Gunaysu: Armenians and Kurds

Kurds demonstrating in Turkey. (Photo by Mujgan Arpat)
Kurds demonstrating in Turkey. (Photo by Mujgan Arpat)

Lately there has been a hopeful atmosphere in Turkey for the settlement of the so-called “Kurdish issue,” which for around 30 years cost the country enormous bloodshed and huge losses of financial and human resources, and saw the reinforcement of the authoritarian, anti-democratic, and ultra-nationalistic tradition in the Turkish way of life. The Interior Ministry is reportedly working on a “comprehensive set of ideas” to take steps for a peaceful solution. The ruling AKP deputies of Kurdish origin, for the first time, raised their voices in favor of such measures at the cost of being reproached by the prime minister for making untimely comments. Also for the first time, the name of the leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—Abdullah Ocalan—who is expected to announce his “plan for a peaceful solution” on Aug. 15, has been referred to in the mainstream press without the accustomed derogatory descriptions, such as “murderer of babies” or “terrorist chieftain.”

It is not a coincidence that more and more, informers have been reporting where they witnessed the burial of those who had been extrajudicially executed in southeast Turkey in the 1990’s, and that people have been applying to human rights organizations and public prosecutors’ offices for the excavation of such places, in search for their missing relatives’ bodies. It’s also not a coincidence that suspects of unsolved murders, including some retired military officers, are currently in jail, and some of them are also the activists or the organizers of violent anti-Armenian protests.

The start of a process which might lead to a peaceful solution of the Kurdish Question is vital for the democratization of Turkey. It is also necessary for eliminating the widespread culture of denialism in the country—the denial of even the actual existence of religious, ethnic, and cultural entities other than the Muslim Turks, and their rights as equal citizens.

The Armenian and Kurdish Questions in Turkey have always been closely interconnected in a much-contradictory, even paradoxical manner. Kurdish tribal chieftains and local Kurdish people in many places directly took part in the Armenian Genocide, carrying out the murders and usurping Armenian property. Yet, Kurds soon saw that their diabolic collaboration wouldn’t save them from falling victim to the same perpetrators, whom they knew from their previous experiences in the 1930’s and 1940’s. In his monumental book Der verpasste Friede, Hans-Lukas Kieser writes: “The bloody annihilation of the last Kurdish-Alevite autonomy in the name of bringing peace and civilization in 1938 was the completion of the internal conquest of Armenia and Kurdistan which had started a century ago.”

It was in 1938 that the Kurdish resistance in the mountains of Dersim against the deportations—which surely meant inhumane conditions, starvation, and death on their way—was crushed with unprecedented atrocities in the Republican period. What Kieser calls “a hundred years of internal colonization” refers to the Ottoman army’s campaigns into historic Kurdistan in the 1830’s and 1840’s, when Kurdish resistance was repressed with utmost violence. The internal colonialization also put an end to the hierarchical modus vivendi in the eastern vilayets (provinces) of the Ottoman Empire, where Armenians were more or less allowed security and a relative wellbeing under the protection of Kurdish principalities, to which they paid taxes in return. After that, the Armenians had to pay double taxes both to the Ottoman authorities and the Kurdish chieftains; as a result, their sufferings increased, and the hostilities and tensions between the Kurdish and Armenian population heightened. Playing a part in the hostility was th
e Ottoman authorities’ successful manipulation of the local Kurdish chieftains and the Kurdish population in general, underlining the “brotherhood” of fellow Muslims as opposed to the Christian infidels; the authorities also elaborated the idea that a possible independent Armenian state in the region would be the end of the Kurdish existence there.

Then there was the visible difference between the socio-economic level of development of the local Kurdish and Armenian populations—the latter being well ahead of the former in every aspect, from education to all other manifestations of a much more civilized life, which triggered feelings of jealousy and greed on the part of the Kurds. As a result, although it was the ruling Young Turks who planned the Armenian Genocide and put their plan into effect through the state apparatus, it was the local Kurdish people in many places led by their chieftains who carried out the massacres. (On the other hand, it is a well-known truth that other Kurds, especially in the Dersim area, protected Armenians and Assyrians, refusing to turn them over to the Ottoman army and helping them to escape.)

