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Agha, Shaikh and State

Éditeur : Zed Books Date & Lieu : 1992, London
Préface : Pages : 374
Traduction : ISBN : 1-85649-018-1
Langue : AnglaisFormat : 135x215 mm
Code FIKP : Liv. En.Thème : Général

Table des Matières Introduction Identité PDF
Agha, Shaikh and State


Agha, Shaikh and State: The Social and Political Structures of Kurdistan

Exacerbated by the Gulf War, the plight of the Kurds is one of the most urgent problems facing the international community. This authoritative study of the Kurdish people provides a deep and varied insight into one of the largest primarily tribal communities in the world.

It covers the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the great Kurdish revolt against republican Turkey, the birth of Kurdish nationalism and the situation of the Kurdish people in Iraq, Turkey and Iran today.

Van Bruinessen's work is already recognized as a key contribution to this subject. Tribe by tribe, he accounts for the evolution of power within Kurdish religious and other lineages, and shows how relations with the state have played a key constitutive role in the development of tribal structures. This is illustrated from contemporary Kurdish life, highlighting the complex interplay between traditional clan loyalties and their modern national equivalents.

This book is essential to any Middle East collection, It has serious implications for the study of tribal life elsewhere, and it documents the history of what has until recently been a forgotten people.

Dr Martin van Bruinessen is a distinguished social anthropologist and a Fellow of the Kurdish Institute in Paris.


This book is a revised edition of my doctoral dissertation which originally appeared in 1978. I have rewritten certain parts, left out some of the excessive detail, and added a few remarks on the developments since the book's first appearance, but have not made substantial changes to the major arguments. Since 1978 much literature has been published that is immediately relevant to the topics discussed here. Where appropriate I have made reference to these publications in the form of additional notes. There were one or two cases where later publications and my own subsequent findings forced me to revise my original views (notably on the nurcu movement, chapter 4); otherwise I have kept most of my interpretations and formulations as they were originally, even if now I might formulate them differently.

In gathering the information I owe great debts to many people and a few institutions. The Netherlands Organization for the Advancement of Pure Research (ZWO) enabled me to spend almost two years in the Middle East with a generous research grant. The Public Record Office in London gave me access to its rich files and permission to quote from them. My supervisors at the University of Utrecht, Professor 'Thoden van Velzen and especially Professor van Baal, gave me support and stimulation and had the wisdom to allow me all the freedom I wanted. The major debt, however, I owe to all the Kurdish friends who helped me in the various stages of my research. Many of them may prefer not to be mentioned by name; I thank all of them and dedicate this book to them.


How this book came to be written

This book bears the marks of the conditions under which it was researched. Several of the basic ideas occurred to me only in the course of my fieldwork, and I would probably not have conceived of them had the circumstances of the fieldwork been different. My interest in the Kurds was first aroused during a trip to the Middle East in 1967, when I was still a student of physics. Like so many visitors before me, I was awed by the landscapes of Kurdistan, pleasantly surprised by the hospitality of its inhabitants, impressed by their tales of national oppression and resistance. It was the beginning of a completely romantic fascination, which only gradually, in the course of subsequent visits, gave way to a more realistic appreciation. The fascination, however, remained, not least because of the difficult political situation of the Kurds in all those countries among which Kurdistan is divided, and the fact that they were permanently at odds with their governments.

Another result of my travels was that my intellectual interests shifted from the physical to the social sciences. I took courses in anthropology and sociology, and under the influence of the political and intellectual climate of the late 1960s became strongly interested in the theories concerning the related issues of peasant revolts, messianic movements, nationalism and class consciousness. It occurred to me that Kurdish history would provide an almost ideal testing ground for many of these theories, because, in this century alone, Kurdistan has seen many rebellions by peasants, with both messianic and nationalist overtones. But somehow the Kurdish case seemed to be different from the other, more popular cases often adduced to illustrate theories. The Kurds, to put it simply, seemed to be right-wing, whereas peasant revolutionaries are supposedly leftists.

