The Kurdish question between Eurocentricism and the Greater Middle East projects

Who are the Kurds and what is their role in the Middle East? If it wasn’t for Saddam Hussein and US intervention in the region, the majority of the world population would still not know who the Kurds are, how the Kurdish question was created, and what the role the US and their Greater Middle East project plays in the Kurdish question. After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France divided the region in many different countries. They did not take into account ethnic groups and common languages, but rather carved up the region for their own interests (mainly to divide the oil reach areas equally between British and French control). The Kurds were subsequently divided between 5 countries, with the majority of the Kurdish population in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Since the end of the Colonial period, Kurdish people have been forced to live under the hegemony of Iranian, Turkish, Syrian, and Iraqi military forces.

They are often openly discriminated against and treated as second class citizens. This has created feelings of resentment among the Kurdish populations and recent world events have only helped to further polarize the Kurdish communities from the nation-states where they reside. The resulting “Kurdish question” seems even more unlikely to be solved in the near future, and often the World Media contributes to this problem by portraying the Kurds as scapegoats. The reason the world is starting to take note of the Kurdish question is because they symbolize an unknown quantity in the Middle East and they are the largest stateless nation in the world. In addition, after the US intervention of Iraq and the beginning of the “Greater/Broader Middle East Project”, Kurdish political identity strengthened in Iraq and the Kurdish community in Iraq has become more outspoken about Kurdish rights.

Kurdish people are in quite a complex situation. The life of a Kurdish individual is quite difficult. Many Kurds have to contend with the difficulties that war, systematic violence, forced migrations, lack of access to resources and education and the internal political struggles that exist within Kurdish society. For example, in Iran after the Revolution, Kurdish people disappeared nationally and legally. This discrimination against the Kurdish population is mainly due to Iranian internal policy which perceives world affairs through Shia-Oriented lenses. This way of viewing the world has led them to make various mistakes, and has affected their ability to produce peace in the region. In Iran, the Kurds are not the only ones to be treated badly and discriminated against; other non-Shia and non- Muslim minorities have experienced the harsh and discriminatory nature of Iranian policy. There is especially a lot of pressure on Sunni Muslims. When an Iranian citizen applies for a job, they are questioned about their religious sect, and if they are not Shia, they will most likely lose priority for the position. Shia Centricism has drawn a sharp division between Iranian and Kurds. Iranian political perception depends on the Shia religious sect- is this a kind of holy or hidden racism?

In addition, in Iran , while Kurdish music is welcomed, the schools of Sunni Kurds are not granted a formal statute. We can build a connection between these regulations and those of Fascism. In those times, whoever could speak Italian was regarded as Italian. In Iran, too, there is a dominant upper-culture, which is Shia and Persian-centered. Though the ethnic minorities seem to enjoy a respective freedom, cultural assimilation and psychological pressure predominates all over the society. This shows that Iran is afraid of undergoing a dialogue with the minorities within itself. So, a state that is totally unready for pluralism inside its territory must firstly secure the integrity within itself before asserting its Civilization dialogue. If the Iranian government wants to prevent discrimination, they should accept Kurdish cultural and political rights. Kurdish people should be represented in the political area as well.

Much like in Iran , the Syrian government consists of Shi’i leaders. These leaders are secular, but they have a strong relationship with Iran . In Syria, like in Iran, Shi’i people are given priority for jobs and educational opportunities. The main difference between Syria and Iran is that the majority of Syrian Muslims are Sunni, unlike the leaders of their government. In Syria, there is a de facto policy of barring Kurds from studying journalism and political science. In addition, there are 400,000 Kurdish People who have not been granted Syrian identity cards or passports. We can interpret that to mean that the majority of the Kurds in Syria do not officially live there. This policy of denying legal status to many Kurdish individuals has led to their increasing support for the US government and their desire to see US intervention in Syria. Many Kurds in Syria refer to the American president, George W. Bush, as the “Father of Freedom”. Since the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Syria has been forced to pull its troops out of Lebanon. This withdrawal of Syrian troops and international censure has made the Syrian Secret Service and Army even more aggressive towards the Kurds. Kurdish leader Sheikh Maashuk al-Khaznawî, who openly supported Kurdish rights in the light of Islam and was subsequently assassinated by the Syrian Secret Police. It is apparent that Syria doesn’t truly want to solve the Kurdish question.

