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Modernism: Representations of National Culture

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter V. Regionalism, autonomism and the minority identity-building narratives

The Kurdish question, its origins and causes

Celadet Alî Bedirxan
Traduction de Ahmet Ersoy

Texte intégral

1Title: La Question kurde, ses origines et ses causes (The Kurdish question, its origins and causes)

2Originally published: Under the pen-name “le Docteur Bletch Chirguh,” as a publication of the “Ligue nationale kurde Hoyboun,” Cairo, Imprimerie Paul Barbey, 1930

3Language: French

4The excerpts used are from the Turkish translation (made by D. Bayrak and S. Canik) provided in Mehmet Bayrak, Kürdoloji belgeleri (Ankara: Öz-Ge Yayınları, 1994), pp. 57, 63, 66–68, 84–86, 96.

About the author

5Celadet Alî Bedirxan [1893, Istanbul – 1951, Damascus]: intellectual and Kurdish national activist. Son of Emin Alî Bedirxan, who was the leader of the Bedirxanî clan in Istanbul and among the pioneers of Kurdish cultural nationalism in the Ottoman Empire. Celadet Bedirxan received his primary and high school education in Istanbul. During the First World War he served in the Ottoman army and fought on the Caucasus front. In the wake of the war, with the immanent break-up of the Empire, he actively started working for the establishment of the union of various Kurdish tribes in Eastern Anatolia and Northern Mesopotamia. In 1922, at the end of the Turkish Independence War, he was forced to flee to Germany along with his brother Kamuran. Between 1922 and 1925, he studied law in Munich. Later he moved to Cairo (where his father lived as an exile), and then to Lebanon and Syria. In 1927, along with Memduh Selim, a prominent Kurdish intellectual, he played a leading role in the founding of the separatist Kurdish national organization Xoybûn (To be one’s self), and was elected its first president. The Xoybûn’s primary agenda was to establish an independent Kurdish state in Eastern Anatolia, and between 1927 and 1930, the group was responsible for coordinating the most systematic and extensive attack against the Turkish Republic, the Ağrı (Ararat) uprising. Although Celadet Bedirxan was mainly responsible for the political branch of the organization, he nevertheless participated in some military operations conducted against the Turkish Army just before the final suppression of the revolt in 1930. He remained active in the Xoybûn till 1932, when, due to fractional and tribal disputes, the entire Bedirxan family severed its ties with the organization. In 1932, with the growing assimilationist measures of the Republic towards its Kurdish populations, he wrote a personal letter to the Turkish president Mustafa Kemal, explaining the ethnic origins of the Kurds and attempting to justify their right of existence as a separate nation. After leaving the Xoybûn, Celadet Bedirxan remained in Damascus and devoted his life to the study of Kurdish history, language and literature. He initiated the publication of two seminal literary and cultural journals, Hawar (Invitation) and Ronahi (Light). Through his scholarly acumen and intellectual clout, Celadet Bedirxan turned Damascus into a major center of Kurdish culture and politics. His scholarly output and activism have contributed immensely to the shaping of a worldwide awareness on Kurdish language, history and ethnicity.

6Main works: La question kurde, ses origines et ses causes (1930); De la question kurde: La loi de déportation et de dispersion des Kurdes (Under the pen-name Herekol Azîzan, 1934); Türkiye Reisi Cumhuru Gazi Mustafa Kemal Paşa Hazretleri’ne açık mektup [Open letter to His Highness Mustafa Kemal Pasha, the President of the Republic of Turkey] (1978); Bingehên gramera Kurdmancî [Fundamentals of Kurdish grammar] (n.d.); with Roger Lescot, Grammaire kurde (n.d. [reprinted 1970]).


