When more than a hundred well known singers from the Kurdish diaspora took part in a large concert in the German city of Leverkusen in early January they had one key goal: putting on a united front.
The concert brought together thousands of members of the Kurdish diaspora under the motto “Em Bibin Yek”, or “Let us unite”. The aim was also to show solidarity for Kurds in northern Syria after the withdrawal of US troops from the region and subsequent Turkish invasion in October 2019.
The artists came from across the four Kurdish regions of Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran, and all sang separate renditions of patriotic Kurdish songs. At the end, the singers dressed in traditional Kurdish costumes and came back on stage together to sing the Kurdish political anthem “Herne Peş”, which means “forward”.
Since the Turkish invasion of the largely Kurdish-held region of northern Syria, Kurdish diaspora groups have been vocal in European cities, raising awareness about the betrayal and suffering of the Kurds. They’ve held demonstrations, rallies and solemn vigils; and lobbied MPs to ask for solidarity with the Kurdish population. In early December, a group marched from Lausanne to Geneva in Switzerland in a call for Kurdish unity.
Many Kurdish leaders, intellectuals and artists in the diaspora, who I’ve interviewed as part of my ongoing research on the diaspora movement, are now coming together to push this unified message. But this requires Kurdish groups on the ground in the Middle East – who have traditionally been split among a diverse set of ideological agendas – to unite behind a set of common political goals.
Growth of a diaspora
Kurds don’t possess their own state and are wedged between four Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. They are often defenceless and permanently subjected to the threat of repression and violent conflict, particularly from Iranian-backed Shia militias and Turkish-Sunni expansionism in the Middle East.
The repressive politics in the region means Kurds have been subject to aggressive assimilation processes, forced to deny their own cultural heritage and identity. In response, they have staged several rebellions, including the ongoing uprising in Turkey under the leadership of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). Such conflicts led to the widespread displacement and migration of Kurds, mainly towards Europe in the 1980s and 1990s when violence escalated between the Kurdish groups and Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish regimes.
Read more: Why the Kurdish conflict in Turkey is so intractable
More than one million Kurds are estimated to live in Europe, more than half of them in Germany. The growth of a Kurdish diaspora has only strengthened the push for a free and secular Kurdish homeland. The Kurdish homeland is like a placenta which sustains the Kurdish diaspora movement, and the links between the two act as a sort of umbilical cord that feeds the diaspora with emotional, mental and spiritual support and a sense of belonging.
Diaspora groups may be free from direct violent conflict and its consequences, but they are not immune from suffering. During my research interviews and at Kurdish demonstrations, I’ve seen members of the diaspora cry when they see images and read social media posts about Kurds who have been displaced, killed or tortured in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Their helplessness at preventing atrocities is an integral part of the relationship they have with their homeland and other Kurds.
Divisions among Kurdish groups
Because the Kurds lack their own nation state and the recognition, legitimacy and alliances that come with it, they find themselves excluded from the international community. But the major issue holding back the Kurdish voice is an internal one: the lack of a single cohesive narrative that articulates their demands.
This is largely because of the ideological differences and political agendas between different political groups. In Syria, for example, the Movement for a Democratic Society aims to establish a decentralised, democratic, confederal system in the country based on ethnic and religious diversity and gender equality. But the Kurdish National Council is pushing for Kurdish autonomy in Syria.
The dominant Kurdish political parties in the Middle East also have diverging political and ideological agendas. The PKK and its affiliated groups across the Middle East are critical of Kurdish nationalism, promoting the idea of a democratic, confederal, multi-ethnic project instead. They don’t question the borders of the national states ruling the Kurdish regions, but rather push for grassroots democracy, recognition of cultural rights and self-adminstration within the borders of these states.
In contrast, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and its affiliated groups adopt a more nationalist rhetoric and aspire to carve out an independent Kurdish state. These two rivals dominate contemporary Kurdish groups in the homeland, pushing out more inclusive political principles. While these internal divisions weaken the Kurdish cause, they also unite states such as Turkey and Syria who rule the Kurdish homeland.
Pushing for unity
It’s in light of these splits that Kurdish diaspora artists are pushing for Kurds to unite behind a single demand for the recognition of Kurdish status for administrative, cultural and political rights in the Middle East. These efforts could lead to the intervention and mediation efforts of Western countries to help end the Kurdish predicament. Events such as the concert in Leverkusen and the march in Switzerland are part of a wider strategy aimed at communicating the political desire for a Kurdish homeland to politicians and governments in Europe.
By transcending ideological differences of the Kurdish political groups in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey, and pressing for the movement to push its agenda with a collective voice, the Kurdish diaspora could play a leading role in uniting political leaders in the homeland in an unprecedented success.