Kurdish Independence: How Did We Get Here?

Kurds are finally going to have their independent country after 90 years of waiting. Still, this process is not going to pass smoothly and there will be merciless wars and bloodshed.

There is a new trend, as cliche as it may be, among the Kurdish cultural elite. It states that “Islam is the reason behind our retardation and our dependency on other countries.” What is even more cliche is describing this anti-religion trend as “secularism” according to some movements, parties and intellectuals. It is said that [Kurdistan Workers Party leader] Abdullah Ocalan expressed his fascination at the statue of Ataturk in Ulus Square during his first visit to the capital, Ankara. The truth is that this national trend, secular by definition, is locked in conflict today, not with its Turkish, Arab and Persian counterparts, but with a religious movement built on the ruins of national tendencies in Turkey, Iran and the Arab countries.
The Kurdish sensitivity toward Islam dates back to the decline of the Ottoman Empire when the newly emerging nations separated themselves from the empire, including the Turkish nation that Mustafa Kemal worked on creating from the social Islamic structure and separating from religion. He completed what the government of Union and Progress had started through cleansing the newly formed Republic of Turkey of non-Muslims such as the Greek Orthodox, Syriacs, Armenians and Jews, and preserving the non-Turkish Muslims such as Kurds, Circassians, Laz, Turkmens and Arabs, in hopes of turning them into Turkish ones. Because of his power struggle with the sultan and under pressure from the allies in the Lausanne negotiations, Kemal had to adopt extreme secularism. His project became an extreme form of social structuring aimed at gathering Muslims in a religion-free Turkish nation.
Ataturk’s project failed in reality on both secular and national levels. The Turkish regained their religiousness and the Kurds maintained their national culture and their tendencies toward independence. However, in light of the weak national conformation of the Kurds, the Islamic League made them stay within the Turkish Republic. Another reason was Kemal’s playing to Kurdish ego during his speech at the National Council, when he spoke of Kurdistan and how he wanted to grant the Kurds autonomy within their regions. However, Kemal’s later decision to cancel the caliphate, under pressure from both British and French sides in Lausanne in 1924, would put an end to good relations with the Kurds.
Sheikh Said Piran rebelled in 1925, marking the first Kurdish revolution with tendencies toward independence in modern times. Ataturk’s bloody crushing of the rebellion drew the features of the Kurdish-Turkish relationship during the Republic period. It was a conflicting relationship based on denial and brutal suppression on the one hand, and rebellion and separation tendencies on the other.
“We tricked the Turkish with Islam” is the most honest expression that represents the Kurdish psychology toward Islam. After Sykes-Picot, Kurdish national consciousness grew in parallel with the rise of the national Arab movement, reaching its peak with the arrival of the Baath to power in Iraq and Syria.
We can then speak of a long history that has passed after the “original sin” of denying the Kurds their own country like all other national entities which were separated from the Ottoman Empire. The sin was staying within the modern Republic of Turkey because of the Islamic League, which was abandoned by the new country’s founder. He canceled the caliphate, fought the popular Islamic movements and turned his back on his neighboring Arab environment.
Today, 90 years after the caliphate was canceled, it has returned in a caricature-like, bloody way in Mosul at the hands of the caliph named Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The day his jihadists took over Mosul, peshmerga forces entered the disputed area of Kirkuk, where Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani practically solved this “dispute” after the Maliki army had fled and collapsed while confronting the Sunni forces. Barzani is now announcing preparations to carry out the referendum over Kurdistan’s independence from Iraq, after the Kurdish disappointment in Maliki’s government has reached its peak, and a day after Baghdadi announced the Islamic State.
Paradoxically, the fact that the caliphate was canceled and re-announced led to the same result concerning the Kurdish tendencies toward independence. Between these two events there is nearly a century, during which Ataturk’s movement ended in Turkey and the Baath movement ended in Syria and Iraq, while Islam rose in these three countries and Iran.
The establishment of the Kurdish state in the north of Iraq is going to create new dynamics in the KRG. In Syria, even though [the Kurdish diaspora] publicly refuses to be separated from Syria, the Syrian branch of the Kurdish Labor Party established its state on the land from which Bashar al-Assad’s regime had voluntarily withdrawn. Barzani’s movement in Syria, on the other hand, speaks of federalism without having the actual power to achieve it. Instead, he is already suffering from political persecution from the Democratic Union which built its cantons in Jazeera, Kobani and Afrin.
However, in Turkey, which is relatively stable and has a democratic system of power rotation, regardless of its many deficiencies, the president of the Peace and Democracy Party, Selahattin Demirtas, presented his candidacy for the Turkish Republic presidency. This step has several symbolic indications in light of the Turkish chauvinistic sensitivity toward Kurds, represented by the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist movement.
Even though the Iranian part of Kurdistan seems calm and distant today, it is possible for the Iranian dilemma in Syria and Iraq (in addition to Yemen, Lebanon and Palestine) to lead to a new opportunity for the different elements within the empire to take shape. This will be added to the political opposition from within the system, which was brutally suppressed in 2009.
Kurdish independence will take several paths, depending on the different political situations in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. The only certain thing is that Kurds are finally going to have their independent country after 90 years of waiting. Still, this process is not going to pass smoothly and there will be merciless wars and bloodshed.


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