The Kurds in Northern Iraq are holding a referendum on independence on September 25. This could be a momentous event, and not just for Iraq. For the Kurds in Iraq, as their Senior Adviser Hoshyar Zebari has said, “there is no going back.” After all, they can rightly claim that they are the largest ethnicity in the world — some 40 million of them — without a state. And they suffered terribly under Arab rule, and especially during the regime of Saddam Hussein, whose Arab soldiers killed 182,000 Kurds in Operation Anfal. The Kurds have taken note that neither during this murderous campaign, nor after, did a single Arab ruler, diplomat, or intellectual, ever denounce the killing of the Kurds, with the sole exception of the Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya. Nor did any Arabs, inside or outside Iraq, object to Saddam’s moving tens of thousands of Arabs into the Kurdish areas, in order to “arabize” them. The Arabs in Baghdad, Shi’a and Sunni, disagree on most things, but not on their shared opposition to the independence of Kurdistan. They think of Iraq as an Arab state, with the Kurds — who of course were living in Kurdistan long before the Arabs arrived, bearing Islam, some 1400 years ago — there not as of right but on Arab sufferance.
And now the news comes that Syria, whose government disagrees with that in Baghdad in almost everything, does however shares its opposition to the referendum on Kurdish independence. For the Arabs, in Syria as in Iraq, think of Iraq (as they also think of Syria), as belonging only to them, the Arabs, who brought the great gift of Islam, with the Qur’an written in the Arabic language, and with the Seal of the Prophets, Muhammad, himself a seventh-century Arab. The Kurds have long realized that for the Arabs, Arab Muslims are superior to all the others. It was the acute scholar Anwar Shaikh who claimed that although Islam offers itself as a universal religion, it privileges the Arabs for whom, as he put it, Islam is the “Arab national religion.”
Why is that so? First, a Muslim must ideally read, recite, and memorize the Qur’an in Arabic. Five times a day he prostrates himself in prayer, his body turned toward Mecca, in Arabia. The Prophet Muhammad, who is for Muslims the Perfect Man (al-insan al-kamil) and the Model of Conduct (uswa hasana), was an Arab. He should, at least once in his life, go on pilgrimage to the Arab city of Meccal. The habits, deeds, sayings, and even approving silences, of the Prophet Muhammad, as set down in the hadith, constitute the Sunna, which is, aside from the Qur’an, the other great Islamic text and guide. Converts to Islam routinely take Arab names. Non-Arab Muslims are often eager to assume Arab identities — as, for example, all those Pakistanis who call themselves Sayyids, endowing themselves with a false lineage as descendants of the tribe of Muhammad. Just as the Arab identity reinforces the hold of Islam, so Islam reinforces the Arab consciousness of their own superiority.
The Arab people now possess 22 states, more than any other people in the world, but that does not make them willing to grant non-Arab Muslims within their countries any significant degree of autonomy, much less independence. The Kurds are not the only non-Arab Muslims who have been treated roughly by the Arabs. In North Africa, there are between 25 and 30 million Berbers, mainly in Algeria and Morocco. They were the original inhabitants of North Africa, which they settled long before the Arab invaders arrived; the Berbers claim they have been in the region for 3000 years. St. Augustine, had a Berber mother, Monica. Tertullian, who has been called “the founder of Latin Christianity,” was a Berber from Carthage.
The Berbers have long been subject to discrimination by the dominant Arabs, and attempts have been made to “arabize” the Berbers, beginning with the effort to suppress Tamazight, the Berber language, and to efface Berber culture. The Arabs have attempted to forbid its use in schools and government, but the Berbers have fought back. In Morocco, the Berber unrest finally led the Moroccan king to recognize Tamazight as a national language in 2011. In Algeria the Arabs, who have been in power ever since independence in 1962 (they are known collectively as “Le Pouvoir”) tried to suppress the use of Tamazight, as well as other aspects of Berber culture, but this led to violent riots in the Kabyle region, especially in the unofficial Berber capital of Tizi Ouzou, in 2001 and 2002. The ethnic unrest continued intermittently, but finally, in 2016, the Berbers in Algeria managed to win recognition of Tamazight as an official language. This may have bought a temporary truce, but the Berbers now have tasted victory in both Morocco (where they claim to be 70% of the population, by including those Berbers who now use Arabic) and in Algeria (where they claim to be 30-40% of the population, again including Berbers who use Arabic), and this does not mean they will remain quiet. More likely, as the Berbers observe the Iraqi Kurds, and see them at long last obtaining an independent state, this will whet their appetites for an independent state of their own, perhaps one running from the Atlas Mountains of northern Morocco to the Kabylie region of Algeria. Should the Kurds fail, of course, the reverse is also true: it will dishearten the Berbers, who may then give up the dream of an independent Berber state.
The Syrian government has just announced that it looks with deep disfavor on the referendum announced by the Iraqi Kurds for next September: “We, as representatives of our nation’s will, and Arabs, do not support this type of initiative. It is true that election and referendum is a healthy situation for all the nations in the world, but it should be aimed to achieve a loyal purpose, not to reduce the capacity of Iraqi government,” Riyaz Taus, a member of the Syrian parliament’s foreign affairs committee, told Rudaw. Independence for the Kurds, according to Taus, is not a “loyal purpose.”
“Damascus’s policy towards this subject is stable regarding Arab countries; it always seeks unity for Arab countries. As a Syrian national matter, it is something already decided which is not separating any region from its motherland,” Taus added.