7The earliest Kurdish uprising that carried the manifest agenda of establishing an independent Kurdistan dates back to 1879, when a powerful Sufi leader named Shaikh Ubaydallah, provoked by Armenian nationalist and Nestorian claims in Eastern Anatolia, was able to mobilize a sizeable tribal network against Ottoman forces. But beyond proto-nationalistic articulations of ethnic identity and time-honored tribal and religious affiliations, a modern discourse about Kurdish national identity was initiated by urban Kurdish intellectuals, mainly the sons of prominent families residing in Istanbul, only around the turn of the twentieth century. Founded by the nascent Kurdish intelligentsia, the first Kurdish organizations appeared following the establishment of the Second Constitutional Regime in 1908. Instigated by incipient nationalist sentiments shared among the Young Turk circles, these organizations mainly pursued an agenda of Kurdish cultural nationalism, thus aspiring to compile historical accounts, to collect (and reconstruct) national myths, folk tales, and to conduct research on various dialects of the Kurdish language. By the end of the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, new political demands and aspirations were voiced among the Kurdish elite. Kurdish clubs and societies with popular journals and newspapers emerged in Istanbul and in major towns around Anatolia, without possessing, however, a shared and consistent political agenda (some fractions defended the idea of complete independence, while others opted for a Turco-Kurdish alliance). A commonly-pursued program of armed struggle and national sovereignty coalesced among Kurdish nationalist groups only after the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, as hopes for a form of semi-autonomy (voiced recurrently by Mustafa Kemal and the leading figures of the national resistance movement during the independence struggle) dwindled with the categorical rejection of Kurdish ethnicity in the definition of Republican national identity.

8A major change that occurred at the onset of the Republican period was that the two hitherto disconnected groups within the Kurdish national opposition, the urban, secular and Westernized intelligentsia, and the grass-roots provincial networks largely configured by tribal and religious allegiances, formed a complex and enduring alliance as they reacted against the centralizing and assimilationist policies of the Kemalist state. Consequently, the freedom- seeking intellectuals and ideologues of the Kurdish movement in the urban centers (for whom the Turkish state was both an enemy and a model) were compelled to reckon with the tribal and feudal realities of the eastern provinces. The provincial opposition, on the other hand, comprising a complex network of clans and religious orders (all highly disillusioned with the strict secularism of the Turkish state and its intrusive centralizing policies) rearticulated its demands through an appropriation of certain tenets of Kurdish nationalist discourse. What ensued was the rise of clandestine organizations, such as the Azadî (Freedom) movement founded in Erzurum, which could harness the support of local power groups around the eastern provinces and incite major rebellions that carried overt national aspirations. The Shaikh Said revolt of 1925, which posed a serious threat to the Republican regime in the few months that it lasted, was largely a result of the new mode of nationalist strategizing, although the overall discourse of the insurgency carried strongly religious overtones (the abolition of the Caliphate was a major issue of dissension that provoked the ‘jihadist’ claims of the insurgents).

9Coordinated by the Xoybûn organization, the Ağrı uprising (involving a series of intermittent clashes that intensified in 1930 throughout Turkey’s eastern provinces) carried by far the most explicit statement of the Kurdish separatist national agenda. With the participation of several tribal chiefs, autonomy was declared in the region, the Kurdish flag was raised in Mount Ararat, and an independent government was briefly formed under the presidency of Biroyê Heskê Têlî (İbrahim Paşa). Under the direction of Celadet Bedirxan, the Xoybûn organization maintained strong international links and conducted propaganda activities for popularizing the Kurdish cause on a global scale. They had branches in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt (where they printed their publications) and the United States. They also cooperated, albeit on a limited scale, with the Armenian revolutionary Dashnak Party, and managed to harness some support in the international arena.

10The ‘Kurdish Question’ was most probably written in Damascus towards the end of 1930, when the Ağrı uprising was largely suppressed by the Turkish army. As a publication of Xoybûn, the document was intended to inform the global community about the claims and demands of the Kurdish nationalists, as well as about the particulars of the confrontation in Ağrı. The text must also be regarded as a response to the official Turkish discourse concerning the ‘Eastern problem,’ in which the uprisings were characterized as the work of unruly and retrograde bandits, reacting against the ‘civilizing mission’ of the modern and secular Turkish state.

