National conflict reflected in diasporas: the quest for recognition among Kurdish youth in Sweden

Recognition is the first step towards reconciliation for Kurdish youth living in Sweden

Barzoo Eliassi
21 December 2011

What is often called the “Kurdish question” – or the “Kurdish problem” – involves one of the most intractable and enduring conflicts in the Middle East, perhaps the world. While most Middle-Eastern and international actors as well as the mass media focus primarily on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Kurds have remained politically, culturally and economically ghettoized within the boundaries of Turkey, Iran, Syria and until recently Iraq. Although Kurds in Iraq have attained a remarkable degree of autonomy, enabled by the Iraqi constitution approved in 2005, their political position within Iraqi Kurdistan remains both politically and economically vulnerable. This vulnerability results from the dependency of Kurds upon Turkey and Iran, two states that continue politically, culturally and economically, to marginalize their Kurdish regions and populations. Military violence and structural violence are always present in the suppression of Kurdish identities by these two states. On the other hand, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraqi Kurdistan still has a long path towards a consolidated democracy. Despite its establishment of a relatively safe region and the beginnings of economic prosperity, there is widespread political and economic corruption and a lack of the rule of law. Further, thorny issues like the disputed areas (“annexed” and “occupied” as some Kurds call them), oil contracts and the role of the Kurdish army continue to create a tense relationship between the KRG and the central Iraqi government.

The "Kurdish question" in Sweden

Due to state violence and economic deprivation in the Middle East, between 50,000 – 70,000 Kurds from all four parts of Kurdistan have migrated to Sweden. The Kurdish diaspora in Sweden is one of the best organized diasporas in western Europe, due to the presence of large numbers of elites and highly politicized migrants. While in Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, scholars speak about Kurdish migrants discovering their Kurdishness, Kurds who migrate to Sweden will find themselves in an already politicized and identity-aware Kurdish diaspora.

What makes Kurds different from Persian, Turkish and non-Palestinian Arab migrants in the west is that the Kurds come from a minoritized position in the Middle-East into a new minoritized position as Muslims, Middle Easterners and “wogs” in an ethnically divided Swedish society. While scholars have mainly focused on the structural and patterned inequalities that have privileged Persians, Arabs and Turks and marginalized the Kurds, few have accorded attention to how everyday interactions between these dominant groups and the Kurds reproduce and perpetuate these inequalities through individual actions and strategies.

Narratives of denial and resistance

Between 2006 and 2007, I conducted fieldwork among young Kurdish men and women in Sweden in order to investigate how experiences of ethnic subordination in the Middle East impinge on their identity formation in Sweden, and how they negotiated their social relationships with Arab, Turkish and Persian youth. Kurdish youth indicated that the question of denial and misrecognition of the Kurds did not end with migration. On the contrary, it haunted them even in Sweden with Kurdish youth being disdained and ridiculed by Turkish, Arab and Persian youth.

The youth themselves framed their Kurdish identity through specific narratives about collective Kurdish struggle and pain, in order to assign Kurdish claims exclusive legitimacy and underline the victimized position of the Kurds in their fight for recognition and political sovereignty. Outlining Kurdish identity within such a narrative framework exacerbated conflicts between Kurdish youth and youth with Arabic, Persian and Turkish backgrounds. These narratives provided Kurdish youth with a sense of solidarity and security, by strengthening the boundaries between “us” and “them”. References to historical narratives of Kurdish suffering were an effective means of constructing a coherent and monolithic Kurdish identity, exposed to yet withstanding oppression and ethnic subordination by dominant groups in the Middle East.

My research participants not only spoke of the experiences of Kurdish youth, but also about everyday life in an ethnically plural society. They referred to everyday identity-making projects among young people with Kurdish backgrounds, a process of creating an “Us” when their identities are contested, devalued and denied. This includes making distinctions between other young people who have their own states, homelands, and national collectivities. This “We-ness” does not converge in a political vacuum but in a context of denial that strengthens the boundaries between those who have a “natural” homeland and those who lack but aspire to have a homeland.

The rejection of Kurdish identity and Kurdistan is grounded in the fact that Kurds lack political authority over the regions that many Kurds claim or name as Kurdistan.

