*For this section, I heavily referenced from Chapter 6 of “A Modern History of the Kurds” by McDowall.
As the Ottoman Empire entered into the 20th century political agitation began to increase as it became obvious that the Ottoman Empire was no longer a relevant power in world politics, having a tenuous status as a regional power at best. A big downgrade from being a major player in the world only a few centuries before with no sign of abating. Nationalism was increasing in the empire, which was particularly pronounced in the Armenian population in the Middle-East and subjects in the few holdings the Ottomans held onto in the Balkans.
This set up the scene for a coup by the Young Turks in July of 1908, which saw the restoration of the short-lived 1876 Constitution and its associated parliament. This also meant the rise to power of the political wing of the Young Turks, the Committee of Union and Progress (in Turkish, the İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti), sometimes referred to as Ittihadists. Kurds, like other minorities, welcomed the change in the government as a way to possibly advance their demands as a new state was in the process of being born. While some local tribal leaders were obviously disadvantaged by the shift away from decentralization and a clientele network that was common in Abdul Hamid II’s rule, it provided Kurdish nationalists with a possibly receptive government to work towards future plans. This meant the return of several Kurdish figures who were until then in exile or ignored by the government, like Ubeydullah’s son, Abdul Qadir, and several of the Badr Khans.
While the Young Turk Coup ensured the Committees of Union and Progress’s uncontested control in the government, this did not translate into immediate stability. Before the coup, the Ottoman Empire had to deal with the embarrassment of having to watch as the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia, a consequence of its defeat in the last war with the Russian Empire back in the late 1870s, around the time of Ubeydullah’s uprising. In the months after the coup, the Young Turks fended off political challeneges from conservative elements in the state, among them old Kurdish tribal chiefs, notably one Ibrahim Pasha of the Milli tribal confederation, who rose up in an abortive rebellion after the Young Turk Revolution at the cost of his life. Some of these conservative elements within the military launched their own counter-coup in March of 1909 attempting to throw out the Young Turks. This failed and led to the abdication of Sultan Abdul Hamid II in favor of Mehmed V.
And of course, Europe was not ignoring the developments in the Empire. The Ottoman Empire was attacked by the Kingdom of Italy in a conflict that lasted from September 29, 1911 to October 18, 1912. Like the annexation of Bosnia before, this was tied to a claim by Italy that they had been promised Libya by the powers of Europe in the aftermath of the last Russian-Ottoman conflict. The war’s conclusion saw the loss of Libya to the Italians, and this conflict in turn provoked the First Balkan War, which saw the final collapse of influence of the Ottomans in the region, including the independence of its last Balkan vilayet in Albania. The Second Balkan War followed almost immediately afterwards, but it was a conflict in which the Ottomans were a secondary factor.
The Kurdish population in the Ottoman Empire had yet to coalesce around a single political figure, though there were certainly nationalists around this time fighting for more Kurdish recognition in the empire. Many of these Kurds originated from older families that had been in positions of power before the disintegration of their semi-autonomous emirates, as they were typically able to access more information and education that gave them a “big picture” on the Kurdish issue.
This is not to say that Kurdish insurrection was nonexistent at the time, but after Ubeydullah any sort of disturbance that occurred was typically confined to local insurrections that were often quelled before they grew out of control by finding the leaders of the movement.
One of the families that was noted for this was the Badrkhans, both among those still living with the Ottoman Empire and those living in exile. One of the more notable actions was the foundation of the “Kurdistan” newspaper in Egypt by Midhad Badrkhan, one of the sons of the elder Badrkhan. On April 22nd, 1898, a newspaper simply titled as “Kurdistan” was published in Cairo by Midhad, marking the first truly Kurdish publication. As such April 22nd is typically recognized as an official anniversary for Kurdish journalism.
