Kurdish independence vote: A historical perspective

The upcoming vote has little to do with Kurds’ real grievances and much to share with conflicting geopolitical agendas.

Kurdish independence referendum
A Kurdish man rides a horse during a march supporting the coming referendum in Erbil, Iraq September 21, 2017 [Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters]

With the possible exception of 17th-century philosopher, Ahmad-i Khani, there is no evidence that any Kurd thought in terms of a whole Kurdish people until the end of the 19th century. There is an almost complete consensus among scholars that the Kurdish people – indicated in several British documents produced in the first half of the 20th century as individuals lead by a “tribesman”, or as ” a tribe who keep very much to themselves” – represents an identifiable group since possibly two millennia, but it is equally clear that it was just little more than one century ago that they, like Arabs and Turks, acquired an ethnic sense of identity as Kurds. This happened in place of the idea of Ottoman citizenship and membership of a religious community, and did not result in any clear-cut sense of “political loyalty”.

Transnational identities

Why then did the Kurds, like many other ethnic groups in the region, not identify themselves as a distinct people until a relatively recent past? Anthony Smith provided an indirect answer to this focusing on the “rudiments of a nation”, that is a set of identifiers so fundamental and so long-existing, so taken for granted, that virtually no one had any need to investigate them. Meron Benvenisti went a step further and noted that “the whole game of identity definition reflects the immigrant’s lack of connection. Natives don’t question their identity”.

Among local people, different senses of identities (connected to religious, local, transnational, land and family-related aspects) coexisted without any contradiction between them. They were identities both distinguishable and overlapping. As Barnett and Telhami pointed out, one of the ways in which the Middle Eastern context differs from others “is that the national identity has had a transnational character”.

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It could be argued, correctly, that Kurdish communal mobilisation revolves around an ethnic pole rather than a sectarian one. Yet this consideration reveals less than what might be assumed. It fails, for instance, to shed light on much of the fluid and multifaceted region’s past, or to explain the reason why when European imperialists tried to create a Kurdish state at Sevres in 1920, many Kurds fought alongside Ataturk to upend the treaty. The latter aspect is a reminder of the fact, in Nicholas Danforth’s words, “that political loyalties can and do transcend national identities in ways we would do well to realize today”.

Beyond the rhetoric of self-determination

There are indeed little echoes of these considerations in the debates surrounding the unilateral referendum scheduled for September 25 in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. Indeed, the referendum has, once again, little to do with Kurds’ legitimate grievances and much to share with conflicting geopolitical agendas.

The proposed referendum aims to reassess the balance of power between Baghdad’s central government and the (marginalised, and at times oppressed) highly divided Kurdish community in northern Iraq. And yet, there is much more to it than this. Most of those advocating for the referendum aim at taking possession of a number of minority areas that are not part of Iraqi Kurdistan. This includes the province of Kirkuk – an ethnically mixed area where about 40 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves are located – as well as the Nineveh Plain, inhabited also by many Christians. The latter, like other minorities in Northern Iraq, are still targeted today with harassment and violence by Kurdish security forces in ways that are “reminiscent of the oppressive measures previously used against the Kurds themselves”.

The Israeli exception

These aspects have contributed to strengthening the widespread opposition to the referendum expressed by most players in and outside the Middle East. This applies particularly to the US, Russia and the EU, but also to Turkey and Iran: the “Kurdish gambit” provided much fuel for Turkish-Iranian rapprochement in recent months.

Israel represents a major exception to these trends. As noted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his country “supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state”. Yet, this has little to do with idealist claims. The efforts made by the Palestinians to achieve their own state would otherwise receive a similar treatment: Palestinians, contrary to Iraqi Kurds, have lived largely under the control of a foreign army for 50 years.

Over a third of all of the northern Iraqi exports, which are shipped from Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan, are channelled to Israel. A report published by the Financial Times on the period between May and August 2015 pointed out that about 77 percent of average Israeli demand for fuel comes from Iraqi Kurdistan. On top of this, major military, energy and communication-related projects have been funded by Israel in Iraqi Kurdistan. Finally, Israel (not dissimilarly from Saudi Arabia) perceives the referendum as a way to mitigate Iraqi (existing and potential) strategic and economic power.

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All this sheds light on the reasons why Kurds, with whom Israel has maintained various forms of military, intelligence and business collaborations since the 1960s, are perceived by many not only as a buffer against shared Arab adversaries but also as a regional strategic asset.

The Iraqi interest

The 1988 Anfal genocide, when – in the context of the Iran-Iraq War – about 70-80,000 men, women and children were systematically massacred, is a still visible scar in Iraqi Kurdistan and elsewhere. This mass atrocity was the result of a number of criminal policies carried out by Saddam Hussein, as well as of the historical context of the time (including the active role played by Kurds during Iran’s attack at Haj Omran, the Iraqi town conquered by Tehran’s forces on July 23, 1983).

It is important to stress that this tragic past does not mirror an accurate portrayal of much of the history of Iraq and its multifaceted peoples. It is enough to mention that support for Haider al-Abadi – the current prime minister and a Shia – is today highest among the Sunni Arab population, and that among the 23 prime ministers who held office in the country from 1921 to 1958, there were 12 Arab Sunnis, four Arab Shias, four Kurdish Sunnis, two Christians and one Turkmen Sunni.

It is also noteworthy that Baghdad still hosts nearly one million Kurds that have never suffered from ethnic or sectarian violence. A meaningful percentage of the population of Basra is Sunni. Samarra, a city with a Sunni majority, hosts two of the most important Shia ruins.

The provinces of Salah ad-Din and Diyala, which the referendum’s promoters aim to include within a new Kurdish State, have represented for centuries the image of a multi-faceted Iraq, within which the separation of one or more of its components could only create further violence and ethnic cleansing. Even more so considering that Kurds, like many other populations in Middle Eastern countries, boast religious affiliations – including Sunni and Shia branches – that exist parallel to ethnic or sectarian identity.

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All this does not mean to suggest that the past and present of the region should be seen in terms of a non-sectarian or non-ethnic nationalism, but rather that a scenario a la former Yugoslavia (1999) – where the (mis)use of the principle of self-determination through the imposition of ethnic homogeneity resulted in genocide – is not unrealistic, and that the temporal and spatial specificities should be brought back to within their original inclusive dimensions.

The upcoming referendum, far from fostering “a pole of stability” in the region, goes against any inclusive dimension and is based on an outdated theory of secession that posits linguistic, ethnic or religious homogeneity as legitimate solutions. Its approval and implementation would represent a new catastrophe for the Iraqi people, as well as a return to the spirit of the Greco-Turkish Treaty, signed at Lausanne in 1922-3, when the racialisation of identities, as well as the ethno-sectarianisation of communal identities, acquired, for the first time in the region’s history, a legal validity.

This further confirms that, perhaps today more than ever, each and every Iraqi citizen is required to focus both on reconstruction efforts and on finding her/his own peculiar way to get back into history, rediscovering the permeabilities and the specificities that for millennia characterised the daily life in iklim-i Irak, the ancient and prosperous “region of Iraq”.

Lorenzo Kamel teaches History of Colonial Spaces at the University of Bologna and is a Senior Fellow at the Istituto Affari Internazionali.

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