Reconstructing political geographies

In order to resist domination, Kurdish diasporas resort to alternative terminologies, naming different Kurdish regions as Southern Kurdistan (Iraq), Northern Kurdistan (Turkey), Eastern Kurdistan (Iran) and Western Kurdistan (Syria). This is a strategy of resistance which subverts and dismantles the sovereignty of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, and describes the present political authority of these nations over Kurdish regions as illegitimate. This discourse deconstructs the political geography of these four nation-states and reconstructs a divided Kurdistan. While Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria define Kurdish claims mainly in terms of separatism or secessionism, Kurdish youth argued for reunification of Kurdish territories that are, according to them, under occupation. This strategy is not only about creating a Kurdish identity but also a Kurdistani identity.

The act of naming is a strategy used by Kurdish youth to assert authority and control. It is a strategy not only used by subaltern groups but also by dominant subjects. Naming is an inescapable ideological instrument in constructing the symbolic boundaries of the nation. Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria have a long history of Turkifying, Arabizing and Persianizing Kurdish people and city names, and replacing them with Turkish, Arabic and Persian names. It is worth mentioning that the emergence of the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq has materialized Kurdistan as a political formation and geographical location under Kurdish control, which now functions for Kurdish diaspora youth as a response to the persistent annoying and ridiculing questions of dominant groups: “Where is Kurdistan?” “Show us Kurdistan on the map!”

The term “Turk” is often used in racist Swedish discourses as a derogatory slur which positions dark-skinned people from the Middle East as alien to Sweden and Europeans, while in a Turkish context, Turkish identity has been imposed forcefully on Kurds (who were regarded for several decades as ”mountain Turks”).

Thus for many Kurds in both the Swedish and the Turkish contexts to be labeled a “Turk” is to be subjected to a strategy of domination and belittling. According to several of the research participants, when they have claimed Kurdistan as their homelands, they have been labelled “Gypsies” by young people with Arabic and Turkish backgrounds who deny the very existence of Kurds. In this racist discourse, “Gypsies” is a measure of deviance and abnormality: of not having a homeland (a stable location or place of identity) and an institutionalized collective identity. Repetitive assertions of this sort by some young Iranians, Arabs and Turks have generated a defensive and reactive Kurdish positionality that denounces claims by dominant subjects that assign Kurds a stigmatized and inferior position. Even “uncommitted” Kurds can be drawn into this identity politics when they encounter the denial and devaluation of Kurdish identity.

Kurdish identity politics takes a position from which one can criticize dominant structures in the Middle East and give meaning to the collective struggle that many Kurds are involved in. In this respect, Kurdish youth interweave issues of suffering, oppression, denial and recognition at the heart of the agenda of Kurdish identity politics. These issues are discursively constructed as justifying and giving meaning to their violent struggle to assert a Kurdish subjectivity. One of the young men illustrates this process:

I have had a difficult time with Arabs and Turks and I have 13 records in my criminal register because of different fights that I have had with Arabs and Turks about Kurds. /…/ This is something they have done to us for a long time, they have tortured and chased us away from our homeland. My fighting with them [Turks and Arabs] starts with their question about where I am from. And I say am Kurdish. And they start saying: “There are no Kurds, you are Turks and there are no Kurds and you are like Gypsies”. But what the hell, there are 30 million Kurds. At the end, you get very tired of this. First, they have chased you away from your homeland and they do not accept us as Kurds down there and then they come to Sweden and still insist that they do not recognize and accept us.

If many migrants experience difficulty in giving a straightforward answer to the question “where are you from?”, young people with Kurdish backgrounds find further difficulty in answering this question since their identities are significantly contested, ambiguous, denied and devalued both in the Middle-East and in Sweden. Kurdish subjects contesting the dominant representations through their diasporic activities along with political and guerrilla wars are also contesting this devaluation. Kurdish satellite channels in western Europe have become effective means for Kurdish political movements to contest the dominant representations. Further, these channels provide alternative representations about how to create a new political order in which Kurdish identities can be lived, recognized and represented without state harassments.   

Non-violent options

Yet, the empirical material does not only show conflict in the relationship between Kurdish youth and other young people with Middle-Eastern backgrounds. There are also examples of harmonious relationships between Kurds, Arabs and Turks where there is mutual recognition of commonalities and differences. Consequently, the subordinated position of the Kurds can be negotiated without resorting to acts of violence and hatred. An important difference between Kurdish youth in Sweden and Germany (that hosts the biggest Kurdish diaspora in western Europe) is, that while Kurds in Germany are orgnised into groups involved in violent fights with Turkish youth, Kurds in Sweden frame their narratives and fights with Arab, Turkish and Persian youth as individual strategies.

