The history of a struggle for national identity
By Gena Mangiaratti
Kurdistan is a country. Kurdistan is a virtual state. Kurdistan is a bad country. Kurdistan is an illegal country.
It all depends on whom you ask.
What is Kurdistan?
When Sirwan Dabagh, a Kurd born in southern Kurdistan, tells people where he is from, he does not always mention the word “Kurdistan.”
“I usually say I’m from southern Kurdistan, which of course, politically correct, would be northern Iraq,” Dabagh said. “However, if the person asking doesn’t seem open-minded and generally educated, I prefer not to get in a conflict and, therefore, tell them that I’m a Kurd from Iraq.”
No one can define exactly where Kurdistan is, for it cannot be found on a map. It is a region made up of southeastern Turkey, northern Syria and Iraq, and western Iran, where people of Kurdish origin have resided since the time of hunters and gatherers. After the Ottoman Empire collapsed in World War I, the borders of these four countries were established and a treaty to grant Kurds their own state was rejected by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder and first president of Turkey. The British government, who at the time had control over Iraq, was also not in favor of a free state.
Today, the Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of their own. Since the land where the Kurds live was parceled out, the governments of the four countries have been working toward assimilating citizens of Kurdish origin.
The Kurds are a people with their own language and a culture distinct from the countries they inhabit.
“Kurdish families are close-knit,” said Kani Xulam, director of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN). “Lack of political coherence has forced the Kurds to rely on themselves.”
Xulam described Kurdish thinking as more emotional than cerebral, and mentioned that it may be no coincidence that the film Braveheart is very popular with the Kurds.
The religion of the Kurds cannot specifically be named without clumping everyone together. Some areas of Kurdistan are mostly secular. Other Kurds are Muslim, while many practice Ezidism or Zoroastrianism. Dabagh mentioned that many Kurds of the Jewish faith have left Kurdistan and are now located in Israel.
The Kurdish language belongs to the Indo-European language family—the same family English belongs to. It is in a different family from Turkish and from the Arabic languages of Iraq and Syria.
Xulam, who is from the part of Turkey that makes up northern Kurdistan, explained that the Kurdish language differs from Turkish in not only alphabet, but in sentence structure and diction, comparable to the way English differs from Japanese in how its speakers express themselves.
The parceling of Kurdistan among different countries has caused the Kurdish language to develop several different dialects. Some argue that this means the Kurds do not share a uniform language, and that this impedes their struggle to be recognized as an independent state.
Dabagh refutes this argument, putting the Kurdish situation in context:
“Imagine you live in Ithaca and your sister in Albany. Suddenly someone decides to draw a line, where you end up in one country and your sister in another. There are borders between you and you are claimed to be, let’s say American, and your sister is now Canadian. Imagine you both actually speak Greek but it’s not recognized. You must speak English and your sister must speak French. This is what happened to the Kurdish people, and therefore their dialects many times are claimed to not be the same language.”
Victims of Hate
It was not until March 16, 1988 that international attention was drawn to the long-repressed Kurds. It was on this date that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein made a genocidal attack, launching poison gas on the dominantly Kurdish city of Halabja, killing at least 5,000 people and injuring more than 10,000.
What is now the country of Iraq was created by Winston Churchill in 1921. It consisted of three provinces carved from the Ottoman Empire: Baghdad, which contained both Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Basra, which was predominantly Shiite, and the Kurdish province of Mosul, which Britain wanted to hold on to for its oil reserves. Britain controlled Iraq through the Sunni minority, hoping the three groups could live together.
When Saddam Hussein came to power, the Sunni government persecuted both Shiites and Kurds.
According to the Embassy of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan is a federally recognized region of Iraq, and is officially governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Dabagh said that in comparison to Syria and Iran, the government of Iraqi Kurdistan is relatively democratic, but that in comparison with other governments outside of the Middle East, it is not very democratic at all.
“But I do know democracy takes time,” Dabagh said. “The Western countries didn’t become democratic in one day.”
Dabagh has lived most of his life in Sweden. His family fled the political oppression of Iraq in 1989, when he was four. The democratic ways of Sweden have made it a favorable destination for Kurds. Today, Dabagh is the creator of Free Kurdistan, a cause arguing for an independent Kurdistan. In Sweden, Dabagh works with friends on a petition, making face-to-face contact to spread awareness for their cause.
Culturally Repressed in Turkey
In Turkey, no region is recognized as “Kurdistan.” According to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, D.C., all people within the borders of Turkey are considered to be of Turkish citizenship.
“Everybody enjoys the same rights and privileges,” said Hüseyin Ergani, counselor of the Turkish Embassy. “We do not have statistics or divisions based on ethnicity, religion or culture. Any Turkish citizen can live anywhere he wants.”
According to a segment on ABC News: Foreign Correspondent, aired in November 2004, Kemal Ataturk perceived an independent Kurdish state to be a threat to Turkish unity, and preferred that the Kurds be assimilated. In 1988, Human Rights Watch reported that the Kurdish ethnicity was not recognized in the Turkish census figures, and the Kurds were referred to as “mountain Turks.”
