The Kurdish People

The Kurdish People: Victims of Capitalist Nation-State Requirements 

[Published in Bulletin In Defense of Marxism, No. 90 (November 1991): 25-31]

Despite the extensive media coverage of recent months, the Kurds remain a people seen but not known. Who are they?

A Brief History

Long before the kings of Persia, the caliphs of Baghdad, and the sultans of the Ottoman Empire came to sit in their palaces, the Kurds settled in the valleys of northeastern Mesopotamia and the surrounding mountains that lie astride the borders separating present-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and the USSR. For thousands of years they have worked the soil and grazed their animals here.

The Kurds are a people of Indo-European stock  who have lived in a geographically cohesive area called Kurdistan, and who constitute a nation with a distinct language, culture, and heritage. By the seventh century, they were writing poems in their own language and introducing music into the palaces of Arab princes. Ensuing literary works were at certain historical periods of high quality. For example, Ahmed Khani’s 17th century masterpiece, Memozin , continues to rank among the chief works of epic literature.

Through thousands of years the Kurdish people fought the Sumerians, Assyrians, Persians, Crusaders, Mongols and Turks for their freedom from oppression. And they gave Islam one of its best defenders–Saladin (Salah el-Din Ayyubi), who battled Richard the Lion-Hearted and the Crusaders to regain Jerusalem in 1187.

Despite their long and proud history, this ancient people have the unfortunate distinction of being perhaps the only community of over 21 million which has not enjoyed some form of national state in the post-WWI period.

While the Kurds, like many other non-Turkish peoples, were officially part of the Ottoman Empire prior to WWI, they in fact enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. The Kurdo-Ottoman pact formally recognized sixteen independent Kurdish principalities, with many of the attributes of sovereignty: they could even strike coinage, they did not have to pay tribute to the sultan, and they were not accountable to him.

Although the defeat and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire during WWI  gave birth to a number of independent nation-states of the non-Turkish minorities (for example, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine/Israel), the Kurds who were also promised self-determination were actually denied this right. The Treaty of Sevres, signed by the allies and the Turkish government on August 10, 1920, specifically stipulated the right of the Kurds to self-determination.

This promise, however, was soon rendered meaningless by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne which effectively divided Kurdistan among Turkey, Iraq, and Syria. The Iranian Kurds had long ago been separated from the rest of Kurdistan in the 16th century when the Ottoman and Persian Safavid Empires set their borders right in the middle of Kurdistan (1514), following a long and bitter war.

As far as the Kurds are concerned, the Treaty of Lausanne represented a deal between Britain and Turkey regarding the division of Kurdish territories: as Britain detached the oil-rich province of Mosul from Kurdistan and attached it to its mandate (Iraq), it in return gave Turkey a free hand to subject the rest of Kurdistan to increased oppression. Soon after the Treaty, Mustafa Kemal, the xenophobically nationalist leader of Turkey, banned all expressions of Kurdish national identity such as art, music, literature and, in particular, the use of their mother tongue. To deprive the Kurds of all rights, Kemal passed laws that denied altogether the very existence of the Kurds in Turkey, by calling them “mountain Turks”!

In return for the forceful attachment of the Kurdish oil-rich province of Mosul to Iraq, Britain promised the Iraqi Kurds national autonomy. A 1922 joint Iraqi-British declaration recognized the Kurds’ right to “form a Kurdish government within the Iraqi frontiers.” But when the Iraqi government reneged on this promise and the Kurds rebelled, the British Royal Air force aided the Iraqi army to crush the rebellion–once in 1932, and again in 1945.

This brutal breakup of Kurdistan was countered by the constant struggle of the Kurdish people to reestablish their national identity. In Iraq alone, the recent uprising of the Kurds, triggered partly by President Bush’s call on the Iraqi people to rise against the tyrant in Baghdad, was only the latest of some eleven such insurrections since WWI.

President Bush’s green light to Saddam Hussein to quell the uprising was likewise only the latest in a series of such cynical turnabouts. For example, In the early 1970s, the United States collaborated with the Shah of Iran to supply a similar Kurdish struggle with arms in Iraq. That struggle was prompted by Baghdad’s default on an important autonomy agreement it had signed with the Kurds in March 1970. When the Kurds revolted in protest, the U.S. and the Shah maneuvered to derive political dividends from their national cause for their own purposes.

