Religion in Kurdistan

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    was in contact with both Muslim modernists and leading Kurdish nationalists and where he
    became involved in attempts at popular education. In the Balkan War and World War I he
    served as a commander of Kurdish militia troops, distinguishing himself incidentally by
    saving Armenian families from the massacres of 1915. His dream was to educate his people
    and lift them from the ignorance and backwardness in which they lived. The tariqats, in their
    state then were to him part of that backwardness. The education he proposed was both
    Islamic and scientific.
    In the early 1920s Sa`id broke with the Kurdish nationalist movement, in which he had
    belonged to the non-separatist wing, and devoted himself to writing his magnum opus Risalei
    Nur (Treatise on the [Divine] Light). This is a series of texts of varying length on various
    moral and religious subjects, based on dreams and visions, strongly mystical in tone, and
    written in an idiosyncratic, old-fashioned Turkish. It became the sacred text of Sa`id's
    increasing numbers of disciples, who came to be known as Nurjus, "Devotees of the [Divine]
    Light." The Nurju movement, in spite of persecution by the state, kept growing in numbers
    and has at present several million followers throughout Turkey, Turks as well as Kurds.25
    The Nurjus constitute probably the most tolerant and open-minded of the various Sunni
    Muslim movements in Turkey and have from the beginning distinguished themselves by their
    positive attitude toward modem science. This is not to say that among the followers of so
    large a movement there are not here and there fanatical groups. It is ironical, given Sa`id
    Nursi's rejection of the sufi orders, that the Nurju movement has itself assumed some of the
    structural characteristics of a tariqat, with a hierarchical organisation based on closeness to
    the late master and degrees of initiation in the arcane secrets of the master's texts. I have even
    met Nurjus among the Kurds who were also Naqshbandis.
    There are at present several separate tendencies within the Nurju movement emerging out
    of conflicting views on the political stand that the movement should adopt. Among the
    Kurdish Nurjus a moderately nationalist tendency has emerged in the 1980s that names itself
    after the Medreset-üz-Zahra, the university that Sa`id Nursi had dreamt of establishing in
    25 0n Sa`id-i Nursi and his religious teachings, see Hamid Algar, "Said Nursi and the Risala-i Nur", in Islamic
    Perspectives: Studies in Honor of Sayyid Abul A!a Mawdudi (London, 1978), pp. 313-333; Serif Mardin,
    Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi (Albany: State University
    of New York Press, 1989). On the Nurju movement see Paul Dumont "Disciples of the Light: The Nurju
    Movement in Turkey," Central Asian Survey 5:2 (1986): 330. See also Rusen Çakır's observations in Ayet ve
    slogan, pp. 77-99.​
     
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    Kurdistan. They emphasise Sa`id's role in the early Kurdish movement, which the official
    Nurju spokesmen had long passed over in silence. This group appears to represent relatively
    well-educated urban youth of Nurju family backgrounds. The emergence of Kurdish
    nationalism in these Islamic circles is not an exceptional occurrence. We find a parallel
    development in other Muslim groups among the Kurds, in spite of Islam's ideally nonnationalist
    attitude.
    Among the Iranian and Iraqi Kurds, Islamic political movements have never gained much
    of a following. Immediately after the Iranian revolution, before political parties had got
    themselves organised, religious personalities emerged as spokesmen for the Kurds. This was
    no doubt in response to the role played by the Shiite ulama in and after the revolution and did
    not reflect a sudden turn to religion. The most popular of these personalities was Ezzeddin
    Hoseini of Mahabad, a religious functionary who spoke like a nationalist rather than like a
    cleric, and who allied himself with the radical left. A more explicitly Islamic politician was
    Ahmad Moftizadeh of Sanandaj, who sought co-operation with the relatively liberal Shiites
    around Bani-Sadr.
    Both men's positions were soon marginalised when the secular Democratic Party of
    Kurdistan in Iran (KDP-I) and Komala consolidated themselves and organised the
    population. Hoseini lost his initial mass support but not popular sympathy. With a small
    personal following he took part in guerrilla action when the Iranian army and Revolutionary
    Guards reoccupied Kurdistan. Since the mid-1980s he has lived in European exile.
    Moftizadeh's fate was more tragic. He fell out first with the nationalist Kurds in his town,
    who saw in him a stooge of Tehran, and then also with the Iranian authorities, who found him
    insufficiently co-operative. He has languished in an Iranian prison for almost a decade at the
    time of writing (1991). There is no significant Islamic organisation or tendency among the
    Iranian Kurds now, and apparently no potential support for such a movement either.
    As said before, Iran's post-revolutionary authorities have made various attempts to
    establish Islamic organisations among the Iraqi Kurds, but these have not been very
    successful. There have been small formations led by Abbas Shabak, a former Talabani
    associate, and by Najib Barzinji, a less prominent member of the well-known shaikhly family,
    both financed and armed by Iran; but neither ever amounted to much. The only significant
    force is Shaikh Muhammad Khalid Barzani's Kurdish Hizbullah, who are held together by
    traditional loyalties to the shaikh of Barzan rather than Islamic ideology. Although many Iraqi
    Kurds are pious Muslims, Islam as such is not a rallying force.​
     
