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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

EASP Seedcorn Grant Report by Ercan Şen¹ and Canan Coşkan²

21.01.2021, by Tina Keil in grant report

Independent researchers affiliated to the Human Rights Association¹, Turkey and to Bielefeld University², Germany

Photo taken during the field trip in Kurdistan* (Photo editing: Hasan Özhan Ünal)
Photo taken during the field trip in Kurdistan* (Photo editing: Hasan Özhan Ünal)

The role of ethnic, national and superordinate identities and perceptions of power in understanding Kurds’ attitudes about reconciliation in “Turkish-Kurdish conflict”

Sustained through resistant denial of responsibility and structural violence, intractable conflicts are characterized by enmity and involve many societal and socio-psychological barriers for oppressed minority groups to reach a just and accountable path for dialogue and reconciliation (Bar-Tal, Halperin, & Pliskin, 2015). One such barrier is the unequal power dynamics between groups, which denotes many intractable conflicts as asymmetrical (Shnabel, Ullrich, Nadler, Dovidio & Aydın, 2013; Wenzel, Mummendey & Waldzus, 2007). In asymmetrical intergroup conflict, many reconciliatory attempts based on creating meaningful encounters such as intergroup contact (Tezanos-Pinto, Mazziotta,& Feuchte, 2017; Saguy, Tropp, & Hawi, 2013) and using common/superordinate identities (Gaertner, Dovidio, Anastasio, Bachman, & Rust, 1993) generally work on the benefit of the majority group, with few, if any gains for the minority (i.e., ‘sedative effects’ of positive contact). As social and political psychologists we live in a constant dynamic of oppression, popularly referred as the “Kurdish question” with several periods of conflicts varying in intensity and representations (Uluğ & Cohrs, 2019; Güneş, 2012; Bilali, Çelik, & Ok, 2014). Therefore, we consider reconciliation as a process, more than an outcome (Bar-Tal & Bennink, 2004). Critically, we feel urged to understand how different representations of reconciliation and power emerge, not only in times of “peace” but more importantly in times of escalated conflicts and fluid power dynamics.

In the recent past of Turkish-Kurdish intractable conflict, the establishment of Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi – HDP) served as a power stake by getting group seats in the parliament while the formal reconciliation negotiations were continuing in 2013. However, with the rising international war conjuncture in the Middle East, and the pragmatic use of this war and its wounds by Turkish Government, the peace process was halted and the conflict re-escalated afterwards. The conflict re-escalation in 2015-2016 included violent oppression of Turkish state toward Kurdish citizens in Kurdistan region*, including many assassinations, mass killings and forced migration from eastern to western cities (Amnesty International, 2016). Although there is no explicit sign of a new reconciliation process, we witnessed a dramatic effort of HDP to gain power among different groups with their success during the local elections. Indeed the recent re-election in İstanbul was scene to the fully committed support of HDP for CHP’s candidate to regain his position (Independent, 22.06.2019). This came after the longest Kurdish hunger strike to force the government to terminate the isolation of Kurdish Freedom Movement leader Abdullah Öcalan, which resulted in success (France 24, 27.05.2019). As the legal communication path was finally open, Öcalan passed his suggestions to Kurdish movement, including HDP. Right before the re-election in İstanbul, one of his letters was manipulatively used by the government agents to creak the alliance both within Kurds and between CHP and HDP, which did not work. As a result, CHP’s candidate regained the elections and HDP’s role in this success has been recognized worldwide. This successful election-based and short term democratic alliance along with the efficient hunger strike can be considered as an effort to equalize the power imbalance by actively intervening to the sociopolitical processes as active agents from the part of Kurds. It can also be interpreted as reasons to feel empowered by Kurdish minority members.

