Kurdish diaspora politics in Birmingham
Thomas Claughton | 15 December 2019
A basket of pomegranates from Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Photo by znrg nawroz on Unsplash.
The concept of a migrant community identity has stirred complex debate in recent years. This debate has most often surrounded two key terms: diasporas and transnationalism. These two notions have been contested as both victims of, and challengers to, the territorial and conceptual stability of the nation-state. Yet, in amongst this complex picture, certain analytical trends can be found. The idealisation of a homeland and trauma at the expulsion from this homeland can unite a community in exile. When studying the case of the Kurdish diaspora, we see that a mobilised political identity has emerged, which has been enabled in recent times by advancements in communication technologies. Disparate events across time and space can be brought together, tending towards one unifying political end: the creation of a homeland. In the absence of a bounded territory or national citizenship, this community identity has great unifying power.
The origins of the term ‘diaspora’ are classically grounded, commonly associated with the ‘exodus of the Jews following the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70.’ These traumatic, Biblical origins have served to categorise diasporas in terms of involuntary dispersion, the impossibility of return to a homeland and of a shared desire to do so. This explains the later application of the term to African and Armenian diasporas. The category of diaspora has since hugely expanded. This trend led Robin Cohen to describe ‘common features’ of diasporas, which include ‘Dispersal from an original homeland, often traumatically, to two or more foreign regions’, and ‘An idealisation of the putative ancestral home and a collective commitment to its maintenance, restoration, safety and prosperity, even to its creation.’
In the case of the Kurdish diaspora, these two features are particularly significant. The traumas that have led to Kurdish displacement have not been uniform. To take the example of the Kurdish community in Birmingham, many Kurds fled Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq; the Halabja chemical bombing in 1988; and Turkish repression of Kurdish culture, before settling in Birmingham. This particular community was fashioned at a particular time, in a particular place (Birmingham), because of a series of particular events. Other Kurdish communities in exile will have slightly different origins. Yet, the varied traumatic events that caused Kurdish displacement have been united.
Given restrictions on free expression felt by many Kurds in their country of origin, it often became preferable to express dissent remotely, in countries that valued political freedom. This was the case across America and Europe. This, coupled with the greater possibilities for connection between country of origin and diaspora, meant that, ‘Throughout the 1990s, political events in Turkey directly affected the activities of Kurdish organisations in Europe.’ This diasporic identity was not built on one traumatic event or even one dispersal. Rather, an imagined community could base itself on the idealisation of an imagined homeland, an ideal that would sustain the community identity through varied instances of trauma.
Such an identity was enabled by certain effects of globalisation, in terms of the technological innovations associated with mass communication, the dissemination of information and ideas, and the increase in knowledge of other states’ situations. In this sense, the establishment of a Kurdish political identity in exile has been made possible by globalisation. The framework provided by Nick Van Hear and Robin Cohen is especially useful. They have analysed diaspora relations through different ‘spheres of engagement’: the ‘household/extended family sphere’; the ‘known community sphere’ and the ‘imagined community’. The relationships created within the ‘imagined community’ are founded on international connections. The strand of globalisation that has provided greater international telephonic communication has thus enabled these connections to be built and maintained.
The most recent technological innovation to have a significant impact upon the Kurdish imagined community has been the internet. Yet, television played an important role before then. The TV channel MED-TV provided a range of news, drama and music broadcasts, often with great sympathy to the Kurdish cause and delivered in Kurdish, Arabic, and English, amongst other languages. These programmes were broadcast to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, before the channel’s licence was withdrawn in the UK and France in 1999 and 2004, respectively, due to fears that the channel was being used as a mouthpiece for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). However, the channel had an important effect on the Kurdish diaspora. According to one young Kurd living in London in the late 1990s:
'People were ashamed to call themselves Kurdish; some would even deny it. MED- TV has changed that.'
The channel was broadcast in Kurdish, a language that Turkey had been systematically attempting to eliminate in Kurdish areas. This was a powerful, unifying vehicle for Kurdish solidarity worldwide. The mobilisation of disparate feelings of trauma and displacement through shared community identity was very powerful. Here, a study by David Romano is very useful:
'Modern communications technology facilitates the quick channeling and organizing of popular feelings of bitterness into mobilisation and action. Participation in protests, and the knowledge of similar protests undertaken worldwide by fellow group members […] in turn inculcate a greater sense of ethnic consciousness and politicized ethnic identity.'
Social media communications have helped catalyse ‘popular feelings of bitterness’, mobilising them around the ideal of an imagined homeland. In Birmingham, signs of a local Kurdish identity are clear. If you walk down Dudley Rd, Soho Rd or Rookery Rd in Handsworth, Kurdish barbers, community centres or restaurants are commonplace. These are unsurprising elements as a community beds into an area. Yet, alongside this has come a mobilised, politicised identity on online platforms that take this identity beyond its local expressions. Solidarity can be created in cyberspace. A recent Birmingham protest stood against Erdogan and NATO, with Rise Up 4 Rojava protests taking place regularly. A local Kurdish identity can feel part of a larger, transnational body.
This identity brings together historic and current trauma across time and space. Events unfolding in Kurdish territories have become associated with both past displacement and the imagined homeland. This imagined community has thus formed a shared, transnational identity. Given the denial of markers of national identity, such as an autonomous, bounded territory or citizenship, this mobilisation has been a crucial development in Kurdish diaspora politics.