Their “support” of the Kurds was therefore designed not to help them gain their national autonomy, but to teach the Iraqi regime a lesson for (a) having just signed a treaty of friendship with the Soviet Union, and (b) making repeated territorial claims concerning  the border waterway between Iran and Iraq. The 1976 congressional Pike report provides a powerful testimony of how the Kurds were used:

“Neither the foreign head of state [the Shah] nor the President [Richard Nixson] and Dr. Kissinger desired victory for our clients [the Kurds]….They merely hoped to ensure that the insurgents would be capable of sustaining a level of hostility just high enough to sap the resources of the neighboring state” of Iraq. The report adds: “Our clients, who were encouraged to fight, were not told of this policy. It was a cynical enterprise, even in the context of a clandestine aid operation.”

In March 1975, when the Kurds gained the upper-hand in the fight and forced the Iraqi army to retreat, the U.S. and the Shah abruptly dumped the Kurds in exchange for the Iraqi concession on the border waterway between Iran and Iraq. As a result, the rebellion turned to rout, and the Kurdish people were once again subjected to all kinds of brutalities by the Iraqi regime:  expelling some 300,000 Kurds to Iran ; demolishing about 4,000 Kurdish villages and deporting hundreds of thousands of the Kurds to other parts of Iraq; poison-gassing some12,000 Kurds in the city of Halbja in August 1988; deforesting the hills, burning hundred-year-old walnut trees and choking springs with concrete so the Kurds could not live off their land. All these brutal measures were taken as part of the genocidal conspiracy of “Arabization of Kurdistan.”

But all of this, and even the chemical bombardments, did not end a struggle for autonomy that has gone on now for more than 100 years. The Kurdish drive for their national identity has frequently been used by the big imperialist powers for their own geopolitical purposes in the region. Each of these powers has at one point or another offered help and promised self-determination “when the job was done.” Each time, although they fought bravely and honorably, the Kurds were abandoned in their struggle. Successive regimes of the countries where the Kurds live have systematically subjected them to forced assimilation and genocidal schemes, while the world powers have stood by in silent compliance.


The Roots of the Problem

The Kurds have never made territorial claims over other peoples’ lands. They have demanded only the right to be identified with their historic heritage and culture, and the economic resources in the lands where they have lived for centuries. Why then have they been subjected to all these atrocities?

A number of answers limited to anti-Kurd policies of this or that regime, geopolitical interests of international power brokers, mistakes of this or that Kurdish leader, and so on fall way short of satisfactory explanations. For one thing, they do not explain why, for example, the regimes that rule the countries where Kurdish people now live oppose the Kurds’ use of their mother tongue as their language of instruction, while the regimes that ruled these countries prior to the emergence of modern, 20th-century national state in the region did not oppose such cultural expressions. Nor do they explain why major world powers go along with brutal policies of cultural and ethnic annihilation of the Kurds.

A closer examination of the forces denying the national rights of the Kurdish people, as well as those of other ethnic minorities, reveals that these forces have their roots in concrete economic requirements of the modern capitalist nation-state. An essential requirement of a relatively smooth functioning market economy is unity of language. Expansion of markets, contact between economic factors and agents, instituting and implementing of economic rules and regulations, marketing and sale of commodities, and the like are made more cost-effective in a society whose peoples speak a single language than in a multi-lingual society.

This is the fundamental reason for opposing the use of ethnic minority languages. It also explains why the loosely centralized pre-capitalist regimes of kings, Sultans, Emirs and emperors were more tolerant of cultural and ethnic diversity than are the modern nation-states of capitalism.

Diversity of languages is not the only “burden” on the free-functioning of a market economy. The market mechanism also requires uniformity in currency and tax systems, in trade and investment rules, in labor and business laws, and so on. In addition, it requires politically united territories within the nation-state. These needs of a market economy for standardization and uniformity are diametrically opposed to the needs of ethnic minorities for diversity and self-determination.

