In the past month, there have been two Kurdish Studies conferences at two universities in the United States. At these conferences, scholars from different parts of the world gathered to discuss not only burning political issues about Kurds in the Middle East, but also the prospects of Kurdish Studies –a field which has long been pushed to the margins of Middle Eastern Studies and its various sub-fields, including Turkish, Arab, Ottoman, and Persian Studies. The first one, An Interdisciplinary Conference on Kurdish Politics and Societies was convened in April 2018 at Yale University. The second one, Serbest Kurdish Studies Conference was organized by the Buffett Institute for Global Studies in June 2018, and sponsored by Metin Serbest, a Chicago-based Kurdish lawyer who hopefully will serve as a model for other Kurdish investors to support the advancement of the scholarly works on Kurds and Kurdistan. Both conferences, while heralding a newly-emerged interest in North America towards the institutionalization of Kurdish Studies, also highlighted some fault lines in the field and the ongoing challenges that Kurdish studies scholars face. Nevertheless, they were a welcome opportunity to advance the field through productive, cross-disciplinary exchange among scholars from a variety of backgrounds.
Kurdish Studies is currently caught between seemingly contradictory but equally vital agendas: building the field as an independent field of inquiry in North America while simultaneously struggling to free it from the paradigm of area studies. Why do Kurdish Studies face this dilemma in the twenty-first century in the first place? Area Studies in the United States is a product of the post-World War II era, and especially the Cold War context- a time when the study of the different regions of the world gained widespread currency primarily for American foreign policy. Middle Eastern Studies one of these areas to get institutionalized at this time due to the region’s strategic importance for the United States. Ironically, even though the main geographical unit for the area studies was “regions,” the field did emerge in a context of unquestioned supremacy of the nation-state and the international state system. The ideological underpinnings of area studies, primarily modernization and developmentalism, too, were built on the belief that nation-state was not only the major unit of analysis but also the sole legitimately recognized actor in the international arena. The area studies paradigm’s focus on foreign policy and the primacy of the nation-state, however, blinded scholars to the stateless groups and their experiences. While the study of the groups with recognized states of their own (i.e. Arab, Turkish, and Persian) got institutionalized–albeit in a policy-oriented framework- in the United States, stateless groups, primarily among them being the Kurds- were not deemed too critical for security interests to provide institutional support –neither by government nor the private sources. Statelessness rendered Kurds unworthy in a policy-oriented knowledge production setting.
From the 1960s onwards, area studies paradigm was criticized from multiple directions for its policy-oriented goals, essentialist approach to the study of the non-European societies, orientalist and colonial ethos, modernization discourse, and methodological narrowness. It received countless epistemological and methodological blows from post-colonial, post-orientalist, and later subaltern critiques. As a result, the field of area studies in general, and Middle Eastern Studies more specifically, now is built on this rich corpus of critical work, which pushed it further away from its policy-oriented pedigree. Ironically, however, while challenging the epistemological essence of classical orientalism as it originated in Europe and its area studies incarnations in the US, postcolonial and post-orientalist critiques similarly reproduced an image of the “Arab” -Middle East. Turkish and Iranian Studies developed both independently in separate institutions and also under the roof of the general Middle Eastern Studies from the 1950s onwards. While Ottoman-Turkish Studies continued to grow with more funding, Iranian Studies came to a halt in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. At any rate, however, both the conventional area studies and its theoretically sophisticated critiques in the post-Orientalist context operated in a similar national-geographical horizon which is based on a tacit presumption that the Middle East consists primarily of Arab/Turkish/Persian formations. In other words, echoing their marginalized political status in the region, stateless groups remained on the margins of the critiques of the area studies perspectives.
Not having an autonomous institutionalized setting to develop, and being at the mercy of Arab, Turkish, and Iranian nationalisms, Kurds and Kurdistan systematically stood outside of major theories, discussions, and debates within the realm of the Middle Eastern Studies. To give one example from a field that I know most closely, within the Ottoman historiography, up until quite recently Kurds and Kurdistan have rarely been included in the study of the empire. Generations of Ottoman historians built their foundational theses and hypotheses on the case studies from the areas deemed as the “core” regions –namely the Balkan and Anatolian provinces. Later, the imperial past of the Arab provinces also developed significantly, thanks to the Ottoman provincial historiographies of the past three decades. Marred by nationalist paradigms from different directions, however, Ottoman historiography have long been developed as a Kurd-less field.
