By William Hamblin and Daniel Peterson
Oct 11, 2019
For years, it was common for news reports from Iraq to mention tensions and even violence between the three principal factions within the country — the Sunnis, the Shi’ites and the Kurds. But that tripartite division reflected a serious misunderstanding: While the Sunnis and the Shi’ites represent the two major divisions of Islam, the Kurds are not a religious sect but a non-Arab ethnic group. (They are, themselves, mostly Sunni Muslims). Thus, speaking about “Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds” is rather like discussing “Catholics, Protestants and Canadians,” or dividing the population of Asia into the three religious sects of “Buddhism, Shinto and Japan.”
Specifically, the Kurds number roughly 30 to 45 million and occupy a relatively mountainous area of the northern Middle East. They have been described by some observers as the largest “nation” on the planet without its own state.
In a just world, there would arguably be an independent Kurdistan — a recognized “Land of the Kurds” ruled by its own government. And indeed, following the end of World War I and the carving up of the defeated Ottoman Empire, the victorious Western allies formally promised the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish state. Shortly thereafter, though, the West reneged on its promise, and today’s Kurds, many of whom still earnestly dream of independence, are divided between south-eastern Turkey, northern Syria, north-western Iran, and northern Iraq.
Their relations with the countries in which they live have been troubled; none of those countries tolerates even the idea of Kurdish separatism. (For one thing, perhaps a third of Iraq’s oil reserves are located within Iraqi Kurdistan.) Just a small sample of the Kurds’ history in the 20th and early-21st centuries will provide some notion of the Kurdish situation:
During and after World War I, the Turkish government displaced hundreds of thousands of Kurds from their native areas, and many of them died in the process. For a period beginning in the 1980s, the words “Kurd,” “Kurdish” and “Kurdistan” were prohibited, targeted assassinations of Kurdish leaders were undertaken, and private and public use of the Kurdish language — a West Iranian tongue of the Indo-European language family — was altogether prohibited.
In Syria, at various times, the Kurdish language has been banned, the government has outlawed businesses bearing Kurdish titles, Kurdish place names have been suppressed and replaced with new Arabic ones, private Kurdish-language schools and books have been prohibited and children bearing Kurdish names have been refused government documents, thus effectively making them nonpersons and prisoners within Syria’s borders.
Between 1975 and 1978, approximately 200,000 Iraqi Kurds were forced to abandon their homes. Between 1986 and 1989, roughly 185,000 Kurds died as a result of government genocide, including the notorious March 16, 1988, massacre of the village of Halabja in which 5,000 men, women, and children fell victim to mustard gas and nerve agents during a single day’s lethal attack. Following the collapse of a Kurdish uprising in 1991, 1.5 million Kurdish refugees fled for their lives to Turkey and Iran.
Because they both defied the power of the West, the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein liked to compare himself to the great 12th-century Kurdish Sultan Salah al-Din or Saladin, one of the heroes of the Islamic counter-crusades and one of the foremost figures in Islamic history overall.
However, the differences between the two men are enormous: Saladin’s justice and mercy were legendary. Even in the West, he was honoured as a chivalrous, wise, honourable and generous warrior. Dante’s illustrious and fervently Catholic early 14th-century poem “Inferno” ranks Saladin alongside Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, and even Dante’s personal hero, the Roman poet Virgil, as a virtuous “pagan.” No less than King Richard the Lion heart, one of his major opponents, praised him with great respect.
But the most salient fact about Saladin is that he was himself an ethnic Kurd. Thus, Saddam Hussein’s attempt to pose as a latter-day Saladin is bitterly ironic. Had the real Saladin returned to modern Iraq, it’s very possible that the first of the great warrior’s targets would have been none other than Saddam Hussein, the genocidal murderer of Iraqi Kurds.
Recently, the Kurds have been on the front lines in the battle against ISIS, the “Islamic State,” in northern Syria and northern Iraq, fighting fiercely, heroically and effectively. Once again, though, their fate appears to be in the hands of the West, as President Erdogan of Turkey, no friend of the Kurds, begins to invade Syria.
Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on pre-modern history. They speak only for themselves.
Original Headline: The Kurds, caught between four modern countries
Source: The Deserter