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Turkish and Kurdish Identity and Nationalism in the Netherlands


It is in the nature of human beings to label each other and ourselves on the basis of religion, color, sex, ethnicity, etc. We find it assuring and feel protected when everyone is defined according to criteria that have been institutionalized by us. In the case of Dutch society, all the immigrants or the naturalized citizens are defined as “allochtoon.” Such labeling by the society may be one of the causes of identity issues faced by a lot of them as it becomes difficult for these individuals to be accepted because they are viewed as outsiders. Hence, identification becomes a problem for the immigrants and their children who find themselves in the web of identity crises. In some cases identity is imposed by the society and in many situations immigrants end up inventing their own identities. 

We want to examine how Turkish and Kurdish minorities in the Netherlands identify themselves. Is nationalism associated with this identity, and towards which country does one have nationalistic feelings? Furthermore, we want to explore whether the degree to which an individual is accepted or rejected in Dutch society makes him more or less nationalistic towards his country of origin—in this case, Turkey. How do the Turkish and Kurdish youth interact in the Netherlands? Are the Turks willing to accept the Kurds as equals in this country and speak up for their equal rights in Turkey? We will explore these questions by examining the Grey Wolves, an extremely nationalistic Turkish organization; by analyzing interviews done with the Turkish labor party Hollanda Türkiyeli Işçiler Birliği (HTIB) and with a large mosque association called Milli Görüs; and by studying survey results from Turkish and Kurdish students.  Most of the students’ parents traveled from Turkey to the Netherlands for economic reasons in the late nineteen-seventies and early –eighties, though some of our Kurdish respondents immigrated to the Netherlands as political refugees due to cultural and ethnic oppression and discrimination. 

It should be noted that the Kurds live in different nations in the Middle-East, mainly in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. It is estimated that between 10-15 million Kurds live in Turkey, constituting 17-25 percent of the total Turkish population. This group forms the country’s largest minority group. For almost two decades, tensions resulting from various complex factors have led to severe armed violence in southeastern Turkey, where a large part of the Kurdish population dwells. This conflict, known as the Kurdish Issue is due to the dream of the Kurds to have a separate and independent state and to their demand for autonomy with recognition of cultural and political rights for the Kurdish minority in Turkey. The number of Kurds in the Netherlands is not clear, as the Kurds hold different nationalities and are categorized on the basis of their nationalities in governmental statistics; the figures run from 15,000 up to almost 100,000. The Turkish minority in the Netherlands is one of the largest in the country and totals to almost 342,000. For our paper we interviewed 22 educated young people of Turkish and Kurdish origin between the ages of 20 and 30 years, all holding a bachelors´ degree or above and with parents who came from Turkey. Our interviewees were either born or brought up for most of their lives in the Netherlands. 

The Grey Wolves and its Role in Turkish Nationalism

Almost a decade ago, the Netherlands became concerned with the growing number of disturbing incidents that involved the Grey Wolves, an extreme-right Turkish organization whose ideology is based on the superiority of the Turkish race and the Turkish nation. Grey Wolves segregate themselves from the larger society and hinder the integration of Turkish minorities. The wolf is a metaphor for Turkey, a strong mother looking after her children. This organization is dominated by politics in Turkey; its orders are directed from there, and spokesmen for this organization come from their political counterparts in Turkey like MHP (the Nationalist Movement Party). It is believed that the Grey Wolves constantly seek to ignite the feeling of Turkish nationalism among Turkish immigrants and their children. The activities they engage in are very broad, extending from propaganda making and other political activities to supporting soccer teams. Just a decade ago the Grey Wolves were a very notorious organization in the Netherlands because they were involved in numerous criminal activities. In addition, the Dutch government had only the shallowest understanding of the size of the Grey Wolves’ group or of details regarding its activities and ideas. Under these confusing circumstances, nobody really had any idea how dangerous this organization was.

