THE KURDISH PUZZLE BETWEEN NATIONALISM AND ISLAMISM

Ethnic identity versus religious identity, following the end of Marxist influence on the irredentist movements

by Glauco D’Agostino

The settlement areas of the Kurdish people across territories of four countries

Last November 12th, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a leading Kurdish party in Syria, has announced plans to create a transitional government in the north-eastern Kurds-dominated areas, followed by an endorsement of the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan regional government.

On October 30th, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the largest political parties in the Iraqi Kurdistan, has overtly called for an Iranian involvement in the Iraqi domestic affairs. The statement is particularly significant, because since 2010 PUK is holding the Presidency of Iraq as a whole, by its leader Jalāl Ṭālabānī.

In March this year, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a left-wing Turkish movement, after a long-time conflict with the government, has signed a cease-fire with Turkey, by starting peace negotiations.

What’s happening in this crucial Middle Eastern area, with scraps of an ethnic component allocated among four countries trying to assume a matching political role, possibly by searching the coveted unity denied by the resulting WWI winners, following the Ottoman Sultanate fall? And which roles are playing the religious components and Islamist movements?

The history of this area shows the complexity of political and religious dealings occurred in its social fabric and in its relationships with the neighboring peoples; and yet, this complexity is pouring into current affairs and suggests to investigate as needed for understanding events in progress.

Meanwhile, among the four countries housing Kurdish populations (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran), two of them are considerable regional powers, competing for a political and economic hegemony over wide areas of common interest; and the two others are struggling to assert itself even as a State actors for the country control:

  • Turkey, heir to the Caliphate political power and nowadays NATO extreme eastern offshoot, also conveys a discreet cultural influence to many important regions, ranging from the Balkans, to the Caucasus, to Central Asia;
  • Iran, the largest attractor for the Shiite world, has a strong appeal on the people professing this religious belief, from the Syrian-Lebanon area, to the Gulf, Azebajdzhan and South-Central Asia;
  • Iraq, following the upheavals resulting from the U.S. intervention, is looking for a political stabilization, even enabling to capitalize the available huge energy resources and harmonize ethno-religious centrifugal trends, exploded after the conflict and the foreign occupation;
  • Syria, ruled by the Shiite Alawite minority, but extremely fragmented in its ethno-religious composition, lives the drama of a devastating civil war, which has laid bare, here too, the serious faults of a greedy crypto-colonial occupation policy by the winners of two World Wars, unable to give a credible, legitimate and permanent framework to the Middle-Eastern populations (see also the Palestinian case).

From the political standpoint, Kurds, with a demographic weight of around 25 million in the area (i.e., excluding Diaspora), are now mostly clustered around a few basically secular movements, acting within the individual countries they belong:

  • Iraq:

–          the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), a conservative party founded after the WWII and led by Mesûd Barzanî, the current President of the Iraqi Kurdistan;

–          the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalāl Ṭālabānī, a left-wing party established in 1975, after the failure of the Kurdish rebellion in Iraq the year before;

  • Turkey:

–          the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a movement acting in Iraq as well, led by Abdullah Öcalan and previously not only clearly anti-religious, but even held liable for terrorist attacks in Turkey and Europe;

  • Syria:

–          the Democratic Union Party (PYD), PKK-affiliated, which has publicly given support for the revolution against Baššar al-Asad;

  • Iran:

–          the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (PDKI), social democrat-oriented, founded in 1945;

–          the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan  (PJAK), a political movement engaged in a long-term armed struggle against the Iranian authorities;

–          the Revolutionary Organization of the Toilers of Kurdistan (Komaleh), a guerrilla-style group founded in 1969 as a Kurdish branch of the Communist Party of Iran and led by Abdullah Mohtadi and Ebrahim Alizadeh.

To date, just Iraqi Kurds achieved concrete results, firstly by the Kurdistan autonomy enacted in 1975, and later by the recognition as an autonomous region within the framework of a federal State, obtained in 2005, following the 2003 war events. As a result of the support provided to the U.S. during the two Gulf Wars and the subtraction of the Baġdād military control over Kurdistan, KDP and PUK formed a coalition government in the Iraqi Kurdistan, after having faced a bitter civil war in the 90’s and signed a peace treaty in 1998.

In Turkey, PKK has committed to withdraw its 2,500 fighters in return for a promise from the government to enact legislation recognizing Kurdish language in education and a degree of autonomy. In a first phase, withdrawal should be to Iraq, but a part of the Peshmerga (Kurdish guerrillas) is believed to join PYD, the PKK Syrian branch. In this case, whether PYD were to prevail in the Syrian Kurdish areas, Turkey would face two Kurdish-ruled autonomous areas to its borders, the Iraqi and the Syrian ones: hence, the Turkish cautiousness in dealing with the Kurdish agenda, being balanced between a steadfastness attitude and an opening approach to the autonomy demands.

In Syria, the Kurdish movements, while showing a cosmetic unity inside the Kurdish Supreme Committee (KSC), have been actually split since the beginning of the civil war, although all of them aspiring to autonomy. PYD sways between a position of indifference or non-hostility towards the regime to a heralded support for the rebels, a tribute to the foreign policy of the cumbersome Turkish neighbor; the Kurdish National Council of Syria, however, looks at the Iraqi Kurdistan as a political and institutional model, also because Syrian Kurds would be preparing to control more than half of domestic oil resources, just as the autonomous Kurdistan in Iraq already does in respect of the federal State: therefore, it calls for the Syrian state collapse, which would favor a political recast on ethnic and cultural criteria.

In Iran, Kurds are in sharp opposition to the Ayatollahs’ regime, contrast putting them out of any political proactive role: moreover, Tehrān diplomatic activism toward the Iraqi Kurdistan, its good relations with both KDP and PUK and the favor granted to the Nūrī al-Mālikī’s federal government make unlikely any Iranian or Iraqi appeasement toward drifts of political violence the hard-line Kurdish movements show at the turn of border regions.

