Government and International Relations Honors Papers

Document Type

Honors Paper


Caroleen Sayej

Publication Date



This thesis examines the emergence and politicization of ethnic identity in the Kurdish populations of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Through a historical analysis of Kurdish revolts and nationalist movements the late imperial and colonial eras, it demonstrates that ‘Kurdishness’, or Kurdayetî, has been instrumentalized as ethnonationalism primarily in a defensive capacity, in response to external coercive pressures forcing the Kurds to ‘think like a state’ and view themselves in increasingly ethnopolitical terms. By illustrating the extent to which ethnonationalism was imposed upon the Kurdish people and the limited appeal it enjoyed in the first half of the twentieth century, I aim to repudiate a ‘cliched constructivism’ prevalent in explanatory international relations as problematized by Rogers Brubaker. While most contemporary scholars of nationalism acknowledge the artificiality of the state, many depict ‘ethnic ties’ as the ostensibly ancient and natural proclivities upon which modern political communities are constructed. An objective analysis of early Kurdish nationalism, however, will demonstrate that ethnic linkages had little relevance in the emergence of Kurdish political sentiments and that the retrospective misunderstanding of Kurdish separatism as naturally occurring is rooted in a groupist doxa upheld by the socialized reinforcement of the ethnonational state as the default unit of political organization. Building upon this historical analysis, the thesis will proceed to examine the emergence of contemporary Kurdish political parties and separatist movements, all the while placing them in the local and global political contexts that produce them. It will demonstrate that, despite a perception by governments and scholars alike that Kurds would form collaborative co-ethnic dyads when given the opportunity, disparate Kurdish political parties prioritize their own strategic interests over those of their ethnic brethren, even when doing so requires the subjugation or elimination of rival Kurdish forces. Ultimately, the project will conclude by applying the theoretical and historical frameworks discussed above to two transversal dyads impacting the ‘Kurdish question’ in the Middle East today. By evaluating the similarities between the KRG’s relationship with the PYD and KDP and previous instances of pan-Kurdish interaction, this thesis will provide insights into the future of Kurdish movements in the Modern Middle East, which are likely to be plagued by the same structural constraints and a lack of organic solidarity that has inhibited transversal collaboration between the Kurds for more than a century.



The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author.