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The Kurds a Nation Denied

Auteur : David McDowall
Éditeur : Minority Rights Date & Lieu : 1992, London
Préface : John Simpson Pages : 150
Traduction : ISBN : 1-873194-15-3
Langue : AnglaisFormat : 135x210 mm
Code FIKP : Gen. 2292Thème : Histoire

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The Kurds a Nation Denied


The Kurds: A Nation Denied

In March 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian air force flew a group of foreign journalists to a town in Iraqi Kurdistan which had just been taken over by a Kurdish guerrilla group and handed over to the advancing Iranian forces. The town was called Halabja, and most of us who were being taken there had never heard of it before. We were told that Iraq had counter-attacked with chemical weapons, and that 5000 people had died. Few of us, I suspect, thought it was more than the standard propaganda line.

When we reached Halabja we saw that, if anything, the figure was an underestimate. Bodies lay heaped up, ready for mass burial. Others lay where they had fallen when the bombs fell. Halabja stank of death and of one of the nastier forms of destruction. Saddam Hussein had responded in characteristic fashion to the Kurdish demand for an acknowledged political identity....


by John Simpson
BBC Foreign Affairs Editor

In March 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian air force flew a group of foreign journalists to a town in Iraqi Kurdistan which had just been taken over by a Kurdish guerrilla group and handed over to the advancing Iranian forces. The town was called Halabja, and most of us who were being taken there had never heard of it before. We were told that Iraq had counter-attacked with chemical weapons, and that 5000 people had died. Few of us, I suspect, thought it was more than the standard propaganda line.

When we reached Halabja we saw that, if anything, the figure was an underestimate. Bodies lay heaped up, ready for mass burial. Others lay where they had fallen when the bombs fell. Halabja stank of death and of one of the nastier forms of destruction. Saddam Hussein had responded in characteristic fashion to the Kurdish demand for an acknowledged political identity.

That demand has rarely received anything but a hostile and often violent rebuff. The skills of RAF Bomber Command were first learned in air raids on Kurdish villages in Iraq during the 1920s. Throughout the 20th century there have been punitive expeditions and attempts at forcible assimilation in many of the countries within whose borders the Kurdish people live.

In Turkey and the Arab countries the hostility to the Kurds is often racial in origin; but far more important is the unresolved question which the political identity of the Kurdish people poses for the successor states of the Ottoman Empire. The Treaty of Sèrves in 1920 created the possibility of an independent Kurdish state, but events in Turkey and Britain's decision to include the Mosul area in the territory of the newly created state of Iraq soon ensured that it came to nothing.

Yet the Kurdish question, as David McDowall's book brings out, is a complex one. The Kurds themselves have usually been divided about their future. Iraq, which is a leading oppressor of the Kurds, has nevertheless long accepted their right to express their political and cultural identity in a way that Turkey, for instance, has never permitted. Before his conflict with the United Nations, Saddam Hussein would often pay heavily stage-managed visits to Kurdistan, dressed for the cameras in Kurdish costume. Across the border in Turkey, the law forbids the wearing of Kurdish national dress. Iraq gave a form of autonomy to its Kurds, though it was regulated fiercely by the army and the secret police; in Turkey, by contrast, the official term used to describe the Kurdish population is 'mountain Turks'. The only constant factor in the Kurdish experience is the inability to achieve the promise held out to them at Sevres, seven decades ago.

For a brief moment in March 1991 the Kurds of northern Iraq experienced the exhilaration of controlling their own territory in freedom. It was quickly over. The United States and its allies, nervous that Iraq might fall apart as a unitary state, did nothing to prevent troops loyal to Saddam Hussein from recapturing large parts of Iraqi Kurdistan. For the Kurdish political parties, the old question - whether to enter into agreements with their enemies, and so run the risk of being divided and ruled - arose again.

In different forms and in different places, the question will never go away. David McDowall's well-informed book, thoughtful and unexcitable in the best tradition of Minority Rights Group publications is subtitled 'A nation denied'. It is a telling study of the cruelty and instability which arises when the claims of nationhood are ignored.
John Simpson

John Simpson joined the BBC in 1966 and has worked in Brussels, South Africa, as presenter of BBC Television Nine O'Clock News and is now the BBC's Foreign Affairs Editor. In 1990 he joined the BBC Newsnight team and in 1991 was named (joint) World Television Journalist of the Year for his reports from Baghdad during the Gulf War.


The mass flight of Kurds from Iraq in April 1991 brought world attention to the Kurdish question as no previous event had done. Many people learnt, for the very first time, of this large Middle Eastern community. Media reporting, which concentrated on the scale of the tragedy, inevitably created simple images of the Kurds - as perennial victims of oppressive and wicked governments, and as a nation which had somehow been betrayed.

