Kurds and Secularization

Volkan Ertit

The line between science and speculation is not always a thick one. It is rarely found in studies that have not gone through the stages of scientific knowledge production, have not substantiated their claims with data and have no theoretical consistency. Therefore, a study that has theoretical integrity in itself and supports its claims with data not only enriches the discussions, but also becomes a “background” text and provides the opportunity to take the discussions to a new level. By Yusuf Ekinci Communication Publications published by “Kurdish Secularization: The Kurdish Left and the Transformation of Generations” The book is a study in that sense. As stated on the back cover of the book, “it is a study that ‘destroys’ the theme of secularization, which is often spoken on the basis of observations and limited impressions, with field experience”.

Kurdish Secularization, Kurdish Left and Generational Transformation, Yusuf Ekinci, 280 p., İletişim Publications, 2022

When it comes to Turkey, public opinion is generally grouped into three approaches:

First approach: Turkey is secularizing. Firstly, the accelerated modernization process in the 1960s and then digitization, which became part of everyday life in the 2000s, is turning Turkey’s new generations away from the supernatural.

Second approach: No, Turkey is not secularizing. On the contrary, the AK Party government has made Turkish society very religious in the last 20 years.

Third approach: Yes, modernization affects the religious, but what we are experiencing is not secularization, but a new form of religion. The fact that young people do not live a religious life like their parents did not mean that they are secularized. Now it is a new religious life.

Ekinci, on the other hand, distances himself from these three approaches and opens up a new field of discussion. The conclusion reached is the following: Yes, there is a general process of secularization in the new generations of Turkey due to modernization (first approach), but trying to explain the process of secularization of Kurdish youth only with the modernization of Turkey would mean losing the social transformation that has been experienced especially in the Kurds since the 1990s.

Ekinci discusses the following topics during the meetings he held in Diyarbakır with participants from different generations: dating, marriage, divorce, alcohol, headscarf, baby names, change in social hierarchy, view of LGBTI+ individuals, gender… as a reference in your daily life. For example,

  • Compared to their predecessors, young Kurds have also become more open to intimate intimacy outside of marriage, which Islam doesn’t condone — just like the rest of the country.
  • They adopted a more liberal stance towards alcohol.
  • They divorce faster and more often.
  • Girls wear fewer head scarves compared to their mothers.
  • They give their babies names that evoke Islam less often.
  • They have a more liberal perspective towards LGBTI+ individuals.
  • Likewise, in terms of gender, they seem less receptive to the patterns of behavior or perspectives that the previous generation had justified with the supernatural.

Ekinci’s results do not differ from the rest of Turkey. The results of other studies carried out in Turkey on the topics he chose are in line with the results of his own study. Therefore, what has been said so far requires answering the following question: With Ekinci’s statements, “modernization secularizes”. What is the difference between the claims of secularization theorists (who advocate the first approach) who have the claim?

Ekinci answers this question with the concept of “political secularization”. He argues that not only modernization, but also – whether illegal or legal – the Kurdish left/socialist movement has a secularizing effect on Kurdish youth. He claims that there has been a process of radical and reactive secularization among young people close to the Kurdish left and their parents, and that the traditional/religious current that has been going on for generations in Kurdish society has been eroded and occasionally broken with the last generation. In other words, while the classical theory I advocate focuses on the sociocultural changes caused by modernization, Ekinci argues that politicization is a dynamic that needs to be highlighted within the Kurdish left.


Kurdish left/socialist thought, which began to appear in the 1960s, began to crystallize from the 1970s onwards and took on a radical guise from then on. The Kurdish left, which has become a hegemonic power over the Kurds by showing its influence as a unique political organization and movement since the 1980s and starting to become massive from the 1990s onwards, brings with it changes not only in the political field, but also in the cultural, religious and traditional fields of Kurdish society. The distance of the left in relation to religion and tradition becomes an effective factor for the younger generations, who become politicized within the framework of this worldview, distance themselves from religion and tradition – blended with religion. Therefore, Kurdish youth are becoming more open to the process of secularization in parallel with the broad influence of the Kurdish left.

