House of Kurds: The Politics of Politics
by Ranja Faraj
The Kurdish issue in the Middle East represents a great deal of politics. It encompasses conflicting and complementing ideals. It is a neat and perfect package to learn from. The Kurdish issue is an anachronistic politics lesson. As of today, Southern Kurdistan (North of Iraq) has its own semi-autonomous region governed by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). It was spawned at the end of Saddam Hussein’s brutal regime. The Western invasion, illegal or not, came to the aid of the Kurds. The progression that has been seen in South Kurdistan since 2003 has been cumulative. Pre-2003 South Kurdistan was a completely different story. A similar story to its northern, western and eastern counterparts.
The history of the Kurdish people does not span a few hundred years. It spans at least a few thousand. The problem in clarifying this lies within its history which has largely been either destroyed, written by its oppressors or passed down through generations. What has consisted throughout the history of the Kurds and what has preserved their identity in the midst of political shifts is in fact their traits. I discuss this whole topic of political identity in my dissertation in further detail which I will publish at a later date.
To sum it up briefly, the Kurdish people have always been a tribal people who have always been concerned with local independence. The tribal mentality in itself has no regard for others except their bloodline. They have no concern for outsiders. This is an attitude that is still largely dominating today. What this means is that in light of the shifts of the political landscape, be it a few years ago where the Arab Spring reignited a fire in the Middle East or 1200 years ago when Islam became the imperial power, the Kurds were still concerned with their local independence, the people they only care for.
This has been thematic for the Kurds. When the Kurds were Islamicized, they greeted their rulers with open arms. There was no national conscious anywhere at that time. The Kurds were not a people. There were however tribes of Kurds. They identified with their tribe or religion. The concept of “I” rarely exists whereas “We” predominates in these tribes. These members are first a tribal member, then a Muslim or Yezidi. National identity, however, comes a poor third. This is fair for there was no national identity. Nationalism did not exist. However, the provisions Kurds went to just to maintain the status quo was devastating in the long run. Their grip on tradition meant they would surrender themselves under foreign rulers as long as the tribal leader and its inhabitants could maintain their local independence. We see a lot of that today in Kurdish politics, not needing to name names.
The longstanding and impressively devastating efforts by the Kurds to maintain their tribe and local independence reveals their stubbornness. The mentality of the Kurds has often been described as debilitating towards any degree of advancement. Their stubbornness to keep the current establishment or to submit to external powers who could grant them this was both a negative and positive consequence. The negative aspects range from periodic pillaging and invasion to assimilation and economic disruption. However, the most important aspect that far outweighs any consequence the Kurds have faced is actually their own stubbornness. This monolithic and inert tribal consciousness was protected by the Kurd’s strong grip on tradition. The lack of a civic and formal culture meant that no centralised government protected their interests. What can be argued is that the reluctance of giving up their subjective characteristic of political identity was what in effect created and protected their national identity unknowingly. The tribes effectively kept Kurdistan Kurdish even though it was heavily fragmented. This shows the political potential the Kurds could have collectively. All it needed was a suitable political identity that could unify it.
This explains the importance of the subjective characteristic of self-determination, independence and nationalism. For the Kurds under Islam prior to the 15th century, we see the Kurds opt for the continuation of their own political sphere. They were self-determined as far as they were concerned. They co-existed under the Ottoman and the Safavid empire in the same manner. There was no sense of national community amongst the Kurds but they operated in the same manner and the tribal mentality of ‘we’ was what nationalism has come to mean. This is crucial in understanding the politics of politics however absurd that sounds. The tribal mentality has been, dare I quip, a chief reason in the failure of a Kurdish state but it was not because of its supposed outdatedness compared to revolutionised models of governance. It was because identity as a form of political distinction was gradually becoming more and more refined by the outside rulers for the sake of power manifestation. However, what the rulers did not expect was that identity concerns the individual at a fundamental level. By just observing the time period which this article discusses, the more complex or simplistic identity became, however you view it, it was gradually going back into the hands of the individual.
The irony in how the nomadic nature of the Kurd became the downfall as well as the preservation of their identity reveals one of the greatest practical jokes on the world. The only concern I have now is that the identity of the Kurds has been preserved but now it needs mobilisation, it needs unification. We are still behind the world and so we must advance our tradition.