11Addressing an international audience, the text begins by providing basic data on Kurdish geography, population, language and literature. This is followed by a lengthy section on Kurdish history, where, for gaining scholarly legitimacy, the author makes extensive use of the works of notable European Orientalists. Here, the ancient origins of the Kurds (with reference to the ‘Gutium’ people in Ancient Sumer or the Medes in Iran and Eastern Anatolia) are expounded with particular emphasis on their Aryan racial origins, foreshadowing, and perhaps even galvanizing, the desire to demonstrate the Aryan origins of the Turks in the nascent Kemalist History Thesis (Afet İnan, Prolegomena to an outline of Turkish history). The historical section continues with a discussion of Medieval ‘Kurdish kingdoms’ (the Ayyubid state, for instance, which Bedirxan chooses to categorize in ethnic terms), and later the period of Ottoman rule. Bedirxan’s narrative attributes a primordial sense of national awareness to all Kurdish groups in history, manifested in a persistent drive to fight for freedom, which, for him, characterizes the historical essence of Kurdish existence. Bedirxan locates the historical origins of the Kurdish struggle against Turkish authority in the early nineteenth century, when “the pact” established in the fifteenth century between the state and the semi-autonomous Kurdish tribes was broken with the centralizing measures introduced by the Ottoman authorities—hence the beginning of a series of revolts that became endemic in the region in the century that followed. Bedirxan is also careful to address the “European misconceptions” regarding the issue of Kurdish dissent. He asserts that the rightful Kurdish struggle for existence is often portrayed in the Turkish and European media as the fanatic reactionism of feudal and ignorant masses from the distant provinces. He then provides a detailed account on the political and military activities of the Kurdish groups after the First World War, indicating their somber motives and their positive contribution to the founding of the new Republic. In the final section of the text, Bedirxan dwells particularly upon the uprisings of the Republican period. He lavishes particular attention on the 1925 Shaikh Said revolt, which he considers to be the beginning of an ongoing war that culminates with the notorious Ağrı episode in the same year. On the Ağrı uprising, he furnishes a rich array of original documentation, including official records and personal letters. He also provides an extensive, village by village list of losses suffered by the Kurdish population during the Turkish offensive in response to the uprisings between 1925 and 1930.

12The Xoybûn publications had a significant impact in terms of communicating the agenda of the Kurdish activist elite on an international scale. Through such propagandistic endeavors, the group was able to draw the support and sympathy of a number of intellectuals beyond the Kurdish speaking world, especially in Europe. The ‘Kurdish question’ was followed by the publication of another book in 1934, in which Celadet Bedirxan critically addresses the assimilationist measures implemented by the ‘Settlement law’ promulgated by the Republican Parliament in 1932 (stipulating the evacuation of certain zones and the ‘relocation’ of certain populations from other regions to the east). It was from this period onward that, in official parlance, the Kurds were referred to as the “Mountain Turks.”


The Kurdish question, its origins and causes

14The Kurdish nation, its homeland Kurdistan, its aspirations, the reasons for its resistance against the sultans and caliphs, and its upheaval against Kemalism and its accomplices are peculiar issues that are largely unknown to the majority of the world public.

15The purpose of this work is to provide to the civilized world information on the origins, the history and the future of Kurdistan and the Kurdish nation […] to refute the denigrations [made against the Kurds], and to reveal the true nature of the Turks. […]

History. The origin of the Kurds

16In earlier times, to describe the Kurds, it sufficed to say that they originated in the Karduk Mountains, home to ten thousand distant hideaways. Modern research, on the other hand, reveals that the Kurdish past extends even beyond that of the Greeks, and that they have lived as settled communities since very distant times.

17Long ago, a community called the Gutium inhabited the mountains that extended into Syria. The meaning of Gutium was ‘warrior.’ The word is synonymous with Gardu or Kardu, used in Mesopotamian languages, and with Karduk, as encountered in the accounts of Strabon […]. It could be said that [the Karduks] essentially maintained their freedom at the time of the Mesopotamian Empire. [Later], after the fall of Nineveh, they merged with the Medes. […]

First disputes in the history of Turco-Kurdish relationships

18Abiding by the tenets of the established pacts [with the Ottoman state], the Kurds mobilized their own arms, troops and resources in order to join all battles waged by the Turkish sultans. Hundreds of thousands of Kurds died on the Vienna front in order to facilitate the expansion of Turkey in Asia and Europe.

19Yet, even the Kurds’ sacrifices and their full subordination to the established system were not enough to stop the avarice of the Turks […]. Soon after, the Turkish sultans devised strategies and fabricated pretexts in order to revoke the privileges given to the Kurds and to annex their lands to the Ottoman Empire. Thus, with deceit, cunning, duplicity, violence and other means, they gradually attained their goals. In 1847, the only remaining Kurdish princedom, which had been able to resist all maneuverings and intrigues, was destroyed, and hence, the entirety of Kurdistan was subjected to Turkish rule […]. The purpose of this study is not to narrate the history of Kurdish revolts, but to reveal the origins, causes and consequences of the ghoulish incidences that occurred in Turkish Kurdistan under the surveillance of an intolerant regime. The Turks have striven for years to make the world believe that the disturbances and dissent in Kurdish society was engendered by its fanaticism and ignorance, and by the Kurds’ overall resistance to efforts of modernization.

