April 20, 2011

Kurdistan Develops Towards Nationhood

The Kurds are the fourth biggest nation in the Middle East. They live in four states facing different problems in each country. The Kurds are famous for being culturally divided and unable to cooperate with each other. New mass media has increased their awareness of the Kurdish question. Can Kurdish leaders gain benefit from the present unstable situation caused by the democratisation movement in the Middle East?

The Kurds are the fourth biggest nation in the Middle East. They live in four states facing different problems in each country. The Kurds are famous for being culturally divided and unable to cooperate with each other. New mass media has increased their awareness of the Kurdish question. Can Kurdish leaders gain benefit from the present unstable situation caused by the democratisation movement in the Middle East?

The economic situation in Iraq is good due to oil exports. The KRG gets 17% of Iraq’s oil income, but inequality among the Kurdish population has increased during the twenty years of autonomy. The KRG is criticised for being heavily corrupted. There is strong criticism against the KRG in Kurdistan but no real opposition. The main opposition party – Gorran – is a group of people who separated from the PUK and are led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, a former deputy leader of the PUK.
The Iranian Kurds face different kinds of problems. Iran is a superpower in the Middle East. It tries to export Islamic revolution to the whole area by supporting terrorism and creating instability. The roots of the present problems go back to the 1950s when Iran had a democratic administration, but the government of Mohammad Mosaddeq, who had won the elections, lost its power to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi in a coup supported by the CIA.9 Several decades later, President Bill Clinton expressed his apologies to the Iranian people because of the CIA’s involvement in the coup.
President Barack Obama does not seem to know what to do with Iran, which is developing nuclear weapons. Military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have not led to the planned results. Compared to these countries, Iran is a strong enemy. Iranian opposition is weak. After the destruction of Mosaddeq’s government, the Iranians have not been able to build a strong resistance movement. The lack of other alternatives was the reason why Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. After that, Iran has experienced a huge brain drain, which limited the prospects of a democratic opposition. Following the presidential elections in summer 2009, there was a massive demonstration wave in Iran, but the authorities managed to take control of the situation. The opposition movement led by Mir-Hossein Mousavi is called the ‘Green movement’. It is not connected to the global environmental movement; the name reflects the holy colour of Islam – green.
However, Iran has the best educated youth in the Middle East. Their dissatisfaction with Islamic rule is so deep that many observers agree that there will be radical changes in Iran during the next decade. The problem of the opposition is that it is divided, reflecting the population’s ethnic, linguistic and religious divisions. Only half of the Iranians are ethnically Persians. There are also five other ethnic groups: the Kurds, the Azeris, the Turkmen, the Arabs and the Baloch. Some Iranian opposition politicians demand that Iran should be a federation. These demands reflect the success of the Kurdish autonomy in Iraq.
From the Kurdish perspective, the situation in Syria is again different. The ruling Ba’ath Party is a sister party of the Iraqi Ba’ath Party, which is banned in Iraq since 2003. The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party’s ideology consists of Pan-Arabism, Arab socialism, secularism and Arab nationalism.
The suppression of the Kurds has a special character in Syria: hundreds of thousands of Kurds do not have the rights of citizens or identification documents. This keeps them outside modern society, i.e. without education, public employment and public services, including health care. The lack of ID cards is a permanent reason for the Kurdish refugee flow from Syria to Europe where asylum seekers face huge problems, as they cannot prove their identity. The demonstration movement reached Syria in March 2011. Some amateur videos were sent abroad from the closed country.
Can Kurdish leaders make use of the situation?
