Month: August 2016

An imagined nation carving out its niche

Mardin old town

Kurdistan is an imagined nation that exists only in the minds of the its people. But the concept of ‘Kurdishness’ crosses many borders. The Kurds have been called the ‘world’s largest stateless nation’, although some have criticised this designation for its suggestion of homogeneity. In reality there are many differences between various Kurdish groups.

The Kurds number around 30 million people, spread across four neighbouring countries, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Despite having their own distinct languages, culture and history, the Kurds are still struggling to carve out their own space somewhere in the niche where those four ancient lands meet.

A Kurd may hold a Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, or Iraqi passport, but he or she will always identify as a Kurd first and foremost. The sense of national pride for a nation not yet born is nevertheless strong and widespread.

The problem of statelessness is not new for Kurds. Throughout history they have been engaged in an ongoing struggle for recognition and independence. So far their dream of an independent state has not been realised. Iraqi Kurdistan may be the closest the Kurds have come so far to having an independent Kurdish state.

Officially still part of a federal Iraq, this Kurdish region is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), headed by its own president (Maasoud Barzani), and enjoys a certain level of freedom from Baghdad central control. Accordingly, the region has developed into relative prosperity, thanks to its oil wealth, and has become known as the most secure and stable area of a largely war-torn Iraq.

The Kurdish example illustrates our focus on the cross-border mentality in a number of interesting ways. Firstly, the whole idea of ‘Kurdishness’, is a concept that crosses borders, not just the four borders of the mountainous Kurdish homelands, but also internationally. This sense of Kurdish unity was consolidated and brought dramatically to world attention last year, when the plight of Kobane hit the news.

Kobane, a Syrian Kurdish city, came dangerously close to being overrun by Islamic State militants. But the city was saved, partly because Kurds came from all over neighbouring Turkey, and some from even further afield, to support their brothers and sisters across the border in the battle against IS.

It seemed that the sense of Kurdish solidarity had never been stronger than in the battle for Kobane. As a result, the Kurdish reputation garnered increased global support and attention as the media portrayed the Kurds as a brave force protecting the world from the IS onslaught. In this way, Kobane acquired a symbolic significance.

The story of Kobane has given the Kurdish national project a fresh and revitalised narrative. In particular, some experts in Kurdish affairs claim that the events in Kobane have given the Kurds increased international legitimacy.

The 1916 Sykes-Picot treaty carved up the Middle East between the British and the French after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The heavy-handed approach of the treaty showed complete ignorance of the region. It created many new borders that disrupted fragile religious, tribal and ethnic boundaries.

The violent repercussions of Sykes-Picot have been felt ever since. Fortunately, there may be a new approach. Economic cross-border cooperation, while keeping nation-states intact, may help end some of the region’s conflicts. Ironically, it is the Kurds and their long-time foe, the Turkish state, who are leading the way.

Iraqi Kurdistan produces a great deal of oil and gas. Baghdad lays claim to most of the revenue from this, depriving Erbil of what the latter says is its fair share. To out-manoeuvre Baghdad, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan came together to build an oil pipeline from Erbil to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

This cross-border endeavour has allowed Iraqi Kurdistan to access the international markets for its oil and gas, while simultaneously avoiding Baghdad seizing control over the revenues.

Collaboration such as this is still rare in the region. The Ceyhan pipeline is a groundbreaking attempt to transverse borders for mutual economic benefit. Cross-border economic initiatives like this one can potentially pave the way for greater understanding and mutual cooperation between states in the Middle East.

The landscape of bigotry

photo credit: Istanbul via photopin (license)
photo credit: Istanbul via photopin (license)

Earlier this week, some time spent on Twitter helped me to understand the thought processes of those little Englanders and rampant Republicans who we bleeding heart liberals love to criticise.

The conversation happened in the wake of the most recent London stabbing. While knife crime happens regularly in our beloved capital city, this case struck a different chord. It was obvious from the words media used in reporting the incident. “Believed mental illness, but cannot rule out possibility of terrorist links”.

I predicted at this point that the knifeman must be brown and sure enough, he was. The assailant, who killed one and injured five, was soon revealed as a Norwegian of Somali heritage. If the guy had mental health issues and no political motive nor any link to Isis, then why mention terrorism at all?

The formula has become clearly defined:

White = likely mental health issues, brown = likely terrorist.

Certain people will deny the reality of this until they’re blue in the face. But there are too many clear-cut examples for their denial to be credible any longer. Indeed, the media is simply giving its audiences more of what they want. After all, terrorism sells newspapers, glues eyes to screens and garners clicks. That’s a sad feature of the times we live in.

So I found myself in the midst of a Twitter debate against a number of the above, flanked by a couple of supporters who were experts on counter-terrorism. One feature that stood out was the fixation on Islam as an inherently violent ideology. Islam is out to get us, according to these folks.

Islam is at the heart of all terrorist activity and only by destroying it can we retrieve and protect our previously ‘safe’, ‘tolerant’ and ‘free’ Western culture. They refused to listen to any arguments that might have spoiled this worldview, even those based in fact.

Soon they accused me of being religious and supporting Islam. This is far from the truth. Firstly, I’m agnostic, because I believe it makes more sense than atheism. Agnostic implies the ability to remain questioning and curious, while atheism suggests fixed ideas about things we have no way of really knowing. Plus, militant atheists can be just as challenging to deal with as religious fundamentalists.

Secondly, I have no particular sympathy for Islam as a creed. I’m not a great believer in organised religion, and I find the Abrahamic ones to be particularly patriarchal, rigid, exploitative and threatening.

“Follow what I say or burn in hell for all eternity”.
“Have blind faith or forever be an unbeliever”

You get the general gist.

To me that looks too much like an convenient system of social control. What’s more, I take particular issue with the Abrahamic view of women as being primarily baby producers existing to serve men. This view has caused a great deal of social injustice. Examples that spring to mind include the ongoing abortion ban in Ireland, utterly ridiculous in the present day!

Or countries where contraception is expensive or unavailable, forcing women to keep producing offspring irrespective of whether they can afford to take care of them. None of this is unique to Islam or the Qur’an. It exists in the Bible and the Torah, along with various interpretations of both Christianity and Judaism.

Back to the point in hand.

I choose to defend Islam and Muslims not because of religion but because I despair of the world holding misperceptions on such a grand scale. I don’t like demonisation. I’m naturally inclined to support the underdog. And what an underdog Muslims have become.

Perceptions are everything and when false ones are propagated they can have far-ranging damaging effects. They can shape history and drive people to do things they’d never otherwise do. With our intricately connected world this effect is now magnified more than ever before.

News travels faster. Debate happens all the time, much of it between strangers using fake names and hiding behind their screens. People are quick to speak, slower to listen and understand. The outcomes of these debates can form public perceptions of individuals and groups into images that persist for generations.

There’s one final irony that I think bears mention. The particular worldview of “the west against Islam” that these Islamophobes hold so dear, is exactly the same as that espoused by Isis.

By supporting this view, the phobic are acting as terrorist recruiting sergeants of the most effective kind. Who needs radicalisation in mosques when these repugnant views are out there on social media spread widely for all to see?