There are more and more signs pointing towards the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) declaring independence from Iraq sometime in the future. This has been a long term goal based upon recent events in Iraq and historical imagining. To help explain the roots of Kurdish nationalism is Prof. Michael Gunter of Tennessee Tech. Univ. He has written extensively about the Kurds and has authored Historical Dictionary of the Kurds, The A to Z of the Kurds, The Kurds of Iraq: Tragedy and Hope, The Kurds Ascending: The Evolving Solution to the Kurdish Problem in Iraq and Turkey, The Kurdish Spring, Geopolitical Changes and the Kurds, The Kurds and the Future of Turkey, The Evolution of Kurdish Nationalism, The Kurdish Predicament in Iraq: A Political Analysis, and Out of Nowhere: The Kurds of Syria in Peace and War.
1. There are two main theories to describe nationalism the primordialists/essentialists and the constructionists. What are those two ideas?
Broadly speaking, there are two main schools of thought on the origins of the nation and nationalism. The primordialists or essentialists argue that the concepts have ancient roots and thus date back to some distant point in history. The constructionists, on the other hand, maintain that nationalism is a recent construction that in effect has invented nations. Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson, for example, have argued that states create nations. “Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist”—or as Anderson puts it, “imagines” them through such mechanisms as “print capitalism.” Massimo d’Azeglio, an Italian nationalist leader during the Risorgimento, reputedly exclaimed: “We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians.”
2. Many Kurds would consider themselves primordialists tracking Kurdish nationalism all the way back to the 5th-7th Centuries. You on the other hand argue that nationalism is a more modern concept, and with regards to the Middle East didn’t develop until the break-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Can you explain that constructionist view?
Despite primordial or essentialist arguments for the antiquity of Kurdish nationalism, such interpretations can be challenged for a number of very solid reasons. In the first place, of course, the very concept of the nation and nationalism being the focus of one’s supreme loyalty is relatively new even in the West, where many would argue that it only began to develop in the latter part of the 18th century and specifically during the French Revolution which began in 1789. The concept is even newer in the Middle East. Turkish, Iranian, and even Arab nationalism largely emerged only after World War I following the demise of the multi-national Ottoman Empire and its emphasis on Islam as the supreme focus of one’s loyalty. Martin van Bruinessen, for example, disputes the oft-made claim that Ahmadi Khani’s 17th century epic Mem u Zin was a precursor of modern Kurdish nationalism. He argues that neither the political nor socio-economic prerequisites existed in 17th century Kurdistan for any notion of the nation to exist because tribes were the main collectivity with which the Kurds identified. “In general, people did not identify themselves as ethnic groups or nations in the way that people nowadays do.” Hakan Ozoglu aptly demonstrates how Kurdish nationalism only began to emerge in Turkey after the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the Kurdish notables had to seek a new identity. “Kurdish nationalism appeared to be the only viable choice for Kurds in the absence of a functioning ideology such as Ottomanism. It was a result of a desperate search for identity after Ottomanism failed.” Thus, Kurdish nationalism . . . was not a cause of [the Ottoman] Empire’s disintegration, but rather the result of it.” M. Hakan Yavuz elaborates on the modern origins of Kurdish nationalism in Turkey when he declares: “The state’s [Turkey’s] policies are the determinant factors in the evolution and modulation of . . . Kurdish ethno-nationalism. The major reason for the politicization of Kurdish cultural identity is the shift from multi-ethnic, multi-cultural realities of the Ottoman Empire to the nation-state model.” The Kemalist reforms, which aimed to create a modern Turkish nation-state “resulted in the construction of Kurdish ethno-nationalism.”
3. In the post-World War I period there were two major Kurdish leaders in Iraq Sheikh Mahmoud Barzinji and Mulla Mustafa Barzani. You don’t consider either of them modern nationalist leaders, why not?
