By S. Arshad, New Age Islam
22 October 2019
The renewed and intensified hostility between the Turks and the Kurds in the backdrop of Syrian civil war has once again brought to the fire the bitter reality that cultural identity is more important to nations than their religious identity. This truth has time and again been reiterated by the behaviour of ethnic groups all over the world. The Kurds are not the only ethnic group who are caught in the web of cultural identity and this behaviour is not the characteristic of Muslim groups alone. Japan's 220 year Self-imposed Isolation (Sakoku) was also a fall out of the fear that foreign influence may damage the culture of Japan. But this behaviour among Muslim ethnic groups is disappointing because, though Islam recognizes diversity of race, language and culture, it associates utmost importance to unity in religious lines. The Quran says:
"O people, we created you from a man and a woman and made nations and tribes among you so that you may recognize one another. The most Noble in the sight of Allah is the most righteous among you."(Al Hujurat: 13)
Thus, taking pride in one's culture and ethnicity is permissible in Islam to the extent that it does not sacrifice religious unity. Righteous is the criterion of superiority and committing violence and causing bloodbath in the name of cultural identity is not approved by the Quran.
The Kurds are an ancient ethnic group who inhabit parts of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey have their own language, dress code, food habit and customs. Majority of them. They take pride in their glorious past as the great warrior king Sultan Salahuddin Aiyubi belonged to the Kurd community. However, they lost power and could not establish their own nation state. Though they succeeded to acquire an autonomous region in Iraq called Kurdistan, their dream is to establish Greater Kurdistan comprising their population in all the four countries.
After the dissolution of Ottoman Caliphate in 1924, Mustafa Kamal stressed on the consolidation of Turk national and cultural identity which bordered on the suppression of Kurd cultural identity. They were called 'Mountain Turks' and Turk language and culture was thrust upon them. Kurdish language, names and dress code was banned. Though both the Turks and the Kurds were largely Muslims, the clash of cultural identities created a human crisis in the region. Religion failed to bind them together as cultural identity acquired greater importance to them. The clash of cultures intensified in the 70s as Kurd revolutionary groups emerged and fought for their cultural rights. Instead of accepting their just demands, the Turk government adopted suppressive measures broadening the divide. During the Syrian civil war, the US exploited the Kurds by promising them assistance in the establishment of greater Kurdistan after the territory captured by the ISIS is evacuated. However, when the political mission of the US in the region was over, it withdrew from the region leaving the Kurds at the mercy of Turkey. It shows how clash of cultural identities turned two Muslim ethnic groups into foes.
Another example of culture playing the role of divider is the Balochistan crisis. The Baloch ethnic group lives in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They have a distinct culture and have been at war with Pakistan as they consider themselves an independent nation though they are Muslims and politically they are a part of an Islamic country. The biased economic policies of Pakistan have only intensified the sense of 'otherness' among them. But the pride in their Baloch identity is at the root of this crisis. They are said to be the descendants of Hazrat Amir Hamza, uncle of Prophet Mohammad pbuh.
The Kashmiris are yet another victim of this cultural supremacism. They take pride in their skin colour and their Israelite and Greek ancestry. Though they belong to the Muslim community, their sense of cultural supremacism did not allow them to mix with the larger Muslim community of the Indian sub-continent living in their self imposed ghetto for centuries. The proof that cultural affinity and common ancestry binds communities more strongly than religion lies in the fact that the Kashmiris Muslims lived more happily with the Kashmiri Pundits and under a Hindu king but never wanted to mix with the larger Muslim and Hindu community of India. On the other hand, Hindus and Muslims of India live harmoniously because of the same cultural affinity despite having serious religious differences. The crisis in which the Kashmiri people are in today is the result of their deep-rooted cultural supremacism.
The peaceful co-existence of the majority Jews and the minority Muslims in the Jewish state of Israel is yet another example of cultural roots and common ancestry being a greater binding force which renders religious differences ineffective. In Israel, about 18 percent of population is Muslim. Still no serious religious strife between the two communities is reported, though internationally the two communities see each other as their arch enemies as some long standing disputes exist between them. The Muslims there have assimilated themselves into the social and cultural fabric of Israel. This has been easy for them as both the Jews and Arab has roots and common history. Most importantly, the Israeli Jews call Israeli Muslims their cousins because the Jews and Muslims are descendants of Prophets Jacob and Ismail respectively who were the sons of Abraham.
More examples of cultural identity and common ancestry playing a greater role in the formation of collective human behaviour can be found in the world. Cultural roots are more deeply entrenched in collective psyche of ethnic groups than religious roots. The reason may be that religions can be shifted or changed but cultural roots can't. However, ethnic groups closing themselves in self created ghettos and repulsing the light of development and modernisation for fear of cultural invasion are modern counterparts of Aborigines if Australia and Africa or tribes of Andaman & Nicobar.
S. Arshad is a regular columnist for NewAgeIslam.com
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