International Experts Bring Insights To Kurdish Studies Conference


By Tutku Ayhan

On March 1, 2019, the Kurdish Political Studies Program (KPSP) hosted an international and interdisciplinary conference titled “Borders, Identities and Refugees: The Kurdish Experience in the Middle East.”  The conference included three panels of renowned scholars and researchers, and a documentary film covering various issues related to the Kurdish experience with global salience, including minority-majority identities, perceptions of otherness, physical and symbolic borders and refugees.

Kerstin Hamann, Ph.D., Pegasus Professor and chair of the Department of Political Science, Gunes Murat Tezcur, Ph.D., the Jalal Talabani chair of Kurdish Political Studies,  opened up the event, welcomed the audience and the speakers. The first panel titled “Identities: Majorities and Minorities”, moderated by Doreen Horschig, started with a presentation by Mucahit Bilici, Ph.D., of John Jay College who offered an analysis of Mem û Zîn, a Kurdish literature classic by Ehmedê Xanî‎, the 17th Century Kurdish poet and writer. He explored the notions of sovereignty, peoplehood and social contract in Xani’s work. Tyler Fisher, Ph.D., and Haidar Khezri, Ph.D., both of UCF, talked about the efforts to rebuild Yezidi shrines after the ISIS attacks in 2014 in Sinjar, Iraq.They explained the importance of shrines in transmitting the religious culture and symbolic legacies of Yezidis, a persecuted and marginalized group. Next, Hakan Ozoglu, Ph.D., of UCF gave a presentation on the ways different historical sources speak about the Kurds of the Caucasus. Looking primarily at Russian sources, Ozoglu noted how the borderland between Russia and the former Ottoman Empire blurred into each other, and how Russian discourses on Kurds changed on the eve of World War I to gain their political loyalty against the Ottomans. The following Q&A included questions on how the presenters deal with the changing meaning of the word ‘Kurd’ throughout the centuries, and different motivations of Ba’ath regime and ISIS in destroying Yezidi shrines. 

The second panel, titled “Refugees and Borders,” moderated by Oner Yigit, opened up by a presentation by Firat Bozcali, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto, and focused on the border crossing between Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan. Based on his fieldwork, Bozcali discussed how mundane bureaucratic practices regulating border crossing  created a “state effect” and gave Kurds of Turkey the feeling of visiting a “country of their own.”  The Estonian journalist Hille Hanso talked about the current situation of Assyrians, a Christian minority in Iraqi Kurdistan. Based on her observations on the ground, she summarized the challenges facing Assyrians as a religious minority and the political and religious fragmentations within the community. Lastly, Arzu Yilmaz, Ph.D., based in Turkey, discussed the formation of political identities of Kurdish refugees in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The afternoon panel, titled “Kurds in the Eyes of Others,” was moderated by Christopher Faulkner, and included four presentations. Zeynep Kaya, Ph.D., of the London School of Economics, talked about her research on the maps of Kurdistan produced by Westerners in the 19th and early 20th Century. Explaining how the colonial perceptions of the peoples of the region informed the construction of a retrospective Kurdish national identity today, Kaya noted the same maps were adopted and used by Kurdish nationalists in subsequent debates. Ohannes Kilicdagi, Ph.D., of Harvard University discussed communal relations between Anatolian Armenians and Kurds just after the restoration of the constitutional regime in the Ottoman Empire in 1908. Kilicdagi explained that Armenian intellectuals depicted  Kurds as “semi-savage”, “barbaric” or “uneducated” people and ascribed themselves a civilizing role with the goal of improving communal relations. Ekrem Karakoc, Ph.D., of Binghamton University shifted the focus to  contemporary times and discussed the Turkish public perceptions of Kurds. Using data from an original public opinion survey conducted in 2015, Karakoc showed that Turks overwhelmingly oppose linguistic, cultural and political demands of Kurds in Turkey. Intriguingly, a larger percentage of ethnic Turks support Kurdish independence than Kurdish autonomy, suggesting a “love it or leave it” mentality. The final presentation of the conference was by Tutku Ayhan of UCF, who talked about Yezidi perceptions of Kurds and the Kurdish identity. Offering historical reading of Yezidis’ relationship with their Kurdish neighbors since the late 18th Century, Ayhan underlined the ongoing process of a (re)construction of a distinct ethno-religious Yezidi identity.

The conference concluded with the screening of the documentary “The Deminer”, written and directed by Hogir Hirori and produced by Antonio Russo Merenda. The audience were touched by the film which tells the story of a Kurdish colonel who disarmed thousands of landmines “only by his courage and a pair of wire cutters.”

The KPSP thanks the UCF Office of Research, Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd Program, the Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence, Middle Eastern Studies, Department of Political Science and the Global Religion Research Initiative at the University of Notre Dame for their support. More information about the KPSP can be found at its website,



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