Mutual recognition is regarded by Kurdish youth as a prerequisite for establishing friendship with Arab, Persian and Turkish youth. Lack of recognition, according to one of the interviewed youth, was viewed as an “eternal provocation” by dominant groups against Kurdish subjects. Recognizing Kurdish identity was regarded as having positive and constructive effects on these conflictual relationships, despite the fact that political claims for a Kurdish state were not fulfilled. Recognition therefore may be a prerequisite, but it is not a full answer.

Undoing privilege 

The lack of representation and recognition for Kurds as a nation is a reality within the borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, whose dominant overarching nationalisms have not succeeded in persuading the majority of the Kurdish population to identify with the national mainstream. Rather it is due to these hegemonic national identities that Kurdish nationalism has flourished, reacting to the suppression of the great diversity of languages, histories and cultures existing within their borders. This political subordination has constructed a Kurdish politics of belonging that is constantly searching for a Kurdish national identity. For subordinated groups like Kurds it becomes essential to their politics of representation to engender social transformation through exteriorizing their subjugated knowledge about themselves into a universal objectivity – something that Arabs, Persians and Turks have achieved through gaining access to sovereign nation-states, but also through silencing and pre-empting the knowledge and claims of Kurds as invalid.

The subaltern position occupied by Kurds as a stateless nation has historically been viewed in dominant Turkish, Arabic and Persian representations as symptomatic of a barbaric, backward, tribal or pathological orientation. However, Kurdish nationalism is not a proactive nationalism, but a reactive nationalism competing with already established and institutionalized nationalisms in the Middle East. It is important to pay attention to which groups have access to state power to endorse their national agendas and which groups lack such power. This is why we cannot equate dominant nationalisms with subaltern nationalisms. For example, Kurdish nationalism is contained, criminalized and punished for wanting the same thing as non-Palestinian Arab, Turkish and Persian nationalisms have achieved. As the late Fred Halliday put it, “Kurds are, like all contemporary peoples, entitled to no less – if ‘they’, or some parts of ‘them’, so wish”. Yet if we for instance conceptualize Turkish nationalism and Kurdish nationalism as equivalent, this implies that we deny their different morphologies and modes of constitution. A perilous outcome of this equivalency is that the real political distances (structural inequalities) between these two nationalisms is depoliticized and endorses what the postcolonial writer Rajagopalan Radhakrishnan calls “a politics of political lip-synching or theatrical ventriloquism”.

As long as Turkey, Iran and Syria do not undergo structural transformations and change, which recognize the multinational or plurinational character of their states, there will be no peaceful and enduring solution to the “Kurdish question”. The first step toward this process of inclusive citizenship is changing, renaming and renarrativizing “ourselves” in dialogue with minoritized groups that suffer from ethnic and religious discrimination.

Further, in order to bring about solid democracies in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, we need to decentre Persian, Turkish and Arab dominance and create a political space where all othered identities in these states are recognized and represented within every societal arena. In order to achieve that, dominant groups need to relinquish their privileges and recognize the fact that their privileged identity positions entail oppression of significant numbers of minoritized identities within Iran, Turkey and Syria.

Before envisioning an egalitarian future, these states should address and resolve political injustices and past histories of atrocities against minoritized groups. In order to do so, subaltern groups should have the right to name the political and cultural injustices that they have experienced through their own narratives and voices beyond state paternalism. It is no longer valid for these repressive states to resort to heightened rhetoric blaming western imperialism for sowing ethnic divisions in the Middle-East in order to maintain a status quo that is imbued with political inequality and otherness.

Although recognition is a vital aspect of identity formation, genuine political participation of the Kurds in the Middle East involves dismantling the unequal power relations between different national collectivities that assign the Kurds a subordinated position, and for whom Kurdish voices constitute a disrupting noise.

Kurds have for decades been subjected to a variety of exclusionary practices in the Middle East. In order to bring about viable democratic changes in these relationships, dominant groups need to undo their histories of dominance. It is those values internalized without critical questioning of their legitimacy which continue to pave the ground for a violent politics of denial and non-recognition. Any radical structural change in those state structures will surely influence the narratives, identity formations and social relationships of the groups mentioned above.   

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