The plight of the Kurdish people can best be understood in the context of this historico-economic framework. It shows why successive regimes ruling the Kurdish territories have systematically suppressed their struggle for self-determination. It also shows why major world powers go along with the oppressive policies of these regimes against the Kurdish people.

This is why, for example, despite Western powers’ calculated assault on Saddam Hussein, they nevertheless salvaged the dictator as the “guardian” of Iraq’s nation state and as the “lesser evil” in the face of the recent popular uprisings against his dictatorial rule and the prospects of self-determination in Kurdistan.

Nation-state requirements are not the only factors thwarting the struggle of the Kurds for self-determination. Their struggle has been further hamstrung by their geography, their economic backwardness, and the rigidities of their past methods of national struggle. Their once-strategically-valuable mountains turned out to be their scourge in the 20th century. As long as pastoralism, feudalism, and other pre-capitalist formations were the dominant socio-economic structure in the region, their high and relatively secluded lands served them well: on the one hand, they provided favorable grounds for both pasture and agriculture, on the other, they served as defense/security fortresses against territorial ambitions or military incursions from the outside world. Indeed, these geographic properties contributed greatly to the Kurds’ national survival through so many centuries, as well as to the fact that their national identity and cultural characteristics have remained rather pure and intact.

These factors contributing to their national survival in the past became, however,  a threat to that survival in the 20th century. Their rugged, mountainous and relatively secluded lands, with no access to the sea, has meant that most of the 20th century developments in the region–development of markets, of industries, of modern nation states, and the like–have passed the Kurds by without seriously touching them.

This does not mean that all their economic underdevelopment is due to their natural conditions. Surrounded and divided by hostile regimes, Kurdish provinces have been left out of the most of development projects of the central governments ruling their lands. It has been only in the past fifteen or twenty years that minimal industrialization projects have been implemented in Kurdish provinces.

Lack of economic development has in turn impeded social development. Thus the process of social differentiation and the emergence of modern social classes, characteristics of a social transition from feudalism to capitalism, did not arrive in Kurdistan in time to help the Kurds establish their own nation-state. A modernizing  bourgeois elite versed in statist traditions did not develop in Kurdistan until very recently. Nor did an industrial working class or a radical intelligentsia equipped with a revolutionary ideology. To the extent that these modern social strata are belatedly developing among the Kurds, they largely represent a process of integration (i.e., integration of the Kurds into the ethnic majorities of the countries to which they are attached–mainly Turks, Persians, and Arabs). Considering that the language of instruction and education, hence of progress and “upward mobility,” in all these countries is non-Kurdish, the mechanism of forced integration and assimilation of the Kurds becomes clear.

Because of small, insignificant modern elites, traditional tribal-feudal elites dominated the leadership of the Kurdish struggle for national liberation until very recently. Even now strong influences of traditional methods of struggle manifest themselves within various ranks of the leadership. Without discounting all the sacrifices and contributions of the traditional leadership, it must be pointed out that its tactics and strategies are not suitable for the 20-century requirements of national liberation. Gerard Chaliand, an authority on the political history of the Kurds, epitomizes the weaknesses of the traditional leadership in the following sentence: “Tactical cunning instead of political analysis, clientist maneuverings instead of political mobilization, and a few revolutionary slogans instead of a radical practice.” [1]

Such methods of struggle have at times cost the Kurdish national cause very dearly.[2]  Although traditional methods have in recent years come under serious analysis and severe criticism, present leaders of the Kurdish movement have been less than successful in entirely extricating themselves from their past methods. This is perhaps due to the fact that traditions and modes of thinking cannot be changed at will: as long as the economic structure and living conditions of the Kurdish people remain in the grip of geopolitical constraints and economic underdevelopment, the burden of past rigidities is bound to weigh heavily on their national movement.


The Future of the Kurdish people

Requirements of capitalist nation-state are seriously threatening the survival of the Kurdish people. Kurdish national identity and continuity is threatened not just by forceful relocation of the Kurds or by periodic wars and bombardments launched against them by the armies of the regimes ruling their territories. More fatally, their survival is being undermined through a gradual process of integration and assimilation–a kind of a slow death. As the Kurds are deprived of using their own language, they are forced to abandon their mother tongue and learn Arabic, Turkish or Persian in order to be able to go to school and educate themselves. And as the Kurdish language thus becomes an increasingly oral language of older generations and, therefore, obsolete, so does the Kurdish culture and national identity.