During reconciliation, both minority and majority groups have emotional needs of respectively empowerment and acceptance, to be satisfied for a hope of success in reconciliatory processes on interindividual, intergroup and international levels (Shnabel, Nadler, Canetti-Nissim & Ullrich, 2008). Although some is known about minority empowerment as a result of majority group’s recognition about the injustices against the minority group during reconciliation, we are left in dark about minority members’ perception of power dynamics before the reconciliation processes (e.g., Rouhana & Fiske, 1995) and how can minority self-empowerment be possible in the lack of recognition during intractable conflicts. Other instances toward a tendency to equalize this imbalance can also be the processes of demanding direct conflict recognition and competitive victimhood; in both cases minority members have to prove that they were the ultimate victims, which may result in further traumatization because of cognitively and emotionally re-experiencing the same suffering or because of the ultimate denial of the majority group members (Maoz, 2000; Noor, Brown, Gonzalez, Manzi & Lewis, 2008).

Collective action literature hints toward another route to emancipation and empowerment through collective identity combined with collective feelings of efficacy. The power dynamic can be challenged when the minority group finds a way to get over the barriers of socio-political exclusion and reaches to a level of collective affirmation and empowerment through ingroup members’ mutual support thanks to collective identity and collective efficacy (e.g., Reicher & Haslam, 2014; Drury & Stott, 2001) or alliance with a third group. Recent literature suggests that a dynamic understanding of these power relationships is crucial to understand when and how these oscillating statuses of power are acting as barriers to reconciliation (Maoz & Powell, 2014). This also requires an understanding of “power-as-capacity”, “power to”, or “power-in-common”, rather than an understanding of power limited to “power-as-control” or “power-over” (Sindic, 2014; Neruga, Plante, & Lévesque, 2019). Furthermore, minority group in search of social change can benefit from empowerment in transforming identity as well as in sustaining collective action to demand equality and recognition (Drury, Evripidou, & Van Zomeren, 2014). To our knowledge, this route has not widely been considered in the context of intergroup conflict, specifically in terms of reconciliation (for a recent exception see Neruga, Plante, & Lévesque, 2019). We argue that this route of emancipation and empowerment can give the minority group a sense of autonomy and agency unconditional to the majority group’s recognition; thereby paving the way for what Kurds would call an “honorable peace”.

The power imbalance is not an isolated factor in understanding the barriers to intergroup reconciliation. Rather, it is a key component of the sociopolitical and economic context in which many other social psychological dynamics such as collective ingroup identities, superordinate identities and social and historical representations are embedded (Sindic, 2014; Dovidio, 2014). Previous research showed that Kurds and Turks have partially overlapping (in terms of themes) but ultimately distinct (in terms of content) reconciliation representations, with differing links to outgroup forgiveness (Baysu & Coşkan, 2018) as well as the double-edged role of superordinate religious (i.e., Muslim) identity (Baysu, Coşkan, & Duman, 2018) on reconciliation representations of Kurds in Turkey and in diaspora at the start of the temporary “peace process” of 2013-2015. More specifically, this research have highlighted that superordinate identity (e.g., Gaertner, Dovidio, Nier, Ward, & Banker, 1999) works in the benefit of both groups for reconciliation based on dialogue, which generally encompasses “soft” rights such as being recognized as equals, getting along well and like. On the other hand, it creates a drawback for reconciliation based on rights, especially for the minority group in terms of acclaiming “material” rights such as autonomy or independence, land rights, and equal representation, which are at the core of the intractable conflict. However, these findings can be limited to the temporary reconciliation process in which formal negotiations of peace were ongoing. Even by then, both sides voiced their skepticism toward the official peace process.

Since 2015, the so-called peace process has been shut down and the state repression and violence escalated heavily, preparing ground for resurging armed and societal conflict (Amnesty International, 2016; OHCHR, 2017). However, as described above, the escalating conflict is sometimes followed by minority collective action and alliance acts aimed at changing the power imbalance, which can be accompanied by feelings of empowerment. Therefore, from a bottom-up approach to societal peace, we argue that minority and majority members’ understanding of reconciliation is dynamic through their perception of power dynamics, collective identities as well as superordinate identities, mutually constructing each other with the ongoing conflict. As researchers, we should take into account how members of a society see a possibility for reconciliation in changing circumstances of conflict and power perceptions. With this responsibility, we chose to focus on minority group’s understanding of power and reconciliation.

