Nationalism and the Kurdish Question
Nationalism has always been with us. But the modern version of nationalism grew out of eighteenth century thinking. This movement led to many of the countries or countries-in-waiting that exist today. It is characteristic of nationalism that it may both strengthen and tear apart a polity. Spanish nationalism made possible the establishment of the present Spanish state, but it has also led to the increasing threat of the dismemberment of that state as its subdivisions, beginning with Catalonia, are granted increasing political power. In Africa, new nations developing nationalisms on the basis of political subdivisions established by colonial masters, are threatened by nationalist movements that would further subdivide the continent. There is no reason for the international community to reject such movements out of hand. Each must be judged on its own merits, no matter how difficult “merits” may be to establish in such matters.
In the Iranian region the nationalist ideology produced many of the regional nationalisms that exist today, including Iranian and Turkish nationalism. The modern emergence of Turkey and Iran bares some similarity. Turkey is the remainder of the Ottoman Empire after the rest of it was whittled away before and during World War I. For a time, Turkey also represented the only sovereign state left over after the great Turkish diaspora dating back to well before Genghis Khan. Recently, new Turkish states have emerged in Central Asia and the Caucasus after the Soviet collapse. Iran is the renamed successor to the Persian Empire (with many names) that went through several advances and retreats after its emergence at the beginning of the classic period in the West. Its most recent territorial losses were around Herat and in the Caucasus. Although descended from great empires, both polities appear to have settled on the modern nation state as the best alternative for now.
During World War I Turkey embarked on an extreme nationalist policy that granted nothing to minorities. On the west, the Greeks were largely driven out of the country. To the east, the Armenians were driven out and killed in massive numbers in an attempt to create an ethnically pure Turkey. Fortunately, the Armenians have at last achieved a truly independent state of their own in the Caucasus after the collapse of the Soviet Empire. Their attacks on the Armenians combined with their treatment of their large Kurdish minority, has been a major stumbling block on Turkey’s road to membership in the European Union.
Iraq was one of several states carved out of the Ottoman Empire by the victorious Allies at the end of the War. Before 1920, few people understood that they were supposed to belong to an Iraq nationality, although there were several nationalities in the area of Iraq. The Kurds felt that they had been promised a state of their own, but the international community and local interests in the end denied Kurdish claims. The Kurdish people were divided up among Syria, Turkey (the largest number), Iran (the second largest number), and the new state of Iraq. Both Turkey and Iran have struggled to keep their Kurdish subjects down. Eastern Anatolia has been plagued by a Kurdish insurgency for years. In part, this is a response to a Turkish state that until recently denied the existence of Kurds. They labeled them “Mountain Turks”. Kurds were not allowed schools or broadcasts in their own language. The Iranians have been faced with occasional flareups of Kurdish nationalism. After World War II, the Russians sponsored a Mahabad Republic among the Kurds until the Shah and the Americans forced them to abandon the project. More recently, the Islamist state brutally put down Kurdish revolts. Nevertheless, in the Kurdish provinces of Iraq regional states and the international community has come closest to recognizing an entity that has achieved something very close to independence. One should not romanticize the Kurds or their achievements. The long term unity of even this small area and the “democracy” they have achieved are doubtful. Yet it is certainly true that they have demonstrated far more than most peoples in such situations that they really would like to manage their own affairs and may be capable of it.
For more on this, consider a short paper placing Kurdish self-determination in the context of a more general argument. I expanded the question of self-determination in my Freedom in the World: Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 1978, especially pages 180-215.
In spite of vigorous efforts to promote their own rights of self-determination as absolute, the leaders of Turkey, Iran, and Syria have sometimes been unwilling to grant these rights to others. In particular, the leaders appear to fear that if an independent Kurdish state finally emerges in Iraq, this will encourage independence movements in their states that they will be unwilling to abide. However, if these states allow Kurds a reasonable level of communal self-expression and fairly divide power in such a way that their Kurds do not feel dispossessed, there should be little danger. There is now, after all, an independent Azerbaijan next to Iran’s Azerbaijan, and there seems to be little danger that this will lead to an insurrection in Tabriz. It would help the reputation of all three nations were they to see their way clear to welcoming an Iraqi Kurdistan into the community of nations, should events lead to this result. The United States and the world community should not be reluctant to work with them on developing this opportunity in their midst.