“This is an unchangeable and steady policy for Syria because not any areas will be separated from the main government, and seeks unity for Arab nations not dividing and weakening them which serves universal Zionism and imperialism.”
Of course: any attempt by non-Arab Muslims to achieve independence must be opposed, because it would only — here comes the parroting of the absurd Muslim Arab party line –“serve universal Zionism and imperialism.” Actually, non-Arab Muslims must be suppressed in Arab-ruled lands for quite a different reason: not being Arabs, they don’t deserve a state carved out of lands the Arabs now control. For the Arabs, it is their fellow Arabs who always come first. And it is the Arabs who treat with contumely, and worse, the non-Arabs over whom they rule.
In Syria, the performance of the Kurdish troops, who have been the best fighters against the Islamic State, has emboldened them to declare a kind of local autonomy in Rojava, where almost all of the 2.2 million Syrian Kurds live. The war-weakened Syrian central government has been in no position to deny that autonomy (there are reports, too, that Assad’s most important ally, the Russian government, supports Kurdish autonomy, which if true would necessarily weaken Syrian opposition to it). If the Kurdish-led forces finally retake Raqqa from the Islamic State, that will give the Kurds another victory, and they will certainly feel that the Syrian government owes them something, which means more than a modicum of autonomy in Rojava. The Syrian government will be forced by circumstances (Kurdish strength, Syrian Arab weakness after six years of civil war) to recognize aa new reality. How the Kurds in Rojava would react to news of a fully independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq, is one more great worry for the government in Damascus, but there is not much they can do to head off a similar movement among the Kurds in Syria.
Abdulqadir Azuz, presidency consultant to the Syrian Council of Ministers, told Rudaw (the official Kurdish news site) that “Analysts have speculated that despite the leadership of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and some major political parties in the Kurdistan Region not being on the best of terms, regional powers would oppose Kurdish aspirations for independence, fearing a ripple effect.
“Azuz continued: “Of course, any step to change Iraq from a federal government to a special independent country for its components, particularly the Kurdistan Region, will not receive recognition from Syrian government unless there is an agreement mainly by Iraqi nation according to articles in the constitution…Thus, any step towards it will be considered as a unilateral step, the Syrian government will not agree to divide Iraq unless there is an agreement with Iraqi people.”
“Azuz says Kurds have a right to self-determination but it should be within the framework of Iraq’s constitution and not a political step.”
This says the opposite of what Azuz means, for the Syrian Arabs do not support the Iraqi Kurds’ “right to self-determination.” If they must first obtain the agreement of the Sunni and Shi’a Arabs who constitute more than 85% of Iraq’s population, they will never A. And that agreement will forever be withheld, as Abdulqadir Azuz knows perfectly well. Furthermore, he insists that the referendum to be held only in Kurdistan is invalid on its face, for it’s a vote in only one region, and among one people. The entire “Iraqi people” have to vote on independence for the Kurds or any other group.
It’s clear that the Syrian Arab people do not want the Kurds in Iraq to achieve independence, because, not being Arabs, they don’t deserve it. And there is also the real fear of the effect on the Kurds in Rojava. Here you can enjoy the spectacle of hypocrisy on stilts, by this who insist so strongly on “independence” for the “Palestinian” Arab people, that is clamor for a 23rd Arab state, do not sense there is anything wrong in Arabs denying to a real people, the Kurds, even just one state for their political expression.
The West ought to focus right now on helping the Kurds in Iraq achieve independence, in offering them economic and diplomatic support, even if the government in Baghdad protests. What can Baghdad do — invade Kurdistan? With the Americans possibly providing air cover as they once did over Kurdistan,, and the battle-hardened Kurdish militia, who have outperformed every other group on the ground fighting the Islamic State, ready to fight even more fiercely, with memories of the mass murdering Arabs of Saddam, for what would now be their own country, Kurdistan can’t be won back.
If Western countries were to recognize the need to weaken the Camp of Islam, they would see both how just and how useful it would be to support the Kurds. An independent Kurdistan in what was northern Iraq would encourage the Kurds in Syria, Iran, and Turkey to join this Iraqi state, which would cause political pandemonium in three important Muslim states, as they attempt to hold onto those parts of their own countries where Kurds are a majority. In Turkey, for decades now, a low-level Kurdish rebellion has taken a steady toll. If the Turkish Kurds were emboldened to try not just for autonomy but for independence that would allow for an enlargement of the newly-created free Kurdistan, that would raise the conflict to a whole new level. But Erdogan, who has de-kemalised Turkey, is no friend of the West, but a despot intent on re-islamising a once-secular Turkey. Yet we continue to treatTurkey as if were still the way it was a half-century ago, not as it is today.
Under Erdogan, Turkey is no longer a reliable ally, and one wonders why it is allowed to continue to be a member of NATO. We need not worry if Turkish Kurds keep the Turks tied down or, better still, manage to successfully join the newly-independent Kurdish state in what was once northern Iraq. Nor do we wish the despotic regimes in Syria and Iran well, even if, for the moment, we share the need to wipe out the Islamic State. And if forced to deal with a domestic Kurdish revolt for independence, all three states — Syria, Turkey and Iran — would find that any attempt by them to suppress the Kurds would entail a considerable expenditure of men, money, materiel, and– not to be overlooked — morale. For the world’s Infidels, that’s not a bad outcome.