On the Kurdish Question

Formation of an independent Kurdistan would be disastrous for all peoples of the region, including the Kurds themselves.

Kurdish referendum Reuters
The intensification of Kurdish separatism in Iraq is a symptom not a cause of the further disintegration of the Arab and Muslim world, writes Dabashi [Reuters]

Who can blame the Iraqi Kurds for wishing to establish a separate and autonomous state for themselves? Certainly no Iraqi who still cares to remember the murderous history of Saddam Hussein’s Anfal genocide and Halabja massacre of the Kurdish population, predicated on a long history of denying their identity and trying to Arabise them.    

Who can blame the Kurds in Iran if they too wanted to join forces with their fellow Kurds across the border and form a new country with them? Certainly, no Iranian who cares to recall the slaughter of Kurds early in the course of the Islamic revolution, and in fact their systematic repression before it – all of that rooted indeed in a ghastly racist history of “Persian-supremacy” denigrating the very language and proud culture of the Kurdish people. 

Who can blame the Kurds in Turkey if they too wanted to join Iraqi and Iranian Kurds to form a nation-state of their own? Certainly not Recept Tayyip Erdogan and his supporters of their brand of Turkish nationalism and an entire history of the persecution of their own Kurdish population, again trying to deny their history and identity and calling them “Mountain Turks”?   

Who can blame the Syrian Kurds if they too wished to join other Kurds and break away from Syria? Certainly no Syrian who still suffers through the bloody regime of Bashar al-Assad and the long and languorous history of denying Kurds their civil liberties and rights.    

Who can blame any Kurd anywhere in the Arab and Muslim world demanding a state of their own? Certainly, no American administration that has historically used and abused the Kurds for their own imperial and strategic purposes, most recently to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and then abandoned them to their own devices when it comes to their wish for independence.     

The perils and promises of Kurdish nationalism 

The cause of Kurdish separatism in any country where Kurds currently live is of course perfectly understandable, but it is alas no cause for celebration in a region already plagued with ethnic nationalism of multiple vintages. 

The partition and dismantling of four sovereign states – Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran – to carve an autonomous Kurdistan (much to the delight of the Israeli settler colony) is as much disastrous for the entirety of the region as for the Kurds remaining within these states and is enormously consequential for the eventual resurrection of multiple, pluralistic, tolerant, and cosmopolitan nations.  

No Iranian, Turk, or Arab can or should even try to pontificate to Kurds about Kurdish independence. Only Kurds themselves can critically think through and act upon their decisions. They need to ask themselves if the racialised ethnic nationalism of their own kind is indeed an answer to the calamitous racialised ethnic chauvinism from which they are justly running away.


Suppose to Benjamin Netanyahu’s utter delight all these nation-states built around the Kurds completely broke down to all their racialised, ethnicised, communities. Instead of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria as we know them now – all of them multilingual, multicultural, multifaceted mosaics of people ploughing through the thick and thin of their shared postcolonial history – we were to have myriads of ethnically pure Kurdish, Baluchi, Arab, Persian, Turk, Turkmen, Yazidi, Azeri, ad absurdum ethnic states.

Who will benefit from the fragmentation of this Bantustan? Will this potential scenario advance or hinder the cause of peace, justice, democracy, and prosperity for the people of these fragmentations? What will these fragments have gained, what will have they lost? 

Israelification of the Arab and Muslim world

I have lost count of how many pieces the bastion of liberal Zionism Haaretz has published in support of Kurdish independence – how much ludicrous crocodile tears and false solidarity going deep into Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, believe it or not! They simply have no shame. 

But why would this lasting vestige of European colonialism in Palestine be so adamant in its support for an independent Kurdistan? There are many wicked reasons for it but one in particular is important to highlight. 

The Israeli settler colony is constitutionally discomforted by any pluralistic nation in the region for it exposes the ethnic racism at the roots of Zionism. The more ethnically fragmented the region in which they live the paler will appear the European settler colony in their midst. Let the entire Arab and Muslim world break down and fracture into tiny ethnic, xenophobic, racist colonies so “Israel” feels perfectly at home in Palestine. Divide them to their tiniest racialised denominators so you can rule them better. 


