The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion, 1880-1925

By Robert Olson, University of Texas Press, Austin

The Sheikh Said rebellion was the first large-scale nationalist rebellion by the Kurds. The role of the Azadi was fundamental in its unfolding. Kurdish intellectuals and military officers lay at the heart of the nationalist movement, in terms of organization and recruitment. The paramount influence of the more secular or non-cleric Kurdish nationalist organizations must be separated from the rebellion itself and its “sheikhly” leadership. The Sheikh Said rebellion was led largely by sheikhs, a deliberate determination by the leadership of Azadi from 1921 onward.

These decisions were defined and given force in the Azadi congresses of 1924. The fact that the rebellion had a religious character was the result of Azadi’s assessment of the strategy and tactics necessary for carrying out a successful revolution. While the Sheikh Said rebellion was a nationalist rebellion, the mobilization, propaganda, and symbols were those of a religious rebellion. It must be remembered that it was and continued to be characterized by most Turkish scholars (such as Behcet Cemal and Metin Toker) as a religious rebellion, instigated by reactionaries, who happened to be Kurds, against the secularizing reforms of the Kemalist government from 1922 onward (especially the abolition of the caliphate on 3 March 1924 and the National Law Court Organization Regulation among others).

It should be noted, however, that recently some Turkish scholars have also characterized the rebellion as “a nationalist rebellion in religious garb”. The basis of this is the fact that Sheikh Said was an ardent nationalist, as demonstrated by his earlier career. The consensus of scholarship in the 1960s and 1970s (much of it emanating from Western social scientists and orientalists) that nationalism and genuine religious commitment and spirituality, especially Islamic, are incompatible is not valid in the case of Sheikh Said’s rebellion. The Iranian revolution of the 1970s and 1980s has demonstrated forcefully the fallacy of this sort of reasoning. Martin van Bruinessen, the only scholar who has studied the rebellion in any detail, has stated emphatically that “the primary aim of both [Sheikh Said and the Azadi leaders] was the establishment of an independent Kurdistan.” Sheikh Said is an example of a man who was simultaneously an ardent nationalist and a committed believer. Many of the leaders of the Azadi and of the rebellion may have been genuinely upset by the abolition of the caliphate. For the average Kurd who participated in the rebellion, the religious and nationalist motivations were doubtless mixed. Most of the Kurds thought that the sheikhs who led the rebellion were religious and more importantly, Kurds.

Many other crucial events, factors, and developments played a role in the rebellion. Many of the leaders wanted to protect their land, their domination of the markets for their livestock , and their control of the legal system. All or some of which seemed to be threatened by the secularizing and centralizing reforms of the central government in Ankara. The Sheikh Said rebellion, was a turning point in the history of the Kurds in that nationalism was the prime factor in its organization and development. This is indicated by the fact that the subsequent large rebellions by the Kurds were nationalist and religious, employing nationalist symbols and propaganda. The Sheikh Said rebellion clearly demonstrated the direction that Kurdish nationalism was to take. In the Zeylan (1930) and Agri (1926-1932) rebellions, nationalist Kurdish slogans were used extensively.

This does not mean that traditional motivations of banditry and tribal feuds, as well as personal vendettas, were not prominent casual factors in the rebellion. In this and in other senses, the rebellion could be described as “primitive,” as Amal Vinogradov describes the Iraqi revolt of 1920. But the Sheikh Said rebellion , like the Iraqi rebellion, was a genuine national response to fundamental dislocations in the political and socioeconomic spheres. Like their Kurdish counterparts who had gained so much experience by their participation in the Hamidiye Regiments and in World War I, the Iraqi tribesmen (some of whom were Kurdish) who fought in the Ottoman army benefited from the military experience they gained in World War I. One of the interesting developments concerning the Sheikh Said rebellion of 1925 and the Jangali rebellion of Kuchak Khan in northern Iran from 1914 to 1921 is the supposed efficiency of arms and technology in supporting revolution and rebellion by dissident and nationalist minority groups. The participation of Kurdish, Arab, and Iranian tribesmen in the Ottoman, Qajar, and British armies and their familarity with the substantial technological and military changes that had been occurring since the 1880s may have contributed to their conviction that these weapons and organizational methods could be used effectively in their own national movements. Their assessmens may have been sound. It was misfortune of all three rebellions, however, that they were challenged and defeated by more powerful forces and stronger nationalisms. In the case of the Kurds, it was the stronger state and more developed nationalism of the Turks. For Kuchak Khan in Gilan, the same was true. But, in additions, the Jangalis were deprived at crucial junctures of aid from the Soviet Union and the Communist movement. The Jangalis’ opponent, the Iranian government, backed and supported by the British, was able to defeat the rebels. Unlike the Sheikh Said rebellion, British forces played a major role in the suppression and defeat of both the Jangali movement and the Iraqi revolt. It is possible that exposure to modern weapons, but not to modern diplomacy, may have caused the leaders of all three rebellions and/or revolts to act prematurely.