As seen, all the movements and political parties have emerged are secular-oriented, even though nationalist sentiment involved and involves Sunni Kurds (who, unlike neighboring Arab and Turkish peoples, mainly adhere at the Shafi’i madhhab) to a greater extent, compared to the members of other more or less orthodox Islamic worships, traditionally settled on the territory, such as:

  • the Shiites, mainly represented by the Twelvers and the Alawites, the latter born in the first half of the X century in Baġdād and now firmly in power in Damascus (as a result of the Asad family’s action), as well as widespread in southern Turkey;
  • the Alevis, syncretistic worshipers of ‘Alī ibn Abū Ṭālib, been born in Persia in the X century and now living in eastern Turkey;
  • the Ahl-e Haqq (People of Truth), worshiping ‘Alī as well as the Angels and settled since early XVI century in Southern Kurdistan (western Persia and Kirkuk, Iraq);
  • the Yazidis, also syncretistic Angels’ worshipers originated by Zoroastrianism, who were born in central Kurdistan, following the Islamic conquest, and now mainly located in Mosul, Iraq.

Now, after the 1919, 1921-24 and 1930-31 southern Kurdistan riots by Maḥmud Barzanji, a Hanafi Shaykh of the Qādiri Sufi Order, the one fostered in 1925 in south-eastern Anatolia by Said Piran, a Shaykh of the Naqshbandi Order, and the one promoted in 1937-38 in the Turkish Dersim by the ethnic Zaza group of Alevi faith, due to the strong Marxist influence acquired by the Kurdish nationalist movement since the 50’s, those Kurds loyal to their respective religious beliefs overshadow their ethnic identity and were often in conflict with the prevailing irredentism. Just after the defeat of communist ideology, the Islamist movements returned dealing with the Kurdish question, reciprocated by the interest from the nationalist cause towards them. The following major Islamist movements act in Kurdistan:

  • the Islamic Party of Kurdistan (Partîya İslamiya Kurdistân), a Sunni anti-Turkish organization founded in 1979 in Iraq, aimed at establishing an Islamic government in south-eastern Turkey, and today led by Muḥammad Salih Muṣṭafā;
  • the Kurdistan Islamic Union (Yekgirtûy İslâmî Kurdistân, in short Yekgirtû), the Iraqi party established in 1994 in Erbil, represented by 9% of the seats in the Parliament of Kurdistan, and headed by Moḥammed Faraj. It has ties with the Muslim Brotherhood;
  • the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (Bizûtnewey İslâmî Kurdistân), the Iraqi group based in Halabja (very close to the Iranian border) and founded in 1979 by Shaykh ‘Uthmān bin ‘Abdul-Aziz, the current leader with past experiences in the Muslim Brotherhood. Being emerged in 1987 and significant in the early 90’s, the movement has balanced the Iranian and Saudi influence exerted on Kurdistan. It’s represented in the autonomous Kurdish Parliament;
  • the Kurdish Ḥizballāh (Hizbullahî Kurdî), a Sunni anti-communist organization, operating in Turkey since 1983 against the secular nationalism, in particular by contrasting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK);
  • the Kurdish Revolutionary Ḥizballāh (Hizbullahî Kurdî Shorishger), a splinter group from Kurds Ḥizballāh and the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, were born in 1988 in Southern Kurdistan under the auspices of Iran and under the leadership of Adham Barzanî, a cousin of Mesûd Barzanî;
  • the Nurcu Movement, the most important Kurdish religious movement in Turkey, whose mainstream (associated with the newspaper Yeni Asya, New Asia), having always cherished the idea that Islam must overcome ethnic and national divisions, downplayed the emphasis on Kurdish ethnicity put by the movement founder, the Shafi’i Sunni theologian Bediüzzaman Said Nursî;
  • the pacifist Sufi Movement of the Hanafi Turkish philosopher Fethullah Gülen (associated with the newspaper Zaman, Time), part of the Nurcu movement, which has sought a compromise with the Turkish military and bureaucratic secular élite, by adopting a clear Turkish nationalist position;
  • the Med-Zehra group, a Kurdish nationalist Nurcu-affiliated organization, which is named after Medresetü’z-Zehra University that Said Nursî would have liked to settle in Kurdistan and which recalls the name of the Medes, the alleged Kurds ancestors. Born in contrast to the previous Sufi movement to emphasize the not clearly grasped Kurdish identity of Said Nursî, historically refers also to the Naqshbandi Shaykh Said Piran and, on a political level, to the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan.

Ultimately, in the last 30 years the Kurdish society and politics have taken a more careful attitude towards Islam: the Islamist movements have grown up and the secular ones had to take note of the strong religious sentiment prevailing at the grassroots level (see the PKK waiver to its atheist and anti-religious orientation). In return, the political Islam has embraced the Kurdish nationalism with more force it had done in the previous 30 years. On the other hand, Kurdish language was formed in the Koranic schools as a prime foundational element of the autonomous Kurdish identity; and the popular solidarity that has successfully overcome tribal and regional divisions is owed to the Sufi Orders work: it’s not by chance the first Kurdish uprisings with a nationalist feature have been always headed by Sufi leaders, particularly Qādiri and Naqshbandi Shuyūkh.

Certainly, we are now far away from the integration policy the Caliphate had always provided to its ethnic and religious components, and neither the European occupants nor the nationalist zeal of the Middle Eastern rampant secularists would never again have practiced. Bears precisely witness the rising Kurdish question that, nearly a century after its blast, grows faint unresolved and even today causes tension in the States housing people belonging to this ethnic group.

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