The script used in this particular issue is Ottoman Turkish, an Arabic script adapted for the form of Turkish used in the Empire (Note also the use of the hijri as the method of time. When Kurdish was used, it was typically Kurmanji, the dialect most familiar to the majority of Kurds living in the Ottoman Empire’s borders. Midhad himself, acting as editor-in-chief of the paper, wrote this following passage in the paper:
They [the Kurds] are not aware of what is happening in the world and in their neighbourhood. I have put myself to the task of producing this newspaper-God willing-every fifteen days. I have named it ‘Kurdistan.’ In this newspaper I emphasise the importance of education and science. Wherever there are great schools and institutions I shall report to the Kurds. I shall also inform the Kurds about any war that is taking place, about the deeds of the great imperial countries, how they fight and how they trade. No one has ever produced a newspaper like this, mine is a pathfinder.
Midhad Badrkhan was indeed correct- no one before him had ever produced a newspaper before that concerned itself with the issues of Kurds, nor were Kurds aware of the world around the,. The use of Ottoman Turkish was also probably used as a means to better communicate to both the community of Ottoman exiles living in Europe as well as Kurdish notables living in Istanbul and other cities in the Ottoman Empire. There was no concrete or agreed upon Kurdish alphabet then, one that would not be widely accepted until another Badrkhan- Jeladat- would create a Latin-based script in 1932 while in Syria.
As such the movement for an independent Kurdistan seemed to have been largely confined to more educated and elite sections of Kurdish society. It did not help either that there was no concrete position of Kurds here, often with rivalries developing between different figures, notably the Badrkhan exiles and the former nobility who remained in the Ottoman Empire and tried to work within the existing system. This manifested itself in what would become the closest things Kurds had to an organization for their voices in the Ottoman Empire- The Society for the Rise and Progress of Kurdistan (also referred to as the Kurdish Society for Progress
and Mutual Aid). The founders of this group included Amin Ali Badr Khan (one of Badr Khan’s sons), Sheikh Abdul Qadir Nehri (again, one of Ubeydullah’s sons), General Muhammad Sharif Pasha (a Baban who was supportive of decentralist positions). The inclusion of a Badr Khan in this group marked the beginning of which some of the family returned from exile, most notably with the movement of the newspaper Kurdistan to Istanbul. However, this led to some friction between Abdul Qadir and the Badr Khans in the organization, with both trying to utilize their strengths to increase their standing in the organization.
A sister cultural organization was also set up under the name of “Society for the Propagation of Kurdish Education” under the direction of Abdulrahman Badrkhan, which also ran a school to educate people in Kurdish. Said Nursi, who would go onto be a scholar focused more on Islamic theology, was also involved in this school trying to emphasize the role of Islam in helping Kurds transcend tribal rivalries into a more cohesive unit, and more importantly, achieving a degree of harmony with other peoples in the Empire.
With the exception of General Muhammad Sharif Pasha, the Kurds in this organization had sympathies towards the Young Turk movement in the Ottoman Empire, which manifested itself as the Committees of Union and Progress as a political force. The Young Turks could be described as a source of reformist agitation in the Ottoman Empire, seeking modernization in the decaying structures and to reform the Empire into a constitutional monarchy with a functioning bureaucracy. Like any political movement, the Young Turks found themselves divided among more liberal members who favored an inclusionist, multi-ethnic, and more decentralized empire as opposed to the more Turkish nationalist minded ones who wanted a stronger, unitary one.
It could be said that the division among Kurds at the time was to be one repeated in future generations- whether to work within the system or rise in rebellion, whether to push for autonomy or for outright independence, and who to work with in pursuing their goals. And then there were Kurds who fought to preserve their old tribal ways, as was seen after the 1908 coups by several groups, notably the Barzinjis (including a younger Mahmud Barzinji), and the Barzanis.
More problematic of course were several Kurds who did not want to involve themselves in a movement at all and preferred to assimilate into areas which would help them out the best in their own narrow interests. And of course there is the case of Ziya Gokalp, who was born into a Kurdish family in Diyarbakir and later became the ideological father of Turkish nationalism and promulgator of Turanism in the empire, which would become instruments of oppression on Kurds. Gokalp, like other urban Kurds, were embarrassed of their identity and viewed Kurdish culture as a brutal and backwards lifestyle rather than a distinct identity. While Gokalp is probably the most dramatic example of an assimilated Kurd, he was far from the only one.