In today's Dutch society the role of the Grey Wolves organization in the Turkish community is less relevant and less controversial than it was a decade ago due to several factors.  Once first generation immigrants have attained their goals of a better economic situation for their families and better lives for their children, they often wish to return to their country of origin or at least to deepen their cultural and religious ties to the homeland. Thus, the Grey Wolves' message had a greater influence on the first generation Turkish immigrants, who maintained a deep interest in Turkish politics and who had a deeply felt Turkish identity. The Grey Wolves complemented certain religious, nationalistic, and cultural needs of the immigrants and, hence, they had more influence on and involvement by members of the first generation. But the children of these immigrants might not share similar feelings about the homeland. They were either born here in the Netherlands or were brought up in this community and they became Dutch in many ways. We have assumed that members of this new generation would be less nationalistic than their parents because, for the youth, knowledge of their country of origin is primarily a way to understand their own cultural heritage. There might be a few who, though, who feel more nationalistic towards their homeland—due in part to distorted and romanticized expectations of what life would be like in Turkey. 

The Interviews

It was interesting to note that both Üzeyir Kabaktepe, Vice-President of Milli Görüs, and Mehmet Ülger, one of the authors of Grey Wolves: A Search for the Turkish Extreme Right, commented that it is usually rejection by the dominant (Dutch) society that makes a Turkish-Dutch person more nationalistic towards Turkey. It seems natural that rejection would make a person more nationalistic because under such circumstances one tends to search for confirmation and support. In our survey, we asked if discrimination and/or rejection by the society make them more nationalistic towards the country of origin. Half of the Turkish-Dutch people responded that such rejection does not make them more nationalistic towards Turkey. They state that discrimination towards one group or the other will always be there, no matter how hard one tries to fit in. The other half responded with an ambiguous answer that it does not necessarily make them nationalistic but it does makes one question their sense of belonging in the society. Such rejection also makes one emotionally weakened as one realizes that one does not fit into either society. Moreover, the Kurdish people who responded to the question clearly stated that they have nothing to do with Turkey despite the fact that they come from Turkey. Their response may be due to the political situation, feelings of oppression, and lack of acknowledgement of their identity by the Turkish government. 

From these responses, there was no significant correlation between being rejected by the society and becoming more nationalistic. This was a surprise for us, as we expected that such negative treatment by the society in which one is brought up would disappoint one to an extent that one would become more nationalistic toward the country of origin.  

In the present context, it is understandable why the Grey Wolves organization is becoming marginal within the Netherlands: the Turkish-Dutch youth do not feel remarkably nationalistic towards Turkey and are more or less accepting of their dual identity. The other reason for the diminishing influence since the nineties of the Grey Wolves here is that political changes have occurred in Turkey. It is believed that two particular events have altered the position of the Grey Wolves. The first event was the political participation of MPH—the main political party that the Grey Wolves adhere to and support—in the Turkish government after 22 years in the opposition in 1999.  This political success achieved by the party made their supporting organization conform to what was acceptable and abandon the sharp edges of their political message. The second event was the capture of Mr. Abdullah Öcelan in 1999 by the Turkish intelligence service. Abdullah Öcelan is the leader of Partiye Karkeran Kurdistan (PKK), the Kurdish Workers´ Party. PKK and the Turkish army have engaged in civil war against each other for nearly twenty years in southeastern Turkey. The detention of Öcelan resulted in a cease-fire in the Kurdish Issue, as there was no longer an urgency to address this conflict. These events reduced the political interest in the Kurdish issue and the rise of extreme nationalism for many Turks. In recent years, the Grey Wolves lost many supporters for these two reasons, but the existence of such groups in society is inevitable because there are always a small number of people who feel and think differently. The mere presence of organizations like this is not healthy for the society. Individuals who are currently associated with Grey Wolves might term themselves as nationalists but not extreme nationalists.

It was evident from the interviews conducted with main personnel of Milli Görüs and with Mr. Ülger that the Grey Wolves are not especially relevant in present-day Turkish nationalism.  Within these conversations it was noteworthy that the Kurdish question was either answered very intellectually, stating that this is a complex historical question, or very marginally, that the organizations are working for both the Turks and the other minorities and do not see any distinction between the two. Yücel Yesilgöz, professor at the University of Utrecht, states in his article "Double Standard: The Turkish State and Racist Violence" that the Turkish government holds a double standard on the Turkish-Kurdish issues. The Turkish government is involved and is interested in the activities of European Turks for monetary interests that support the Turkish economy and with the hope that they will not forget their bonds to Turkey. The Turkish government often demands that the host nation fight racism against the Turks who are a minority in these countries. At the same time, it is not considerate of the minorities in Turkey, exhibiting a double standard.  With this dilemma on the Kurdish question, we are basing our research completely on the survey taken by Turkish and Kurdish students in the Netherlands. We want to examine what mechanisms operate in their identification as minority groups and feelings of belonging in Dutch society and to look at how the Kurds and Turks view one another in the context of the problematic and charged topic of the Kurdish Issue. We concentrated on questions of identity, nationalism, citizenship, equal rights, and the questions regarding the Kurdish Issue. 

