The late scientist Dr. Carl Sagan said, “You have to know the past to understand the present.”
This is especially true when it comes to understanding tensions in the Middle East.
Historian Dr. Djene Bajalan offers insights into the Middle East by exploring the region’s history. He focuses on issues related to nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
An assistant professor of history at Missouri State University, Bajalan’s main research area is on the region’s Kurdish community. In particular, he studies how Kurdish political activism developed within the Ottoman Empire before World War I.
To date, Bajalan, who has taught in Iraq and Turkey, has published more than 20 journal articles and book chapters, and a book about Kurdish history.
To people trying to learn history in America, it’s important to understand dynamics around the world so we can draw lessons from other places and make comparisons.
The Kurds are the world’s largest stateless nation. They live across four countries – Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. They are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East.
One of Bajalan’s latest articles is on the question of Kurdish statehood. It examines why the Kurds failed to secure a nation state after the Ottoman Empire collapsed post-World War I. The piece argues that while it seemed like the Kurds had a good opportunity for independence at the time, in reality, they did not.
One of the points I try to make is often what we see is the people who become nationalist it’s because of their experience; it’s not necessarily because they have a separate ethnic identity.
Bajalan claims the main reason was that the Russian Revolution in 1917 changed the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. The Russians’ withdrawal from the area where the Kurds lived allowed the Ottomans to reoccupy much of the Kurdish homeland in 1918.
“The loss of Russian patronage and protection was a major blow to the Kurdish independence movement,” he said.
Bajalan is now working on his monograph. He hopes to complete it in 2020. The monograph is an extension of his PhD thesis on Ottoman history from 1839-1914.
The thesis covered the beginning of Tanzimat, a period of reform in the Ottoman Empire. It continued until the outbreak of World War I. Bajalan wants to add a final chapter. It will feature the rest of Ottoman history from 1914-1923, including the empire’s breakup.
“This monograph is a broader study examining the rise of the Kurdish question. More specifically, it explores the rise of the Kurdish movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the Ottoman Empire,” he said.
Middle East political scientist Dr. David Romano says Bajalan’s historical work is vital.
“When we look at something as complex as human choices within a political system, there’s an important element conditioned by people’s historical memory and culture. These things develop over time,” said Romano, the Thomas G. Strong professor of Middle East politics at Missouri State. “Professor Bajalan’s critical research helps us understand the context people are coming from better.”
For Bajalan, his interest to study the Kurds stems from two things. First, his father is Kurdish. Second, he wants to address the lack of research about the Kurds.
I challenge the simplistic way that nationalism and the growth of nationalist movements are often looked at.
Before the 1990s, there were very few books on Kurdish history in the English language. There were even fewer books on the Kurds and Ottoman Empire.
“For a long time, this has been a neglected area of study in the Middle Eastern studies field,” Bajalan said.
He attributes the neglect to the political nature of the Kurdish question in the Middle East and the limited access to information. It is also because the Kurds do not have their own nation state.
“I’m part of a new wave of scholars studying various areas of Kurdish history,” Bajalan said. “One of the most exciting things about my research is every single document I come across is something no one’s written about. Even if people have seen it, they’ve not included it in their work.”
Through his research, Bajalan aims to highlight how and why identity and politics intersect.
“I want people to understand the complexities of identity and politics, and why some groups orient toward politics based around identity,” he said. “It’s not an arbitrary thing – it’s for historical reasons.”