The Kurds, like other minorities, in time found themselves at odds with the new Young Turk government as it became clear that its nationalist and militarist elements were becoming more pronounced. As the Young Turk government struggled with the Balkan Wars, it became more concerned with expressions of nationalism from other minorities in its empire as a potential foreign plot to destabilize the empire.
The government showed concern with attempted Kurdish overtures to Armenian groups, an odd occurrence considering their usual antipathy. Abdul Qadir Nehri, speaking to an Armenian group, apparently put the CUP at unease (despite his own loyal membership in the group) with mentions of identity and stolen land. Armenian revolutionaries, such as the Dashnaks, were seen trying to communicate with discontent Hamidiyah chiefs in an attempt to form alliances against the Ottoman Empire. There were open signs of dissent, such as Sheikh Abdul Salam of Barzan who along with a Nur Muhammad of Duhok, had raised the demand to the government for some reforms. While asking for some installation of religious laws, the more remarkable aspect was the demand for the use of Kurdish in administrative and educational fields, which had not been raised until then by previous Kurds. And this would, in effect, start a long line of nationalist revolts started by other Barzanis.
The Badr Khans too were also working their old connections, creating a network of discontent local notables. It also appeared that the Ottomans were worried about Russian intrigue, with some Kurds talking of the possibility of becoming a protectorate under the Russian Empire along with the Armenians. Among the strongest advocates of this was Abdul Razzaq Badrkhan (who was exiled from the Ottoman Empire after a fatal feud with an Ottoman noble), then in Northwestern Iran cooperating with Simko Shikak in rallying Kurds against the decaying Qajar Empire and sending out messengers to Kurds in the Ottoman Empire to do the same and cooperate with Russia.
It was then that the Young Turk government was apparently moved to try and disrupt the Kurds, resorting to a form of the clientele system seen under the Hamidiyah calvary, resurrecting them in all but name and even deploying them to stop insurrections in Albania during the Balkan War and in tribal uprisings in the Arabian peninsula. To check against attempts by some Kurds to cooperate with Armenians or Russia, the CUP manipulated religious messages of its predecessors to ensure that Kurds remained loyal to the capital. They then focused on playing the personalities of the Kurdish movement against one another, releasing Abdul Qadir from jail and ensuring his cooperation, while focusing on activities of the Badrkhans in the east which they managed to keep from spreading outside of Kurdish areas.
Another coup would take place in the Ottoman Empire in 1913 after the defeat in the First Balkan War. As the government was preparing to give into stiff concessions demanded by the European backers of the Balkan League, a group of Young Turks burst into a meeting of the government. The minister of war, Nazim Pasha, was shot and killed by Enver Pasha, a Young Turk general, and the Grand Vizier Kâmil Pasha was forced out of power. This in effect created a triumvirate of sorts among the new Interior Minister, Talaat Pasha, Enver Pasha as Minister of War, and Djemal Pasha as Minister of the Navy. The CUP then strengthened its authority against external and internal threats, and this meant that in particular its minorities, notably Armenians, Arabs, and Kurds, were viewed with suspicion. The government would become considerably more nationalist during this period.
The Empire could then focus on more local insurrections, such as that of Abdul Salam Barzani who had apparently linked up with Abdul Razzaq Badrkhan. The insurrection was neutralized in much the same way that the Ottomans had done before- playing tribal rivalries against each other. Sheikh Abdul Salam was eventually captured in 1914 and executed along with several other Barzanis. Likewise another uprising took place by another Sheikh, Mulla Salim, in the Bitlis area, which was also unable to go anywhere.
Of interest here is that it is in this period of upheaval that Mulla Mustafa Barzani (a brother of Abdul Salam) was born, and it was this experience of Abdul Salam and his subsequent execution, as well as the imprisonment of much of his family, that would move him towards nationalist sentiment. The title of Sheikh would pass to Ahmad Barzani, who would go on to launch uprisings of his own later.
For those of you slightly familiar with history, 1914 is also the year World War I kicked off. The Ottoman Empire would join in this war and thus come into conflict with Russia once more, which made possibilities of Kurds being co-opted by Russian interests all the more serious. The First World War would bring great tumult and tragedy to the region, and would set up the groundwork for the modern Kurdish independence movement.