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Ethnicity and Politics in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire: The Kurdish Case

Dr. Djene Bajalan focuses in his presentation on the use of Kurdish ethnicity for political mobilisation in the early modern period, particularly within the Ottoman Empire. In the last fifteen to twenty years, with the partial liberalisation of the Turkish political space and the comparative success of Iraqi Kurdistan, there have been certain revisions of the old primordialist narrative that traced ‘the Kurds’ back to ‘the Medes’ – and even posited unitary Kurdishness at the time of the Indo-European migrations. Rather, younger scholars have argued that modern Kurdish nationalism is fundamentally ‘modern,’ a product of the socio-economic, political, and intellectual environment of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Nevertheless, even in these recent revisions what ‘it meant’ to participate in Kurdishness prior to the age of nationalism has been ignored or treated as irrelevant. Thus, we are told, this is not nationalism – yet the question begs, what then is it?

In this presentation Djene gives an overview of the contexts in which Kurdishness was mobilised in the early modern period, and asks several specific questions:

1) What were the political implications of Kurdishness?
2) What do manifestations of Kurdish ethnic awareness signify?
3) Is it possible to speak of an ethnic Kurdish solidarity?
4) Is it useful or meaningful to talk of continuities between pre-modern and modern iterations of Kurdishness?

In answering these questions Djene utilises variety of approaches. The first is a ‘top down’ state perspective, analysing how imperial systems and – perhaps more importantly – imperial administrators perceived the Kurds as a group and incorporated this image into state policy. The second is an internal Kurdish perspective, delineated in three contexts: Kurdishness as an element of distinction in socio-economic and political hierarchies; Kurdishness as revealed by the Sharafnama, a literary history of Kurdish principalities written in 1597; and Kurdishness as revealed by myths of origin. In these three contexts Djene takes us through the many socio-economic, cultural, and political factors which coalesced into particular understandings of ‘being Kurdish.’ Ultimately, he demonstrates that these understandings are always contingent on the particular constellation of factors present in any given instance.