The Growing Political Role of Prominent Individuals in the Kurdish Diaspora in Europe

by January 2022
Germany: Protest against the ban of the Kurdistan Workers party PKK in Berlin. Photo credit: Michael Kuenne/PRESSCOV/Sipa USA via Reuters Connect

Kurdish diaspora communities in Europe are estimated to be between two to three million people, more than half of whom are in Germany, according to Kurdish institutions. Other significant Kurdish communities are in France, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Austria, and the Netherlands. The Kurdish diaspora in Europe is unusual in that its homeland is spread among four countries (Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran).

The work of these diaspora communities on behalf of the Kurds in the homeland has assumed a variety of forms, ranging from the collection of donations and other humanitarian aid to political acts, such as demonstrations, rallies, sit-ins, and the occupation of public spaces in London, Berlin, Brussels, Stockholm, and other European metropolitan cities. In this vein, they aim to improve the cultural, economic, and political conditions of the Kurdish population in the Middle East; to challenge the politics of the Turkish, Iraqi, Iranian, and Syrian regimes, and to influence the policies of European governments. Given the diverse forms that this engagement takes, what are its transnational implications for the political affairs of the Kurdish homeland?

Kurdish diasporas have formed community centers, initiatives, associations, and assemblies, which are heavily dominated by long-standing immigrants who are extremely politicized and follow the line of their political counterparts in the homeland. While the Kurdish Red Crescent, for example, collects donations from Kurdish immigrants in Europe and sends them as remittances to their compatriots in their home countries, the Kurdistan National Congress (KNK) is an advocacy organization that raises awareness of Kurdish rights by seeking to pressure European governments to recognize the plight of the Kurds and change their policies toward the Middle Eastern regimes that are responsible for their oppression. These organizations, among others, have been vocal during the Kurdish battles against ISIS and the Turkish army in Iraq and Syria. Yet despite the dynamic mobilization of the Kurdish diasporas, European governments have rarely altered their policies toward those countries where the Kurdish populations face oppression. No European government has imposed sanctions on Turkey or other Middle Eastern countries for their repressive policies toward their Kurdish populations or even recognized the Kurdish demands and plight beyond basic humanitarian needs.

By becoming involved in the political structures and institutionalized venues of their host societies, the Kurdish diasporas are signaling a shift in their approach by representing their local constituencies and becoming mouthpieces for their homeland compatriots.

Four major factors have contributed to suppressing the voice of the Kurdish diaspora community within European institutions and have undermined its potential impact. First and foremost is the lack of a Kurdish state, which represents the Kurdish population and defends its interests at the international level. As a result, Kurds in the European diaspora find themselves excluded from the political and diplomatic structures of the international community and the global economic and political system, which are built around the concept of the nation state. For example, despite the Kurds’ battle against ISIS and their acknowledged sacrifices, Kurds in northern Syria have been permanently excluded from the political negotiation process and constitutional committees in Geneva, due to Turkey’s diplomatic pressure on the UN and other players.

A second major factor in silencing the Kurdish voice relates to the ongoing diplomatic efforts of the previous and current Turkish governments—in particular, the Erdoğan regime—to legitimize their repressive policies against the Kurds both in Turkey and abroad by referring to these policies as being a “war against terrorism.” For example, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has asked the German chancellor in bilateral meetings as well as EU representatives to crack down on the mobilization of the Kurdish diasporas by highlighting the PKK’s presence on the European and American terror lists. By linking Kurdish diaspora groups with terrorism, Turkey has pressured the European governments to effectively criminalize the Kurdish diaspora movement and its mobilization. These governments are then able to justify their lack of response to the demands of the Kurds for humanitarian and political actions against repressive policies in their homeland.

The lack of strong reactions of European governments to the repeated Turkish invasions into Rojava, the Kurdish region in Syria, can be interpreted as such and manifests the success of the Turkish regime in blocking the diaspora’s access to mainstream political and societal structures within the European host countries. According to Kurdish diaspora leaders in Germany, European governments have repressed their efforts to support the Kurdish struggle in the Middle East, while claiming that these European governments have always been supportive of Turkish demands in terms of crackdowns against Kurdish organizations and their mobilization.

A third reason for the Kurds’ failure to have an impact on policies in Europe can be described as the self-isolation of the Kurds. Kurdish diasporas have often ignored political developments in their host societies and focused solely on addressing their own concerns relating to homeland events.

