For much of his career, my great grandfather served in the Persian army. He fought campaigns against the Kurdish “rebels” in the north.
In order to conduct talks with one of the Kurdish leaders, the Persian government temporarily handed my grandfather — who was an officer — over to the Kurds as a hostage. Over the course of a week, his experience showed him the true face of a demonized enemy. Upon his return, after having seen the Kurds as people who shared the struggle for survival and success, he advocated for peace. As one could have guessed, this path of action eventually led to his dismissal from the army.
Unstable nations, with their attendant sectarianism and ethnic violence, often confound American visions of race, identity and conflict. Born and bred with the Western ideal of nationalism and state-building, I long thought conflicts like the Rwandan genocide and problems in the Balkans were holdovers from a primitive past, the residual of an imperfect transition into the modern age. In fact, much of the ethnic violence we see today began in the modern age itself, resulting from the divide and conquer colonial process. For both Kenya and Rwanda, ethnic divisions already evident in society were mined by colonizing power; as a result, what previously existed as physical and ethnic differences became crystallized by economic difference as well.
Fear not, dear reader, this is not a post-colonial rant against the Man or the powers that be. Rather, I think being mindful of these historical processes can help us resolve issues today.
For Kurds, history is filled with struggle and turmoil. Within their traditional homelands of the Ottoman Empire, Kurds were one of many in a polyglot state. Today they comprise one of the largest ethnic groups without a nation; Kurds find themselves in the minority in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. The Ottoman rule was famously flexible, with different ethnicities and religions finding their own places in society and government through the millet system. The resulting gumbo didn’t lend itself to the types of divisions we see today because different groups had no reason to jockey for position in parallel governance.
Since the fall and dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish identity has become a political issue. Although the Treaty of Sevres would have given the Kurds legal rights to their own land in 1920, when Ataturk refused to sign the Treaty, those lands were subsumed into the modern Turkish state. In order to stay afloat the bureaucratic and administratively minded post-Ottoman governments, the Kurds, as a political-cultural entity, began developing ties with the British government. Even without the security of a homeland, the Kurds have exerted themselves as a political unit throughout history. Within Iraq, for example, they have cooperated with foreign powers to fight against the central state, as when they worked with Iran during the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s.
Today, Kurds have enjoyed a remarkably good relationship with America. Since Kurdish lands play host to most of Iraq’s oil deposits, it stands to reason that America would want them in its camp. Of course, the same fact explains Arab Iraqis feeling nervous about Kurdish pro-autonomy sentiments. Recently, Iraq’s national government has stepped up to oppose Kurdish demands for oil rights and money for regional military forces. America now faces a difficult dilemma: to be supportive of the central government that it has been trying to shore up for a long time, or to support their long-time allies and minorities, the Kurds.
As Americans, we need to recognize that our presence has, to some extent, caused the deepening of this present rift. Although the Kurds were victims of gas attacks under Hussein’s rule, they were not perceived as enemies early in the occupation. But Kurds have a long-standing desire for autonomy, and Arabs have a need for oil revenue. And the Ottoman Empire isn’t coming back anytime soon. Better to have an assertive and respected adjudicator who could listen to both sides and help each according to its need. Keep that in mind going to the polls today — the next executive must prove, above all, that he or she has a international awareness and scope wide enough to handle the responsibility.