75th Anniversary: 52) The Politics of Youth Activism in the Kurdish Movement: A research agenda

Sardar Saadi*

In the 1990s, during the peak of the war between the Turkish state and Kurdish guerillas from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Turkish army forcefully evacuated thousands of rural settlements in the Kurdish region of Turkey and displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurdish villagers to the cities (Jongerden 2007). The influx of these displaced villagers dramatically increased the population of the Kurdish cities, which were already suffering from poverty, unemployment, and the lack of urban infrastructures, and brought scores of socioeconomic challenges with itself. The newly settled rural migrants found themselves as the “other” in the cities, and they were regarded as undesired subjects and an “inconvenience” for the cities (Jongerden 2022). Children of these families became youth in impoverished neighborhoods where they had resettled, and their subjectivity was shaped by both a history of violence that their displaced families had been through (Neyzi and Darici 2015) as well as their everyday struggle to survive in cities that were increasingly alien to them. Within such an environment they became politicized, but their presence particularly became visible after the 2015-2016 urban armed clashes. Starting in August 2015 and after the violent termination of peace negotiations between the Turkish state and the PKK, many neighborhoods and districts of cities in the Kurdish region of Turkey declared autonomy. The Kurdish youth, mostly from displaced rural migrant families, took up arms and built barricades in their neighborhoods. The Turkish state’s response against this move that was later called the “self-government resistance” was brutal and devastating. A massive wave of state violence caused destruction of cities in the Kurdish region, death of hundreds, and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people (OHCHR 2017).

I have a sustained interest in Kurdistan and the Kurdish self-determination movement. As a SSHRC postdoctoral fellow at the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University, I have been excited to develop a postdoctoral project that builds on the insights of my doctoral dissertation. My postdoctoral research investigates the politics of youth in the Kurdish struggle for self-determination in Turkey by looking at dynamics of mobilization that include or may exclude young people in the spheres of civil society and legal political activism. My research explores how the terrain of civil society has been developed in the Kurdish region under the influence of the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, and what the main actors in shaping this terrain are. In the last two decades, the Kurdish self-determination movement in Turkey has undergone a social and political transformation that shifted the geography of the struggle from rural areas to cities. This shift brought the struggle to urban spheres of civil society, municipal governance, and legal parliamentary politics (Akkaya and Jongerden 2012). I examine dynamics and contradictions in the Kurdish movement in the areas of legal and civic activism under the strong influence of the European Union’s reform politics in Turkey (Olson 2007). I focus on the ways in which the process of ‘NGOization’ (Choudry and Kapoor 2013) in the politics of civic engagement has created a certain culture of activism in Turkey and Kurdistan that is class-based, professionalized, and funded, and which relies on institutional politics against popular mobilization. As Rucht (1999) notes, the shift from radical challenger groups to pragmatically oriented pressure organizations can lead to re-radicalization at the fringes. The Kurdish youth from marginalized neighborhoods in the cities of Kurdistan and Turkey found themselves on the other side of the shift to civil society, municipal, and legal politics that had not prioritized their needs and problems. Similar to other parts of the wider Middle East region, it was in these urban enclaves of marginalization and poverty that collective identities among youth were forged (Bayat 2017).

Building on the anthropological scholarship of youth, politics, and violence, this project will contribute to social studies of youth activism especially in marginalized urban enclaves by showing how specific civil society politics and practices can include or exclude young people from social and political participation. Exploring the dynamics of youth activism, my research will have broader policy implications to better understand youth at-risk and their experiences in environment of war and violence, particularly in the aftermath of forced migration from rural areas to urban centers. This project will make a significant addition to the growing literature on Kurdish studies especially around the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. I intend to broaden the focus of this project in my future research endeavors to explore the dynamics of youth activism in other contexts where indigenous communities and/or ethnic minorities struggle for sovereignty and self-determination.

*Sardar Saadi is a Postdoc at the Rural Sociology Group


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  • Bayat, Asef. (2017). Revolution without Revolutionaries: Making Sense of the Arab Spring. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Choudry, Aziz and Dip Kapoor, eds. (2013). NGOization: Complicity, Contradictions and Prospects. London: Zed Books Ltd.
  • Jongerden, Joost. (2007). The Settlement Issue in Turkey and the Kurds: An Analysis of Spatial Policies. Boston: Brill.
  • Jongerden, Joost. (2022). Civilizing Space: Addressing Disorder inn Rural and Urban Landscapes. In The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Turkey. Edited by Joost Jongerden. 373-384. New York: Routledge.
  • Neyzi, Leyla, and Haydar Darıcı. (2015). Generation in Debt: Family, Politics, and Youth Subjectivities in Diyarbakır. New Perspectives on Turkey. 52: 55-75.
  • Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). (2017). Report on the Human Rights Situation in South-East Turkey.
  • Olson, Robert W. (2007). From the EU Project to the Iraq Project and Back Again? Kurds and Turks after the 22 July 2007 Elections. Mediterranean Quarterly.18 (4): 17-35.
  • Rucht, Dieter. (1999). The Transnationalization of Social Movements: Trends, Causes, Problems. In Social Movements in a Globalizing World. Edited by Donatella della Porta, Hanspeter Kriesi, and Dieter Rucht. 206-222. London: Palgrave Macmillan.