No one can doubt that the Kurdish people have been victims rather than determinants of the regional political developments during the 20th Century. Nor can one doubt that the Kurds have already travelled a long way in the process of national formation. Yet to describe the Kurds simply as victims runs the risk of demeaning them, of stripping them of responsibility for their own actions.

To describe the Kurds as a 'nation', as people in Western Europe understand a nation, risks ignoring the complex and sometimes difficult relationship many Middle Eastern communities have with the idea of 'nation' as Europeans define it. Yet the subtitle of this book, A Nation Denied, is intended to signal the central challenge faced by the Kurdish people: the forging of a national identity despite outside opposition and, possibly more surprisingly, despite the contradictions within Kurdish society itself.

Many Middle Eastern communities have travelled down a difficult path in nation-building, some successfully, others less so. Most Middle Eastern historians would probably consider the invasion of European thought into the body politic of Middle Eastern society in the second half of the 19th Century as the main source of this sense of national identity. This invasion reached its most dramatic stage in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, and the struggle of the many communities within that empire to find a new identity which could conform to the new world order imposed by the West. Amongst the many communities engaged in that search - the Greeks and other Balkan peoples, the Arabs, the Turks, the Jews and the Armenians - were also the Kurds. Most of these communities claimed an almost divine right to nationhood, in at least one case within God-given borders.

In the case of the Armenians and Kurds, the borders of their respective homelands overlapped to a very great extent indeed. Had it not been for the liquidation of the Armenian community in Anatolia in waves of massacre and deportation from 1896 through to 1922 (in which the Kurds participated), the Kurds and Armenians might have had to forge a new concept of 'nation' embracing both communities. Or there might have been genocidal war, or partition involving the immense and forced migration of thousands, if not millions, of Armenians and Kurds into their appropriate 'nation-state'.

These things did not happen because the Armenians as a community in Turkey had ceased to exist. But it is worth remembering that the concept of nation-state, as founded upon religious, linguistic or racial difference, is a powerful form of exclusivity. Indeed, it could be said that many Armenians perished because of it, at the hands of the Turks who were themselves determining their national identity. Imposed upon the ruins of a multiracial and multi-confessional empire, where people of different belief, custom and ethnicity had lived side by side in both town and country throughout most of both the Ottoman and the Persian Empires, this virulent exclusivity has had a devastating effect on Middle East civilization.
The Turks, the Jews, the Arabs and the Balkan peoples were successful in establishing national states (though in the Jewish case this was achieved not by Ottoman subjects but by European colonists, and at the expense of the indigenous inhabitants). The Kurds were unsuccessful. However, not one of the nation-states that have emerged in the area, not even Israel, which many might think most closely approximates to a real (ie. European) nation-state, has fully resolved the problem of national identity and reconciled its communities to it.

In a memorandum to his government in the early 1930s, Faisal, the first king of Iraq, summed up not only his own country's current (and continuing) problems of identity, but those (though the players might be different) of Iraq's neighbours:
'This government rules over a Kurdish group most of which is ignorant and which includes persons with personal ambitions who call upon this group to abandon government because it is not of their race. [It also] rules a Shi'a plurality which belongs to the same ethnic group as the government. But as a result of the discriminations which the Shi'is incurred under Ottoman rule which did not allow them to participate in the affairs of government, a wide breach developed between these two sects. Unfortunately, all of this led the Shi'is... to abandon a govern-ment which they consider to be very bad... I discussed these great masses of the people without mentioning the other minorities, including Christian, which were encouraged to demand different rights. There are also other huge blocks of tribes... who want to reject everything related to government because of their interests and the ambitions of their shaikhs, whose powers recede if a government exists... I say with my heart full of sadness that there is not yet in Iraq an Iraqi people."

What is it that persuades Kurds they are one people? They do not, in all probability, belong to a single ethnic origin but to an amalgam. They do not enjoy a distinctive religion, for most of them, perhaps 85%, follow Sunni Islam, although their adherence to a number of religious orders distinguishes the loyalties of different Kurdish villages. Nor do the Kurds yet enjoy a unified language. One group of Kurds still has difficulty understanding another. Moreover, as the relatively recent history of the Kurds shows, they are torn apart by internal quarrels and disputes, many of them rooted not in the ideology of liberation, but in more ancient rivalries.

Nevertheless the Kurds continue to claim that by race, language, and lifestyle — and perhaps above all by geography — they form a distinct community. Put quite simply, they are more like each other than anybody else and they feel it.

