Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Program hosts interdisciplinary conference on Kurdish politics

December 13, 2016

On November 2, Buffett’s Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Program kicked off the interdisciplinary conference “Historical and Comparative Perspectives on Kurdish Politics,” hosting about 40 junior and senior scholars who study the Kurdish issue and how it has fundamentally shaped modern Turkish history.

Ayça Alemdaroglu opening remarks at the Kurdish politics conferenceThe conference’s goal was to provide a space to discuss and explain the historical evolution of contemporary matters pertinent to Kurdish politics in Turkey, especially within the last century, says Ayça Alemdaroğlu (pictured), associate director of the Keyman Program. It also coincided with a major event in Kurdish politics: On November 3, the second day of the conference, the Turkish state arrested at least a dozen pro-Kurdish party leaders and politicians on terrorism-related charges as part of a post-coup crackdown.

With an estimated population of 35 million, Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without an independent state of their own. They are also the largest ethnic minority group in Turkey: Kurds in Turkey number around 14 million, or roughly 18 percent of the total Turkish population. They have been demanding autonomy and recognition since at least World War I. After enduring decades of sectarian violence, Turkish and Kurdish politicians have entered a period where addressing this issue is more important than ever. The regime change in Iraq, the ongoing civil war in Syria, and the continued threat of the Islamic State have all recently changed the balance of power in the Middle East and therefore the nature of the Kurdish issue.

A neglected but essential topic in Turkish and global studies

Historically, it has been hard to conduct research on the Kurds.

“The spaces where we can talk about Kurdish politics are really restricted – in Turkey, due to the pressure from the government, and in the US, due to lack of resources and interest,” says Alemdaroğlu. “Along the way, I received some questioning remarks about a Turkish studies program organizing a conference on Kurdish politics, and what sort of conference that will be. Would it be touting the Turkish state position? Would it be objective? Hopefully, our conference program is the best answer to these questions: that this is an academic conference and we are joined by scholars from a number of prominent institutions in North America, Turkey, and elsewhere.”

Kurdish politics conference 2016Although most of the conference focused on Turkey-related issues, it also provided a venue to address broader global issues of minority rights in places where nationalism is strong, as well as identity politics and the mobilization of minority groups. Women’s roles in politics was also a key topic – Kurdish political parties in Turkey appoint female and male co-chairpersons for all levels of representative office, ensuring at least 50 percent representation for women in Kurdish politics.

The three-day conference covered themes and concepts that have helped shape Kurdish politics in Turkey over the last century, such as the fall of the Ottoman Empire/creation of the Republic of Turkey, Turkish and Kurdish nationalism, violence and strategies of resistance, displacement, mobilization of women, contested borders and lands, and remembering and commemorating violence.

The Keyman program will continue these conversations on Kurdish politics and other critical Turkish issues in the near future. Along with conference co-organizer Fatma Müge Göçek (University of Michigan), Alemdaroğlu plans to publish the conference papers in an edited book in 2017. She believes addressing this topic with a rigorous academic approach will have benefits to all sides.

“The Kurdish issue is fundamental to the troubles Turkey is having right now. A resolution to this conflict through a responsive engagement with Kurds’ socio-political demands will make Turkey a better place to live for everyone.”

Interested in attending future events hosted by the Keyman Program? See their PlanIt Purple feed for a list of upcoming public events.

Human Rights, Middle East, Peace/Conflict