Analysis from the survey

The survey responses were, from the beginning, very interesting: All survey participants defined themselves as Turkish-Dutch or Kurdish-Dutch and never as just Dutch, Turkish, or Kurdish. The acceptance of oneself with a dual identity is probably a phenomenon that comes from living as a minority in a culture that you see as your own but is not yours from your parents' perspective. As discussed earlier, the first generation immigrants have more ties to the country of origin, so it can be deduced that children of immigrants identity themselves with dual identity. Most of these people have dual nationalities, and it is usually for practical reasons. Nationality does not hold much importance for them and they do not seem to associate nationality with nationalism. Almost all consider themselves citizens of the Netherlands, where being a citizen means having the same rights and duties for everyone. 

Acceptance and discrimination by the Dutch society towards the Turks and Kurds brought about differences between how the two groups feel about their new country. Most of the Turkish-Dutch stated that they have been granted equal rights legally but not in practice, especially in the job market. Moreover, this group feels that they have been discriminated against by Dutch society. On the other hand, Kurdish-Dutch respondents stated that they have been awarded all the rights they could possibly imagine and do not feel discriminated against by the Dutch. They have been accepted equally and have the freedom to preserve and express their own culture—for example, the possibility to learn their own language in this country. Unfortunately this is not yet the case with Kurds in Turkey. These completely dissimilar attitudes make it more interesting to understand why both the minority groups feel differently as Dutch society does not see any distinction between the two ethnicities. The different attitudes can be interpreted in many ways both psychologically and sociologically. 

With better circumstances as a minority in the Netherlands than in Turkey, it is understandable that the Kurdish people feel well treated here. The Netherlands has become a haven where they are free to exercise their rights and to pursue political activities which they could not pursue in Turkey—for example, to struggle for an independent Kurdistan. It seems that the Turkish-Dutch feel more discriminated against because they or their parents never experienced discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity when they were in Turkey, where they belonged to the majority group.  Living in a new country, being a minority, might be a reason why they feel more discriminated against than the Kurdish-Dutch, who never had their own country. The Kurds were a minority in Turkey and were discriminated against, and now in the Netherlands they feel that they are more accepted. It can also be argued that such feelings are due to socio-cultural differences between the groups, at least for their parents at the time of their migration. Although they came from the same country they have different histories and backgrounds. It should also be noticed that most Turkish immigrants migrated to the Netherlands for economic reasons, while the Kurdish immigrants are both economic and political refugees. These varied reasons for their immigration to the Netherlands might also be a reason for differences in the perception of themselves in Dutch society and their participation in the society. 

To understand the acceptance of Kurds and Turks by one another in the Netherlands, they were asked three questions. First, do they share a mutual feeling of community in Holland? Second, are they comfortable being with the other group? Finally, do they feel discriminated against by the other group? All Turkish-Dutch responded that they feel comfortable being with Kurdish people and they do not feel discriminated against by the Kurds in this country. Only half of the Turkish-Dutch consider that both Kurds and Turks belong to the same community in the Netherlands. There was an obvious difference in the Kurdish response. Most of them feel discriminated against by the Turks, and they do not feel that they belong to the same community, although they do feel comfortable with Turkish people when issues concerning politics are not discussed. Within both the groups there seems to be an uneasy atmosphere in their initial encounters. Many responded that usually during their first meetings with the other group they were conscious of certain tensions and were aware of the need to address the other group carefully. 