The vast majority still live in a mountainous region, concentrated today between the Turks, Iraqi Arabs and Iranians. The governments of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, which have difficulty agreeing on a number of regional issues, are utterly agreed on one point: not one of them views with any favour at all a separate Kurdish state in their midst. With the present exception of Iraq, they view with profound disquiet any form of autonomy, since this is suspect as a stepping stone to self-determination.

As aspirant nation-states themselves, with their own ideology grounded in race (Turkey), or in the case of Iran in Shi'i Islam, and in defined borders, they understand very well the dangers of allowing too much head to Kurdish national feeling. It is as easy to see why they should feel thus as it is to see the strength of the Kurdish case. Strategic security, historical experience, the difficulties already experienced with their neighbours, and the vital question of unexploited minerals leave the Kurdish case for independent nation status as unnegotiable as its justice may seem unanswerable.

Smaller Kurdish communities exist in Syria, Lebanon and USSR, as well as urban communities in the larger cities of the region, Ankara and Istanbul, Tehran and Tabriz, Mosul and Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut.

It is easy to assume that the difficult relationship between the Kurds and their neighbours results solely from nationalism and the question of self-determination. However, trouble between the Kurds and their neighbours has been intermittent virtually since the beginning of history, an expression of the long-standing tension between people of the hills and those of the plains.

From time immemorial, the inaccessible but habitable areas of the Middle East, the deserts, mountains and marshes, have been a refuge for those whose way of life is different from those who populate the cultivable plains. This 'Land of Insolence'2, comprising the zones beyond the reach of government, has always been in a state of flux. Part of this land, the desert and the marshes, has now surrendered to the government of urban man, even though as late as 1991 the Tigris-Euphrates marshes were used as a refuge by Shi'i Arabs fleeing Saddam Hussein. In the hills of the Middle East, the Land of Insolence continues to flourish, from the religiously distinct communities of Lebanon, the Maronites and the Druzes, which periodically exert their independence from government, to Afghanistan, where tribes people have found new reasons for repudiating the government of the plain.

It would be a mistake to conclude that such people, with their fierce independence of spirit, their pride in a distinctive culture, their corresponding disdain for the ways of the plainspeople, and their resistance to the encroachment of government, want nothing from the cities and people of the plains. Despite the tensions of the relationship they all, to a greater or lesser eXtent, live in a relationship of interdependence with the plain, and the distinction between two cultures can be more apparent than real. Indeed, it could be said that the outbreaks of conflict between the Kurds and their neighbours, like those between beduin and settled folk, occurred when something disturbed the delicate arrangements evolved for coexistence.

It is easy to portray the Kurdish question as essentially a conflict between a liberation movement and its repressive neighbours. The truth is a good deal more complex, not least because like other mountain people the Kurdish people wrestle between the strength of their long-standing and traditional identity, and the weakness of political development. In his remarkable study, Martin van Bruinessen puts his finger on a singular feature:

'The Kurdish movement (in Iraq) had, especially since 1966, a conservative, even reactionary appearance, in spite of the justice of its demands. The Kurdish leadership seemed to wish for more imperialist interference in the region rather than less... the movement was gradually purged of its leftist elements and it seemed that the traditional leaders, whose authority had at first been challenged by young urban nationalists. were able to consolidate or recuperate their positions as a consequence of their participation in the movement/3

There is an obvious external reason for the apparently traditional nature of the Kurdish movement in the Soviet patronage of the Iraqis at that time, and the willing support of the Kurds by Imperial Iran and the United States. However, there were equally strong internal reasons for Kurdish conservatism, based on primordial loyalties, on social organization, on the interplay between tribe and state rooted in longstanding Kurdish experience, and the harsh fact that nationalism in rural areas could only operate through traditional channels. 'Kurdish nationalism and tribal and religious loyalties stand in ambivalent relationship to each other',' and it is reasonable to ask whether the traditionalist leaders, even as late as the 1970s, were really as interested in tribal autonomy, as were their forebears, as in the constitutional autonomy for which they publicly called.

The internal conflicts which have characterized Kurdish revolts inevitably raise the question whether the worst enemies of Kurdish national aspirations are the governments that have so brutally oppressed the Kurds over the past 60 years, or whether almost as great an impediment has been less visible, the fragmentary nature of Kurdish society and the less than national aspirations of many of its more traditionally minded people.

The purpose of this book therefore is to explore the identity of the Kurds, their bonds of loyalty, and their historical and recent experience since the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, to look at their position in the different countries in which they find themselves, and to pinpoint some of the internal and external factors and contradictions which exist today that both motivate and impede Kurdish nationalism.

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