The Lausanne Treaty, which ultimately arranged the recognition of the Kemalists as the successors of the Ottoman Empire by the international community in 1923, is causing a lot of debate on its 100th anniversary. It’s sometimes seen as the treaty that ended the aspirations of the Kurds to have their own nation-state, but that’s not really correct. It’s interesting to see how concepts of 2023 are transported back to 1923. Let’s see how that goes in 2024 and 2025, when developments and events will be commemorated that had much more impact on Kurdish communities a century ago than the Lausanne Treaty had.
Let’s make that more concrete. Of course, the Lausanne Treaty was negotiated and signed in a very tumultuous time. The Sèvres Treaty had arranged peace between the allies of the First World War and the remains of the Ottoman Empire, but by the time it was signed in 1920, it was already outdated: Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) had started his armed resistance against it more than a year earlier.
Kurds in Turkey had not embraced the Sèvres Treaty, even though it arranged for a referendum to be held about the borders of an independent Kurdistan. Most Kurdish leaders had decided to fight alongside Atatürk’s men to kick the occupying allies out of Anatolia. They felt threatened by an independent Armenia that would encompass parts of what they considered to be Kurdish lands. Also, the Kurds didn’t have an army of their own, only militias that would not be able to fight the opposing powers that would support Armenia, most notably Russia.
Supporting Atatürk’s independence movement, would, they hoped, lead to a new balance between Kurdish feudal lords and the central government, as such a new balance had always been found in the centuries when (part of) Kurdistan had been part of the Ottoman Empire: the Kurdish leaders would have autonomy and not pay taxes and not send their men to fight in the army, in exchange for them protecting the rugged southeastern borders of the Empire. This was good for the Ottoman rulers too, because for them it would have been hard to not only control their borders but keep many local Kurdish notables under control.
Such a new balance wasn’t found, though, after Lausanne had been signed. There would be no Kurdish autonomy, that much was clear very soon. Kurds were not even allowed to exist as such in the new Republic of Turkey, announced on 29 October 1923. It is very interesting to draw a parallel with the Kurdish movement of nowadays: initially, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was striving to establish an independent Kurdish state, in line with what Sèvres more or less said, while during the 1990s a paradigm shift was made towards autonomy, in line with what they had assumed Lausanne would entail at the time. You can clearly see that in the assessment PKK founder and Kurdish leader Öcalan made 25 years ago, on the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Lausanne Treaty.
What Kurdish feudal and religious leaders had not expected was the rapid secularization measures that Atatürk embarked upon. The most important was the formal abolition of the caliphate in March 1924. These measures were a reason for one now legendary Kurdish leader to join a resistance that had been plotted against the new government by Kurdish nationalists, who were united in the secret movement Azadî (Freedom). His name was Shaykh Said. The Azadî nationalists were caught plotting and were either arrested or backed out, but Shaykh Said had the support of the people – which is why the nationalists had asked him to join in the first place, since the nationalists had no popular support – and decided to rise up without Azadî.
There is no doubt that Shaykh Said’s motivation was religion. The speeches held to incite people to join the uprising were religious, with Islamic banners and Qurans and religious slogans. The uprising, which started in Diyarbakır (Amed), lasted around a month. The Turkish army was much stronger, not least because they had planes; something the rebels were reportedly shocked about because they had never seen them. In June 1925, Shaykh Said and two dozen others were hanged. Their burial grounds remain secret up until today.
How will the Kurdish movement remember the abolition of the caliphate and the religious uprising of Shaykh Said? I predict it will be put in the context of religious freedom. Shaykh Said was not the Sunni Muslim the newly ‘created’ Turk in the new Turkey was supposed to be. He belonged to a Sufi order, and soon after the uprising, the new government banned all Sufi orders. Turkey became secularized, but this secularization was not the kind that separated state and religion, but rather tied them together. Religion was brought under the full control of the state.
This is what the Kurdish movement’s angle is going to be. They may not be particularly religious themselves, but they principally support religious freedom. What the republic has done, and is doing up until today, is using religion in its fascist state to suppress the people. In one of Öcalan’s books, I read that he considers Islam (and Christianity, for that matter) as a religion that was born out of resistance against the status quo, but was soon brought under the control of power. This is what the caliphate did and what Atatürk did as well, and what Erdoğan is still building on.
The only way to get rid of a bad treaty, is to rebel against it. It’s what Atatürk did against Sèvres, and it’s what the Kurdish movement is doing against Lausanne. Not by going back to old-fashioned ideas about nation-states and caliphates, but by criticizing it and taking it into a future that is more free.