That the liberal Zionist gang gathered at Haaretz is now leading the pro-Kurdish independence chorus in English is the clearest indication that when it comes to greasing the brutish machinery of Zionist colonisation of Palestine and active destruction of historical nation-states in the region, they are more hardcore than their hardcore comrades on the right. 

Israel, however, is not the only entity opposing that multicultural cosmopolitanism. Every single long-standing ethnic nationalism dominant in the region and their ruling regimes – Arab, Iranian, or Turkish – have historically brutalised the Kurds (along with other populations) in their midst precisely because their rule is so constitutionally illegitimate in face of the truth and reality of that pluralistic cosmopolitanism. 

But neither the Zionist support for an autonomous Kurdistan nor the anti-Kurdish hysteria opposing it should detract an iota of attention from the fact that a whole history of Kurdish suffering in the hands of these states has given them every moral right to demand and exact a measure of autonomy for themselves. 

But, and there is the rub, the addition of yet another state-sponsored ethnic nationalism on the model of the four states in which Kurds are located will not be a recipe of political liberation or cultural emancipation. Quite to the contrary: It will do precisely the opposite and entrap the Kurds within a smaller gathering inside multiple encampments of religious and ethnic sectarianism in the region. Adding a Kurdish ethnic nationalism to the already metastasised Turkish, Arab, and Iranian chauvinism will turn the entire region even more pronouncedly into the mirror image of the militant sectarianism of the Zionist settler colony. 

The battle for democratic pluralism

The bloody persecution of Iranian Kurds early in the course of the Islamic revolution in Iran (1977-1979) was not because they were separatists. It was because the Iranian Kurdistan had become the cornerstone of a potential revolutionary opposition to the militant Islamists in Tehran brutalising the revolution towards their sectarian monopoly. That emancipatory politics should always remain the model of Kurdish democratic aspirations.      

If Kurds were to remain where they are and become integral to the transnational liberation movements of their respective countries, by their very presence they will force those states to transform their wretched identity-politics into emancipatory civic liberties. If they remain and struggle for their civil liberties, they will liberate their cause from ethnic nationalism and set an example for those with whom they share their fate. If they partition and leave, they will replicate and exacerbate the ethnic racism from which they are running away. If they stay and fight for their liberty in the company of those around them (Arabs, Iranians, or Turks), they will pivot towards a far more emancipatory future. 


In the face of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan one cannot be absolutist, pessimistic, or nihilist. The alternative to an independent Kurdistan in Iraq cannot and should not be business as usual and the dissolution of Kurdish communal or even national aspirations into the larger frame of dysfunctional or despotic ruling regimes. 

However justified, Kurdish ethnic nationalism is reactive and reactionary, not proactive and progressive. It plunges the region, Kurds included, further down the drain of retrograde parochialism, racism, nativism, ethnic nationalism, and hateful jingoism. It is a reaction that the ruling regimes in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey deserve, but that will irreparably damage the future of a democratic pluralism for Arabs, Iranians, Turks, and particularly for Kurds themselves. 

The intensification of Kurdish separatism in Iraq is a symptom not a cause of the further disintegration of the Arab and Muslim world. If the response to the legitimate desire of Kurds for autonomy is military manoeuvres armed confrontation, shutting down of water resources, and even more racist anti-Kurdish jingoism the dismantling of the current map of the region does not need any help from the Israeli settler colony.   

Palestinian uprising against the colonial occupation of their homeland is a blueprint for national liberation movements around the globe. As they carved a Zionist settler colony in Palestine, European colonialists could have easily mapped a Kurdistan in the region. That they did not do so was because of their own colonial interests. 

The political map of every single country in the region today is the result of the encounter between the last Muslim empires – Mughal India, Qajar Iran, and the Ottoman Empire – confronting French and British imperialism. The result is the cluster of the current nation-states, in all of which the state is there to repress not to represent the nation. The addition of yet another repressive nation-state abusing and misrepresenting its people will not solve that historical problem. It will only exacerbate it. 

The battle for democratic pluralism must be fought for and won from within these very colonial states. In that perfectly plausible aspiration, Kurds and their democratic dreams will travel precisely in the opposite direction of the wishes of the Israeli settler colony and become a model for Europe now facing its own degenerative separatist movements all the way from Cyprus to Catalonia. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.