So, the challenge that awaits Kurdish Studies scholars at the present is two-fold. On the one hand, scholars of Kurds and Kurdistan are seeking to build Kurdish Studies as an institutionalized area of study in the American academia at a time when area studies had long been discredited. This institutionalization is the only way to grant Kurdish Studies an autonomous and legitimate existence and a chance to develop amidst various Arab/Turkish/Persian-biased scholarly productions in the area studies fields. On the other hand, while trying to institutionalize as an autonomous field, Kurdish Studies is in dire need of being a part of the larger paradigms, questions, issues, and discussions in Middle Eastern Studies and also general humanities and social science disciplines. In other words, Kurdish studies is in need of closing the gap between the study of Kurds and these wider disciplines and areas while maintaining its autonomy. To give one example again from my field, Kurdish history in the Ottoman Empire needs to be seen and researched much more widely as a part of the imperial history, as one of the many provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Having been neglected by Ottoman historians for so long, Kurdish history has largely developed outside of Ottoman historiography. Coupled with the urgency of the current political problems and the ongoing statelessness, historical narratives on Kurds and Kurdistan fed a kind of, what I describe as, a Kurdish exceptionalism perspective -as opposed to an imperial framework which would situate the analysis of the Kurdistan province at a comparable level with other provinces of the empire.
This double-challenge of promoting the autonomous development of Kurdish Studies, while seeking to close the gap between this area and other disciplines is not an easy one –given the ongoing lack of funding and institutionalized support for Kurdish Studies in the American academia. To this, one needs to add issues stemming from statelessness, and the ongoing political problems, which result in the salience of a sense of urgency among the Kurds worldwide. The quandary that Kurdish Studies facing currently resembles that of the Rojava experience in Northern Syria: is it possible to overcome the ills of the nation-state with an alternative political model based on deliberative democracy, gender, ethnic, and religious equality, economic justice, and ecological sustainability, while not having a nation-state lies at the heart of the Kurdish predicament in the Middle East? For Kurdish Studies, the question is whether it is possible to build Kurdish Studies as an independent field within the area studies (the problems with “area studies” perspectives notwithstanding), and go beyond the area studies outlook towards more comparative, conceptually- and theoretically-sophisticated, and globally situated critical knowledge production?
These two conferences attest to the fact that there is a vibrant energy among the Kurdish Studies scholars to render Kurds and Kurdistan a legitimate and institutionalized area of study in the American academia. Also, scholars outside of the Kurdish Studies have shown increasing interest in the works produced within the field of Kurdish Studies. We are witnessing a key moment as scholars outside of the Kurdish Studies show growing effort to overcome the biases of their traditionally Kurd-less fields while Kurdish scholars are seeking to situate their cases within comparative conceptual, and theoretical frameworks. A two-way relationship is in the making.
Finally, this interaction has now brought the question of subjectivity to the fore in a much more highlighted fashion. In other words, as the non-Kurdish Studies scholars who have heretofore operated in Kurd-less fields start to show growing interest in Kurdish Studies, what would be its impact on the autonomous development of the area? To put it more openly, it is now a propitious time for this interaction to produce a more explicit and intrepid debate on how to decolonize the Kurdish Studies while building it as an autonomous field and making it an integral part of the larger areas, disciplines, and fields as an essential element. The burden is partly on the Kurdish Studies scholars themselves: we have to continue to produce empirically solid and conceptually rigorous research while reflecting on the questions of subjectivity, knowledge production in light of post-colonial critiques. The burden is also on those scholars within the field of Middle Eastern Studies and its sub-fields: we need a more candid reflection among the Middle Eastern Studies scholars in North America on how to remedy this deep-rooted bias in the field which marginalized stateless groups like Kurds (and also Assyrians and the Yezidis) in a way that reproduced various nation-state nationalisms. It is high time that Middle Eastern Studies in North America to open room for the study of Kurds and Kurdistan as essential components of the study of this region.