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    The situation seems different in Turkish Kurdistan. During the 1970s and 1980s the
    National Salvation Party and its successor, the Welfare Party, both of them explicitly Islamic
    political parties, consistently polled 20 per cent or more in the Kurdish provinces, which is
    well above the national average. This does not necessarily mean that the same high
    proportion of the Kurds has embraced Islamic political ideals. For one thing the pany
    represents a distinct class interest, that of small-town traders and entrepreneurs who view
    complete integration in the western economy as a vital threat. It is therefore only natural that
    it receives stronger support in the more economically backward areas. Secondly, the party has
    always refrained from the Turkish chauvinist attitude towards the Kurds that has
    characterised almost all other political parties in Turkey. Moreover, Kurdish voting behaviour
    is often more dependent upon patronage relations than upon ideological motivation. A vote
    for the Welfare Party is not necessarily a deliberately Islamic vote, while conversely many
    committed Muslims have voted for other parties. (Most of the Kurdish shaikhs, and also the
    Nurjus, for instance, have allied themselves with other parties.)
    Political commitment to Islam is most unambiguous among the supporters of clandestine
    or semi-clandestine Islamist groups. Their clandestinity makes it difficult to find reliable
    information about these groups. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, apparently under the
    influence of the Iranian revolution, there was a short-lived group styling itself the Islamic
    Liberation Army (IKO, slam Kurtulus Ordusu), with some supporters in the Tatvan and
    Batman districts. Students of the schools for religious functionaries (imam-hatip liseleri,
    state-run schools present in many Kurdish towns) formed informal networks of Islamist
    radicals, into which they also drew many other urban youth. In the second half of the 1980s
    these Islamist groups increasingly emphasised their Kurdish identity in opposition to the
    Turkish military operations in Kurdistan. At several places the initially antagonistic relations
    between the Islamist groups and the Marxist PKK (Workers' Party of Kurdistan), which has
    carried on a full-blown guerrilla war since 1984, became quite cordial.
    The major Islamist formation among Turkey's Kurds at present appears to be the Islamic
    Party of Kurdistan (PIK, Partiya Islamiya Kurdistan). It is Kurdish nationalist as well as
    Islamist —in fact, its party organ, Judi, writes more about the Kurds than about Islam — and
    it enjoys some support in places like Batman (which is also a stronghold of the Welfare
    Party) and in districts with a history of Sunni-Alevi confrontation such as Malatya. It is
    unlikely that this party will play a role of importance in the near future, although some
    articles in the Turkish press have attempted to present it as a dangerous militant​
     
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    organisation.26 Compared to secular parties such as the PKK or the other, much weaker,
    leftist formations, the mobilising potential of the PIK remains quite low.
    Conclusion: Islam and Nationalism
    Islam was the factor that united Turks and Kurds in the aftermath of World War I against the
    infidel victors and the local Christians (Armenians and Greeks). Many Kurds willingly took
    part in the Kemalist movement because it was a movement of Muslims against non-Muslims.
    When Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) dethroned Islam after the establishment of Republican
    Turkey, he undermined the very foundation of Turkish-Kurdish unity. It is hard to disentangle
    Kurdish and Islamic sentiment in the first rebellions against his regime, but attachment to
    Islam in these rebellions took the form of attachment to an Islamic leader, usually a tariqat
    shaikh.
    And so it is today. The religiosity of the (Sunni) Kurds is most frequently expressed in
    their loyalty to a shaikh. Modernist and fundamentalist currents in Islam have not made
    serious progress among the Kurds. The one movement that began as modernist (be it of an
    idiosyncratic kind), the Nurju movement, has become among the Kurds a tariqat-like
    organisation. The Muslim Brethren and similar neo-fundamentalist movements never gained
    influence among the Kurds, and the impact of Iran's revolutionary Muslim ideologists has
    also been limited. The only important Iran-supported group among the Kurds is significantly
    that of the Naqshbandi shaikh, Muhammad Khalid Barzani.
    When the Turkish military took over in 1980, they perceived three dangers threatening the
    Kemalist state: communism, Kurdish separatism and Islamic radicalism. Legalising and even
    sponsoring moderate Islamic activities that had previously been banned seemed to them the
    best way to fight the former two dangers and to prevent the radicalisation of the third.
    Combined with severe repression of the left and the Kurdish nationalists, this policy did in
    fact result in a general depoliticisation of society and a general turn to religion. The lasting
    confrontation between the armed forces and the Kurds, however, and the physical repression
    from which no Kurdish family remained exempt, caused a strong Kurdish nationalist
    26 In March 1990 over thirty alleged members of the Partiya Islamiya Kurdistan were arrested
    and a few arms were confiscated in police raids in Istanbul, Ankara and Malatya. The press
    called the detainees "Islamist terrorists" and claims that the PIK had declared jihad ("holy​
     