The Sheikh Said rebellion was tribal. The proportionate number of nomadic tribesmen who took part in the rebellion was much higher than in the Iraqi and Jangali rebellions. Few tribal or peasant cultivators participated in the rebellion as combatants. Indeed, as indicated above, the leaders of the rebellion did not even try to recruit the tribal and peasant cultivators, either because they thought that the peasants were simply too much under the thumb of the landlords through fear, coercion, or indifference. The role of the tribal and peasant cultivators was much greater in the Iraqi and Jangali rebellions. It is difficult to know how much land was owned by derebeys or agas within the area of rebellion, although there were a number of large landowners in the extended area (e.g. Diyarbakir) of the rebellion. If tribal chiefs are classified as derebeys or agas , then it seems that most of them were engaged in animal husbandry. But the landlords of the Diyarbakir plains opposed the rebellion. They played a principal role in assuring that Diyarbakir remained loyal to the Turkish government when it was attacked and besieged by Sheikh Said. The cooperation of these agas with the government is another indication of the strong ties that the Kemalists had already established with many Kurdish agas and chiefs. It was a premonition of a future when they were to become one of the mainstays of the Ataturk coalition.

The rebellion did not demonstrate much tribal coordination with urban dweller. Diyarbakir, heavily Kurdish did not rise in support of the rebels. The populace of Elazig initially surrendered without fighting, only to turn against the rebels because of their excessive looting and pillage. Again urban participation in the Iraqi and Jangali rebellions was greater than in the Sheikh Said rebellion. The coordination with urban groups was inhibited ny the territorial isolation of the core area of the rebellion. Communication, except on horse or donkey, was impossible, especially after the telegraph lines were cut. Also, telegraph lines had not yet been extended to many towns. The establishment of Azadi in Erzurum after 1921, in addition to the split in Kurdish nationalist movement, resulted in less contact with the Kurdish nationalists in Istanbul, although, as we have seen above, contacts between Azadi and Istanbul were maintained. The ulama and sheikhs played a large influential role in the Jangali and Iraqi rebellions, as they did in the rebellion of Sheikh Said. Their input in the rebellion of Sheikh Said was significantly greater than in the other two.

The Sheikh Said rebellion, then, was a prototype of a post-World War I nationalist rebellion. Its weaknesses were the usual ones: inter-tribal rivalry and Sunni-Shi’i differences, especially represented by the Hormek-Cibran tribal conflict, contributed to the lack of success of rising. These cleavages were exacerbated by the Naksibandi/non-Naksibandi differences as well. These, rather than the differences between Zaza and non-Zaza speakers, played an important role in the evolution of the rebellion and in the growth of Kurdish nationalism. Urban-rural cleavages, tribal-peasant and landowner-tribal hostilities, and antithetical secular-religious orientations among its leaders all contributed to its lack of success. The Sheikh Said rebellion represented an incipient nationalism that was also challenged by a strong nationalism that had mobilized in the course of the past thirty years, gathered strength during World War I, and further energized by the war of liberation with the power of an organized state behind it. Turkish nationalists claimed the territory on which the Kurdish nationalists wanted to create an independent Kurdistan. The Turks also proclaimed a nationalism that was inclusive of the Kurds, however prejudicial, while Kurdish nationalism, imperatively so, was exclusive of the Turks and their nationalism. This made Turkish nationalism initially stronger ideologically than Kurdish nationalism.

The Sheikh Said rebellion demonstrated, territorially, and politically, the increased vulnerability of the Kurds as a result of the displacement, deportation, and massacre of Armenians during World War I. The removal of the Armenians also removed the buffers of protection that their presence and nationalism offered the Kurds. The situation of the Kurds and the suppression of their nationalism was even more ironic in light of their eager participation in the deportation and massacre of the Armenians in 1915 and subsequently. The truly tragic meaning that the elimination of the Armenians held for the Kurds and Kurdish nationalism was recognized, as menitioned earlier, by some of the Kurdidh nationalist leaders such as Halid Beg Cibran.

