Just Wanna Know

Revolutionary Propaganda Organ

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

"Ethnic Kurds"!?

I heard this on National Pentagon Radio this morning: Saddam Hussein is again in court today, this time for an incident that resulted in the death of hundreds of "ethnic Kurds."

What is an ethnic Kurd? How is an ethnic Kurd different from any other kind of Kurd?

Since we can talk about Navajos, Manchurians, Berbers, Bantus, and other sociolinguistic ethnic groups without the ethnic prefix being necessary, why do we need to have it here? Google "ethnic navajos" and there's nothing, while "ethnic kurds" returns 95,000 hits.

Does this nomenclature reflect the pressure of the Turkish foreign ministry on American public radio newswriters?

I'm assuming to talk about "Kurds"--Turkish Kurds, for example, instead of Kurdish Turks--would be too much to take, given the close identification between Turkish nationality and Turkish ethnicity. Use of the noun instead of the adjective would be taken as proof that the writer supports Kurdish nationalism! Even the other option, to say that Saddam killed "Iraqi Kurds," could be taken as evidence of bias. It's as if the writer must introduce the adjective "ethnic" in order to reassure worried listeners that those killed were merely speakers of the Kurdish language and not violent PKK separatists...

Such close identification between nation and ethnicity would be far less likely in, for example, Syria, Egypt, or (still?) Iraq, the classic Arab nationalist states.

Which brings us back to the evilness (and counter-intuitiveness) of the current ethnic cleansing in Iraq: Where did all this come from? I have my ideas... And yes, this version does have something to with media, colonialism--of which Saddam was an agent--and self-fulfilling prophecies.


At 9:36 AM, Anonymous dagger aleph said...

This is a fascinating question, but I'm not sure that it has to do with the desire to avoid the appearance of bias.

Some preliminary Googling turns up 96,000 hits for "ethnic Serbs" and a similar number for "ethnic Hungarians." "Ethnic Palestinians" turns up a measly 680 hits.

What this suggests to me is that "ethnic" is used in situations where there is a conflict that is ethnic in nature (as opposed to, say, religious).

"given the close identification between Turkish nationality and Turkish ethnicity"

Hm. I had a (very nationalistic) Turkish teacher who used to say that everyone in Turkey is a Turk. If they have Turkish citizenship, that makes them Turks. Her view seems to indicate that there isn't that close a connection between citizenship and nationality. Though her view might be predicated on the historical (but largely ineffective) attempts at "Turkicization" of the Kurds (not to mention the "population exchanges" between Greece and Turkey in the early part of the century that removed almost all the Christians in the country).

"Such close identification between nation and ethnicity would be far less likely in, for example, Syria, Egypt"

I don't think this is true. In the late 60s, the Syrian government stripped thousands of Syrian Kurds of their citizenship; they remain stateless to this day. As for Egypt, it is a pretty homogeneous country ethnically (Nubians in the south, but it's much less ethnically diverse than the Levant, with its Kurds and Druze and Circassians and Palestinians, etc.), and I've never heard of a non-Egyptian getting citizenship without marrying an Egyptian.

Again, a fascinating question that I'll be chewing on for a while, no doubt.

At 10:52 AM, Blogger John Schaefer said...

Thanks, DA!

I'm just always confused by the word "ethnic"--I'm never sure what it means.

I thought the "ethnic" Serbians, Hungarians, etc. was a way to identify people who spoke a language that was already represented by a neighboring nation-state, but who were not themselves actually citizens of that nation-state. Thus we have ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia, who are Slovak citizens but speak Hungarian...

The point here is that there is no Kurdistan, so no chance for confusion between Iraqis who speak Kurds and citizens of Kurdistan. Perhaps it would be more justified to talk about "ethnic Turkmen" in Iraq, since there is a "Turkmenistan" (as well as a "Turkey," and I don't know how closely Turkmen is related to Turkish). But since Turkmenistan is far away from Iraq, I don't think anyone would be confused enough, when reading a story about northern Iraq, to wonder whether the writer was talking about citizens of Turkmenistan.

So what would have prevented the writer from using the term "Kurdish Iraqi" instead of "ethnic Kurd"?

At 11:12 AM, Blogger John Schaefer said...

DA, apologies, I didn't address your other excellent points. Point taken with regard to Syrian Kurds: They are stateless, trapped, forgotten, and oppressed.

But with regard to "ethnic": I don't know too many Turks, so maybe I'm off-target (and biased from spending too much time around Arabs), but it appears to me that Turkey is the name of the country's dominant sociolinguistic majority, which might alienate minorities, while Syria, Egypt, and Iraq are all ancient geographical names that aren't connected to ethnicity.

Which brings me to the ethnos: It's so wrapped up in nationalism that it's pretty useless. For example, are Alawis or Copts ethnic minorities? No, they're religious.

So "ethnic" refers to language and the intangibles of "culture," but not to religion? When was religion removed from the ethnos and disambiguated from the rest of culture? We could assume that this condition held sway at some point between the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1860 (to keep Protestants and Catholics in the same nation) and the statement of Helmut Kohl in the 1990s that "Europe is made up of Christian nations."

If "ethnic" once didn't include religion, I think it usually does now. And in a disturbing trend, it's even used as a euphemism for "racial" in some hypersensitive (read: clueless) circles.

At 11:46 AM, Anonymous dagger aleph said...

To your first comment: Upon reflection, I do believe you're right about this. We don't say, "ethnic Basque" or "ethnic Catalan"; we do say "ethnic Turkmen" and "ethnic Albanian" (513,000 hits for the latter).

As to why the reporter said "ethnic Kurd," I have no idea. Sloppiness? I personally didn't realize until this morning that there's a rule governing how the word ethnic is used. (But now I am enlightened! Thanks!)

"but it appears to me that Turkey is the name of the country's dominant sociolinguistic majority, which might alienate minorities, while Syria, Egypt, and Iraq are all ancient geographical names that aren't connected to ethnicity."

This is also something I never thought about.

The phenomena of ethnic oppression or ethnic revival are overdetermined. In Egypt, for example, the linguistic minority in Nubia is not to my knowledge particularly alienated from Egypt, but Arabic-speaking Beduin in the Sinai do not consider themselves Egyptians.

"If "ethnic" once didn't include religion I think it usually does now."

Something else to ponder.

Our notion of what constitutes an ethnicity seems to be determined by conflict. Where is the fault line? -- that is what separates one ethnic group from another.

At 12:30 PM, Blogger John Schaefer said...

"what constitutes an ethnicity seems to be determined by conflict"

Yes, and this point relates to a point from my childhood: In Ghana, the words "tribe" and "tribal" are rightly rejected for their racist connotations. Or can we comfortably consider the Basque or Kosovan uprisings "tribal wars"? So ethnic has become a euphemism for tribal. (In Ghana, the root remains only in the universally condemned evil of "tribalism.")

But your question remains, and this is a troubling dilemma:

1. "Ethnicity" is formally connected to war, rebellion, and conflict; or

2. "Ethnicity" is functionally an outlet whereby people who are otherwise limited from political mobilization find the means to do so.

I'm going to blog about this next...

At 4:19 PM, Blogger CJD said...

Don't forget to add to it a discussion of the word fundamentalism.

At 7:01 PM, Blogger John Schaefer said...

Wow, I should just shoot off my mouth more often... Thanks for all the discussion!

CJD, at some point this weekend I determined that I, myself, am a fundamentalist. Sort of a postmodern one, but a fundamentalist all the same.


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