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Kurdish Language: Power or Resistance?

By Nesrin Uçarlar

The first section of this chapter provides a brief description of Kurdish intellectuals in the European diaspora as an introduction to the following two sections. The approaches of the Kurdish intelligentsia in the European diaspora towards the status planning for the Kurdish language are analysed in the second section within the framework of the relationship between language and power on the one hand, and language and resistance on the other. The third section examines the political and cultural connotations of linguistic rights for the Kurdish intelligentsia in the European diaspora within the framework of a discussion on power and resistance.

The last section is devoted to an analysis of the position of Kurdish intellectuals in Turkey within the context of the binary opposition between power and resistance. The comparison between the approach of the new generation of Kurdish intellectuals in Turkey and that of the earlier generations is also discussed in detail in the last section of this chapter. The last section further addresses the question of the relevance of the democratic experiences and the cultural and linguistic works of Kurdish intellectuals in the European diaspora in the evolution of such a new generation. The overarching question of Kurdish language and literature as a transformative resistance against the hegemony of the majority is also discussed.

Kurdish Intelligentsia in the European Diaspora 

A considerable portion of Kurdish intellectuals in Europe was composed of members of Marxist-led Kurdish movements in Turkey during the 1970s and 1980s. Since the Marxists were aiming at the establishment of an independent socialist Kurdish state, they ignored such ‘lateral’ questions as culture, language, gender, etc. As Bozarslan argues, ‘Kurdish “Marxism” in Turkey, like Turkish Marxism itself, and that throughout the Third World, offered little opportunity for political pluralism’ (1992: 110), whereas the non-pluralist character of those Kurdish Marxists also stemmed from the patriarchal and tribal structure of the Kurdish society. In this respect, the majority of Kurdish migrants who had been socialised within a political culture that was largely traditional/authoritarian, nationalist/secular, totalitarian/ Marxist-Leninist, or a combination of all of these, gradually resocialised and integrated into their new host societies and were influenced by deep-rooted democratic political processes and organisational forms during their years of refuge and exile in different Western European countries (Sheikhmous 2000). For this reason, Sheikhmous argues that ‘a new era of realism, toleration, cooperation and accommodation’ emerged among Kurdish intellectuals in Europe in the late 1980s (ibid). Østergaard-Nielsen also finds that while ‘a Kurdish diaspora political network in Germany … advocated communism/socialism and outright Kurdish independence through organised demonstrations in the 1980s, then [it] increasingly formulated [its] goals in terms of human rights and democracy in Turkey during the 1990s’ (2006). Consequently, freedom of speech and advancement of civil society helped the Kurdish intelligentsia in the European diaspora to develop a diversified approach to the Kurdish question in Turkey. Seemingly, those far from the front lines of conflict and able to access a wider variety of information sources may have a perspective less influenced by sentiments and violent antagonism.
On the other hand, it is not the intention to describe a single shared image or identity of Kurdish intellectuals in the European diaspora. Neither does such an image or identity represent all Kurdish communities in the European diaspora. As Houston notes, Kurdish diaspora
… is firstly produced through the narrative imagination and has an irreducible intersubjective content. It also has an irreducibly plural aspect: as the various, sometimes rival ways of imagining the character and significance of the Kurdish homeland shows, different individuals and groups have different memories, sentiments, and convictions about wherein the vitality of that homeland consists (2005: 113)147.
Alinia (2007: 235) similarly argues that the imaginations and meanings of ‘homeland’ vary among the Kurdish diaspora according to personal experiences and political discourses, which means that the imagination of a common fatherland need not show an agreement on the type of fatherland imagined. In this respect, the de-territorial notion of diaspora discussed above is highly relevant for Kurdish intellectuals in Europe, who mostly regard the wish to return to ‘Kurdistan’ as a notion whereby they express and keep their solidarity and loyalty to Kurdishness, rather than a viable objective of returning to the territory in which they intend to re-settle148. On the other hand, one cannot say that ‘the legal status of Kurdistan is becoming irrelevant; [rather] as a symbol of Kurdish identity it will remain of prime importance to the Kurdish diaspora’ (Bruinessen 1999). ‘The loss of the homeland or the theft of a territory named Kurdistan is facilitated by the actual lost locality of the village’ (Houston 2005: 113). In short, exile ‘brought educated Kurds of different regional backgrounds together and thereby helped them to imagine Kurdistan as their common fatherland. It was exile that transformed Kurdistan from a vaguely defined geographical entity into a political ideal’ (Bruinessen 2000b). Moreover, it is this political ideal which activated Kurdish intellectuals in Europe. As the then-advisor to the Ministry for Migration of Sweden, Lars Gunnar Eriksson (1992: 98) noted in 1989, the Kurds were more successful and active than other migrant groups in utilising the opportunities they have in European countries.
Read more on this topic in the full text of this dissertation, Chapter 7 at


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