The Kurdish quiet spring

The big question mark is if Kurds will be able to enhance their national cause for self-determination.

Iraqi Kurds waving flags 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Iraqi Kurds waving flags 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
With the tectonic changes taking place in the heart of the Middle East little attention is given to developments in the periphery, one of the most important of which is the quiet revolution taking place in Greater Kurdistan, namely among the Kurds of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria.
The best illustration of the new Kurdish dynamism was the congress held on February 19, 2012, in Irbil, Iraq, to commemorate the 66th anniversary of Kurdistan Republic, better known as the Mahabad Republic. This short-lived Republic was established in northwest Iran on January, 22, 1946, with Soviet support but it crumbled 11 months later on December 10, 1946, and its president, Qazi Muhammad, was hanged on March 30, 1947.
Kurdistan Republic was unique because it was the first time in Kurdish history that the Kurds had established a republic of their own; because it was an attempt to change the territorial map of the region at the end of World War II; and because there was a certain level of cooperation and unity of purpose between the Kurds of Iran and Iraq.
Thus, Qazi Muhammad, the president of the republic and the Iranian Kurds, provided the territorial and political basis for the republic, while Mulla Mustafa Barzani and the 10,000 people (3,000 of whom were fighters) who came with him from Iraq provided the military backbone.
The commemoration of the event this February in Irbil reflected the changes that have been taking place in the past decade, especially in Iraq and Turkey. The event which brought together Kurdish representatives from the four parts of Kurdistan under the watchful eyes of the governments of these states was unimaginable only five years ago.
Among the many Kurdish personalities participating in the commemoration were Mas’ud Barzani (son of Mulla Mustafa), president of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, Selahattin Demirta, co-chair of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy party (BDP) in Turkey, ‘Abd al-Hakim Bashar, head of Kurdistan Democratic Party in Syria and Hussein Yazdanpana of Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) in Iran. There were also many Kurdish representatives from the diaspora who have been active in disseminating the idea of Kurdish nationalism in the world at large.
The speakers sought to send a few assertive messages to the world and especially to their governments. Barzani stressed that the Kurds, like any other nation, had the natural right of self-determination, that the governments were required to acknowledge this right but were not in a position to accord it to the Kurds, that the Kurds were striving to act in unity even though they had been separated into four parts, and that they were bent on achieving their goal through peaceful and democratic means.
Most of the speakers highlighted the quick and sweeping changes taking place in the Middle East as a result of “the Arab spring” and the Kurds’ need to take advantage of this window of opportunity to achieve their own goals. Signaling a desire to resurrect the Mahabad experience, the speakers sought to impress upon the world the idea of continuity between 1946 and the present. A symbol of this continuity, it was emphasized, was the fact that after the collapse of the Republic, Qazi Muhammad handed over the Kurdish flag to Mulla Mustafa Barzani, stating that the flag was in “safe hands, and a day will come when the flag would be raised [again].”
Indeed, Mulla Mustafa continued the struggle until 1975, bequeathing later the flag to his two sons Idris and Mas’ud. It was further emphasized that even though The Mahabad republic was short-lived the Kurds have to look at it as a model to attain in present time.
Not only the speeches but the terminology, the symbols, and the general ambiance attested all to the changing dynamics in Kurdistan. Anyone who watched the ceremony, which was aired in its entirety time and again on Kurdistan TV, would have been impressed by the Kurdish nationalist atmosphere and the new-found sense of pride which surrounded it.
Thus for example the Kurdish anthem of Mahabad, “Ey Reqip,” which became also the current anthem of the KRG and all the other Kurds, was played many times during the ceremony. Similarly, only Kurdish flags were to be seen in the hall, reflecting the general situation in the KRG where Kurdish flags, but not Iraqi ones, are raised in buildings, being etched on mountain slopes and curiously enough also configuring as badges on the uniforms of the Kurdish men of arms, the Peshmerga.
NO LESS intriguing is the conception and terminology used while referring to Kurdistan. The Kurds present a map of Greater Kurdistan constituting one unit. Portraying it as such they refer to Kurdistan of Turkey as bakur, (north), that of Iraq, bashur (south), Iran roshalat (south east) and Syria rojava (west). Curiously enough, I am told that children were selling ornaments carrying this map of Greater Kurdistan in the streets of Irbil.
Another no less important development is the process of legitimizing the Kurdish language, which is one of the important pillars of Kurdish nationalism. Noticeably, all the speakers made a point of speaking in Kurdish even though in their countries it had been suppressed for long time.
Kurdish is now the official language in Kurdistan of Iraq. The Kurdish language, which was prohibited for many years there, is also being revived in Turkey. Furthermore, in early March 2012, a conference of Kurdish linguists was held in Diyarbakir in Turkey with the aim of unifying the language and its alphabet.
Politically speaking, the short-lived Kurdistan Republic in Iran gave way to the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, which is 20 years old now. The distinctive status of the KRG is most conspicuous. Thus Kurdistan region has all the trappings of a state, with all its practical and symbolical characteristics, including constitution, parliament, government, president, army, flag and anthem.
The KRG has a vibrant economy, a capital, Irbil, and two airports which connect the landlocked region to the world. Moreover, the KRG has managed to turn itself into the epicenter of Pan-Kurdish activity. Kurds from all the other parts as well as from the diaspora frequent the region on a regular basis to exchange ideas, learn from the experience and take advice. Indeed, all the other three parts are looking at the KRG as a model to follow.
The cooperation and coordination between the Kurdish leaders in the KRG and others found expression among others in the many all-Kurdish conferences held in Irbil. An ambitious meeting of Kurdish leaders from all parts of Kurdistan is expected to be held in Irbil this year, with the aim of unifying Kurdish parties and discussing Kurdish questions in such revolutionary times.
All in all, at the turn of the 21st century the whole region is in turmoil and so are some of the states in which the Kurds reside. Accordingly, the Kurds are now at an important crossroads. The big question mark is if they will be able to use this window of opportunity to reverse the outcome of the 20th century and enhance their national cause for self-determination.
The writer is senior research associate at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. She is the author of the forthcoming The Kurds of Iraq: Building a State within a State and editor of the monthly newsletter Tzomet Hamizrah Hatichon.