In assessing the effect of the rebellion of Turkey’s history and politics, my position differs from that of Erik Jan Zurcher and that of Metin Toker. Zurcher in his recent study assigns the Sheikh Said rebellion and its aftermath only two paragraphs, while he devotes an entire chapter to the purges of 1926. Metin Toker, on the other hand, wrote an entire book on the subject of the Sheikh Said rebellion, in an attempt to demonstrate that it represented a turning point in the history of the modern Turkish republic. To be sure, Toker states that one has to make a distinction between the event of the rebellion itself and its consequences. As an event , says Toker, the rebellion was not much. As soon as the Turkish armed forces were able to mobilize, it was crushed. The tenor of my argument here is that the Sheikh Said rebellion, as an event, was much more important than Toker suggests and profoundly more so than Zurcher indicates.

Metin Toker is correct, however, in asserting that the consequences of the rebellion for Turkey, especially the Kemalists, were far more important than the rebellion itself. The main reason for this is that Toker is convinced, rightly in my judgment, that military action by the Kurds -even if they had displayed much more unity, cooperation, and coordination than they did- would never have withstood a focused attack by the experienced Turkish forces. However, the rebellion as an event was more important than Toker asserts because he refuses to acknowledge that it represented a challenging nationalism in competition with Turkish nationalism and, hence, threatening to the Turkish state.

In terms of domestic Turkish politics, the rebellion was, in my opinion, nearly as important as Toker suggests. According to Toker, the rebellion gave Kemalists, or “radicals” as he calls them, an opportunity to silence the criticism of the Istanbul press, which was aligned with oppositional groups and, shortly thereafter, regional newspapers as well. It also established the legal means via the Restoration of Order Law and the creation of independence tribunals to arrest the leading members of the oppostion forces when the time was ripe, in June 1926 after the discovery of a plot in Izmir to assasinate Mustafa Kemal. Soon after the discovery of the alleged plot, twentyone members of the Progressive Republican party and eleven of the most important members of the Committee of Union and Progress were arrested. Some escaped arrest only because they were abroad or went into hiding. Less than one month after the discovery of the plot, fifteen members of groups opposed to the Kemalists were condemned to death. Even the heroes of the revolution and of the war of liberation, such as Refet Bele, Rauf Orbay, and Kazim Karabekir, who managed to escape death, were never again to play significant roles in the politics of Turkey. The only exception was Fuad Cebesoy.

The suppression of the opposition to the Kemalists in the wake of the discovery of the assassination plot in Izmir in June 1926 has been dealt with adequately elsewhere. The point that I wish to make here is that the machinery to facilitate the crushing of the opposition both politically and legally was put into place in the effort to suppress the Sheikh Said rebellion. Ironically, many of those sentenced to death in the Izmir plot had voted for the very independence tribunals to which they fell victim. While the Kemalists had to wait until the purges of June-July 1926, nearly a year after the suppression of the Sheikh Said rebellion, to rid themselves of remaining opposition, the formal and organized opposition as represented by the Progressive Republican party was eliminated when the party was banned on June 3 1925.

Metin Toker writes that it was only after the Sheikh Said rebellion that three “revolutions” were able to occur: the Code of Civil Law (Medeni Kanunu Devrimi) of 4 October 1926; the Dress and Headgear Law (Kiyafet Kanunu Devrimi) of 25 November 1925; and the Alphabet Law (Harf Kanunu) of 1 November 1928. These kinds of reform would only have been possible in a Turkey under the Restoration of Order Law. Indeed, Toker sees similarities between the period of 1925 and that of 1957-60. In both instances, Ismet Inonu was able to assert his authority to restore order to the Kemalist program. Unfortunately, argues Toker, Celal Bayar and Adnan Menderes did not have in 1957-60 the same power and legitimacy that Ismet Inonu and Mustafa Kemal possessed in 1925.

