Inside Story

The world’s largest stateless nation?

Books | Matthew Gray reviews an illuminating account of a diverse nationality in search of self-determination

Matthew Gray 5 February 2015 2050 words

Kurdish children in Yüksekova, in southeastern Turkey. Evgeni Zotov/Flickr

The Kurds of Iraq: Nationalism and Identity in Iraqi Kurdistan
By Mahir A. Aziz | I.B. Tauris | $39.95

Question: Which is the world’s largest national grouping without a state or a sovereign homeland? (Hint: it probably has more than thirty million members, mainly spread across four countries, where it holds the key to future stability. But it also has a wider, scattered diaspora.)

Up until the late 1940s, of course, the Jewish people made up the largest stateless nation. Despite the horrific slaughter by the Nazis, they numbered perhaps twelve million worldwide at the end of the second world war. The creation of Israel in May 1948 delivered them a homeland, even if Israel still remains to be recognised by some states and is yet to negotiate all of its final borders.

The creation of Israel highlighted the statelessness of the Palestinians, and to this day the Palestinians attract perhaps the greatest attention among stateless national groups around the world. Yet for all this attention and the tragedy of their modern history, there are barely eleven million Palestinians in the Middle East, whether in the West Bank, Gaza or Israel itself, or living in the states surrounding the Holy Land.

Other groups beyond the Middle East occasionally make the headlines, but in the case of the Uyghurs in China the numbers are perhaps eleven million, and the Tibetan population is in the low millions. Among the other groups that occasionally make it into our nightly news bulletins – Spain’s Catalans, the Canadian Québécois, the Kashmiris in South Asia, the Roma in Europe – numbers are nowhere near thirty million. The few “stateless” ethnic groups that exceed that figure – African Americans in the United States, for example, or the Tamils in India – make no widespread demands for independence.

So what is the answer? By most calculations, it is the Kurds.

The Kurds dominate the mountainous regions around the borders where Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey meet one or more of each other. Accurate demographic figures for the region are scarce, or at least rarely published, but very roughly, there are perhaps twelve to thirteen million Kurds in Turkey (which would make them around 15 per cent of Turkey’s population); seven million or more in Iran (about 10 per cent of the population); at least six million, and probably considerably more, in Iraq, mostly in the north (accounting for over 20 per cent of the national population); two and a half million or even three million in northeastern Syria (around 10 per cent); about a quarter of a million in the Caucasus, and perhaps another one and a half million scattered through Europe and further afield.

After the better-known Arabs, Persians and Turks, the Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East. While they broadly share a sense of national identity and ethnicity, they are also quite diverse: in fact, many Kurds question the “world’s largest stateless nation” tag because they believe it brushes over the cultural, linguistic and other diversity. Kurdish dialects, for example, have separated almost into distinct languages. They may have the same origins, and sit next to each other in lists of Indo-Iranian and, within that, Persian language groups, but the two main Kurdish tongues, Kurmanji and Sorani, use different scripts and have patent grammatical differences, including such fundamental features as whether nouns have genders and use case endings. (Kurmanji has both, Sorani neither.)

The Kurds also have a variety of cultural traits, not only because they are spread across multiple countries but also because the mountainous regions in which they most commonly live are often a barrier to national cohesion and communication. Thus the strength of tribal affiliations, the stories they tell about culture, and even elements of their foods and handicrafts often vary, even if the basics of their culture derive from the same starting point and are still, for the most part, shared among the various Kurdish groups.

Thanks to geography, the Kurds have been unable to secure a state of their own. Any national homeland would need the blessing of several Middle East states – which have often opposed Kurdish independence or any moves, such as local autonomy, towards it – and would be a mountainous, landlocked territory. But it would also occupy a strategically important position, containing either oil fields or the pipelines that send oil off to the Mediterranean. It would also probably have enough water to support its population and a strong, viable agricultural industry, which is a rarity in the region.

The Kurds of northern Iraq showed both their strategic importance and their military capabilities in June last year, when the forces of the Islamic State, or IS, were seizing Mosul and other key areas of northern Iraq. As the Iraqi army fled in the face of the IS surge, the Kurdish peshmerga (their militia, meaning “those who confront death”) stood their ground. The IS fighters dared not challenge them directly or on any scale. To be blunt: the size of IS’s “caliphate” would be much larger than it is, and life would be more miserable for many more people than at present, if it were not for the reputation and capability of the peshmerga.

At the same time, the rise of IS gave the Kurds the chance to seize the contested and oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which lies on the line between the Arab-dominated centre of Iraq and the Kurdish-dominated north. This has boosted their economic power and their financial autonomy from Baghdad, and emboldened some to start talking more openly about an independent Kurdish state in what is currently northern Iraq.

The rise of IS and the conflict in Syria – where Kurdish groups have fought to protect their areas from Sunni extremists while also trying to push out the Assad regime – are only two very recent reminders of how central the Kurds often are to the dynamics of the Middle East. Yet they receive too little attention when the region is discussed in the media or, for that matter, among scholars. Among the academic specialists, the work of the University of Exeter’s Gareth Stansfield is one notable exception, as is that of Denise Natali at the Institute for National Strategic Studies and Michael Gunter at Tennessee Technological University.

