AURAK Hosts Presentation on Research into Kurdish Ethnic Identity Perceptions

February 23, 2020,

Dr. Kutbettin Kilic, Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies at the American University of Ras Al Khaimah (AURAK), gave a talk on “Contending Ethnic Identity Perceptions: Secular Kurdish Identity versus Non-secular Kurdish Identity”.

Kurdish political behavior in Turkey is an empirical mystery. There are three reasons for this, according to Dr. Kilic: if there is a violent ethnic conflict, members of those groups are expected to rally around pro-ethnic groups; if there is a high ethnic polarization, you would expect members of the ethnicity to support co-ethnic members in a party; if the size of a minority ethnic population is big enough to form a political bloc, again members would be expected to rally around that ethnic political party.

These three patterns are present in the Kurdish situation in Turkey. The Kurdish question has been the most pressing issue in Turkey since the foundation of the state in 1923. More than 45,000 people have died in a conflict since the 1980s. Kurds make up almost 20 per cent of Turkey’s population. Ethnic polarization in Turkey is quite high, Dr. Kilic said.

Despite this, a majority of Kurds don’t support pro-ethnic parties that fight for their political, economic and cultural rights, instead favoring the ruling Justice and Development Party. This is an empirical puzzle that Dr. Kilic deals with in his study.

There are two alternative explanations although the presenter said it was not the aim of his paper to explain why. Through the Turkification mechanism the Kemalist elite suppressed all public visibility of Kurdish identity and through modernization it wanted to reform Turkish society including eradicating the public visibility of Islam. Both mechanisms deeply affected Kurds who are traditionally religious.

Kurdish political parties emerged in the 1990s when Turkey eased its stance to facilitate EU membership. The first Kurdish political party ran in the 1995 elections and then the empirical puzzle emerged.

Why? Dr. Kilic outlined two explanations. Kurdish nationalists say it’s because there are material incentives to support the ruling party such as access to public goods and power centers. The presenter said this is “not a convincing argument” because religious Kurds have supported Islamist parties since the 1970s and that studies have shown it’s not a powerful explanation. The second one – widely accepted – is the ideological incentive, meaning religious Kurds support the ruling party because it’s Islamist and secular Kurds support the leftist/Socialist/Marxist pro-Kurdish party.

He posed the question of how Kurds who prefer non-ethnic political parties differ from those who support pro-Kurdish parties in terms of their perceptions of ethnic identity.

His argument was that in Muslim societies there are two forms of ethnic identity perception in relation to Islam. The first, secular ethnic identity, he argues, rules out religion from the cultural content of ethnic identity. Those who adopt this identity perception believe that religion is not a defining element of ethnic identity. But there is also non-secular identity perception – people believe that Islam is a defining element of their identity and that without Islam their identity loses meaning.

According the findings of Dr. Kilic’s research, 78 per cent of Kurds voting for the ruling party have a non-secular Kurdish identity, saying Islam is a strong element of their identity. But among Kurds voting for the pro-ethnic Kurdish parties, 82 per cent adopt a secular identity.

Even among the religious voters for both parties, a majority of religious supporters of the pro-Kurdish party adopted a secular identity. “This shows that the ethnic political elite in Turkey, politicians or intellectuals, is successful in terms of putting their followers on the same page in terms of ethnic identity perception,” Dr. Kilic said.

The original survey was conducted in 2017 in four districts of Istanbul with Kurdish populations including 288 respondents plus 72 in-depth interviews.

Dr. Kilic outlined some possible limitations of his study: it may not be possible to generalize from single-case studies; the data was collected in Istanbul and the findings on the association between ethnic identity perceptions between secular and non-secular may not apply to predominantly Kurdish-populated areas of the country.