Sheikh Mahmud Barzinji led a revolt against the Iraqi government in the 1920s but talked about it as a jihad not in terms of Kurdish nationalism (Kurdistan Photolibrary)
The revolts of Sheikh Mahmud Barzinji in the 1920s and Mulla Mustafa Barzani beginning in the 1930s were mainly tribal affairs at times opposed by more Kurdish josh (literally, little donkeys or Kurds who supported the Iraqi government in Baghdad) than supported. In discussing the revolts of Sheikh Mahmud Barzinji, for example, David McDowall argues that “he had little in common with today’s Kurdish leaders. Both the vocabulary and style are quite different. It is significant that Shaykh Mahmud did not waste his time appealing to nationalist sentiment. He was a sayyid [literally a reputed descendant of Muhammed], and the language his constituency understood was the language of Islam. In 1919 he appealed for a jihad, not a national liberation struggle. Furthermore, his style was to use kin and tribal allies and his aim was the establishment of a personal fiefdom.”
Only in the 1960s did the Kurdish movement in Iraq begin to take on the characteristics of a genuine nationalist movement. Following the destruction of the Mahabad Republic of Kurdistan in Iran in 1946, the famous Iraqi Kurdish leader Mulla Mustafa Barzani’s retreat to the Soviet Union subsequently became epic in the rise of modern Kurdish nationalism Even so, to his dying day, Barzani never fully exceeded the bounds of tribal chieftain. In part, this helps to explain his bitter disputes with Ibrahim Ahmad and Ahmad’s son-in-law, Jalal Talabani.
4. What happened in the 1960s onwards that led to nationalist rhetoric becoming more widely used by Kurds in Iraq?
Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attempts to reduce the Kurds in the 1970s and 1980s had the opposite effect of fostering Kurdish nationalism. Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf War of 1991 spawned a de facto Kurdish state—the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq— in which an increasingly strong sense of Iraqi Kurdish nationalism began to grow within a Kurdish-ruled state. Social and economic factors also played important roles in the development of Kurdish nationalism in Iraq. The oil industry, construction of major dams, cement and tobacco factories, and agricultural mechanization all created greater wealth and helped move people out of their smaller traditional valleys into the larger urban world. In the first decade of the 21st century, Iraqi Kurdish nationalism has become the most highly developed form of Kurdish nationalism among the entire Kurdish people, but clearly its origins are mainly modern, dating only to the events described briefly above. The success of the Sunni extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in routing Baghdad’s armies in Mosul and other Sunni areas in 2014, has effectively partitioned Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish parts and enabled the Kurds in effect to implement Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution on Kirkuk by occupying this disputed area. So now with geo-strategically and oil-rich Kirkuk in effect part of the KRG, Kurdish independence seems imminent.
5. During the current period of the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki the relationship between the central and regional governments has seriously deteriorated to the point that Kurdish President Massoud Barzani does not trust the premier at all and has begun to talk about independence more and more. Do you see this as the culmination of Kurdish nationalist ideas or just a dispute between two political leaders or a mix of both?
A mixture of both as a more accommodating Iraqi prime minster than Nouri Al-Maliki might have had greater success in holding Iraq together. However, many have argued that Iraq was an artificial state created by British imperialism following World War I and that its break-up was thus inevitable or at least likely given the demise of Saddam Hussien. Independence has always been the ultimate dream of most Iraqi Kurds. Therefore, the current situation in which independence seems imminent can be seen as the culmination of Kurdish nationalist ideas.
6. Finally, many Kurds in Iraq have an idea of pan-Kurdish state. Once the Kurds in Iraq gain independence the Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iran would all join together in one nation. Do Kurds in those other countries have the same vision and idea of nationalism as their Iraqi brethren?
Although a pan-Kurdish state may be a dream of many, but not all Kurds, very few Kurds actually think that it would be possible short of a total collapse of Turkey and Iran, which is highly unlikely. Even in Syria where the civil war has allowed the Kurds there to become autonomous, the ruling Democratic Union Party (PYD), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), is bitterly at odds with the KRG. So it is highly unlikely that even the Kurds in Syria and Iraq could form one Kurdish state let along be joined by the Kurds in Turkey and/or Iran.