Kurdish Iraq–based Mahir Aziz is rapidly establishing a reputation in the field as well. His latest publication, The Kurds of Iraq: Nationalism and Identity in Iraqi Kurdistan, is a revised version of a book that first appeared, with a different subtitle, in 2011. His focus is on Iraq’s Kurdish population, who are governed by the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, based in the northern city of Erbil. The KRG covers the three Kurdish-dominated northern provinces of Erbil, Sulaymaniya and Dohuk, and unofficially spreads into parts of other neighbouring provinces – including, famously, the contested city of Kirkuk and its surrounds.

Aziz goes back to the early 1920s – when the British had just taken control of the area from the defeated and disintegrating Ottoman empire – to develop his core arguments. The British encouraged the Kurds, and others, to think in nationalist terms but certainly not to seek independence. Although they were promised their own national state by the US president, Woodrow Wilson, as early as 1918, and also in the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, the Kurds were unable to translate their growing sense of identity into an independent nation-state. Indeed, the role of external powers in denying independence to most of the Middle East at that time still infuriates many in the Middle East, and the Kurds are certainly not the only minority group that feels aggrieved by the British and the French, or by the local nationalist leaders who followed.

Aziz’s focus is on the Kurdish manifestations of what scholars call “ethnonationalism,” by which he means, in essence, the convergence and overlap between ethnicity and nationalism, and more broadly between ethnic community and national identity, among a self-consciously national group. This approach has considerable merit, given the sense of overall “Kurdish-ness” shared by so many people of Kurdish ethnic background in the region. Kurdish ethnonationalism is also shaped – and limited – by political and geographical divisions, including the experiences of the Kurds under different governments that have shown varying degrees of tolerance for sub-national Kurdish identities or historical narratives.

The political maturity and strategic shrewdness of the Kurds emerged, he argues, after the 1990–91 Gulf war and the creation of a Kurdish safe haven in northern Iraq following the failed uprisings against Saddam Hussein in early 1991. This autonomy allowed for a strengthening and consolidation of Kurdish nationalism which, over previous decades, had been smothered by the Kurdish elites’ preference for making friends in powerful regional and global capitals.

Aziz makes the convincing point that independence is not a prerequisite for a political tradition. The Kurds, he says, may never have enjoyed the former, but on any of a broad range of measures have created the latter. There is a Kurdistani loyalty and pride, he shows, and there is a sense among most Kurds of a link to particular “Kurdish” locations and areas where they are clustered. And there are exclusive Kurdish social and cultural markers, including particular Kurdish attachments to family, tribe and other primordial political units, as well as a unique language, or languages.

What should please – and benefit – non-specialist readers above all is that, despite its ethnonationalism approach, Aziz’s book is not predominantly a piece of academic loquaciousness, nor is it overly focused on theoretical intricacies. Aziz talks a lot about the complexities of identity and nationalism in order to make his approach work, but he also spends considerable time explaining and profiling the Kurds in a more general fashion. The Kurds of Iraq contains a useful background chapter on the Kurds’ history, their language and the types of communities they have formed. This leads into two chapters looking at the period 1921–2008, which provide a solid and very engaging modern history of the Kurds’ politics and social dynamics. Aziz’s final two main chapters bring this material together by looking at university students as an in-depth case study on Kurdish identity and nationalist sentiment, and making some wider observations about the characteristics and permutations of various features of Kurdish nationalism and Kurdish identity. It is only in a couple of early chapters, and again in Chapter 8, that there is a strong dose of academic theory to the book.

Aziz ends with a set of clear and convincing ideas. He shows that territory, and common or shared territory in particular, is central to “Kurdish-ness.” Yet he also acknowledges that there is only a very limited tradition of empowered civil society among the Kurds of Iraq. This means that they lack “a solid base upon which to build or develop a sense of responsible citizenship and the democratic mindset that would enable it [a Kurdistani state in northern Iraq] to stand on its own.” Loyalties are local and patriarchal, most strongly focused on the family and tribe, and Aziz argues that this fosters an inward-looking and miniature sense of group and of society. To formalise, institutionalise and democratise such societies is no mean feat, he writes, and it explains why Kurdistaniyeti (roughly, the promotion of Kurdistani identity, ethnicity and culture) is a complex process that could only begin with the quasi-independence that came after 1991.

Yet the KRG remains geared to governing, at best, a de facto state, not a fully recognised, self-sufficient, sovereign one, Aziz argues. The Iraqi–Kurdistani political elite has held elections, and representatives have come and gone on the basis of the popular vote, but “there is no broad-based democratic culture or fully developed civil society.” Aziz immediately adds that there is, therefore, a great deal of uncertainty about “the prospects for the emergence of a de jure Kurdish political state in the future.” With a growing likelihood that the KRG will take the political leap of seeking recognition as a full, sovereign state, Aziz’s assessment of its political readiness should also act as a warning about the risks of acting too prematurely or extemporaneously. •