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    backlash. While Muslim radicals of the early 1980s denied the relevance of ethnicity, most of
    the Kurdish Islamists appear to have become nationalists as well. The nationalists, on the
    other hand, including the PKK, have given up their earlier arrogant attitude toward Islam,
    recognising it as an important, potentially progressive social force.
    Further reading:
    a. On religion among the Kurds in general:
    Bois, Thomas. Connaissance des Kurdes. Beirut: Khayats, 1965. (Especially chapter VIII,
    "Les Kurdes sous le Croissant," pp. 79-102).
    Bruinessen, Martin van. "Religious Life in Diyarbekir: Religious Learning and the Role of
    the Tariqats." In Martin van Bruinessen and H.E. Boeschoten, Evliya Çelebi in
    Diyarbekir. Leiden: Brill,1988. Pp. 45-52.
    Driver G. R. "The Religion of the Kurds." Bulletin of the School of Oriental Studies 2 (1921-
    23):197-213.
    Nikitine, Basile. Les Kurdes: Etude sociologique et historique. Paris: Implimerie Nationale,
    1956. (Especially chapter xi, "La vie spirituelle des Kurdes. Religion," pp. 207-54).
    b. On Sunni Islam, the mystical orders and the Nurju movement:
    Algar, Hamid. "The Naqshbandi Order: A Preliminary Survey of Its History and
    Significance." Studia Islamica 44 (1976):123-152.
    Algar, Hamid. "Said Nursi and the Risala-i Nur." In: lslamic Perspectives: Studies in Honour
    of Sayyid Abul Ala Mawdudi. London, 1978. pp. 313-333.
    Bruinessen, Martin van. Agha, Shaikh and State: On the Social and Political Organization of
    Kurdistan. Ph.D. thesis, University of Utrecht, 1978. Revised edition: London: Zed
    Books, 1992. (Especially chapter IV, "Shaikhs: Mystics, Saints and Politicians.")
    Hakim, Halkawt. "Mawlana Khalid et les pouvoirs." In Marc Gaborieau, A. Popovic and T.
    Zarcone, eds. Naqshbandis: Historical Development and Present Situation of a
    Muslim Mystical Order. Istanbul-Paris: Isis,1990. pp. 361-370.
    war") with the aim of establishing an independent Kurdistan based on Islamic principles​
     
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    Hourani, Albert. "Shaikh Khalid and the Naqshbandi Order." In S. M. Stern, A. Hourani and
    V. Brown, eds. Islamic Philosophy and the Classical Tradition. Oxford, 1972. Pp. 89-
    103.
    Mardin, Serif. Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bediüzzaman
    Said Nursi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989.
    c. On the heterodox sects of Kurdistan in general:
    Moosa, Matti. Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press,
    1988.
    Müller, Klaus E. Kulturhistorische Studien zur Genese pseudo-islamischer Sektengebilde in
    Vorderasien. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag,1967.
    d. On the Yezidis:
    Ahmed, Sami Said. The Yazidis: Their Life and Beliefs. Miami: Field Research Projects
    1975.
    Drower, E. S. Peacock Angel: Being Some Account of Votaries of a Secret Cult and Their
    Sanctuaries. London: Murray 1941.
    Edmonds, Cecil J. A Pilgrimage to Lalish. London: The Royal Asiatic Society, 1967.
    Guest, John S. The Yezidis: A Study in Survival. London and New York: KPI, 1987.
    Lescot, Roger. Enquête sur les Yezidis de Syrie et du Djebel Sindjar. Beirut, 1938. Reprint:
    Beirut: Librairie du Liban/Institut Français de Damas 1975.
    Menzel, Theodor. "Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der Jeziden." In: Hugo Grothe, Meine
    Vorderasienexpedition 1906 und 1907. Vol. 1. Leipzig, 1911. pp. 89-211.
    e. On the Kurdish Alevis:
    Bumke, Peter J. "Kizilbas-Kurden in Dersim (Tunceli, Türkei): Marginalität und Häresie."
    Anthropos 74 (1979): 530-548.
    (Cumhuriyet, April 3, 1990).​
     
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