Yes to Kurdistan, but not at any price


The independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan is being held this Monday. A sign of the tensions raised by this ballot, which is expected to lead to a majority vote in favour of the region becoming independent from Iraq, was a chilling confrontation I witnessed firsthand.

From the window of a tram in Brussels, I saw a young man in his twenties snatching a Kurdistan flag flying at the back of a car. The young nationalist, making the hand sign of the Grey Wolves (Turkish ultra-nationalist movement), made the driver of the vehicle understand, in menacing tones, that the flag had no place in his neighbourhood. Within seconds, fists began flying on both sides.

This episode of violence took place in a neighbourhood in the municipality of Schaerbeek, in Brussels, home to a large Turkish community, in which many fervently support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but also Turkey’s far right Nationalist Movement Party, the MHP.

After witnessing this sorry scene, I asked myself, what level of violence can we expect to see in the Middle East if Iraqi Kurds declare their independence following the referendum?

The Kurds are one of the world’s largest ethnic groups without a state. Victims of the strategising of the big imperialist powers in the Treaty of Sevres and Lausanne, the Kurds were divided, turned into a minority and condemned to live in four different states (Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey).

Their most fundamental rights have been violated by Turkish and Arab nationalism. Since the creation of its Republic, Turkey has been trying to assimilate them, under the motto “One people, one language, one flag”.

The plight of the Kurds in Iraq has been no better. The Hashemite monarchy, installed by Britain to rule Iraq, put down countless Kurdish rebellions, at the same time as trying to assimilate them within Arab culture. For over a century, successive Kurdish uprisings have not only failed to secure independence but even respect for their fundamental rights.

In addition, the ideological differences between the various Kurdish leaders and political parties have led the Kurds towards an impasse, and the repercussions are still being felt today.

Meanwhile, a genuine social revolution is underway in Syria. At the same time as battling against the various jihadist groups, the Kurds are working to establish a system of democratic confederalism, as an alternative to capitalism and the nation state. Since 2012, three cantons have been created in Kobani, Jazire and Afrin. These are the first steps towards a fragile autonomy but one where all peoples are represented (Kurdish, Arab, Assyrian, Christian, Chaldean, Alawite), and with a decision-making system committed to gender parity.

The Kurds in Turkey tried to follow their example, but their endeavours led to the arrest and imprisonment of many Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) leaders and deputies, democratically elected in Kurdish towns and cities.

Unfortunately, in Iraqi Kurdistan, the independence referendum, although legitimate, does not propose the Kurdish people of Iraq an alternative that looks beyond the nation state.

And yet the evidence is clear, all around the globe: capitalism, the nation state and industrialism are not viable alternatives for the peoples of the world. They are leading humanity to disaster, economic, social and environmental. This is why this model should not be the answer to the distress and the oppression of the Kurdish people. The Kurds of Iraq should not play the nationalist card at the risk of setting the region ablaze, turning it, in all likelihood, into the theatre of violent confrontations between the various religious and ethnic groups.

Moreover, history has repeatedly shown the Kurds that they cannot trust their allies. Were they to withdraw their support, the Kurds would find themselves alone in front of their Turkish, Arab and Iranian neighbours, who have no desire to see them become independent.

In order to avoid catastrophic scenarios of civil war, the Kurds of the region should, first of all, come to an agreement on national unity, enabling them to join forces and form a united front against Turkish and Arab nationalism. They should also come together and reflect on the best solutions not only for the Kurds but for all the oppressed people of the region.

This story has been translated from French.