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From Abdüsselam to Masoud Barzani
American writers in Turkey infamously get their ideas from our taxi drivers, so I make a point of returning the favor when I am in the States. Usually, you say the name of your country and the taxi driver tells you what that name resonates with at the moment in the capitol. This time, learning that I am from Turkey, the driver asked me right away: “What do you think about the vote?” Without waiting for an answer, he blurted out a second one “why is Israel supporting the Kurdish referendum?” This truly is still the political center of the world.
First of all, I was relieved not to be questioned about President Erdoğan’s rising authoritarianism. Nothing about the state of emergency or jailed journalists, thank you very much. This time, what was new about Turkey wasn’t something pertaining to itself, but its attitude towards something just beyond its borders, namely the September 25th independence referendum of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq. This was refreshing, and much easier to talk about than all the Turkey stuff.
Now that the Turkish parliament is getting ready for an emergency session on Saturday, it might be useful to go over the basics once more. This session, right after National Security Council and Council of Ministers meetings is telling. Turkey is preparing to get a parliamentary approval for Turkish boots on the ground. It’s not at all clear that such permission would be put into use, but it wants to get ready and send a certain signal.
Why is all this happening? The American invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war at our doorstep taught one thing to us Turks. The erosion of government authority in neighboring countries is something to be avoided at all costs. The 3 million Syrian refugees trying to make ends meet remind us of this lesson dearly learned. The Kurdish independence referendum put forward by President Barzani is certain to destabilize Iraq further. The question of timing is more important than the content at this time.
A little history is useful here: In 1907, Sheik Abdüsselam Barzani put together a collection of Kurdish tribes under the name of Barzani. He was Masoud’s uncle according to İsmail Beşikçi, a prominent writer on the Kurdish issue. That initial group put together 7 major demands that are now called the Dohuk document. Nothing in that document was related to independence.
The first demand was about Kurdish becoming the official language of the region, and the second about Kurdish becoming the language of education. The third asked the Ottoman government to appoint Kurdish or Kurdish speaking officials to the region. The fourth demanded justice for Kurds. The fifth was a request for the government to take into account that Kurds are of the Shafi school of Islamic jurisprudence, not Hanafi, like the majority of Turks. The sixth asked taxes to be levied on Kurds to follow Islamic principles. The seventh asked for those taxes to be spent towards the needs of Kurdistan, starting with roads.
The reaction from Istanbul was harsh. The government suppressed Abdüsselam’s movement and put up a reward for those who would help to catch him. Abdüsselam duly fled to Iran to hide in the house of Sofi Abdullah, a fellow Kurd. Learning about the reward however, Sofi Abdullah gave his friend up to Ottoman Officials in 1914. Then there was a show trial in Mousul and Abdüsselam Barzani was executed. The Ottoman Commander who oversaw the trial and execution was Süleyman Nazif, another fellow Kurd. The story of these three Kurds only shows the complexity of the issue. It may seem like we were bound to end up with our current predicaments, but we weren’t. The Syrian civil war, the end of the reconciliation process in Turkey, and other turning points got us here.
The Middle East needs neither ethnic nationalism nor sectarianism. It needs pluralistic governance, which is about coming out of trenches not digging deeper trenches. This Kurdish vote only deepens our current problems.
Let me go back to taxi driver’s question. Why is Israel supporting the Kurdish vote? Especially in this era of “the enemy of your enemy may also be your enemy.” I’m not exactly sure, but it sounds like they know what they’re doing.