Kurds and Armenians: Finding Common Cause
On September 2, 1938 an editorial appeared in the Hairenik Weekly condemning the Turkish government’s brutal crackdown of its Kurdish population in Dersim. The editorial drew the following link between the common struggle for freedom waged by both Armenians and Kurds:
“The case with the Kurds is a fight born of desperation, similar to the stand of the Armenians in 1918, a resistance which takes into account neither numbers nor odds. It is the natural instinct for self-preservation and self-determination to which all peoples aspire.”
Such an expression of solidarity with the Kurdish Cause was not an aberration but, rather, a direct extension of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation’s rich legacy of standing shoulder to shoulder with all groups struggling against oppression. Drawing such links between other movements for social justice and the Armenian Cause is an important principle which deserves proper attention, not only for its moral and historical significance, but also for its political implications in today’s context of Hai Tahd activism.
There are two major underlying aspects behind the principle of solidarity. One is the moral aspect which considers freedom to be a social, rather than mere individual, pursuit. It is based on the belief that one can only truly be free when freedom becomes achieved for all others around them as well; for how can one truly be content and secure in their freedom if they are surrounded by suffering and injustice? This concept is perhaps best captured in Martin Luther King Jr’s famous quote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The other dimension for solidarity hinges on a more practical political calculation: the belief that by coming together with others around a common goal, one can help build a broader base of power and improve social conditions. Indeed, by pooling resources and manpower, movements which are able to collaborate with one another are logically much more likely to achieve victories. The smaller a group or movement is, the more central this consideration becomes in their hopes for pursuing justice.
The ARF Legacy
In the history of the Armenian Cause, both of these dimensions have played a role in motivating initiatives to form bonds with non-Armenian circles. From very early on its existence, the ARF cultivated ties with other peoples who similarly struggled for liberation against despotic regimes. Such groups included the Russians, Kurds, Persians, Assyrians, Macedonians and even ordinary Turks who suffered under the Sultan.
Within the Armenian communities of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish masses stood out as an especially important group to establish cooperation with. Like Armenians, Kurdish peasants lived a servile existence under Ottoman rule and faced similar levels of exploitation. The ARF sought to explain that both peoples had a shared interest in resisting Turkish tyranny and the brutality of Kurdish landowning chieftains.
Several early ARF World Congresses passed decisions calling for the establishment of relations with Kurds; the pages of Droshak, the ARF’s official publication, commonly featured calls for peace with the Kurds; and fedayees such as Ishkhan, Vartkes, Goms, Roupen, Kevork Chavoush, Rosdom and many others made attempts to build bridges with the Kurdish working class. Although these attempts did not bear full fruit, there were in fact a handful of Kurds who were courageous enough to go against their powerful chiefs and join with the ARF in its struggle against the Sultan. Kurdish figures such as Msto, Valad Nuri, Kerpela Abbas, and Hamzeh put their lives on the line and fought shoulder to shoulder with Armenians. There was even a mixed Armeno-Kurdish ARF group led by the fedayee Mjo.
Nevertheless, the lack of a revolutionary consciousness and the grip of the feudal clan system within the Kurdish community served as an obstacle to broad-based collaboration. Many Kurds succumbed to the divide and conquer policies designed by the Turkish state and participated in the massacre of Armenians.
Following the Genocide, however, as the Turkish government turned its genocidal focus against the Kurds, the ARF once again extended a hand of harmony and collaboration to the Kurdish people. Figures such as Vahan Papazian worked to bring Kurds together and help them organize resistance against the increasingly repressive policies of Kemalist Turkey. Due to Papazian’s efforts, a first-ever national Kurdish league called Hoybun was formed in Lebanon in 1927. ARF leaders such as Garo Sassouni also allied in favor of the Kurdish struggle and the ARF officially raised the Kurdish issue at meetings of the Socialist International, beginning in 1925.
Thus, as can be seen, attempts at solidarity between Kurds and Armenians persevered even in the face of past Kurdish involvement in atrocities against Armenians. This was due to the fact that Kurds are a people whose fate has been inextricably linked to that of Armenians. Both have been victims of Turkish brutality and have had their national rights denied.
Just as Turkish authorities once viewed Armenians’ call for equality and democracy as a “threat” to their empire, Ankara today interprets the Kurdish people’s demand for basic human rights as meaning “separatism.” Just as the Ottoman authorities refused to recognize the national identity of Armenians and called them “Christian Turks,” the Kurdish people have had to fight Turkey’s attempts to officially classify them as “Mountain Turks.” Just as they once did to Armenians, the Turkish government continues to suppress the language, history, and identity of Kurds; ransacks their schools and cultural monuments; bans their political parties and newspapers; pillages their towns and villages; terrorizes their families and children; subjects Kurds to a policy of Turkification; and attacks their human rights workers and journalists.
There is no better example of the horrific consequences of allowing Turkey to get away with the Genocide than what is happening today to the Kurds. Allowing a crime to go unpunished only tells the criminal that they can get away with the same crimes over and over again. We see this very clearly today in the case of Turkey’s policy toward the Kurds.
In this sense, there is a moral imperative to show solidarity with the Kurdish people’s struggle. At the same time, there is a tactical imperative to form cooperation with all those who share an interest in putting an end to Turkey’s inhumanity. The strength of all movements demanding justice from Turkey would be amplified if such diverse groups came together around their mutual points of concern. Not doing so would only serve the interests of the Turkish state and continue the divide-and-conquer policy it has so long pursued.
In addition, as has been pointed out by academic Bilgit Ayata, dialogue between Armenians and Kurds has the potential to serve as a counterweight to the counterproductive approach being pushed on the state level between Turkey and Armenia. Instead of succumbing to Turkey’s imposition of dominance under the guise of Turkish-Armenian ‘reconciliation,’ Armenians should seek common cause with the Kurdish people and ask themselves how there can ever be genuine friendship with a country that still systematically oppresses over 20% of its own population.
Although there have been many disappointments and negative experiences in the ARF’s attempts to form coalitions with other struggles, there have also been many positive achievements. Indeed, some of the instances of collaboration with other liberation movements have undoubtedly formed one of the most remarkable chapters in ARF history. In this light, the benefits of collaboration should continue to be pursued, albeit carefully and with the vigilance that ensures that the rights of Armenians are never made expendable.
Editor’s Note: This article is featured in the Summer 2009 issue of Haytoug, a quarterly publication by the Armenian Youth Federation. The upcoming issue will focus on the theme of solidarity between peoples and causes. Visit the AYF Booth at the Navasartian Games (July 2-5) to pick up a free copy. It will also be available at community centers, schools and local Armenian book stores. You can also download it in PDF today and visit the website to sign up for a free subscription.