By Sharif Nashashibi
20 September 2017
My change of stance on Kurdish self-determination occurred about 15 years ago as something of an epiphany. Discussing Iraq prior to the 2003 invasion with a cousin whose politics I respected, one of the points I raised in opposition to the looming war was the prospect of the country’s breakup due to a likely Kurdish push for independence.
“How can you, as a Palestinian who seeks self-determination for your own people, deny that same right and aspiration to the Kurds?” my cousin asked. I had no valid answer to this simple question. I was ashamed by my hypocrisy, all the more so because my stance was not a product of independent thought, but of societal conditioning among Middle Easterners to oppose Kurdish self-determination in a knee-jerk fashion.
With Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum due next week, and amid increasing warnings and threats from Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran against the vote, this regional hypocrisy is amplified. Arabs, Iranians and Turks, as well as their respective governments — staunch proponents of the Palestinians’ right to their own state — see no moral contradiction in opposing the right of another stateless people to the same thing.
This hypocrisy is mirrored by the fact that the only government in the region that has come out in support of Kurdish independence — Israel’s — is busily denying Palestinians their own freedom. Like human rights, self-determination — in whatever form it takes, including democracy — is a universal principle. From a moral perspective, it is not a position one can apply selectively to suit one’s own agenda (Aung San Suu Kyi, take note).
Yet to our collective discredit, Arabs, who sacrificed so much to throw off the shackles of foreign colonialism, suddenly become closed-minded when the desire to determine one’s own future — typically due to oppression — emanates from within our own borders.
For example, had the Sudanese government not stubbornly resisted nationalist aspirations among the non-Arabs of the south, one of the longest civil wars on record could have been avoided. Some 2 million people were killed (one of the highest civilian death tolls since World War II), and millions more were displaced, because the north insisted on ruling another people by force.
With regard to Palestinians, Kurds, South Sudanese (pre-independence) or other peoples worldwide, there are textbook political and economic arguments made against their right to self-determination, such as territorial integrity, natural resources, security, domino effects, and potential alliances those peoples might form with other states. But none of these arguments justify denying their right to decide how they are governed and by whom.
There is widespread concern about the prospect of Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum resulting in violence that could also drag in its neighbours. But much of that instability would be borne out of rejection of a Kurdish state. As such, the onus in terms of avoiding violence should be on rejectionists to accept Kurdish aspirations, not on Kurds to abandon them.
Denying self-determination to a people because their homeland sits on natural resources (whether gas and water in Palestine, or oil in Iraqi Kurdistan, South Sudan or Iran’s Arab-majority province of Khuzestan) is absurd. Those resources are theirs to do with as they wish.
Regarding territorial integrity, it is the height of irony to hear people speak of the sanctity of borders that, in other instances, they criticize as being colonialist constructs. Surely an amicable divorce is always preferable to a forced marriage.
And with regard to fears that Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum will foment separatist sentiment among the Kurdish populations of Iran, Turkey and Syria (as if such sentiment is a new phenomenon), this argument basically goes: “Let us deny some people their right to determine their own future, so we can deny even more people that right.” This is hardly a position with a moral backbone.
Opponents of a Kurdish state also point to the likelihood of it having good relations with Israel. Firstly, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy — good relations are likely precisely because, its selfish reasons notwithstanding, Israel supports Kurdish independence while the rest of the region does not.
Secondly, while I would certainly oppose close Israeli-Kurdish relations, I could not in good conscience hold an entire people hostage to the ties and alliances their government may form with others, even one as odious as Israel’s.
Incidentally, Middle Easterners rightly condemn Israel’s support for apartheid South Africa, which was partly borne out of an awareness that a post-apartheid government would form close ties with Israel’s enemies that backed the emancipation of South Africa’s black majority.
Much like the propaganda industry built around justifying the denial of Palestinian statehood, the various arguments against Kurdish independence are used to mask the fact that much regional opposition is based on rejection of Kurdish statehood under any circumstances.
This fact makes calls by world powers and Kurdish dissenters to postpone the referendum puzzling, as if the main obstacle is merely timing, rather than the inherent rejection by Iraqi Kurdistan’s neighbours of its independence.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is stuck between a rock and hard place. If it goes ahead with the referendum, it risks regional and international isolation amid growing calls to shelve the vote. But doing so risks a domestic backlash among a public whose nationalist expectations have been raised by the KRG.
If or when such a referendum takes place, it would undoubtedly result in a massive vote in favour of independence. Regardless, I would continue to condemn Kurdish abuses of human rights, as I do with abuses throughout the region. Similarly, and when necessary, I would criticize the new Kurdish state’s regional policies, and any expansion into territories whose populations would predominantly reject Kurdish rule.
But I would congratulate the Kurds on achieving a historical national aspiration, and I would wish them well. After all, our destinies in the region are intertwined — we can choose to blindly deny and fight this reality, to everyone’s detriment, or we can afford each other the same respect, acceptance and rights that we want for ourselves. To me, this is a no-brainer.
• Sharif Nashashibi is an award-winning journalist and commentator on Arab affairs.