This article first appeared in Asharq Al Awsat and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author Amir Taheri.
Published by Gatestone Institute – October 8, 2017
An old Arab adage asserts that there is always something good in whatever happens. The secession referendum held in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq is no exception. It has added to tension in the region, awakened many old demons and diverted attention from more urgent problems. At the same time, it has also provided an opportunity to examine and debate some important issues in a cold and clinical manner as opposed to the inflammatory style current in our neck of the wood.
One such issue concerns the relationship between ethnicity and nationality.
It is important because the Middle East which, is and has always been a mosaic of ethnicities, has arrived at the state of nation-statehood, a la Europeen, through an historic shortcut that bypasses the ethnic conundrum. In Europe, the birthplace of the modern nation-state, the concept of citizenship provided a synthesis between ethnicity and nationality. All European states are multiethnic entities; and, yet, few of them experience ethnic tension the way it affects the emerging nation-states of our region.
The assumption on the part of Iraq’s Kurdish secessionists is that statehood should coincide with ethnicity. However, if that were the case, almost all Middle Eastern states would have to be divided and subdivided, by one account, to create least 18 more states.
Kurdish secessionists dismiss that account with the argument that most ethnic groups in the region are too small to merit statehood.
In other words, size becomes a justification for secession.
They also claim that Kurds represent the largest ethnic group without its own state. That, of course, isn’t true. In the Indian Subcontinent, the Dravidians, numbering over 300 million, do not have a state of their own. The same is true of the Punjabis, some 100 million of them, who are divided between India and Pakistan with reference to religious differences into Muslim, Hindu and Sikh sub-groups.
In Africa, the Hausa and the Ibo, who number 40 and 35 million respectively, don’t have states of their own. In China, the Uighurs (22 million) and the Manchus (12 million), not to mention the Tibetans with 4 million, have had their states wiped out by the Han majority.
There are more Pathans in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, more Irish in United Kingdom than the Republic of Ireland, and more Hungarians outside Hungary than inside it.
The second argument is that since Iraq is an “artificial country” created by Sykes-Picot, there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t walk out of it. To start with, despite the fashionable buzz all over the place, the so-called Sykes-Picot “plot” has nothing to do with the current shape of the Middle East.
Sykes-Picot was a draft treaty by Britain, France, Russia and Italy to carve out the Middle Eastern possessions of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. However, the draft never received final ratification by the four countries involved.
Before the war ended, the Tsarist Empire collapsed and the new Bolshevik regime published the text of the draft as part of propaganda against “Imperialist powers.”
The draft envisaged giving large chunks of Anatolia to Russia, an ally of Britain and France and Italy. But when the Bolsheviks seized power, Russia became an enemy; there was no reason to give it anything.
As for Italy, it had performed so miserably in the war that Britain and France decided it merited nothing but crumbs of the cake, in the shape of a presence in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. With Sykes-Picot rendered inoperable, Britain and France made new deals later reflected in several treaties, notably of Lausanne and Montreux.
In any case, to say Iraq is “artificial” is meaningless because all states are artificial; none has fallen from the heavens fully shaped. It took the United Sates almost 200 years to assume its present shape, by admitting Hawaii, annexed in 1898, as its 50th state in 1959.
A century ago there were 32 nation-states in the world; today there are 198, the majority of which are newer and more “artificial” than Iraq.
In some cases, ethnic identities are either fabricated or exaggerated in pursuit of political power. For example, the Castilians and the Catalans share the same Christian faith, speak variations of the same Latinesque language, and are hardly distinguishable from one another by outsiders. Yet, we have a Catalan secessionist movement in Spain. The reason is that Catalonia has always been a support base for leftist movements in the Iberian Peninsula while the rest of Spain, especially Castile and Galicia, has been conservative.
Ironically, the more multi-ethnic a state, the more successful it has proved in history. The Sumerian state was “pure” in ethnic terms but vanished without trace. The Roman Empire, open to all ethnicities up to the position of the Emperor, lasted over 1000 years, and perished when it tried to impose uniformity through its new official religion: Christianity.
Countries where citizenship is not based on ethnicity or religion offer inhabitants freedoms unavailable elsewhere. In a small street in Paris, Rue des Petites Ecurries, shops and cafes belonging to all sorts of Islamic sects, Jews and Christians exist side by side without anyone cutting anyone’s throat, at least not yet; something unthinkable in “pure” places such as the ISIS or the Taliban “emirate.”
There is nothing easier to invent than “traditions” upon which ethnic identities are constructed. To fabricate a new identity, Ataturk adopted the Latin script, and purged the Turkish language of Arabic and Persian vocabulary, using French words instead.
Now, however, we see the old Ottoman ghost coming back to reassert itself.
Some Kurds, tried a similar scheme by including the vowels اعراب (Irab in Arabic) in the Arabic script and, imitating Ataturk, purged many Arabic and Persian words. The result is that their new-speak appears more Kurdish but is hard to understand especially when it comes to classical texts of their literature.
There is much talk of identity these days. But human identity is protean, subject to tangential twists and turns of individual and collective life.
For example, the identity of Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani (also known as “Kak Masoud” — “Brother Masoud” in Kurdish) is not exactly the same as the identity of the Peshmerga who drives his bullet-proof Mercedes. Kak Masoud was born in Mahabad, Iran, an Iranian subject, but spent the first 12 years of his life in the Soviet Union. He then spent a decade in Iraq before being forced out by the Ba’athist terror machine, finding refuge first in Iran and then in the United States. That does not make him any less Iraqi or any less Kurdish, if only because the two are not incompatible but complimentary in his case.
An Iraqi citizen is easy to define and recognize because citizenship is a politico-judicial status that can be tested and ascertained. When it comes to ethnic and/or religious identities, however, we are often in terra incognito.
Two things are certain about anyone of us: our humanity and our citizenship. Everything else is subject to dicey speculation and convoluted definitions.
Amir Taheri, formerly editor of Iran’s premier newspaper, Kayhan, before the Iranian revolution of 1979, is a prominent author based on Europe. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.