The Kurds and the State
by Denise Natali
Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005. 238 pp. $29.95
Reviewed by Michael Rubin
Middle East Quarterly
In The Kurds and the State, derived from her University of Pennsylvania doctoral dissertation, political scientist Natali explores how Kurdish nationalism developed in Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. She does this with the opacity and jargon of an academic: "This book explains why Kudayetî, or Kurdish national identity, becomes ethnicized and the similarities and variations in its manifestation across space and time."
Beyond style, her comparative approach has value. The Kurds are not monolithic, linguistically or politically, though too many works treat them as such; to this, The Kurds and the State is an important exception. Natali avoids contemporary Kurdish narratives of victimization. Kurdish complaints that European powers divided Kurdistan do not hold up to historical fact: the border between what is now Turkey and Iran, for example, dates from the sixteenth century. Nor does she make the mistake of many contemporary authors and instant experts, retroactively extending Kurdish nationalism. She explains how Kurdish nationalism grew in early twentieth century Anatolia with the coming of European consuls and intra-communal tensions. In contrast, Kurdish nationalism took longer to develop in polyglot Iran, perhaps because there Sunni versus Shi‘ite sectarian practice rather than ethnicity determined the degree to which Kurds could integrate.
Natali's overviews and comparisons are thought-provoking. She juxtaposes the growth of Kurdish participation in the political process in Turkey with an increasingly stilted process in Iraq and notes how Ankara's embrace of the Kurds and their socioeconomic and political diversification undermined any unitary sense of Kurdish identity in Turkey. Her examination of Turkish strategies to undercut Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, PKK) terrorism in the 1980s is also useful even if she remains critical of Ankara's refusal to "de-ethnicize the notion of Turkish citizenship." In these ways, The Kurds and the State advances the staid and often simplified historiography that marks Kurdish studies.
But Natali's work is weakened by several problems, starting with her unsure grasp of history. She amplifies, for example, the efficiency of Ottoman state control and discounts the efficiency of Iranian bureaucracy. While inefficient and weak by Western standards, nineteenth century Iran was organized enough to defeat incursions by Ottoman Kurdish tribal chiefs along its periphery. Natali appears unaware that published collections of Iranian diplomatic correspondence are replete with reports and discussions telegraphed from the front. She is also prone to exaggeration. If "early republican Turkey removed all opportunities for the Kurds," how did İsmet İnönü, an ethnic Kurd, succeed Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey's founding father?
More serious is the incompleteness of Natali's discussion of the Atatürk religious reforms. She fails to address head-on the impact of his abolishment of the caliphate, the source of a great deal of tension among Turkey's Kurdish tribes for whom religious traditionalism trumped nationalism as the impetus for struggle with the nascent Turkish republic. Her bibliographical judgment is questionable, citing, for example, Armenian polemicist Vahakn Dadrian (whose name she misspells).
Discussion of the Kurds of modern Iran falls short and that of Syria is nonexistent. Natali parses secondary sources, many out-of-date, for mention of Kurds and appears unaware that some authors upon whose work she relies, including Afsaneh Najmabadi (whose name she also misspells), approach Iranian historiography through a political prism that ends up skewing her narrative. It is unfortunate that The Kurds and the State falls short, for a more careful and complete comparative examination of Kurdish society would contribute much.
Related Topics: Kurds | Michael Rubin | Winter 2007 MEQ
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free mef mailing list
This text may be reposted or forwarded so long as it is presented as an integral whole with complete and accurate information provided about its author, date, place of publication, and original URL.