1990s >> 1997 >> no-1109-january-1997

The Kurdish Question

There is always a load of myth and romanticism surrounding so-called nationalist struggles and one of the most tortured and least understood is the case of the Kurdish people scattered amongst various states. The popular ‘solution’ is for the Kurds to have their own state, but, in time-honoured fashion, the Kurdish working class would soon find out that this was no solution at all.

The breakdown and imperialist carve-up of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s left Britain and France with a series of subordinate Arab kingdoms, several of which were enormously rich in potential oil resources. But the carving-up process was somewhat disrupted when a senior officer of the defeated Ottoman army refused to abide by the Sultan’s surrender to the victorious Allies, Mustafa Kemal (renamed Ataturk), regrouped like-minded officers and organised a popular resistance movement. This turn of events drew upon strong pressures for reform and modernisation that were already manifest in Turkey before the outbreak of the First World War and it skilfully harnessed the Turkish nationalism which the former theocratic state suppressed almost as ruthlessly as the many other nationalisms festering within the regime known as the “sick man of Europe”.

During the Great War Turkey was an ally of Germany. Berlin found the Pan-Turanian ideas of Enver Pasha fitted in well with their war objectives and gave positive encouragement to his dream of bringing the vast area of Russian Turkestan into the unified control of a new Turkish entity in close association with the Kaiser’s Empire. In marked contrast the rebel officer, Mustafa Kemal, took a less visionary and far more realistic stance. He opted for a Republic confined to the heart of the old Ottoman Empire consisting essentially of Anatolia (Asia Minor), the majority of whose inhabitants were Turkish-speaking Muslims. There were important exceptions nevertheless. Port communities all round the coast but especially on the Aegean had been largely populated by Greeks from classical times onwards. In central Anatolia there were considerable numbers of people who were Greek Orthodox by religion but Turkish-speaking. And there were, of course, the survivors of the Empire’s Armenian population which either had identified with “Holy Russia” during the war or was perceived to have done so. They were targeted as a scapegoat for popular wartime discontent and were subjected to a scale of massacre only surpassed by Hitler’s genocidal elimination of the Jews and Stalin’s mass liquidation of political opponents and recalcitrant ethnic populations.

Imperialist carve-up

The victorious Allies had decided to reward Italy and Greece with Ottoman territory. Italy was awarded the Dodecanese Islands (Rhodes) with their mixed Greek and Turkish population and the Aegean coast and Constantinople (Istanbul) which was the historic seat of the Orthodox Church, to Greece. Athens soon landed troops to enforce the new arrangement but they were rapidly repulsed by Ataturk’s forces. The outcome was a level of “ethnic cleansing” fully up to mid- and late-twentieth century standards. In the process most of Anatolia’s Greeks were expelled and re-settled in Greece. These League of Nations supervised population transfers included the transfer of Greek-speaking Muslims from Crete.

But of all the exceptions to the general truth of there being a Turkish majority in the area Ataturk designated as the territory of Turkey, the most important by far was the Kurdish in eastern Anatolia and Mesopotamia. Even in the twilight years of the Ottoman Empire there had been moves reflecting Kurdish aspirations towards autonomy and when the Kemalist struggle was still not assured of victory, noises were made in the direction of the Kurds suggesting that their assistance in consolidating the new republic would be rewarded with a degree of recognition of their cultural and democratic concerns.

Once the new Turkish state was firmly established any “understandings” arrived at with the Kurds rapidly evaporated and the new Turkish nationalism, confined to Asia Minor only, paradoxically meant that not only was Ataturk’s right-hand man, Ismet Inonu, a Kurd, so too was the ideologist of modern Turkish nationalism, Ziya Gokalp. This hocus-pocus of a theory classified the Kurds as a sort of “lost tribe” of Turks who had forgotten their mother tongue at some point (the Kurdish language is related to Persian and belongs to a quite different language group from Turkish) and who were to be described as “Mountain Turks”. The utterance of their language in public was made illegal.

Meanwhile, Kurds further down the Mesopotamian river basin of the Tigris and Euphrates had the good fortune (bad luck?) to be where the oil was (the Arab-speakers being where the dates were) Britain’s imperial scheme was to incorporate the Kurds into the Iraqi state they were creating. This served the dual purpose of including the oil-field and providing a mixed Arab/Kurdish population where the old divide-and-rule formula could be of imperial service. In the division of Arab-populated territory France got the Lebanon and Syria, the north-east of which included districts mainly inhabited by Kurds. Persia’s western border areas are also populated by several million Kurds and, a small but significant number of Kurdish speakers is to be found in what in the early days of the Soviet Empire was called Trans-Caucasia.

