Scholars in Context: Dilşa Deniz
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research and how does it connect to or depart from your previous work?
Dilşa Deniz (DD): My research focuses on Kurdish Alevism and Dersim, the center of Kurdish Alevism, and their connections to ethno-religious, gender, and socio-political identity constructions. It simultaneously invokes Kurdish studies and Turkey’s ethno-politics and homogenization policies. As an outcome of these ethno-political assimilation policies of the state, my recent research investigates the Dersim genocide of 1937-38, when forty to seventy thousand Kurdish Alevis were massacred using contemporary militaristic technology, including poisonous gas, and tens of thousands of Kurdish Alevis were forcibly removed for Turkification and Islamization.
Being away from my homeland and the physical field of work, my research focuses more on the decolonization of Kurdish Alevism and Kurdish studies through the perspectives of linguistics, academia, and historiography. Thus I discuss and emphasize the political aspects of Kurdish Alevi studies, rather than directly participating in field-based ethnographic research, which marks a slight departure from my previous research.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
DD: My research examines Kurdish Alevism, belief symbols, systems, identities, and politics, as well as Dersim, a region where Kurdish Alevis form the majority and have been dealt with by the state as an “abnormality” throughout history. As such, this group has been subjected both to oppression and assimilative policies. My work on Dersim and Kurdish Alevism involves the ethno-religious aspect of Turkish politics and thus correlates in many ways with a number of different fields, including religious studies, ethnic studies, Kurdish studies, genocide studies, decolonization studies, and studies on gender, the environment, sacred geography, activism and resistance, disadvantaged populations, assimilation policies, Kurdish and Alevi mythology, and resistance to homogenization.
J: What brought you to this work? What was the source of inspiration?
DD: During the process of researching for and writing my PhD, I decided to focus on my own society, Kurdish Alevis in Dersim. Because of the situation in Dersim, and in order to be able to graduate (with state control over academia), I had to carefully choose a PhD topic that was not overtly political. I chose religion as a “non-political” topic, not knowing at the time that it would turn out to be the opposite.
Because of the nature of Dersim’s ethnic and religious situation, the relatively progressive political attitude of the population is at odds with much of the rest of the country. Due to the state’s ethno-political policies, anything related to Dersim, Kurds, and Alevis ends up being “political” and thus incompatible with official state ideology, the Turkish Islamic Synthesis (TIS). As a result, the outcome of my research was not in line with the official state perspective. Firstly, my research into Kurdish etymology (in two dialects of Kurdish, Kurmanci and Kirmancki/Zazaki) demonstrated connections that were politically unpalatable to the state. Secondly, I demonstrated that Alevism is not a sect of Islam (neither Sunni nor Shia), but an independent, old Kurdish religion—a definition that is not acceptable according to the state’s TIS policy.
As a result of my written views, I was not accepted for any jobs across state universities, despite being fully qualified. My job at a private university was terminated after I signed a peace petition, again both very much related to the state’s assimilation and homogenization policies.
My research on the genocide of Kurdish Alevis in Dersim reveals that recent severe assimilation policies are a continuation of ethnocide against Kurdish Alevis. As a member of this society, I myself experienced from childhood the generational trauma resulting from the genocide. I experienced the sorrow and suffering that I also witnessed in different degrees in all members of the Kurdish Alevi community in Dersim. Survivors and victims do not dare speak about exactly what has been happening in Dersim for decades—in particular the mass killings and related crimes. On top of this, they are forced to honor their killers every day, with every road, neighborhood, hospital, and school named after the perpetrators of the Dersim genocide. I felt that I owed it to my people to speak of this crime and address a long-held absence in literature, and so I decided to further investigate conditions in Dersim.
My work also extends to activism against the efforts to assimilate Alevism into Islam. Towards this effort, I focus on decolonizing the view of Alevism, which is artificially reconstructed in academia as a sect of Islam, in accordance with the state perspective.
J: What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
DD: My intended audiences are scholars in religious studies, Alevi studies, Kurdish studies, gender studies, Dersim studies, genocide studies, Middle Eastern studies, and Iranian studies, as well as Alevi and Kurdish readers and activists.
My goal is to publish academic material about Kurdish Alevis, Alevism, and Dersim, subjects that have typically been studied by outsiders holding the state-sponsored perspective. Unfortunately, the state’s policy of assimilation has had a huge impact on published academic materials. The definition of Alevism and the majority of supporting materials and arguments have nothing to do with Alevism. Because of the state’s official ideological approach, these academic works tend to see all Alevis as Turks and Muslims. Within these studies, Kurdish Alevis are hardly mentioned, despite their substantial number among the Alevi population.
Alevism is continuously constructed as a sect of Islam, despite the fact that Alevis do not follow the five pillars of Islam, and their lifestyle, philosophy, jurisdiction, and ritual practices are often dissimilar to those within Islam. There is, astonishingly, no available discussions on the differences between these two religions. My work will rectify these omissions, as well as illuminate the very politicized perspectives of Alevi studies that have been portrayed as “non-political.”
J: What other projects are you working on now?
DD: I am writing a book chapter on the relationship between environmentalism and Alevism by analyzing a Kurdish Alevi myth of Dersim, and also am working on a book project on a Kurdish goddess, goddess worshipping, and its connection with Alevism.