20Contrary to all Turkish claims, the truth is that although they lived under the same flag with the Turks, the Kurds did not desire to live under Turkish sovereignty, [instead] they yearned after the pleasure, peace and civility of having established self-rule […]. It is truly unfortunate that the Kurds were blamed for having opposed modernization, while it was in reality the Turks that were the only and the most intractable obstacles to progress in the entirety of the Empire […]. In the Kurdish provinces of the Ottoman Empire and modern Turkey, one would find not even one school, railroad, hospital, factory or even a meter of decently paved road. One only encountered death, dungeons, mass killings, massacres, rape and pillage. This is the true nature of the efforts of the Ottoman Empire and the contemporary Republic to civilize Kurdistan. It should be stated openly and without reservation that the Kurds never accepted and will never accept a process of modernization whose aim is assimilation and the extermination of races and whose methods of implementation represent the epitome of cruelty and barbarism. This is why, with all their hearts, the Kurds resist this bloody civilizing process, and refuse to be led by the Turks. The Kurds, whose origins, race, customs, language and even religious beliefs are different from the Turks, impatiently withstand this oppression and eagerly await the day freedom will arrive. […]

The 1925 Revolt

21The Greek army was expelled from the country, and, with the support of the Kurds, extremely advantageous terms of truce were achieved in the Lausanne Treaty. Now, it was [the Kurds’] turn to ask Mustafa Kemal to live up to his offers and promises.

22The Kurds reminded the president of the Turkish Republic of the promises he had made, and asked him to start implementing them. But Mustafa Kemal refused to recognize his earlier promises, the Kurdish problem, or even the very existence of the Kurds […]. The Kurds were [also] abandoned by Europe. With no reason to worry about interventions that would benefit the Kurds, Mustafa Kemal was now entirely free to do what he wanted. The Ankara government decided to eradicate the Kurdish problem.

23A plan was devised for this purpose and was implemented from 1924 onward. Firstly, the use of the Kurdish language was prohibited and, later, intellectuals and leaders known for their liberal views and national convictions were sent to exile […]. It is for this reason that a bloody uprising broke out in 1925 and remains effective as these very lines are being written.

24The Turkish government and press did everything in their power to portray this uprising as a reaction of the Kurds against the program of modernization and revival. A fraction of the European press simply appropriated this thesis because of lack of knowledge.

25In reality, the reforms introduced by the government barely concerned the Kurds, [and] eliminated the circumstances through which they might have attained independence […]. The Kurds had a nation and a homeland to care for; they could not allow to be taunted by the fake and contrived civilizing measures of the Europeans and the Turks. […]

26Some might regard the achievement of Kurdish independence as an impossible dream. But one should not forget that there were also those that once deemed the independence of Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria as impracticable fantasies. Like the Kurds of today, the children of these lands also died for a lofty ideal. This is why those who have already achieved their dreams know very well that for the Kurds as well, the dreams of today are the realities of tomorrow.

27Prime Minister İsmet Paşa [İnönü] utters the following words with unforeseen transparency:

  • 1 İsmet Paşa’s announcement in the newspaper Millet (Nation) on the occasion of the opening of the Si (...)

28“It is only the Turkish nation that can claim rights in this country with reference to ethnicity or race. No one else is entitled to these rights. All doubts about this will be eliminated once the railway reaches the [eastern] border.”1

29These words are too explicit to require any explanation. It is obvious that the measures taken to modernize the country are really designed to assimilate a nation with thousands of years of history, the Kurdish nation.

30Here, we proclaim once again: We shall never allow the Turks to realize this project. The war for the existence and independence of Kurds will continue till the Kurdish people have their freedom, or till the death of the last Kurdish soldier.


1 İsmet Paşa’s announcement in the newspaper Millet (Nation) on the occasion of the opening of the Sivas railway, 31 August, 1930. no: 1636.

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