In short, for Toker, the Sheikh Said rebellion remains a symbol of the impediments -conservativism, religious fanaticism, Muslim brotherhoods, and formal democratic opposition- that the “radical” Kemalists had to suppress or contain in order to proceed with their Western-oriented, capitalist directed, heavy industry-biased modernization program. The Sheikh Said rebellion emphasized to the Kemalists that this program might be delayed through continuing political infighting or might not be carried out at all. The decisions to pursue the Kemalist road to modernization were probably determined a few years earlier, but certainly there was a solid core that wished to pursue this course expeditiously by 1924. It was the Sheikh Said rebellion that created the atmosphere and the mechanisms to carry out the purges of 1926. In this sense, Toker’s analysis is correct. Zurcher does not sufficiently emphasize the atmosphere and context of the purges of 1926. The reason why the Sheikh Said rebellion is so important for the Turkish history is that the laws and instutions created for its suppression were agreed to by those who opposed Kemalism. They agreed, no matter how reluctantly, because no patriotic Turkish official could tolerate a contending nationalism. Here we have a good example of laws and instutions created to suppress an “external” enemy that are later used by the group in power to quash “internal” opposition. The Kemalist opponents and Fethi Bey realized this and therefore tried to depict the rebellion as a regional uprising, certainly one that was counterrevolutionary. But the fact that the rebellion was Kurdish and nationalist severely limited any objections that they could make. More strenuous opposition would have produced the charge that they were traitors. As it was, the members of the Progressive Republican party were charged with complicity in the rebellion, altough such complicity was never proven.

The Sheikh Said rebellion gave the Kemalist government a certain justification for categorizing serious opposition as being in league with the Kurds, having sympathy for Kurdish nationalism, or favoring ideologies that would strengthen Kurdish nationalism, or Kurdish ethnic power. If the red flag of the leftists was hoisted beside the green flag of Sheikh Said (representing Kurdish nationalism as well as Islam), the menace of the rebellion’s legacy would be even more of a threat to Kemalism and, possibly, in the future to the Kurdish statet itself. The rebellion proved an opportunity to reduce the opposition to Kemalist modernization through the closing on 30 November 1925 of all tarikats (lodges), zaviyes (cells), and turbes (religious tombs). Religious titles were abolished and wearing of clerical garb was prohibited. The Dress Law was passed on 25 November 1926, aimed against religious centers of opposition for the purpose of enhancing its legitimacy against the Kemalists. What is important to note here is that these laws were passed in an atmosphere of political consciousness on the part of Turkish public that their implementation and acceptance would reduce the threat of Kurdish nationalism.

The Sheikh Said rebellion created and provided a means whereby most serious subsequent opposition to government policies or comprehensive disagreement with its progress laid open the possibility that the disaffected groups would be labeled as traitors. In the aftermath of the rebellion, it was relatively easy to color opposition forces with a hostile ethnic tinge. The vehicles created and the laws passed for the suppression of the rebellion and the symbols of opposition to the Kemalist program that it generated meant that the consolidation of the Turkish state and of Turkish nationalism were greatly expedited by the suppression and perceived threat of Kurdish nationalism. The nationalist aspirations of ten percent of population had to be denied if the nationalist goals of the other ninety percent were to be achieved. It is in this sense that the Sheikh Said rebellion, its suppression, and its aftermath were more important than the purges of 1926, which simply eliminated the remaining opposition to the Kemalists’ programs. Most of those who were purged or sentenced to death agreed or would have agreed with the position subsequently adopted by the Turkish government vis-a-vis the Kurds and their nationalism. After all, when opportunities arose after 1950 for different policies to be followed or implemented, they were not.

The suppression of the Sheikh Said rebellion contributed to the consolidation of the new Turkish republic, the evolution and domination of the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Firkasi) and the one-party state it represented up to 1950, and the greater articulation of Turkish nationalism on which the party and the state were based. The creation of a one-party state conditioned the lack of serious discussion of policy alternatives, which in turn meant that there was a monodimensionality to the possible ideological solutions to the problems and challenges that the young republic would confront. It is this unidimensional approach that led to the great surprise of the Republican People’s party at the strength of appeal of the Democrat party in 1946. The inability of the Republican People’s party to learn from the lesson of 1946 led inexorably to its defeat in 1950. In this sense, one of the reasons for the defeat of the People’s Party in 1950 was the legacy of the monodimensionality that the Sheikh Said rebellion and its consequences introduced into the Turkish polity. In fact, the entire post-World War II period, when the military was in power in 1960-61, 1973, and from 1980 onward, follows a pattern shaped by the political and ideological consequences of the rebellion. Many factors contributed to the emergence of the modern Turkish polity-the Kurds and Kurdish nationalism may not be the single most important factor. But their influence on the development of modern Turkey has been most underestimated by scholars and students of Turkey.