In the Kurdish war in Iraq, begun in 1961, popular participation gradually increased, and in the late 1960s several thousand Kurds, mainly peasants, took active part in guerrilla warfare against successive Iraqi governments. During 1974-75 their number was to exceed 50,000. Moreover, as I noticed on several trips through Kurdistan, most of the
Kurds who did not actively fight identified themselves in one way or another with those who did. This was true, not only in Iraq, but also in other parts of Kurdistan. In terms of numbers, therefore, this was certainly a people's war, a peasant war comparable to the six that Wolf described in his major work on the subject (1969b).1 But whereas these six movements were progressive (the peasantry were mobilized, at least in part, on the basis of their class interests, against their exploiters; the movements were anti-imperialist and aimed at the abolition of social injustice), the Kurdish movement had, especially since 1966, a conservative, even reactionary appearance, in spite of the justness of its demands. The Kurdish leadership seemed to wish for more imperialist interference in the region rather than less. Mulla Mustafa Barzani repeatedly expressed his warm feelings for the United States, which he wanted Kurdistan to join as the fifty-first state, and to which he was willing to grant control of the oil in Kurdistan in exchange for support.

The movement was gradually purged of leftist elements and it seemed that the traditional leaders, whose authority had at first been challenged by young urban nationalists, were able to consolidate or recuperate their positions as a consequence of their participation in the movement.2 The vast majority of Iraqi Kurds supported Barzani in these attitudes. His more leftist rivals were followed by a small minority only.

The Kurdish movement thus seemed to contrast with another liberation movement of a largely tribal people, that of the Dhofaris in Oman. This movement had the reputation of being very revolutionary; it was one of the favourites of the leftist press, as the Kurdish movement was that of the conservative British and American press. There were two obvious reasons for this difference: the former movement fought a reactionary, oppressive, pro-Western regime, the second an authori- tarian, reformist, oppressive, pro-Soviet regime, and the leadership in both movements had completely different backgrounds. But did these two factors alone explain the difference? It seemed to me that there must also be internal reasons why the Kurdish movement in Iraq became more openly conservative during 1964-66.3 To what degree did tribal organization and other 'primordial loyalties' (Alavi 1973) prevent poor peasants from defending their own rights against tribal chieftains and landlords, and make them fight for interests not their own? Were these loyalties breaking down, and if so, how and under what circumstances? What precisely was the impact of imperialism on traditional Kurdish society, and could this explain the nature of the Kurdish movement? These and similar questions were at the back of my mind when I started preparing fieldwork (1973).

I decided to concentrate on traditional power relations at the local level and the effect of increasing state control and incorporation into the world market on class relations and on the class consciousness of the middle and poor peasantry in particular. I intended to do this in the form of a rather traditional anthropological study, staying for a considerable time (more than one year) in a very limited area (three or four contiguous villages), so that I would be able to collect hard data rather than the vague impressions that abound in the literature on the Kurds.

The choice of an area to carry out this research was restricted due to political factors. It could be foreseen that in the spring of 1974 a new war was to break out between the Kurds and the government of Iraq, and I did not expect to be welcome there. Turkey seemed equally uninviting to an anthropologist interested in the Kurds. In 1972, the Turkish sociologist, Ismail Be§ikci, had been sentenced to thirteen years' imprisonment because of a sociological and political study on the Kurds that was considered to be separatist propaganda (Bqikci 1969 b) .4 Persian Kurdistan seemed to offer the only possibility. I had been there twice on short visits and had selected an area that appeared to promise good prospects for studying at least some of the phenomena in which I was interested. It was sufficiently far removed from the Iraqi border, I then believed, to stay clear of complications caused by the coming war in Iraq, in which Iran was clearly going to be involved — although I did not know then to what extent. I made a formal request for a research permit and, when I received no satisfactory answer, went to Tehran in July 1974 to try to speed up proceedings.