Turkish nationalism

Quantifying the Kurds in any of their home areas has been vitiated by their well-founded fears when it comes to identifying themselves as such to the census enumerators. It is also true that the great growth in Middle Eastern population generally means that the official numbers of Kurds tend to be both out-of-date and massaged by each regime. The usual pattern of migration from rural to urban areas has occurred to a large extent over the last fifty Ankara’s fourteen-year war to subdue the east. Here Turkey’s NATO weaponry and western-funded, modernised road network has been deployed against the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party) guerrillas led by Abdulla Ocalan. Roughly speaking there are at least 15 million Kurds in Turkey, 6 million in Iran, 4 million in Iraq and perhaps 2 million in Syria. Germany’s “guest-workers” include something like a million Turkish Kurds and there are significant numbers of both economic migrants and formal refugees in all the Common Market countries.

During the twenties and thirties, Ataturk’s Republican Party was looked upon very favourably not only by colonial “liberation” movements within the European empires for their successful example of resisting imperialist designs but also by western feminist and reform groups for Turkey’s secularisation of the state, abolition of the caliphate, purdah and religious forms of dress and the establishment of a westernised educational and legal system, equal in its treatment of men and women.

Ataturk’s dictatorship claimed, like so many others, that it was paving the way for parliamentary democracy. Rather less usual was that less than ten years after his death from cirrhosis of the liver (a non-Islamic disorder) a significant level of electoral pluralism was introduced. No sooner was this in effect than the electorate plumped, to the extent that such an option was provided, for the rejection of a substantially state-capitalist economy and an essentially secular social system. This being the trend it was not long before the army which saw itself as the guardian of Kemalist reforms, stepped in to restore the unquestionable, statist, secularist and nationalist set-up whether the electorate wanted it or not.

Just as Lenin’s dictatorship radically altered many aspects of Tsarist Russian society but quickly re-established Moscow’s rule over most of the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire so the Turkish Republic, whilst unable or unwilling to restore any of the former empire, was soon to subject its Kurdish “citizens” to an intense programme of assimilation. This could well have been much more effective were it not that eastern Turkey where they mostly lived, like Italy’s South is the poorest and least economically developed part of the country .So whilst there is no chance of the kids there being made literate in their mother-tongue, a very large proportion are provided with nil or solely primary tuition in the state language. It is often the case that eighteen-year-old army conscripts are screamed at by sergeant-majors in what is effectively a foreign language which they have to learn PDQ.

Language Rights

When I first encountered Kurds in London in the sixties they were mostly here on Iraqi government scholarships to acquire British professional qualifications but in those days the idea of a fully independent pan-Kurdish state was considered a wholly unrealistic objective. This view was normal in Turkey where the prevailing aspiration was the achievement of language rights within a democratised federal version of existing states which retained their existing external borders.

Subsequent events in Iraq were to result in a chronically authoritarian system conceding its Kurdish region in the north of the country a considerable degree of autonomy. This was wrested from Baghdad at the cost of a protracted civil war. The war leader, Mustafa Barzani, father of the present head of the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party), owed his defeat largely to the weight of Russian-supplied arms. And the conduit within the Baghdad government through whom these munitions were routed was the long-standing Kurdish Moscow-liner, Jalal Talabani of the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), now in receipt of Teheran’s help in his current rivalry with Massoud Barzani over control of the northern Iraq “safe haven”.

As stated, Persia too has a Kurdish population, of some 6 million. However, unlike the case of Turkey and Iraq there have not been large outward movements of Kurds from either pre- or post-Khomeini Iran. As a consequence there is less contact or interaction with them than with any of the other locations. Nevertheless it was a Persian Kurd who, although his Marxism was reflected through a Leninist distorting mirror has provided us with the most penetrating historical analysis of Kurdish society. Kurdistan and the Kurds by Abdul Rahman Ghassemlou was published in London in English in 1989 (by Collets). The author was assassinated by the Iranian secret police, in Vienna in 1989.

In recent months the war in eastern Turkey has proved so destructive that the demand for federal status within the Turkish republic has been revived in Kurdish circles. For a socialist who has no desire for yet more flags and frontiers and who anticipates that the setting-up of a Kurdish state will no more solve the problems of members of the Kurdish working class than has been the case with scores of other “successful” national struggles, the most promising line of action would seem to be for Kurds in each Middle-Eastern republic to join with other workers to maximise their trade-union and democratic rights so that these can be used as a spring-board for the early attainment of a classless and borderless society. Such a socialist or communist society (they mean the same) will not only enable us to have free access to our material requirements but we shall democratically control the pace and nature of work that we freely choose to undertake. It would also be a way of life in which the language in which we express ourselves and the clothes we wear will be freely determined by each one of us.

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