Kurdish nationalism will shape the region’s future

Kurdish nationalism has never been as potent a force as it is today – but there are challenges ahead.

HDP's outreach to Islamist Kurds has undercut the AK party's prominence among the Kurdish people, writes Dalay [Getty]

“Nationalism will not be as potent a force in 21st century politics as it was in the 20th,” declared Eric Hobsbawm, the late Marxist British historian.

Time and circumstances have proven that this was a bold statement not supported by developments in the early parts of the 21st century. Nationalism is back on the stage.

The rise of nationalist parties in Turkey’s recent elections and developments in the broader Kurdish geo-politics of the Middle East illustrate that nationalism as a political, ideological, and sentimental framework is regaining steam.

But why then did the eminent scholar of nationalism judge it so wrong? Another prominent scholar provides the answer. Tetsunori Koizumi makes a distinction between nationalism as a modernist ideology and nationalism as an emotion. 

The Kurds’ quest for a homeland

Scholars who claim that nationalism is losing its significance seem to be guilty of the assumption that nationalism is solely the product and necessity of modernism; hence that it loses relevance in post-modern times.

The power of nationalism

This underestimates the value and power of nationalism as an emotion. Also, implicit in this assumption is the idea that nationalism is primarily a western phenomenon, and hence, its birth and demise should be understood in reference to socio-political transformations taking place in the West.

In the Kurdish case, nationalism both as an ideology and an emotion are powerful. As a people engaged in nation and state-building processes, especially in Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan, it is obvious that nationalism as a product and necessity of modernity has not run its course for the Kurds.

The attempt to go beyond tribal, confessional, and factional ties in order to establish the national one, as well as the processes of engaging in the establishment of state-craft and army building all necessitate the persistence of nationalism as an ideology.

At a time when a common Kurdish public sphere is emerging in the Middle East – which is likely to induce the emergence of a fledgling common Kurdish politics – nationalism provides the only ideological and political framework that brings together Kurds from all four different countries.

Community of shared emotions 

In fact, this common public sphere is being created as much as a result of nationalism as an ideology as it is as an emotion. The transnational grief that results from the Kurds’ fight against ISIL both in Iraq and Syria is also creating the Kurdish public sphere as a community of shared emotions and sentiments.  

The Kurdish political scene is set to face increasing challenges, not from Turkey-wide Islamist parties, but from the Islamist social base of the Kurdish parties...


As Rennan famously remarked, “a nation is a daily plebiscite”. In the present day, one can plausibly argue that the bodies of deceased Kurds or the news of the victories in Syrian and Iraqi Kurdistan that arrives in Turkey, Iran, and Iraqi Kurdistan serve as a daily reconstruction of Kurdish nationalism as an emotional community.

The coupling of nationalism both as an emotion and ideology makes Kurdish nationalism a potent force in the current and future politics of the region. And this force faces an Islamic challenge.

Historically, Kurdish nationalism has been decidedly secular in its disposition, to the extent that it has possessed a strong anti-religious flavour. This alienated religious Kurds from supporting Kurdish national movements.

Voting patterns

Voting patterns in the Kurdish part of Turkey plainly illustrate this binary ideological pattern among religious and nationalist Kurds.

While the segment of the Kurds who prioritised religion over nationalism as a primary foundation of Kurdish identity voted for conservative/Islamic parties, the section who put the emphasis on Kurdishness as the primary source of their identity voted for pro-Kurdish political parties. Thus, traditionally the contest took place between the Kurdish nationalist and Turkey-wide Islamist parties.

The Kurdish national movement’s strictly secular or anti-religious political paradigm underwent some changes in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) declared that it had left behind its Orthodox Marxism.

It has gradually started a process of reaching out to conservative and religious Kurds. A similar evolution has taken place among the political wing of the Kurdish movement.

It has become more accommodating of Islamic demands and nominated many religious figures for office in this recent election. This has created some level of rapprochement between religious and nationalist Kurds, and strengthened and enlarged the social base of Kurdish nationalism.

Kurdish political challenges

The durability of this rapprochement is yet to be tested given the fact that the change in the Kurdish movement’s approach towards religion has been more in style than in content.

But, the Kurdish political scene is set to face increasing challenges, not from Turkey-wide Islamist parties, but from the Islamist social base of the Kurdish parties and probably from another Kurdish movement equipped with the language of Islam down the road. 

The HDP has moved towards the left when it needs to be representative of Kurdish aspirations [Reuters]
The HDP has moved towards the left when it needs to be representative of Kurdish aspirations [Reuters]

Here is where the real challenge for the Kurdish movement arises. While Kurdish nationalism has never been as potent and far-reaching a force as it has currently been, and has never faced an Islamic challenge as it now does in the region, Kurdish politics in Turkey is opting for a Turkey-wide left-wing turn.

It is claimed that the results of Turkey’s recent general election, in which the pro-Kurdish HDP gained a major electoral success, achieving over 13 percent of the popular vote, affirmed the wisdom of such a change of political platform. This is a faulty assessment of the result.

Many seasoned observers have conceded that at least 10 – 11 percent out of the HDP’s 13 percent share of the vote come from the Kurds. The majority of these Kurdish voters are socially conservative and a very significant chunk of them had traditionally voted for political Islamist parties.

Outreach to Islamist Kurds

In fact, HDP’s outreach to the Islamist Kurds has made it more representative of the Kurds, significantly undercutting the AK party’s presence and prominence amongst the Kurds.

In addition, almost all the adversaries that the Kurds are facing in the region are disciples of one or another strand of Islamism, whose message resonates with sections of the Kurdish social base and who can be intellectually countered more effectively by resorting to the language of Islam as well.  

This indicates a growing tension between the demands of the HDP’s sociological base and its recent political positioning. The HDP has made a thrust towards the left at a time when it has been and likely further needs to be most representative of the Kurdish people’s aspirations, which also requires it to infuse its political platform more with the religious demands and inclinations of its social base.

While the Kurdish political elite is moving the party towards becoming a Turkey-wide left-wing party, the Kurdish social and political base is striving to keep it as “Kurdistani” as possible. It is this tension that will define the future political trajectory of not only the HDP but also of the PKK. 

Galip Dalay is senior associate fellow on Turkey and Kurdish Affairs at Al Jazeera Center for Studies, research director at Al Sharq Forum.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.