The largest part of the Kurdish population resides in Turkey. Unfortunately, since the creation of the Turkish state, Turkey has continually used violence against the Kurds. Turkey has aggressively pursued a policy of mass assimilation. In order to live safely in Turkey, Kurdish identity must be denied. Until recently the Kurdish language, music, and even the ability to give your child a Kurdish name was prohibited. The Kurds have never been able to have political representation in the Turkish Assembly due to the discriminatory internal political policies of Turkey. The Turkish electoral system is inherently discriminatory and unjust. It leads to inequality for the ethnic minority groups in Turkey by requiring them to get 10% of the entire population to vote for their candidate even if their candidate won the local election. For example, the Democratic People's Party (DEHAP), the sole pro-Kurdish party to take part in general election, failed to pass the 10-percent national threshold required to win any parliamentary seats. The Kurds are left out of Parliament due to the defects of the electoral system. There is no reflection of Kurdish political preference in Turkey; this has drawn a deep line between Turks and Kurds and it makes the Kurdish question chronic and unsolvable.

Furthermore, last week the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan appointed a Turkish general who praised a soldier jailed in connection with a bombing apparently aimed at stirring unrest in Turkey's mostly Kurdish populated, South Eastern Anatolia region. It is obvious that Turkey’s new top military commander is not a supporter of the Kurds and will most likely take aggressive action against the Kurds in the South East of the country. This appointment will only step up the escalation between Turks and Kurds in the short run. In the long run it will create tension between Turkey, its neighbors, and the EU. Practically, this seems like a smart move by the Prime Minister because it will temporarily divert unwanted attention away from the Prime Minster’s ruling party (AK Party) and policies, but in the long run it will prove fatal to AK party because AK party will loose public support in the Kurdish regions next election.

The final obvious and outstanding reason that has led to discrimination against Kurdish identity is the influence of the media. After the US intervention in Iraq, the Iranian, Syrian and Turkish media declared the Kurds as scapegoats because of their cooperation with the US. The media should stop blaming Kurdish people because firstly the Kurds had no other option but to collaborate with the US; unfortunately, the world has turned a blind eye to the Kurds and their situation, and if they did not agree to collaborate with the US their situation would be even more perilous. Secondly, the media should not trigger enmity between people.

What does the future hold for the Kurds and is the Kurdish question solvable? To find an answer to such a deep question is not easy. Most people view the Kurdish question through Marxist lenses. They think that ultimately it boils down to economics, and if the economic conditions were to change for the Kurds, there would be no Kurdish question. I disagree with this theory because it does not address the complex nature of the Kurdish question. Economics of course, does play a role, but it is just one aspect of this question. The majority of Kurdish people are poor, but they are not fighting their respective governments because they want to be rich, rather they are fighting for equality. Even Ekrem Dumanli, the Editor in Chief of Zaman Daily News (Turkey’s most conservative newspaper), conceded that the Kurdish question is not a question of economics, but rather politics.

I believe that one of the main obstacles to solving the Kurdish question is education (and access to it). Literacy rates among the Kurds are much lower than the national averages of the countries they live in. Another major factor is Turkish, Iranian and Syrian nationalism- they leave no room for Kurdish identity. Even in the Islamic movement there is no room for Kurdish Identity. 99% of Kurds are Muslim, and one would think that under the banner of Islam all Muslims in these countries would unite and there would be no discrimination. Unfortunately this is not the case because in these countries Islam is so deeply intertwined with the respective nationalist movements that one’s ethnic identity is not blurred, but rather heightened. If you are Kurdish and want to belong to an Islamic group in Turkey for example, you must never admit to being Kurdish, you must forget you are Kurdish, or you will be viewed with distrust and not accepted.

Are there any alternative options for the Kurds? These states don’t want to solve the Kurdish question with peace and dialogue. They have unified to use military violence against the Kurds. Unfortunately they don’t have any alternative projects for the Kurds. These countries believe that the U.S and other external countries created the Kurdish question. This allows them to wipe their hands of the matter and not take responsibility for their own actions against the Kurds. It’s obvious that European intervention, or as some would say, Eurocentrism, led to the Kurdish question, but that doesn’t mean that only Europe or even the U.S. is responsible for the current situation with the Kurds.

After September 11 the U.S. began their “Greater/Broader Middle East Project” and in spite of the conquest of Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s not known whether the US will shape the Middle East with this project or not. If Middle Eastern countries want to prevent US intervention in the region, they will need to provide good conditions, not just for the Kurds but also for other minorities. Turkish, Persian and Arab nationalism has been exacerbating the discrimination against the Kurds in region. These nation states are totally unready for pluralism but they must try and find a way to solve the Kurdish question without violence. They must allow the existence of Kurdish identity and more specially, Kurdish representation in the political arena. The Kurds need a voice in the assemblies. The Kurdish question shows more than anything else, how tragic it is when nation states ignore their own internal problems and continuously look to foreign intervention for solutions. The Kurdish question as well as any other ethnic minority problem in the Middle East should be solved politically because in the long term only political solutions will work- everything else is just a band-aid solution, not addressing the real issues. Without this kind of a solution the Kurdish question will be carried from its origins in Eurocentrism to the Greater Middle East project.

Fatih Seyhanoglu

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Author`s name Dmitry Sudakov