A fourth and final factor in the lack of an effective Kurdish diaspora voice is division and factionalism among the Kurdish diaspora groups themselves. Separated geographically among four countries (Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria), linguistically (Northern Kurdish or Kurmanji and Zaza/Dimili, Central Kurdish or Sorani, and the Southern dialects of Hawrami/Gorani), religiously (Alevi, Kaka’i, Jewish, Yazidi, Sunni, and Shia) as well as tribally and ideologically, they have a history of internecine conflict. Within the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, for instance, there are serious divisions between the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) dominated by the Barzani tribe, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by the Talabani family, and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) controlled by Alevi, Kurdish, and Turkish leftist groups. Similarly, within the Kurdish part of Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), following the line of the PKK’s imprisoned leader Abdullah Öcalan in Turkey, and the Kurdish National Council (ENKS), following the line of the KDP’s Masoud Barzani in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, are rivals. These divisions within the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the Kurdish region of Syria, which are just two of the four countries of the traditional Kurdish homeland, are reflected within the Kurdish communities in Europe. Given this reality, no diaspora umbrella organization unites all the disparate groups of Kurds in Europe, equivalent to the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations in the US.

Amineh Kakabaveh speaks before the Swedish Parliament. Photo credit: REUTERS.
Amineh Kakabaveh speaks before the Swedish Parliament. Photo credit: REUTERS.

Despite these factors that have contributed to the absence of organized Kurdish advocacy in Europe, an increasing number of Europeans of Kurdish descent have become mainstream political figures. Seven German men and women of Kurdish descent, whose parents immigrated either as guest workers or refugees, have in the last few years won local and national elections as members of either the Left Party (Gökay Akbulut in Germany’s federal parliament, Fırat Ali Göçek in Berlin’s parliament, and Cansu Özdemir in Hamburg’s parliament) or the Green Party (Canan Bayram, Taylan Kurt, and Jiyan Omer in Berlin’s parliament, and Muhterem Aras in the state parliament of Baden-Württemberg). In Sweden, five Kurdish-Swedish citizens are in the national parliament representing three Swedish parties (Amineh Kakabaveh, formerly of the Left Party and now an Independent; Serkan Köse, Lawen Redar, and Roza Güclü Hedin of the Social Democrats; and Gulan Avci of the Liberal Party), while another Kurdish-Swedish citizen (Evin Incir of the Social Democrats) won a seat in the European Parliament. There are other examples of individual politicians of Kurdish descent, all in left-of-center parties, in the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and Austria. These politicians have publicly supported agendas of their Kurdish compatriots in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. This support—along with that of their political parties—for the Kurds in the homeland has often become a point of conflict with the politicians of Turkish descent in these countries. For example, a group of Turkish-Dutch politicians chose to leave the Dutch left-wing parties due to the sympathy these parties showed for the Kurdish cause during the battle of Kobani in 2014.

Within the local regional and national parliaments, these elected representatives of Kurdish descent have been successful in getting host states to offer Kurdish classes in public schools and nurseries. They also have organized formal support for Kurdish cultural and social festivals and have drawn attention within the institutional structures to political events affecting the Kurdish population and the discrimination directed against them by Turkey and other regional players in the Middle East. Many of these European-Kurdish politicians have joined European political delegations and have visited Kurdish parties and associations in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria.

As a result, the Kurdish diaspora has started to move from the streets into the institutionalized venues and attempt to harness political support among civil society organizations, such as trade unions, churches, environmental organizations, and political parties. By becoming involved in the political structures and institutionalized venues of their host societies, the Kurdish diasporas are signaling a shift in their approach by representing their local constituencies andbecoming mouthpieces for their homeland compatriots. Their aim is to effect a change in their circumstances by making their claims resonate with a wider audience and by gaining a platform to legitimize their discourse against those of state actors.

Although the Kurdish diaspora groups still face major hurdles of a lack of cultural and political recognition within institutionalized settings due to the Kurds’ statelessness—a situation that seems unlikely to change in the near future—by building alliances within European political parties, this diaspora can come closer to achieving the desired recognition of its local and national claims. Moreover, this engagement of prominent individuals in the Kurdish diaspora in Europe can help the Kurds in their countries of origin live alongside ancient and indigenous populations such as Jews, Yazidis, Assyrians, Druze, and Christians as well as Arabs and Turks, in a peaceful and democratic coexistence in the Middle East.

Veysi Dag
Veysi Dag is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Political Science Department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, working on the governance structures of the Kurdish diaspora community in Berlin and the structures of the Kurdish Jews in Jerusalem. Twitter: @dagweysi
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