When further asked if they would grant equal rights for the Kurds, accept them as equals, grant them autonomy, and possibly support a future state of Kurdistan for the Kurds, the students’ answers were quite clear. Their feedback indicates how willing are they to accept that every human being and ethnic minority has the right of an autonomous state under the United Nations Human Rights Act. Both the Turks and the Kurds accept that there should be acceptance of the minority group and that minorities should be entitled to equal rights as human beings, each with a right to equal treatment. But the question of autonomy and independent Kurdistan was a sensitive issue for both the groups. 

Dutch Kurds positively stated a desire for an independent Kurdistan and autonomy for its people. From the Kurdish response it seems that the dream for an independent country is still burning in their souls, but at the same time they also realize that it might not be a possibility given the current political situation. A few Turkish-Dutch refrained from responding to the question, and none said that they supported the formation of such state. These people stated that it is not a realistic goal, that Kurdistan does not exist, and that the question is mere international politics. One also went to the extreme right saying that "Kurdistan is bullshit and it would never happen as long as Turkey remains a powerful country." On the other hand, we find one who is sympathetic towards the formation of Kurdistan, asserting that according to international law the Kurds should have their own country. But he also adds that due to the dispersal and differences between the Kurds, an independent country might not be very realistic. Moreover, geographically and economically, such a country would not be able to exist. There was some acceptance of an autonomous state for the Kurds where they would have the freedom to practice their own language and culture, although a few Turks were against autonomy. One of these Turkish-Dutch students stated that if autonomy is given, then the Kurds would want more in the future —probably an independent state—and others stated that this would lead to other problems in the Middle East like the Israel-Palestine issue.  Humanity is not ready for more issues like this, these students told us. 


With the data acquired from the survey, it is our conclusion that the group of highly educated Dutch Turks and Dutch Kurds do not tend to be very nationalistic. These students feel that nationalism is not important for them in general and it is not the basis by which they view themselves in the society. They do not associate nationality with nationalism. Having two nationalities just makes it easier for them to work and live in the present world. On the issues of an independent Kurdistan and autonomy for the Kurds in Turkey, people seemed to become more sensitive and expressed concerns regarding Turkish politics and the unfeasibility of such a state. All individuals who took the survey agreed that equality is a basic human right and were willing to provide the Kurds with such equality. Most of them were willing to make a difference and take political stands if they had the opportunity to do so. 

Therefore, it is our conclusion that these young Dutch from Turkish and Kurdish origin are not predominantly nationalistic towards either culture. They tend to have a “middle ground” identification, belonging to both the nations with little or no sense of nationalism. It would not be unrealistic to predict that in the next generations they would have more nationalistic feelings towards Dutch society because they would participate more in the society, resulting in a greater social cohesion. The reason for such assumptions is that the present generation is caught up in the dispute with their parents who have stronger nationalistic ties to the country of origin than they themselves do. But this generation might or might not have grown up in Turkey like their parents resulting a neutral value to appease both their backgrounds. Future generations would be more rooted in the Dutch society and they would identify themselves as being Dutch more than anything else. Furthermore, with the development of the Netherlands as a multi-cultural society the children of the present generation would have real acceptance as Dutch and would be equal citizens.





Mehmet Ülger, Journalist and co-writer of “Grey Wolves: A Search for Turkish Extreme Right”.

Mustafa Ayrancı, Chairman of HTIB (Turkish workers party).

Üzeyir Kabaktepe, Vice President of Milli Görüs.


S. Braam and M. Ülger.  “Grey Wolves: A Search for Turkish Exteme Rights.”

Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 1997.

“Stop the Grey Wolves: Turkish Extreme Right.”  Amsterdam: Stop the Grey Wolves Committee, 1997.

Y. Yeşilgöz, Double Standard: The Turkish State and Racist Violence:  “Racist Violence in Europe”, T. Björgo and R. Witte (ed),  St. Martins Press, 1993.

Statistics are acquired from www.cbs.nl and from various Turkish and Kurdish media.

Survey conducted among educated young people from Turkish and Kurdish origin between the ages of 20 and 30 years, all of whom hold a bachelors´ degree or above and have parents who migrated from Turkey to the Netherlands. Our interviewees either were born in the Netherlands or grew up here for most of their lives.  The total number of interviewees was 22, of which 14 were of Turkish origin and 8 of Kurdish origin.


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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2004


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