In the current research, we were interested in reconciliation in the period of escalated conflict, rather than in the period of ongoing peace reconciliations. We focused on the perceptions about oscillating power dynamics along with the escalated violence in the Turkish-Kurdish intractable conflict and aims to understand Kurds’ current representations of peace and reconciliation regarding Turkish-Kurdish conflict in terms of perceptions of power dynamics (ingroup and outgroup perceived power status), feelings of empowerment, ethnic ingroup identities (i.e., being Turk and being Kurd) and superordinate identities (i.e., being Turkish citizen and being muslim, respectively for national and religious identities). Therefore, we aimed to explore the collective action route from identities to emancipation/empowerment for reconciliation and to extend our previous work on dialogue versus rights based reconciliation. Specifically, we asked how perceptions of power in a number of recent political developments and feelings of empowerment about these developments relate to the expectations and representations of reconciliation and we examined their mediating roles in the relationship between ethnic and superordinate identities and reconciliation. Our general expectation was to see a positive relationship between minority identifications and specifically rights-based reconciliation through both situational and generic Kurdish power. We also expected a positive relationship between majority group-related identifications and dialogue-based reconciliation.

Originally, the research sample would include both Kurds and Turks. However, during the period we were planning the studies and organizing the fieldworks, we were, once more, in the middle of escalating violence against Kurds and hence of mainstream, state-led racist propaganda. More specifically, as we were planning to ask questions related with recent events such as Turkey’s occupation of Afrin and hunger strikes against the solitary confinement of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, Kurdish municipalities were targeted and criminalized by the Turkish government, further intensifying Turks’ intolerance against any dialogue/communication related to Kurds and the conflict (Eliçin, 2020; HDP, 2019). Therefore, for our own well-being as well as for the sake of data quality, we decided to run the research idea only with Kurds.

We used a mixed methods approach in order to collect quantitative and qualitative data from Kurds via semi-structured interviews and structured questionnaire forms, both of which were conducted through one-to-one contact. We assessed participants’ perception of power dynamics, feelings of empowerment, national, ethnic and religious identities, conditions of internal migration (forced versus voluntary), belongingness to their current city of residence, understanding of and attitudes toward reconciliation along with their history of migration and depicting of short-term dynamics of changing intergroup conflict. In terms of research design, we also took into account the internal (forced) migrational statuses of Kurds by reaching participants from both western cities of Turkey (i.e., İstanbul, İzmir and Ankara) and in Kurdistan cities in Turkey (i.e., Van, Şırnak and Diyarbakır). During long and repetitive periods of state violence and repression in Kurdistan, many Kurdish residents whose lives were threatened either directly or indirectly, have been forced to migrate to other cities, mostly to the western region of Turkey such as İstanbul, İzmir and Ankara. Approximately 3 to 4 million Kurds were forcefully displaced during 1980 and 1990’s onward (HÜNEE, 2006; Kurban & Yeğen, 2012) and at least 350.000 Kurds had to leave their cities because of city clashes after the “peace process” in 2013-2015 (Crisis Group, 2016).

Qualitative Study

We conducted in-depth interviews with 16 Kurds (five women) in Turkey (İstanbul) and in Kurdistan (Van) in September 2019. We specifically asked participants about their ethno-national identities, their understanding of power in the ingroup based on how they define the ingroup and their current and future thoughts on reconciliation. Our aim was to map down the themes of Kurdish power from a critical race approach. Therefore, we conducted thematic analysis driven by critical realist epistemology (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Delgado, 1995; Salter & Adams, 2013).

Our analyses yielded two main themes: Representations of power and boundaries of power. Representations of power encompassed participants’ abstract constructions of Kurdish power and they were associable to social psychological conceptualization of “social representations” (Moscovici, 2011; Negura, Plante, & Lévesque, 2019). They tapped into how Kurds represent their group power in terms of historical and personal representations, agency/subjecthood, quantity, racial visibility as vulnerability and as strength, ethnocultural power, and gender intersection. Boundaries of power encompassed the elements that drew participants’ understanding of the extent/limits of Kurdish power as well as intergroup boundaries (e.g., Vine & Greenwood, 2020), specifically in terms of belongings, rights, identifications and realizations. They tapped into nationhood, multifragmentality (mostly about the ingroup), lack of recognition, mistrust and vigilance, belonging and ownership, conflict fatigue and class intersection.