It was stated in Chapter 5 that seventeen of the eighteen military engagements in which Turkish military fought from 1924 to 1938 occured in Kurdistan. Information about post-1938 Turkish military engagements is not available, but if it were, a similar situation would probably be noted. Turkey’s armed forces intervened in Hatay in 1938, in Korea in 1950-1953, and in Cyprus in 1974. The military engagements against the Kurds far exceeded the number of external interventions and engagements. By the 1980s, Turkey’s military actions against the Kurds had assumed external as well as internal proportions. In 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, Turkish forces entered Iraq in order to suppress and contain Kurdish nationalist and guerilla groups. The struggle against Kurdish nationalism, in which certain patterns of policies were implemented and against which certain nationalist, ideological, and psychological premises and attitudes were initially adopted in 1925, continued to play an important role in Turkey’s policy decisions more than fifty years after the Sheikh Said rebellion. These factors will quite likely continue to influence Turkish policy well into the twenty-first century. Kurdish nationalism, articulated and symbolized by the Sheikh Said rebellion, will also continue far into the next century.

The objectives and policies of the third major party involved in the Sheikh Said rebellion, Great Britain, have been discussed in Chapter 5. There is, however, another aspect to the international consequences of the rebellion that should be mentioned. Great Britain had consolidated its power in northern Iraq through its forward policy, adopted after the Air Ministry assumed control of military operations from the War Office in August, 1922. From 1922 to 1925, the RAF, under the command of Sir John Salmond, who replaced Sir Hugh Trenchard as chief of the Air Staff in 1929, pursued a vigorous bombing policy against the Kurds and Arabs in northern Iraq. The bombing forced Turkish forces led by Colonel Ozdemir to retreat from Rawanduz in June 1923. In many ways, the formal treaty between Turkey and Iraq on 5 June 1926 was shaped by the success of the British bombing policies. As we have seen above, the new Turkish republic was quick to learn from the British. By the end of 1926, Turkey had acquired 106 aircraft. In the following years, air power was used extensively in military operations against the Kurds. Air power was an effective means by which the new Turkish republic consolidated its state power, especially against the Kurds, just as British air power was instrumental in consolidating Britain’s imperial power in the post-World War I Middle East. The lessons learned regarding the use of air power in northern Iraq, especiallyduring the period 1922-1925, were used to good advantage by the British in Sudan, the Northwest frontier, Palestine, and other places. These examples are illustrative of the relationship between established empires and new states when two are not in direct military conflict but both wish to subdue third parties following policies antagonistic to the empire or to the new state. It became easier for Britain and Turkey to bomb Kurds “tan to make political concessions to Kurdish nationalism.”

In the period prior to Sheikh Said rebellion, the Kurds (and Turks, too) had to face the new technology of massive bombing, including incendiary bombing at night. In the post-Sheikh Said period, the Kurds had to face the might of an experienced British air force, as well as the burgeoning and increasingly effective Turkish air force. It would be more than thirty-five years before the Kurds had adequate antiaircraft guns. In the intervening years, the Turks and the British (Iraqi) forces were able to extend their control over areas of Turkey and Iraq that were predominantly Kurdish. By 1926, the same bombing policies against the Kurds were followed by Reza Khan in Iran. The effective use air power andits implied threat played an important in the origins and consequences of the Sheikh Said rebellion. The psychological terror it induced in the peasant and nomadic peoples of Iraq and Turkey and Iran, especially through incendiary night bombing, proved to be especially effective. Iraq was, according to L. S. Amery, the British colonial secretary in 1925,”a splendid training ground for the Air Force”.

One of the results of this effective British use of air power between World War I and World War II largely against the peoples of British colonies was that it contributed to the unpreparedness of British air defenses against the Germans at the outbreak of world War II, what A.J.P. Taylor has called RAF’s “doctrine that overwhelming superiority was the only defence.” Right up to the outbreak of the second World War and even during it, ” the policy Lord Hugh Trenchard, who was chief air marshal from 1919 to 1929, had established was followed: “Bombing,” he held, “could win a war by itself; it was also the only means of not being bombed by others. Trenchard and his successors persistently neglected air defense.” Trenchard had first witnessed the great effectiveness of straregic air bombing, sometimes in coordination with infantry, in northern Iraq during the early 1920s. Taylor was of the opinion that the successful use of British air power in northern Iraq contributed to the deterioration of the British army, the lack of mechanized vehicles, and the failure to create a sufficient defense system in the 1920s and 1930s. British success against the Turks and then against the Kurds and Arabs in nothern Iraq in the early 1920s may have contributed subsequently to the RAF’s lack of preparedness against the Germans on the eve of and during the early years of World War II. Recent studies have confirmed Taylor’s judgments.

Source: Robert W Olson“The Emergence of Kurdish Nationalism and the Sheikh Said Rebellion”, 1880-1925, University of Texas Press, 1989, 229 pages

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