World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th - 24th 2010


No friends but the mountains? Representations of the Kurds, and the politics of Kurdish Studies. (292) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: THU 22, 9.00-11.00 am

· NOT_DEFINED institution: University of Exeter (UK)

· NOT_DEFINED organizer: Sarah Keeler

· NOT_DEFINED language: English

· NOT_DEFINED description: The Kurds, said to be the world’s largest people without a homeland, have attracted increasing attention from media and the international community in this first decade of the 21st century. Their conditions, whether in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, or a globally dispersed Diaspora, seem to exemplify many contemporary realities of geopolitics, ethno-nationalism, migration and modernity in the Middle East.
While this popular interest has burgeoned, scholarship on the Kurds has remained an inchoate and often problematic pursuit, not least because of the often highly politicised interests which suffuse area studies more generally. Any discernable Kurdish Studies therefore seems caught in a ‘discursive loop’ generated by national projects of recognition on the one hand, and the strategic interests of both regional and western states on the other. Consequently, the predominance of popular and politically determined attention to the Kurds has largely shaped Kurdish Studies until today. As scholars then, can a closer examination of popular media provide us with important insights into the epistemological and political bases of our field?
Both scholarly works and those of popular culture are engaged in the production of certain images of Kurdish society, history and politics. The panel seeks to examine how these images intersect and inform one another, who their intended and actual audiences are, and what political and intellectual agendas they advance. For example, has the notion of Kurds as the perpetual ‘victims of history’ circumscribed scholars’ attempts at exploring the concept of agency in relation to Kurds as political actors, engaged in dynamic cultural and social processes? Why and how are Kurdish populations in Turkey cast as perennial ‘primitives’, aggressive and backward, while their co-nationals in Iraq are frequently seen as the harbingers of progress and peace for not only the Iraqi state, but as a model for the wider Middle East? How do Kurdish activists and intellectuals draw on or refute such images in their political lobbying, nation-building projects, and scholarly debates? Finally, what observations can be made about the placement of a distinct Kurdish Studies within wider political, philosophical and epistemological processes in the Middle East region as a whole, and links to intellectual paradigms in ‘western’ knowledge production?
Focusing on the interstices between mainstream media such as fiction and journalism, and scholarly work, this panel considers 1) how this relationship has informed knowledge production about Kurdish politics and society in academia, and 2) what challenges this presents for the establishment and future of Kurdish Studies as a field.

Chair: Sarah Keeler (University of Exeter)

Paper discussant: Janet Klein (University of Akron)

Paper presenter: Amir Hassanpour (University of Toronto), "Political struggles over the theorization of Kurdish Nationalism"
Early studies of Kurdish nationalism were not informed by theories of nationalism although authors had underlying assumptions about major concepts such as "nation" and "nationalism." The only exception was studies written from a Marxist perspective, usually Soviet works or the limited literature produced by communist parties (even these works hardly qualify as Marxist). As of the mid-1990s, a number of theoretical positions -- feminism, Marxism, liberalism (the ethnic/civic paradigm) -- were used by authors of diverse disciplinary backgrounds. This paper examines the political and ideological struggles over the use of the civic/ethnic binarism in studies of Kurdish nationalism. The conflict was more political although rooted in the epistemological claims.

Paper presenter: Kerem Oktem (Oxford University), "From denial to containment: The Kurds and knowledge production in Turkey"
Until recently, the conceptualisation of Kurds in Turkish academia was characterised by their very absence: Well aware of the fate of imprisoned sociologist Ismail Besikci, academics in Turkey circumvented the topic by sticking to the official language of ‘Mountain Turks’, or by denying their very existence. Ever since, and in parallel to the changing language of politics in Turkey, references to Kurdish identity have become more common –if not yet normalised at state universities- thanks in part to young academics with a Kurdish background. Parallel to the academic production of knowledge, however, there are other sites of knowledge generation that are often closely interlinked with academia and play a crucial role in the making of public perceptions and discourses.
In this paper, I will argue that there is a paradigmatic shift in the conceptualisation of Kurds in Turkey from ‘Denial’ via ‘Naming’ to ‘Containment’, based on three empirical cases - the Southeast Anatolia Regional Development Administration in the 1990s; the websites of regional governments since the 2000s; and the aborted plans for a Department for Kurdish Language in Mardin in 2009. I will show how sites of public knowledge generation in the 1990s have denied Kurdish identity emanating discourses on the ‘Southeast Anatolia’ region devoid of Kurds, how other state agencies introduced a more inclusive discourse of recognition in the 2000s and how, finally, this ‘recognition’ is contained, when it comes to the sites of ‘academic knowledge production’.

Paper presenter: Hannes Artens (University of Exeter), "Noble brigands, perpetual victims, and America's closest allies: Images of the Kurds in 'Western' fiction from Karl May to Vince Flynn"
Ever since the writings of Lord Byron and the paintings of Eugène Delacroix we know about the political and cultural significance of ‘external’ artists in picturing the plight or even supporting the cause of oppressed and/or stateless nations and minorities. This paper examines the depiction of Kurds in ‘Western’ popular fiction. Ample room will be given to German nineteenth century author Karl May, whose lasting image of the wilde Kurdistan will be discussed for the first time in English before turning to more recent depictions, such as Alan Drew’s Gardens of Water, Vince Flynn’s Protect and Defend, and my The Writing on the Wall. Instead of stressing the moot point whether these often Orientalist fictions correspond with reality – which dominates the current discourse – my analysis will reflect on what factors shaped the individual author’s imagination, speculate on what ‘agendas’ (s)he may have had in creating or amplifying specific stereotypes, and discuss the constants and changes in the perceptions of Kurds among a ‘Western’ audience across time and space.

Paper presenter: Abbas Vali (Boğaziçi University), "The Representation of the Kurds in the Social Scientific Discourse in the Islamic Republic of Iran"
The advent of Islamist Reform Movement in the 1990’s in the Islamic Republic of Iran witnessed a proliferation of social scientific and journalistic discourse on the Kurds, their identity and politics. Sociologists, political scientists in the academy and governmental teaching and research institutions as well as journalists and political and cultural essayists in the official and semi-official press began discussing the ethnic and national foundations of Kurdish identity, the historical and political formations of the Kurdish question in Iran, and assessing the legitimacy of the Kurdish demands to regional autonomy.
The reformist commentators, both Islamist and secular, critical of the policy of suppression and denial of Kurdish identity exercised by the Islamist regime, argued for the necessity of the juridical-political recognition and respect for ethnic, linguistic and cultural difference. The strategic onus of the Reformist argument was on the constitutional and therefore legitimate nature of the Kurdish ethnic and linguistic rights. This was held to mean that the Kurdish question in Iran could be posed and resolved in the context of the Reformist project for the democratisation of the Islamic Republic. This paper argues that the Reformist argument that the Kurdish question in Iran could be resolved by the implementation of the Constitution is fundamentally flawed.
This paper will further argue that the Constitutional concept of ethnic minority seriously undermines the democratic claims of the Social scientific discourse on the Kurdish question. The reformist proposal for the democratic recognition and representation of ethnic identity and rights through the democratisation of citizenship rights cannot end the otherness of the Kurds and their Constitutional exclusion from the ‘national’ juridical and political processes. The concept of ethnic and linguistic minority should be rejected, for it rests on a discursive relationship between sovereign power and dominant ethnicity in the Constitution.