My original application was turned down for reasons which were unclear, so I revised it and applied again, repeating this several times until I received an ultimate refusal in November. Meanwhile, I had made several trips: one to Kurdistan and two to the northeastern province of Khorasan, where there is also a sizeable Kurdish population. During these trips, I was confronted with a problem I was to face on many later occasions. Not having a research permit, I could only travel around as a tourist, which meant I could not stay very long in any one place; and when staying in a place for a short time only, it is mainly the locally powerful people one meets. It is usually only with them that intensive contacts are made. This is because they want to know everything that happens in the village; they want to meet every visitor, especially if foreign, and to know the reason for the visit. Entertaining visitors is the traditional privilege and obligation of the village chieftain; any commoner who takes on this role trespasses on the chieftain's privileges. An additional reason for my relatively frequent contacts with the rich and powerful of the village was my apprehension that common people might run into trouble for talking to me, as long as I did not have a research permit. It is more acceptable for the educated and wealthy to be in contact with foreigners. I was aware that so much contact with the top of the social pyramid and so little with the bottom could result in considerable misrepresentations, or at least in exaggerating the importance of 'entrepreneurs' and other 'strong men'5 in society. I could not, however, avoid spending a large part of my time with village headmen, tribal chieftains and shaikhs.

Later I found a way to broaden my social contacts: I preferred villages where I already had an acquaintance, met elsewhere, usually a village teacher or a son of the village shaikh who studied in town. As a friend rather than a complete stranger I had greater freedom to talk to whom I wished; staying with the shaikh also allowed me to talk to many of the less privileged, since all the ranks visit the shaikh regularly. Nevertheless, the powerful and their views are no doubt overrepresen- ted in my fieldnotes, and thus in the book.

My visits to the Kurds of Khorasan first made me aware of the narrow interrelation of tribal organization and administrative policies of the state: tribal confederations here appeared to be originally created by the state, and the paramount chieftains accepted by the tribes had, at least for the past century, received official titles from the shahs (see Chapter 3). At first I thought that this was an atypical situation and began to read historical source materials to discover how this had come about. I noted later that most Kurdish tribes have long been similarly affected by the surrounding states. I was more likely to hear this kind of information from chieftains than from commoners, and, in fact, collected much of it in this way. I supplemented my field research with a critical reading of primary and secondary sources of the past four centuries, which gave form to Chapter 3 of the book.

On my first two trips to Persian Kurdistan I spent much time with shaikhs and dervishes. Somewhat to my astonishment I found that there were many other travellers on the road, Kurds from Iraq who had come to Iran as refugees or on mysterious duty for 'the Revolution', as the nationalist movement was usually called. In Rezaye, over-zealous SAVAK officials had tried to prevent my seeing the Iraqi Kurds, but when I stayed in minor towns, such as Sardasht, Bane and Mariwan, it was impossible not to meet them: we usually shared the same hotel rooms. In this way I received my first impressions (apart from newspaper reports) of what had been happening in Iraqi Kurdistan since the outbreak of the war. I also became aware of the extent of Iran's involvement, which was even more considerable than I had expected. Iraqi Kurds I met suggested that I might be able to do research in the liberated areas of Iraqi Kurdistan if I applied for permission to the Kurdish representation in Tehran. This I did as soon as it was obvious that I would not receive permission for research in Iran. The Kurdish representatives were courteous and helpful, and responded positively. On 6 February 1975 I crossed the border into Iraqi Kurdistan, still intending to carry out research as originally planned. Although the war would restrict my freedom of movement, it would, nevertheless, provide a unique opportunity to study Kurdish society in a war situation — a situation more normal for the Kurds than peace. These would also be favourable conditions for studying the problem of national versus tribal or class loyalties. Six weeks after my arrival I had to leave again, together with all Kurdish fighters and a large number of the civilian population, because the Kurdish movement had collapsed. The Shah, on whom the Kurdish movement had made itself completely dependent, had reached an agreement with the Iraqi regime, his traditional enemies, and immediately stopped all support of the Kurds – with dramatic consequences. The Kurds saw themselves forced to either surrender to Iraqi troops or take refuge in Iran. Some considered continuing partisan resistance; the Kurdish leadership forbade them to do so. Villagers fled en masse to Iran; by March 20 almost the entire Balik area, where I was staying, was evacuated.

The six weeks I spent in Iraqi Kurdistan left a deeper impression on me than any other period of my fieldwork. Every day I was confronted with human misery, despair, sickness and death. When the collapse set in, many conflicts within Kurdish society and the Kurdish movement — until then carefully hidden — came out into the open. It taught me much about Kurdish society, but it was a traumatic experience — I had become strongly involved emotionally. After my return to Iran I remained in close contact with refugees and had long interviews with dissidents who were then ready to talk to me more openly.