Yet, collaborating with their Ottoman masters in exterminating Armenians did the Kurds no good. During the Kemalists’ “War of Liberation,” they were promised autonomy in return for their support to free Turkey from “foreigners,” which included native Greek and Armenians as well. The promises were never kept. The leaders of the young Republic went on with their Turkification project by means of extensive deportations and the resettlements of Kurds, just like their Ottoman predecessors. So during the Republican period, Kurdish resistance and uprisings followed one another, each being repressed with greater violence.

It’s a tragic and painful fact—a fact that provides enormous learning points—that the Armenian Genocide played a part in the radicalization of the Kurds during and after the foundation of the Republic. Throughout their history, the Kurds were in one way or other in interaction with the Armenians. On the one hand, they felt threatened by the growing might of Armenians economically, socially, and politically—a fear fuelled by the government, which spread rumors about the Armenians’ secret plans to establish their own independent state. On the other hand, the Armenians’ strong awareness of their ethnic, religious, and cultural identity, as well as the political activity of the Armenian intelligentsia, inspired them. And after the genocide, the horrible collective memory of doing such injustice to the Armenians, of being their murderers and plunderers, haunted them. They sensed that they might well share the same fate with the Armenians, and that Armenians and Kurds were in fact the victim of the same mentality of statehood. Armenian leaders of the time were also aware of this highly complicated Kurdish reality.

So, no matter how it may sound paradoxical, it was not unexpected that only a couple of years after the genocide, during the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, the Armenian delegation headed by Boghos Nubar Pasha and the Kurdish leader Sharif Pasha joined forces and reached an agreement for the foundation of two independent states—that of Armenia and Kurdistan, in the eastern part of Turkey. After another couple of years, in 1927, following the foundation of the Turkish Republic, the short-lived Republic of Ararat formed during one of the Kurdish uprisings was led by the Kurdish Khoyboun society, which was supported by the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF). An ARF leader, Vahakn Papazian, had participated in the founding congress of the society in Lebanon, hailing the meeting “as a symbol of the alliance between Armenian and Kurds” (A People Without A Country, G. Chaliand, A.R. Ghassemlou, M. Pallis, 1992) .

Naci Kutlay, in his book Kurtler (“The Kurds”) (Peri Yayinlari, Istanbul, 2002), refers to M.A. Hasratian, an Armenian historian specializing in Kurdish history in the Soviet Union, who wrote that at the ARF’s April 1929 Congress, a number of decisions were taken to support the Kurdish struggle in “Turkish Armenia” on the grounds that it provided an obstacle for the resettlement of masses of Turkish population in the Armenian territories, undermined Turkish nationalism, and weakened the Turkish state, thus contributing to the creation of conditions for setting up a “free and united Armenia.”

My knowledge of Armenian-Kurdish relations is, admittedly, far from being adequate enough to give a complete summary of their histories. But from what I’ve heard and from what I’ve come across in various sources, I can see and deeply feel that the truth about the Armenians and Kurds—two peoples who have suffered from the same project for an ethnically and religiously homogenous country—is too complicated for a simplistic and reductionist approach.

The peaceful solution of the Kurdish problem now in Turkey will pave the way for the defeat of denialism in every sense of the word—progress, no matter how small or slow it may be, towards the enlightenment of the minds and the healing of the injured conscience of many Turks, regarding their relation with Armenian sufferings, and with the part they (we) have played and still play in this suffering.


Ayse Gunaysu

Ayse Gunaysu is a professional translator, human rights advocate, and feminist. She has been a member of the Committee Against Racism and Discrimination of the Human Rights Association of Turkey (Istanbul branch) since 1995, and is a columnist for Ozgur Gundem. Since 2008, she writes a column titled "Letters from Istanbul," for the Armenian Weekly.


  1. Any plan less than free Kurdistan in the region will be temporary solution to the Kurdish Question. However, one should not forget Turkish cheap talk strategy.

