The Kurdish Tragedy

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Joseph A. Massad

THE ARAB WORLD is not necessarily as homogeneous as its name may indicate. Like most states of the world, Arab states have their own share of national (and religious) groups who are at times referred to as “minorities” although in some cases they may be a majority. These national groups include Palestinians, Kurds, Saharawis, the non-Arab Sudanese tribes, the non-Arab Mauritanian tribes, and Omani Baluchis, among others.

Despite this long list, most Arab governments and Arab nationalists lend their ideological support (albeit a self-interested one) only to the Palestinians. As for the remaining groups, no Arab states and a very small number of nationalists lend support to their causes.

These national groups share many similarities in their conditions, be that the Moroccan occupation and annexation of the Western Sahara, the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the terror campaigns against the Southern tribes of the Sudan by the Arab central government, or the continuous terror campaigns against the Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan.

In this context it is interesting to examine two cases such as the Kurdish and Palestinian struggles, and the reaction of Arab nationalists to them.

The Great Carve-Up

The history of modern Iraq is similar to the history of most countries in the “Third World” in general, and the Arab World in particular. Iraq’s borders, like those of its neighbors, were decided by the occupying British Empire which had Iraq under its mandate.

The British on the one hand opted to exclude parts of Kuwait (which had been part of the vilayet, or Ottoman administrative district, of Basra) from the nascent Iraqi state. On the other hand, in 1925 they included in the new state the vilayet of Mosul (in present-day northern Iraq), which the Turks claimed as part of modem Turkey. In fact, the majority of the vilayet of Mosul were neither Arabs nor Turks: They were and still are Kurds.

The majority of the Kurdish people have experienced a great deal of misery, especially since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire led to the division of their historic homeland among five states, none of which is Kurdish—Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Iran and the Soviet Union.

The larger part of the Kurdish people live in Turkey, Iran and Iraq. They have suffered oppression, ranging from the enactment of anti-Kurdish laws to outright massacres committed in Iran, Turkey and Iraq throughout the century. The Kurds did achieve some short-term victories, prominent among which was the establishment in 1945 of the independent Kurdish Republic of Mahabad in Iranian Kurdistan, a republic destroyed by the Shah’s army a year later.

The subsequent history of the Kurds has continued to be marred by the national chauvinism of the states that occupy their homeland. Kurdish history in Iraq itself is replete with oppression and denial of human and national rights. Iraq does remain the only country that recognizes the Kurds as a distinct people with their own language, culture and history; yet the Kurds have not fared much better in Iraq), which recognizes them than in a Turkey which denies their very existence. (Kurds are referred toss “Mountain Turks” in Turkey.)

Kinds and Palestinians

Parallels between Palestinians are Kinds are endless. For example, while Kurdistan is occupied by five countries, Palestine until 1967 was occupied by three—Israel, Jordan and Egypt—and since 1967, by Israel alone.

Kurds are denied their national identification as Kurds in Turkey, and are highly repressed in Iran. In Iraq they are recognized as Kurds, at the same time that the Iraqi government is Arabizing their homeland.

Israeli political discourse for decades referred to Palestinians, inside and outside Israel, only as “Arabs.” (We may recall Golda Meir’s comment that the Palestinian people never existed, recorded by the London Sunday Times, June 15, 1969.) Recently, Palestinians outside Israel are “acknowledged” as Palestinians, while those who are in Israel are still “Arabs.”

Like Iraq, Israel recognizes that its “Arab” citizens have a distinct culture and language, while it carries out policies to Judaize their land and culture. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been uprooted, relocated to other parts of their homeland or simply banished outside it altogether.

Similarly, hundreds of thousands of Kurds have been deported outside Kurdistan, or uprooted from the parts of Kurdistan where they lived to other parts. This has been common practice in Iraq, especially around Kirkuk where Arab Iraqis were moved to the area as part of a racist Arabization campaign, the likes of which can be found in the various racist Judaization campaigns by Israel of Palestinian lands inside Israel (especially in Galilee) or in the Occupied Territories. Turkey had also deported many Kurds to different parts of Eastern Anatolia.

Kurdish liberation groups are as varied as their Palestinian counterparts. From the traditional nationalist right to the socialist left, the Kurdish and the Palestinian groups have been aided by the former Eastern bloc as well as by U.S. puppets (and by the CIA in the case of the Kurds) in the region. These allies have included Iran and Israel in the case of the Kurds, and the Arab gulf monarchs in the case of the Palestinians.

A Tragic Silence

Despite these similarities between the Palestinian and the Kurdish struggles, most Arab nationalist intellectuals, including Diaspora Palestinian intellectuals, are either silent or the struggle of the Kurds or are simply opposed to it The present tragedy befalling the Kurdish people has attracted hardly any sympathetic mention (to my knowledge) in the Arab press.

Those Arab apologists defending Iraq always invoke the fact that Iraq is the only country that recognizes the Kurds and “gave them autonomy.” The fact that the government-imposed “autonomy” includes less than half of Iraqi Kurdistan, and that Arab settlement of Kurdish oil-rich and border areas, is never considered relevant by these apologists. Neither are the deportations of hundreds of thousands of Kurds to other parts of Iraq by the ruling Ba’th party.

Similarly, Zionist apologists who boast that “Arabs” can vote in Israel are careful not to mention that 93 percent of Israel’s land is reserved (by the rules of the Jewish National Fund, which administers it—ed.) for the exclusive use of Jews and that most social benefits in Israel got to citizens who serve in the army, which includes all of Israel’s Jewish population while excluding the great majority of its Arab population. This, along with the Judaization campaigns of confiscating Arabs’ lands, never figure in the apologia provided by such Zionists.

The discrepancy in the reactions of Arab nationalists is not a result of lack of knowledge of the situation of the Kurds, but stems from the very principle on which their support for the Palestinians is based.

The majority of Arab nationalists do not support Palestinians due to belief in the right of self-determination for all national groups; their support is based on the principle of self-determination for all Arabs in relation to foreign occupiers. Hence the fact that a small number of Arab nationalists – support the Saharawi people against Moroccan aggression.

As such, the nationalists’ support for the Palestinians is based on the fact that their occupiers are not Arab, not simply that they are occupiers. Once this is clarified there no longer exists an inconsistency in the reaction to the Kurds and the Palestinians: The double-standard is resolved by resorting to an ideology of chauvinism.

In this vein, Saddam’s championing of the Palestinian cause can be seen to be as sincere as Israel’s championing of the Kurdish cause. It is high time that those in the Arab World who harbor other illusions give them up. The chauvinism of certain trends in the Arab nationalist movement should be repudiated in favor of a movement based on inclusion on an equal basis of all who live in the region, Arab or not.

To achieve liberation and justice, those who believe in Arab national liberation should base our struggle on inclusion and diversity, not exclusion and chauvinism. It is imperative that all national and religious groups be active participants in any effort at liberation. Without them, those who support Arab national liberation are struggling not for liberation but for an empire.

July-August 1991, ATC 33