Because of these events and the difficulties in obtaining permission, I decided to continue my research by visiting a number of other parts of Kurdistan and surveying a variety of forms of social organization and processes of social change. My focus was to be mainly Turkish Kurdistan because of its large size and the greater freedom it offered for travellers.

From June 1975 to August 1976, I travelled in different parts of Turkish, Syrian and Persian Kurdistan, in most places unable to observe directly much that I was interested in. Interviews thus constitute a larger proportion of my field material than is usual in anthropological field- work, many of them dealing with situations and events in the past. My informants' imprecision regarding dates and concrete historical contexts was another reason to supplement my fieldwork with extensive reading of written sources.

An obvious problem in the approach I adopted is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to find really comparable data from different times and/or places. Due to the short time I stayed in most places, I found it generally impossible to collect quantitative data. Similarly, the unstructured interviews that were part of my method gave me much material at each place, but never exactly parallel to that collected at others. The interviews were guided by my informants' interests as well as by my own. On the other hand, it was precisely by not leading the interviews too strictly that I obtained really interesting, unexpected material. My own views were significantly changed by my informants (be it not always in the direction they wished). I found it even more difficult to compare observations. One is not likely to witness, for instance, conflicts of the same kind in more than one place. The same may be said of the historical sources. The tomes that I read my way through contained many gems for the collector of curiosa, but relatively little that I could use. In many cases the kind of material I was looking for, in order to compare a present state of affairs with that in the past, was lacking. This study, then, is largely an exploratory one, not one in which theories are put to the test. Only a fraction of the material I collected could be brought together in a more or less coherent framework. Even so, the descriptive material is very dense. It certainly does not suggest simple answers to the questions I posed, but I believe it may help at least in making our formulation of those questions more precise.

Subject of this study

This book deals with what Alavi (1973) calls 'primordial loyalties'. Alavi introduced this term to describe group ties such as kinship and caste that prevent poor peasants perceiving class contradictions and that make them act against their objective interests. In the Pakistani case he describes, these loyalties are those of kinship, caste, and especially patron-client ties. In Kurdistan, other, but equally primordial, loyalties profoundly affect politics. Primordial though these loyalties are, they operate within the context of the most important conflicts of modern world politics. The struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union and the conflicts related to the oil crisis affected Kurdistan more directly than they affected my own country, the Netherlands. It would therefore be naive to study these primordial loyalties without reference to the external factors that influence and modify them.

The primordial loyalties of Kurdistan are firstly those to the family and tribe and to the tribal chieftain or agha. Equally strong are religious loyalties, especially those to shaikhs, the popular mystics or saints who are also leaders of the religious brotherhoods (dervish orders). Strong efforts have been made to make a breach in these loyalties, largely in vain. In Turkey it was at first Atatiirk who tried to break the power of the aghas and shaikhs by measures from above, while over the past decade a generation of young socialists has attempted to mobilize the peasantry along class lines. Nevertheless, Kurdish peasants and herdsmen continue to follow their aghas and shaikhs. In elections the successful candidates are nearly always aghas and shaiks or their men. Even where the relationship between tribesmen and their agha has become more openly exploitative and the exploitation is no longer compensated for by the agha's usefulness, loyalty to him persists for a long time. Capitalism is often said to be the most powerful agent in breaking up such ties of loyalty, but it certainly does not do so immediately. On the other hand, the existence of primordial loyalties and their apparent ubiquity do not preclude the functioning of other loyalties. Conversely, when new loyalties such as those of nation and class emerge, the primordial ones do not suddenly cease to function. It often happens that these different loyalties interact with and mutually modify each other. The concrete situation then defines which of the loyalties will be most forcefully asserted.6
At a political meeting of immigrant workers from Turkey I once talked with a small group of people who were active in a socialist workers' union. They were quite class conscious men. When I heard that they were from eastern Turkey I switched from Turkish to Kurdish. Immediately the discussion became more cordial; we were temporarily an in-group from which our Turkish friends were excluded. After some time I told them that I was the friend of an influential shaikh from their district, expecting that this would provoke them. To my astonishment, however, my standing with them rose even more: although they were not very religious, they associated themselves emotionally with this shaikh.