The diversity of issues (i.e., economics, socio-cultural rights, community well-being, education, land rights, communication and media, decolonialism and liberation) within both themes underlined the multidimensionality of “Kurdish power”. The gender and class issues that were brought up by some participants hint that the “Kurdish issue” also encompasses intersectional dynamics. Furthermore, the emphases made on multifragmentations in the “Kurdish issue” indicate that Kurds are explicitly aware of the complexity of the “Kurdish issue”, internalize it as a genuine matter and try to talk about it in more depth and width. The subtheme of conflict fatigue, brought up more frequently and fervently by participants in Kurdistan, was not directly connected to the issues of power but was expressed in terms of reconciliation expectations. A more general issue in relation to conflict was that the conflict itself seems to be connected to empowering feelings for and vulnerability in some others; the divergence appears to be related to the strength of ethnic and national minority identifications.

Finally, we also asked participants’ perspectives about forgiving Turkish state and Turks. For more than half of the participants, “unforgiveness” was emphasized as a performance of power. More specifically, positionality about forgiveness seemed to highlight unforgiveness also as a boundary of Kurdish power. However, as the thematic analysis was designed from a bottom-up, inductive approach we did not include unforgiveness in the theme. Our general findings indicate that while participants largely converged on their representations about Kurdish power as well as on their descriptions of the extent of Kurdish power in diverse dimensions, their positionality in terms of ingroup fragments also highlighted some divergences in their descriptions of powerfulness. Furthermore, the sub themes and dimensions informed our scale construction for the measurement of “power in Kurds” in the quantitative study.

Quantitative Study

Two months after the qualitative study, we were able to conduct our fieldwork for the quantitative study in six cities. In total, we conducted one-to-one surveys with 205 Kurdish participants. The measures included ethnic, national and superordinate identifications, situational and generic power in Kurds, and reconciliation. Several identifications were measured: Kurdish (minority ethnic identity), Kurdistani (minority ethno-national identity in the sense of “being from Kurdistan”), citizen of Turkey (superordinate citizenship identity) and “Türkiyeli” (superordinate national identity; in the sense of “being from Turkey” without specific emphasis on Turkish ethnic identity except the default ethnic emphasis of the country name). We measured perceptions of “situational Kurdish power” as indicated by participants’ efficacy perceptions about recent developments on the result of hunger strikes for Öcalan’s isolation, wins on local elections, protests against trustee appointments in Kurdish-led municipalities and hope toward Kurdish defense against the recent Turkish occupation in Afrin. We also measured perceptions of “generic Kurdish power” with the Kurdish power scale, with four subscales (power from group solidarity, power to change, power for ownership, and power of recognition) that we developed based on the qualitative findings, social power scale (Rouhana & Fiske, 1995) and geopolitical (national and international) ethnic power . Finally, we measured reconciliation in three different ways; first, we had a one-item reconciliation desire and next we had a scale of reconciliation that we developed from the findings of a previous study (Baysu & Coşkan, 2018), which encompassed rights- and dialogue-based reconciliation.

Participants’ Kurdish and Kurdistani identification were higher than their Turkey citizen and “Türkiyeli” identifications. As expected, higher Kurdish and Kurdistani identifications were correlated with higher wish for reconciliation, and more specifically higher rights based reconciliation. Furthermore, higher Kurdistani identification also correlated with lower dialogue based reconciliation. On the other hand, higher identification with Turkey citizenship and “Türkiyeli” correlated only with lower rights based reconciliation and higher dialogue based reconciliation.

Mediation analyses revealed that, in terms of generic perceptions of Kurdish power, only power for recognition and power for change mediated the relationship between Kurdish (ethnic) and Kurdistani (national) identification and desire for reconciliation. Specifically, both higher Kurdish identification and higher “Kurdistani” identification predicted higher desire for reconciliation through increased sense of power to change, and lower desire for reconciliation through decreased power of recognition. Furthermore, higher national identification predicted lower dialogue-based reconciliation but Kurds’ increased perception of ethnic power partially acted as a buffer in this relationship.