Xulam’s passport lists his nationality as Turkish, which he said is untrue.
In a publication dated 1993, Human Rights Watch reported that Turkish authorities had stopped using the term “mountain Turks,” and began referring to Kurds by name in Turkish publications. The 1982 ban on speaking the Kurdish language in the streets was repealed. However, Kurdish still could not be spoken “in court, in official settings, or at public meetings,” the publication reads.
In Turkey, publicly using the letters Q, X and W which exist in the Kurdish alphabet but not in the Turkish alphabet, is prohibited by law. This ban consequentially prohibits Kurdish families from giving their children Kurdish names.
Xulam, who was required to learn Turkish over Kurdish in school, said that Turkish was perceived to be the language of progress.
“In a way, they are under the illusion that they are actually helping us by assimilating us,” Xulam said. “They don’t view it as a crime, that they are committing cultural genocide.”
Xulam gives two reasons for why he believes the Kurds continue to be subjugated.
The first reason has to do with the resources. Two resources of Kurdistan in high demand are oil and water.
“These two things are the Achilles’ heel of the Kurds,” Xulam said. “Because of them we have been unable to free ourselves, and our struggle still goes on.”
The second reason has to do with racism.
“The way I would describe it is our adversaries feel entitled,” Xulam said. “[Like] the whites in the South: they were ‘entitled’ to selling blacks in the market before 1860s, and before 1960s, they felt like the blacks shouldn’t be in the same bus that was traveling from one state to another. They had to be in another bus… In our case it’s not as like that—it’s more cultural.”
Xulam acknowledged that since Turkey has applied for membership to the European Union in 1987, the government has taken steps to improve its human rights record. However, the issue has not been resolved.
“They are too little, too late, and so the question hasn’t been resolved, because there’s no desire to take Kurds… as their equals,” Xulam said. “And so long as there’s a lopsided relationship, the problem will go on, and Turkey will not have peace, and the conflict will endure.”
This Land is My Land
The PKK, an abbreviation for Partia Karkaren Kurdistan, which in English translates to Kurdistan Workers’ Party, was formed in 1978. Its goal is an independent Kurdish state. According to the Web site for the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the PKK began to wage an armed struggle in 1984.
The PKK, Embassy Counselor Ergani said, does not represent any part of Turkish society. In Turkey and in the United States, the PKK is referred to as a terrorist organization. According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the PKK has caused the deaths of over 30,000 Turkish citizens since 1984.
From 1980 to 1984, Kurdish activists as well as Turkish politicians and academics were arrested and tortured in the Diyarbak?r Prison. According to the Turkish gazette, Today’s Zaman, Diyarbak?r Prison was named one of the ten most notorious prisons in the world.
Selahattin Demirtas, head of the Kurdish political party the Democratic Society Party (DTP), told Today’s Zaman in August 2009 that the Diyarbak?r Prison is one of the reasons for the PKK’s existence. Demirtas suggested it should be turned into a human rights museum.
In December 2009, the DTP was shut down after being accused of supporting the PKK.
Dabagh questions the validity of calling the PKK a terrorist group.
“PKK may have used violence, but on the other hand, when the Kurdish people of Turkey do not have basic human rights, what should they do? Is it not self defense?… Wasn’t the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 adopted after many years of war?”
Amnesty International refers to the PKK as an “armed opposition group” in its articles. Xulam said that he submits to this definition. Turkey never allowed the Kurds to demand their rights in a non-violent manner, he said, which made armed resistance inevitable.
“The violence [the PKK] has waged against Turkey is no different than the violence that Turkey has waged against the Kurds,” Xulam said. “There’s two violent groups, if you will: The Turkish military and the PKK. One is condoned, unfortunately by international community, and the other one has been categorized as a terrorist organization.”
The Iraqi elections on March 7 may bring improvement to the Kurdish situation in Iraq. Ayad Allawi was elected to be the next Prime Minister of Iraq, a change that many Kurds believe will bring them greater support from the rest of the nation. According to the Associated Press, many Kurds felt “increasingly alienated” by the previous Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, because of disagreements over several issues, oil contracts being one of them.
Dabagh said he believes Allawi’s governance will be better for Iraq, and therefore for the Kurds.
But the repression still goes on.
On March 21 of this year in Syria, police opened fire and killed at least one Kurd celebrating Newroz, the Kurdish new year.
The group refused to replace their Kurdish flags with Syrian ones. The crowd was first sprayed with water from a fire truck, leading them to retaliate by throwing rocks. The police then opened fire.
The battle continues.
Xulam described the struggle that faces the Kurds.
“If you speak Kurdish, then you are disdained. If you sing Kurdish songs, you could go to jail, or you could get hurt. If you make a demand for cultural acceptance, then you could lose your job. And if you fight for it, then you’re branded as a terrorist.”
Gena Mangiaratti is a freshman journalism major and the supreme ruler of Genastan. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.