Kurdish nationalism and the tribal and religious loyalties stand in an ambivalent relation to each other. On the one hand, the first Kurdish nationalists were from the ranks of the traditional authorities, shaikhs and aghas. It was, in fact, precisely because of the primordial loyalties to these leaders and to the values they embodied that the nationalist movement acquired its mass character. On the other hand, the perpetual conflicts and rivalries between these traditional leaders prevented and still prevent the Kurds from really uniting. The very fact that a certain chieftain participated in the nationalist movement was often sufficient reason for his rivals to oppose it, and most commoners followed their chieftains without question. Even in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1974, when nationalist sentiment was quite general, and when a decisive war between the Kurdish national movement and the Iraqi regime broke out, it was in many cases the chieftains' position that decided whether a tribe would join the Kurdish movement, try to remain neutral, or actively oppose it.

This book deals in the first place with the primordial loyalties. I describe tribes and dervish orders as I found them functioning in Kurdistan, or as I reconstructed their functioning in the past from interviews and literature, and I try to explain some of their characteristics. Secondly, I try to establish how they were and are influenced by external factors, and to trace how Kurdish nationalism developed in interaction with these primordial loyalties. After a first chapter with some general information, Chapter 2 describes the structure of the Kurdish tribe, at first in the abstract, then with descriptions of specific tribes of different degrees of complexity. The role of the chieftains is studied, and it is shown how leadership and conflicts are closely interrelated. The importance of the shaikhs is also connected with tribal conflict: shaikhs are in an ideal position to mediate in such conflicts and their role as conflict resolvers in turn increases their political powers. Chapter 4 deals with the shaiks and with the dervish orders of which they are the leaders. Both because so little has been written about these orders and because of my own fascination with them, I describe more than only those aspects that have political relevance: philosophy and ritual receive much attention. I propose an explanation for the rapid rise of one order in the past century and the prominent role it has played in Kurdish nationalism since then.

The shaikh's association with the divine represents one external source of worldly power, another is constituted by surrounding states. Many aspiring chieftains derived power in their society from alliance with, or vassalage to, a neighbouring state. In Chapter 3, I present historical material to illustrate my thesis that the present Kurdish tribes are not autonomous units but are, in a way, creations of the surrounding states. Elements from these chapters are brought together in Chapter 5, where an important Kurdish nationalist revolt is discussed. Primordial loyalties, loyalty to the nation (still an ambiguous concept at that time), the resistance of peasants to economic exploitation, and tribe—state relations are shown in action and in interaction.

With its concentration on the primordial loyalties, this book cannot and does not pretend to give a comprehensive view of Kurdish society. Important aspects such as urbanization and migration, the activities of political parties and trade unions, and what is even more important, economic relations are not discussed. The topics that are discussed here are not sufficient, but certainly necessary for an understanding of the political events in Kurdistan during the past decades.

A note on the written sources

For all chapters of this book I have made extensive use of written material; the bibliography and the notes refer to these sources. A few words about the sources that I found most useful and to which I refer most frequently follow here. The two most important oriental works I have used are the Sharafname, by Sharaf Khan Bidlisi, and Evliya Chelebi's Seyahatname or 'Book of Travels'. The Sharafname was written in the final decade of the sixteenth century by the former ruler of the emirate of Bitlis, who had abdicated in favour of his son. It is a history of the Kurdish emirates, or rather of their ruling families. This chronicle is an extremly erudite work, the author (who had travelled much) had apparently spent a lifetime collecting the information contained in it. Its detailed accounts give a vivid picture of the political activities of the Kurdish rulers and of their dealings with the powerful states surrounding them. References are to the edition of the Persian text (by V. Veliaminof-Zernof) and the French translation (by F.B. Charmoy) that were first published in St. Petersburg (1860-75) and republished in England in 1969.