More importantly, among four situational power issues, only hunger strikes and hope for defense mediated the relationship between identities and reconciliation. Specifically, as Kurdish or Kurdistani identifications increased participants endorsed more rights-based dialogue through increased perception of hunger strike efficacy and hope from defense; they were less reactive against dialogue-based reconciliation through increased perception of hunger strike efficacy and hope from defense. On the other hand, as “citizen of Turkey” and “Türkiyeli” identifications decreased, participants were less reactive against rights-based reconciliation through increased perception of hunger strike efficacy and hope from defense; they endorsed more dialogue-based reconciliation through higher perception of hunger strike efficacy.

Concluding Remarks

We believe that the current research is the first one to explore the content and the extent of Kurdish power in relation to identities and reconciliation. The findings suggest that Kurds’ understanding of power is not restricted to ethnic and national identities, albeit shaped by them. Kurdish power relates to social, cultural and political issues as well as ingroup dynamics. In other words, the minority power is not limited to ingroup representations but it also includes an awareness of boundaries. Furthermore, we partially confirmed expectations about the mediating role of Kurdish power between identities and reconciliation. Minority ethnic and national identifications increased Kurds’ support for rights-based reconciliation through both situational and generic understandings of Kurdish power. Additionally, majority group-related superordinate identifications increased Kurds’ support for dialogue-based reconciliation. We can say that Kurds as a large minority group are not homogeneous. Therefore, their identifications, the identities Kurds endorse most, also hint to the kind of peace they want, the terms of the reconciliation they desire. In all case, these suggest that Kurds want to be recognized as subjects and to be directly addressed for reconciliation.

In both studies, we aimed at reaching heterogeneous samples in terms of socio-political positionalities within Kurds. This effort yielded some divergences mainly in two issues. First, participants in Kurdistan underlined the importance of social, cultural and material rights for reconciliation and they emphasized more national and patriotic identification. This observation was also confirmed in the quantitative study, in that they endorsed more rights- (vs. dialogue-) based reconciliation. Participants in Western Turkey who endorsed equally rights- and dialogue-based reconciliation also emphasized more universalistic ideologies (e.g., anarchism, socialism) in contrast to national and patriotic influences. Second, participants in Kurdistan talked more frequently about the issues of belonging and ownership in relation to the understanding of Kurdish power, further highlighting the material conditions/demands for reconciliation.

To sum up, the solution for Kurds will not be easy until power dynamics is more balanced and the reconciliation is not expected in the near future, especially not in periods of high but fluctuating levels of state violence and enmity. We recommend that future research on peace and reconciliation should take into account the power dynamics. Critically, the current findings only provide the minority perspective; further studies are needed to draw a picture of the asymmetrical power relations in the context of intractable conflicts.

To be continued…

We continue to explore the data beyond our expectations. More specifically, we currently focus on two pressing issues in the data. The first is the regional differences in the sample because we know that each period of forced migration, such as the recent one, transmitted the “Kurdish question” into those big cities. For instance, Yeğen (2009) evaluated this transmission in terms of the emergence of new and transitive states of Kurdishness and he emphasized its role in paving the way for a new generation of Kurdish politics by involving youth, children and women as active agents of politics. Adding an internal migration perspective to the study of peace in psychology, we will also explore the role of forced internal migration in shaping individuals’ representations and expectations of reconciliation. The second is the relation between ethno-national and movement identifications and collective action through the perceptions of ingroup and outgroup power. This will give us hindsight on where we should look for minority empowerment and collective action under escalated oppression.

We hope that various findings from this study will contribute to an enhanced understanding of reconciliation processes in asymmetrical conflicts in terms of oscillating power dynamics and the context-specific function of superordinate identities, which may amplify or worsen these expectations for Kurds living in Turkey. Finally but most importantly, this research would not be possible without the participants who shared their houses, foods, thoughts, feelings and desires with us and our friends who helped us to reach them. Gelek Spas!

* When we refer to Kurdistan, rather than official nation states boundaries defined by international law (which includes the Kurdistan region we refer to as part of Republic of Turkey), we underline a sociopsychological nationhood expressed and defined by Kurds. Recognition of this ethno-national definition and identification appears important to us given the asymmetrical power relations.


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