2018.

[20] Mehmet Kurt, “‘My Muslim Kurdish brother’: Colonial Rule and Islamist Governmentality in the Kurdish Region of Turkey,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 2/3 (2019).

[21] Zeynep Gambetti, “Decolonizing Diyarbakir: Culture, Identity and the Struggle to Appropriate Urban Space,” Spaces of Urbanism: Comparative Cityscapes in the Middle East and South Asia (2008). Joost Jongerden, The Settlement Issue in Turkey and the Kurds: An Analysis of Spatial Policies, Modernity and War (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2007).

[22] Ayse Seda Yüksel, “Rescaled Localities and Redefined Class Relations: Neoliberal Experience in South-East Turkey,” Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 13/4 (2011).

[23] Haydar Darıcı, “Of Kurdish Youth and Ditches,” Theory and Event 19/1 (2016).

[24] Nükhet Sirman, “When Antigone is a Man: Feminist ‘Trouble’ in the Late Colony,” in Judith Butler, Zeynep Gambetti and Leticia Sabsay, eds. Vulnerability in Resistance (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

[25] Nazan Üstündağ, “Jineoloji Konferansı,” Özgür Gündem, March 7, 2014.

[26] Bülent Küçük and Ceren Özselçuk, “The Question of Democratic Citizenship in Turkey: Two Social Imaginaries,” in Alessandra Cianelli and Beatrice Ferrara, eds. Postcolonial Matters: Tra gesti politici e scritture poetiche (Napoli: University Press, 2015).

[27] Nazan Üstündağ, “Bakur Rising: Democratic Autonomy in Kurdistan,” ROAR Magazine 6 (2017).


How to cite this article:

Deniz Duruiz "Tracing the Conceptual Genealogy of Kurdistan as International Colony," Middle East Report 295 (Summer 2020).

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