  2. Hye, wake  up world… Turkey has been committing the second (2nd) Genocide of the 20th century and now into the 21st century.By labeling the Kurds as ‘terrorists’ (Turks’ thinking) this allows them to eliminate the Kurds  (who are really freedom fighters against tyranny of the Ottoman Genocide mentality) even now  into the subsequent Turkish ‘democratic’ governments!  Turkey lies to their own society as well in its  vile treatment of its own citizens. Turkey promises Armenia-then reneges- the world is watches  – what is Turkey’s next ploy?
    And, Turkey is known the world over as a nation which signs agreements but then…. whoops, doesn’t abide by any.  Turkey is, as an emperor in the children’s well known fairy tale of  THE EMPEROR’S CLOTHES, (clothing which did not exist)  but the emperor insisted, yes insisted, he was wearing his new clothes – whilst he was not clothed… Yet, Turkey’s ‘democracy’ is claimed today by a Turkey –  but  in a Turkey  democracy just ain’t there… is it?  Yet, the U.S. leadership, State Department leading the parade, insists Turkey is a democracy –
    Turkey has not been able to become a ‘democracy’ – in nearly one hundred years (to date).  Howsomever, when the Armenian nation was formed for the mere two years (1918-1920) Armenian patriots lead the nation, reeling from the Turkish Genocide, yet in those two years had  established their university.  Now that’s what I call exemplary leadership – exemplary patriots whose love of country  to be an example, today.  Manooshag

  3. Though, throughout their history, the Turkish tribes have been cunningly wise, in one thing they lacked and remain lacking. They could not go into the depth of True Islamic Faith and Sacred Writings. Turkish tribes were able to eliminate Christian Armenians and Orthodox Greeks, cheat on Muslim Kurds; they were willing to Turkishly dance in front of Slavonic Russians, French, German, and British Europeans, White and Colored Americans (and recently, Turkishly shout out at mighty and meek Chinese) — all the time using the hatred of these nations toward each other, for the benefit of their Statehood (read terrorist statehood), Property (read haram and anti-islamic property, and Progress (read remote and anti-heavenly progress). Yet Turkish tribes have been clever enough to survive these minor and major calamities, their leaders failed to understand the meaning of Islam. Now, heavenly forces are about to work against Turkishness and traditional turkish terrorist statehood. If simple Turkish citizens are able to understand the meaning of human rights, the functions of heavenly forces, and the priciples of mutuality, hence asking excuses, forgiveness, and redemption — Turkishness shall survive. Otherwise, Mighty and halal Arabs, Pure and righteous Kurds, meek Armenians, and humble Greeks shall destroy anything that is called Turkey in Anatolia.
    Samvel Jeshmaridian

  4. The millions of Kurds that live in Turkey are more integrated to the mainstream society than outsiders understand. They are among the most celebrated singers, writers, comedians, artists, doctors, lawyers, politicians, and have gone up in the highest ranks in the army and government (i.e. president). It is true that this came at the expense of blending in to the mainstream society. If the many nations in the US insisted on only speaking their own language, and education in their own language only – would they have integrated to the American society as a whole? There is no question about speaking English and perceiving oneself as an American first and foremost, before ethnic background. What works beautifully in the US should work just as well in Turkey. Turkey is already a melting pot. Like it or not !

  5. @JakeInLA

    whats your point their still being persecuted and cant sing or speak the Kurdish. turkey is a fascist state i think you need to understand that. go look up what the definition of Fascism is.

  6. Sadly there is little, if any, cultural, dare I say, political brideg-building between Armenians and Kurds.

    What contact existed in the late 70’s and early 80’s during the ASALA era, has not been expanded upon.

    There is a Dersim Armenian Union operating in Turkey today and I know of Armenian singers/dancers who travel to Dersim to perform at a annual cultural jamboree.

    Can’t point to much more.

  7. To me it does not matter if Kurds were involved in Armenian genocide or not I consider Turkey responsible for it. Actually Turkey is trying to represent Armenian Genocide as a civil war between Armenians and Muslims.
    There is no reason that we should support Kurds. It will just jeopardize situation of Armenians who live in Turkey. At the end there is a conflict of interests between Armenians and Kurds. It is wrong to consider Kurds as an ally. Dashnaks were the worst politicians in Armenian history, their acts cannot be an example for us

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