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On Kurdish identity

Some time ago I shared an article by Christian Caryl for Foreign Policy that had left me with questions and doubts over Kurdish identity and the real chances of implementing statehood.

I was given the possibility to seek some answers.

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Last Tuesday, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, was on official visit in Italy. Barzani met the Pope in Rome, a highly symbolical encounter albeit a private meeting. Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, received the Kurdish guest and, during the joint press conference, announced the opening of a general consulate in Erbil (KRG capital).

On the front line against the Islamic State, the Kurds are endearing themselves to the world and winning approval in many quarters, so much that it is legitimate to foresee the first hints of an independent State almost a hundred years after the Treaty of Sèvres.

However, the Kurds belong to many different communities – different costumes, different languages, different religious beliefs – spread over a wide territory extending mainly on four States: Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. It is legitimate to wonder if there is in fact a shared Kurdish identity and if the Kurds share common views, goals and strategies. In order to answer these question, we talked with Massoud Sharifi-Dryaz, scholar at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (EHESS), Paris.

Sharifi explained that Kurdistan as an identifiable geographical entity has existed for thousands of years, as testified by some administrative denominations. Historically, individuals belonging to Kormanj, Soran, Goran, Hewram or Zaza communities have been generically identified as ‘Kurds’. Cultural, linguistic and religious differences do not match national boundaries established after the Second World War when Nation-States were created – or invented – in the region. In particular, everywhere in Kurdistan there is a remarkable religious heterogeneity. In fact, religion is not a central factor in the definition of Kurdish identity, as it is for example for the Jews. There are Kurdish Jews, Muslims, Yazidis, Christians, Yarsan etc.

As with regards to language, local parlances are mere dialects ascribable to a common family. Most scholars identify four dialects: Kurmanjî, Zazakî, Goranî e Hewramî. The vast majority, about 70 percent of the Kurds, speaks the first variety. Interestingly, Kurdish media use all the dialects in order to allow its consumers to familiarise with every variety and ease reciprocal understanding and communication. Sharifi remarks that, in fact, the dialects are close enough to each other that they are easy to understand and assimilate.

According to Sharifi, the sense of belonging to the Kurdish people was invented or reinvented by the Kurdish movement. He says: “During the twentieth century, dozens of movements emerged. The number of Kurds who lost their lives in conflicts against the hosting States is about 500,000″. The struggle for recognition within those States contributed to generating and spreading a shared sense of Kurdish identity to which movements, intellectual elites and diaspora are an important part.

Last January 21, Christian Caryl wrote an article for Foreign Policy, ‘The World’s next country‘, dealing with the prospects of an independent Kurdish State. He states that the fight against the Islamic State and the (partial) disintegration of Iraq and Syria have opened some room for manoeuvre or at least changed the attitude of some local agents with regards to the Kurdish question: while Iraqi Kurdish autonomously administer a clearly defined region and in north-eastern Syria Kurds established some forms of autonomy (incidentally, we should remind that about 300,000 Syrian Kurds were long denied citizenship), in Iran the government is strengthening its ties with the KRG on anti-IS basis.Noteworthy the softened Turkish attitude towards an important minority long confronted with rather violently. Indeed, PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan – long in prison – has called for his fellow members to abandon the armed fight and negotiate with Ankara.

Caryl’s opinion is that the almost 30 million Kurds in the region are on the verge of creating their own homeland. We asked Sharifi what’s his stance on this: “We can surely qualify KRG as a quasi-State rather than an autonomous region. However, the regional and international contest is not ready to accept the creation of a Kurdish State in the area. Furthermore, a Kurdish State limited to Iraqi Kurdistan would be unlikely to survive unless it is ready to reassure its neighbours – Turkey and Iran, in particular – that it won’t in any way represent a menace for their national integrity. Hence and for the time being, we can only imagine a Kurdish State limited to the Iraqi Kurdistan and highly dependent on the neighbouring countries. If such a State will eventually arise, it’d fall short of the imagined Great Kurdistan. This, in turn, won’t hinder independence aspirations elsewhere in Kurdistan.”

The dream of a Kurdish Nation appears today less utopian than the violence of the conflict between PKK and Turkey, the endless discrimination towards the Kurds in Assad’s Syria and the genocide of Iraqi Kurds during the 1980s under the regime of Saddam Hussein would have foretold. However, carving a new State out of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran is at best dubious. It’s obviously unlikely that Turkey and Iran would accept territorial mutilations, while in Syria the situation is so uncertain that any prediction is highly speculative. In Iraq as well the situation is far from settled. The splitting up of the country in sectarian statelets would add to the instability of the region. Caryl himself remarks how the Iraqi Kurdish government is not willing to talk about a timetable for independence, somewhat downsizing his previous forecast. Add to this the unpredictability of the Islamic State. Nevertheless, Kurdish dream is and will always be to accomplish statehood and seat among the other Nations.

The original version of this article was published in Italian on L’Indro 12/03/2015 

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