Two important processes related to the Kurdish question are now developing in the Middle East. Firstly, the Kurdish nation-building process continues after a quiet period of some generations. Secondly, radical changes can happen in the countries that control Kurdistan. This is possible especially in Iraq, which is a totally artificially constructed country. There is no ethnic identity called ‘Iraqi’. The disagreements between the three Iraqi groups – the Shiites, the Sunnis and the Kurds – are several hundreds years old. In fact, the distrust between Shiite Arabs and Sunni Arabs has lasted more than one thousand years. This frozen conflict is melting now.
Since the end of the 19th century, the problem of the Kurds has been their inability to cooperate with each other. Kurdish politics is local politics. The Kurds have been rebelling against their oppressors for decades, but their uprisings have been local. They have not developed towards nationalism from the proto-national stage. However, this process can start and continue at any moment when the right conditions for it are created.
The Kurds get information about each other mostly from satellite TV channels and the Internet. There are more than ten Kurdish TV channels, which can be followed in Kurdistan and in Europe where hundreds of thousands of Kurds live as migrant workers or refugees. The biggest TV channels are Roj-TV, Kurdistan TV, Kurd-Sat, Tiskh TV and Rojhelat. Kurdish TV channels can unite the Kurds, but their effect can also be the opposite: the Kurdish culture varies very much in different parts of Kurdistan. The Kurds have not known much about other Kurdish areas. Some observers argue that when they finally get some information, they might conclude that they are so different that they want to continue to live separately. The Kurdish culture in Iraq is the most traditional and the most tribal. The Iranian Kurds are the best educated Kurds. The Kurds who live in Turkey are the most modern and the most aware in political terms, but many of them are partly assimilated into the Turkish culture, for example, they have lost their Kurdish mother tongue.
In the 1920s, Kurdish leaders could not make use of the historic opportunities, which became available during the collapse process of the Ottoman Empire. It seems that the second opportunity for the Kurds might come up soon. Dramatic changes may take place in the Middle East in the near future, taking into account the situations in Turkey, in Iraq, in Iran and in Syria. The democratisation movement in the Arab world increases demands for change in all these countries. The future of Iraq after the removal of the American troops is especially unclear. All big Kurdish parties (the KDP and the PUK in Iraq; the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey; the Kurdistan Democratic Party-Iran (KDP-I), Komalah and  the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) in Iran) concentrate on the situation in their own geographical area. They do not have a common national agenda. However, many young Kurds speak about a ‘Great Kurdistan’, meaning the unification of all four parts of Kurdistan. Yet there is no movement pushing for it, except for homepages on the Internet and on Facebook.
Kurdish leaders carry a big responsibility. Can they unite their people? Can they use the historic opportunities, which seem to be available only once a century? Only time will tell. But one thing is clear: problems, uprisings and struggles continue until a solution is found to the Kurdish question. In North Ireland, the struggle between the Irish and the British has already continued for seven hundred years. Let us hope that the Kurdish question will not remain unsolved for so long. It is a permanent source of instability in the whole Middle East until a political solution is found.
1 Jwaideh, Jadie, The Kurdish National Movement. Its Origins and Development. New York: Syracuse University Press, 2006, p. 18; McDowell, David, A Modern History of Kurds, London, 2007, p. 10.
2 Eskander, Saad B., ‘Fayli Kurds of Baghdad and the Ba’ath Regime,’ in: Faleh A. Jabar & Hosham Dawood (eds.), The Kurds. Nationalism and Politics, Beirut: Saqi, 2006, p. 183.
3 Nebez, Jemal, The Kurdish Language from Oral Tradition to Written Language, Berlin, 2000,
4 Hassanpour, Amir, Nationalism and Language in Kurdistan 1918–1985, San Fransisco: Mellen Research University Press, 1992, p. 53.
5 Hobsbawm, Eric, Nations and Nationalism since 1780. Programme, Myth, Reality, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 64; p. 73; p. 77.
6 Jwaideh, ibid., p. 131.
7 Jafar, M. R., Under-underdevelopment. A Case Study of the South-Eastern Area of the Republic of Turkey, University of Helsinki, Institute of Social Policy, Research Reports 3/1974, p. 249.
8 Helsinki Watch, Destroying Ethnic Identity: The Kurds of Turkey, September 1990, p. 2; Jafar, ibid.
9 Mamdani, Mahmood, Kylmä sota ja terrorin juuret, Helsinki: LIKE, 2006.

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