Based on this historical and political background, the book compares the Kurdish generations and finds a significant difference between the younger generation and the earlier generations with regard to the daily living habits and belief issues I emphasized above. Another finding that Ekinci contributes to the secularization debate is that the “reactive secularization” that has emerged against the government, religious groups and clergy it opposes has been influential in the secularization of Kurdish youth. The opposition government’s constant emphasis on religiosity, the reaction to some congregations and sects close to the government, the negative experience of Kurdish Hezbollah or the practice of ISIS, and the feelings against religious nationalist discourses on the Kurdish issue stand out as the reasons of youth politicized on the Kurdish left to move away from religion. For this reason, the younger generation participants that Ekinci interviewed cannot answer the meaning of “Islam” and “Muslim” independently of Turkey’s hot politics. Furthermore, Ekinci describes the process of secularization of young Kurds influenced by the Kurdish left as a drastic break from family tradition (including speed and quality) with the word “radical”. For Kurdish youth in many families, the process of secularization is experienced not as moderate and widespread, but as a sudden and radical rupture. While the continuity of traditional religiosity in Kurdish families continued until two generations ago, it is interrupted by the younger generation today. In his interviews, Ekinci cites as an example the secularization of young members of generations who were educated in madrasas, which is a pillar of the Kurdish tradition.

I must emphasize that while the book focuses on the Kurdish left’s influence on generations, it does not ignore the process of modernization. However, he claims that in addition to modernization, especially since the 1990s, the Kurdish left has “profoundly” influenced young people’s view of “supernatural teachings”.

  • Remaining distant and even conflicting with the religiosity of the family and the traditional worldview;
  • Looking at the world from a more rational window compared to their parents;
  • Thinking that religion cannot be the solution to the problems of the Kurdish people,
  • And she argues that emphasizing gender equality and the freedom of different sexual orientations against the traditional gender regime cannot be considered independently of the Kurdish left/socialist movement.


Ekinci’s work goes beyond mainstream literature and focuses on the secularizing power of an ignored dynamic leftist thinking. Although there were societies that were or appeared to be secularized due to the secularist policies of socialist states, Ekinci’s work shows us the “organic” secularization that is not based on any state (nation) politics and emerges through informal politics. I use the word organic because this process was not carried out through state policies, and it is a process that cannot be reversed with a different power.

Like Ekinci, I think that the top-down religious or secularist policies of states trigger the reactionary attitudes of societies. In societies where religion is associated with the status quo and the state carries out oppressive policies in favor of religion, in Ekinci’s words, religion can begin to contain “cold” and “repulsive” meanings. In the opposite case, that is, oppressive secular policies can affect the orientation towards religion. Therefore, the process of secularization that occurs with left/socialist thought, the subject of Ekinci’s work, should not be confused with the examples of cyclic secularization on the surface with repressive policies from the top down.

Since the early 2000s, there have been many discussions about what secularization theory is, what it is not, and whether it can explain social transformation in Turkey. In these discussions, however, the “area” was neglected. Those who do not support the theory and claim that it “collapsed” have not supported their claims with any data from the field so far. Proponents of the theory, like myself, have shared a lot of data from the field**, but these data were obtained from different fields because of the breadth of the theory. While those of us who have been doing “theoretical” readings on “secularization theory” or its debates over the past 20 years need more nourishment than the “field” of “secularization” or “desecularization” processes experienced in a predominantly Muslim Kurdish Secularization I think it’s fortunate that your book was published.

I think that the work, which will contribute to the understanding of the phenomenon of secularization in a sociological line, and which has the potential to be one of the main sources of reference for new studies, will feed the discussions on the subject. Perhaps this study could lead to studies to be carried out with other ethno-religious groups in the microdomain.

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