The Seyahatname is one of the most interesting sources on the social, political, economic and cultural life in the Ottoman Empire of the seventeenth century. The author had travelled extensively throughout the empire and even to its neighbours, Iran and Austria. In 1655 and 1656 he travelled to many different parts of Kurdistan, taking notes on virtually everything. He showed himself to be a good observer, with truly catholic interests, and his notes (in books 4 and 5) are a rich mine of information. Unfortunately, the printed editions of the Seyahatname are highly unsatisfactory. A first printed edition was published in Istanbul (1896-1938), the first eight volumes in Arabic script, the last two in the Roman alphabet. The first volumes especially were seriously mutilated, both by Abdulhamid's censors and by the editor's inclination to leave out or 'correct' what he did not understand. There is no better edition yet, although Evliya's original manuscript has since been found, which should make it easier to produce an authoritative edition .7 A recent popular edition (by T. Kemel Kuran and N. Aktaş) follows the first edition closely. References are to this edition; where I wished to be sure of the precise terms used by Evliya I used my microfilm of the original manuscript.

Among the many secondary sources on Ottoman history one of the most important is still Hammer's Geschichte des osmanischen Reiches. The author used a large corpus of primary sources that he had collected as manuscripts. It is a useful summary of the Ottoman historians, also on developments in Kurdistan. In many respects the work is still unsur- passed. The corpus of scholarly studies on Ottoman history is rapidly growing, but surprisingly few of these studies refer to Kurdistan. Persian history is less well explored, and here too the Kurds have received relatively little attention. Given this relative neglect, Minorsky's article 'Kurden' in the Encycloplidie des Islam is still an outstanding achieve- ment, one of the essential secondary sources.

Reports by Europeans travelling through Kurdistan are sometimes interesting additional primary sources. There are enough of these to fill an entire library, and I have not been able to peruse all of them. Most useful I found those by Rich, Layard and Fraser.

When the British occupied Iraq in the First World War, the task of setting up an administration in the provinces and of establishing and maintaining the Pax Britannica fell into the hands of political officers and assistant political officers, several of whom were orientalists. Some of them published books or articles about their experiences, which make interesting reading. Edmonds' book (1957) is by far the best of the genre; he was an able linguist and a competent observer, and he acquired a profound knowledge of Kurdistan. Raw material of a similar kind is contained in the British Foreign Office files at the Public Record Office: consular dispatches, field reports from officials, etc. I consulted the FO 371 files for Turkey, Iraq and Persia for the years 1917-1938.

The last category of useful written sources is the local histories (usually written by local people). The ones most frequently used are those by Firat (1970) and Dersimi (1952).

1. These were the Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese, Algerian and Cuban revolutions.

2. These aspects were stressed (and duly exaggerated) by official Iraqi propaganda. It should be noted, however, that the Iraqi regimes have also often allied themselves with such Kurdish traditional authorities in their attempts to counter the influence of Barzani and the Kurdish nationalists.

3. A watershed event in this gradual development was the split in the party and the virtual elimination of the urban radical elements from the leadership of the movement in 1964. See: Vanly 1970: 218-25; Kutschera 1979: 246-52; Jawad 1981: 163-73; Ibrahim 1983; 517-32.

4. Besikci had been tried during the martial law period of 1971-73. The first freely elected government after this period issued an amnesty law in 1974, under which he was released again. He continued his involvement in the Kurdish problem and published several books critical of Kemalist ideology and policies towards the Kurds, for which he was sent to prison again (1979). After he had completed this prison term, a letter he had smuggled out of prison and sent abroad became the pretext for another prison sentence, lasting until 1987.

5. For a well-made criticism of what its author calls the 'big man paradigm', as embraced by Bailey, Barth, et al., see Thoden van Velzen 1973.

6. I would not be doing Alavi justice if I did not mention that he also emphasizes this fact: 'We find that the factional mode of politics in peasant societies is not a repudiation of the model of class conflict; the two depict different modes of political alignments, in different conditions. Furthermore, primordial loyalties, such as those of kinship, which precede manifestations of class solidarity do not rule out the latter; rather they mediate complex political processes through which the latter are crystallized' (Alavi 1973: 59).

7. A part of Evliya's 'Kurdish' travel notes, dealing with Diyarbakir, has been edited, translated and annotated by myself and four colleagues at Utrecht University (Van Bruinessen and Boeschoten 1988).


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