Thus if the status quo and the ban on the use of the Kurdish language continues for a long time, survival of the Kurds as a nation will gradually come to an end, perhaps within the next few generations. One might argue that this is extreme pessimism, since the Kurds (and many other nations) have lived for centuries without a written language. True. But those were different times. In our time, survival of a nation without a written language is simply impossible–it is only a matter of time before that nation becomes extinct.

Does this mean that the Kurdish people as a nation are therefore doomed? Not at  all. The pessimistic scenario projected above is a conditional scenario: “If the status quo…continues for a long time…” This is a big “if.” None of the regimes suppressing the Kurdish national movement enjoys long-term prospects of stability. Nor is the dominant capitalist world order guaranteed a permanent life. Social changes always take place despite the opposition of the ruling powers. For example, very few people predicted the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, in which the Kurds played an important role.

True, they did not achieve the national rights for which they fought. But that was not due to a fault of their own. It was, rather, because their coalition partners in the united front against the dictatorship betrayed them. The Tudeh party (the Iranian pro-Moscow communist party) and a number of other leftist organizations and parties that followed the political line of Tudeh, played a most shameful part in that betrayal.

The present turbulence in Iraq serves as another example. Not long ago, Saddam Hussein’s regime seemed invincible and the prospects of the Kurds challenging his regime inconceivable. But a series of events, largely orchestrated from outside Iraq, quickly put his regime on the verge of collapse. Once again, the Kurds played a major role in the national uprising. Had Washington not given Saddam Hussein a green light to use his air power against the uprising, Saddam would have been overthrown and the Kurds could have been liberated.

The process of forced integration of the Kurds into the non-Kurdish societies noted earlier is not uni-dimensional. While it tends to undermine the national identity of the Kurds, it also helps their national cause. It does so by creating counterbalancing developments that somewhat offset the integration effects. One such positive development is the breakup of traditional societies in Kurdistan and the emergence of new social classes and new elite groups among Kurdish people. This is increasingly changing the composition and the character of the leadership of the national liberation movement.

There are indications that the new leadership, or at least sections of the new leadership, is increasingly becoming conscious of the fact that liberation of the Kurdish people is inseparable from that of other oppressed peoples in the region, and that a solution to their national cause cannot come about in isolation from broader social changes in the countries in which they live. This new perspective is partially reflected in the ongoing negotiations between Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi Kurds. While Saddam is eager to strike a bilateral deal that would involve only his regime and the Kurds, the Kurds are insisting on broader social reforms and multi-lateral dialogues that would involve other democratic forces in Iraq. Their motto is “Democracy for Iraq, Autonomy for Kurdistan.”

Penetration of new ideas into the ranks of Kurdish national movement is adding another significant dimension to their struggle: the international dimension. The Kurds are increasingly learning that they have long been unmindful of the importance of making their cause public on an international level. And they are gradually opening up political offices and establishing liaison networks in imperialist countries in order to reach out to the media and sympathetic democratic forces there.

To conclude, economic exigencies of the modern nation-state constitute the major obstacles to the national liberation of the Kurds, as well as to that of other national minorities. To overcome these obstacles, it will be necessary to change the economic foundation of the nation-state in a way that it would not be in conflict with the language or cultural diversity of ethnic minorities and their dire material and social needs. This is a task way beyond the power of the Kurds alone. But the Kurds are not alone in their suffering from the evils of the capitalist nation-state. There are other minorities, both ethnic and non-ethnic, and especially the growing working class and the poor who are likewise kept down. Only a concerted struggle of the broad layers of the oppressed can bring about a meaningful socio-economic change in the status quo, thereby ushering in a dawn of liberty for them all, including the Kurdish people.

[1]. Gerard Chaliand, People Without a Country: The Kurds and Kurdistan (London: Zed Press, 1980): 16.

[2]. For a somewhat comprehensive account of the mistakes and weaknesses of the leadership of the Kurdish national struggle see Kendal, “Kurdistan in Turkey,” in Ibid.