By Dr. Norman Bruce Garber:
Most Americans have been painfully observing for decades the terribly chaotic conditions reverberating throughout the Middle East, involving the countries of Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey. And besides not being able to perceive clearly many of the interconnected but shifting reasons for all the violence and chaos between and within these nations, whether the conflicts may stem from national political differences between any two states, or from religious, ethnic or other ideological differences within any single state, most of us also have great difficulty while observing any moment and set of participants in a particular conflict in deciding on the relative legitimacy of any side (excluding, of course the cases of those struggling against ISIS or other clearly extremist Islamist organizations).
One people in this region, however, who number around 40 million, stand out significantly in the uniqueness of their history of long-suffered oppressions, their heroic struggles in opposition to them (especially in their legitimate, persistent quest for long-denied statehood), and their clearly observable, thoroughly shared cultural characteristics that can simply but accurately be summed up as democratic and tolerant. And these people are the Kurds.
And while in terms of culture, language, governing structures, deep moral values, and their physical presence on their historical national land for thousands of years, the Kurds have as much been a nation as the 4 listed above, still their statehood has been tragically denied throughout modern times.
After the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the end of World War I, Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey would be geographically delineated, named, and thus created by the victorious French and English. The Kurds, however, would not be granted statehood by these imperial Western nation-creators, but would instead be forced to become mere controlled inhabitants within these 4 newly designated nations. And as would naturally be predicted, this situation led to a long period (nearly 100 years now) of continuous oppression, often violent, where the Kurds were divested of basic civil and legal rights in these countries. In Turkey, this went so revealingly far as the divestment of the right of the Kurds to the public use of their own native language.
One sad irony for the Kurds in this long history of denial of their nationhood was a brief promising moment—the 1920 Treaty of Sevres—an international agreement which not only dissolved the Ottoman Empire, but which “proposed the creation of an autonomous Kurdish state.” However, Mustafa Ataturk, Turkey’s new leader, rejected Sevres. “It was replaced in 1923 by the Treaty of Lausanne, negotiated with the new Turkish government, which omitted any reference to a Kurdish homeland.” From then on the Kurds were (and still mostly are) “dispersed across the newly demarcated borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.” (quotes above are from “The Time of the Kurds,” online at Council of Foreign Relations.org.) Unsurprisingly, as would any true nation deprived of statehood, the Kurds have continuously resisted various authorities in those 4 countries.
Americans who attempt to keep abreast of international events have witnessed, from the 1970’s on, increasingly violent repressions against the Kurdish people, especially in Iraq under Saddam Hussein in the 1980’s. These horrors climaxed in 1988 with Saddam’s “Al Anfal” (“The Spoils”) genocidal attacks on and destruction of thousands of Kurdish villages, through which up to 180,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed. One shameful aspect of this for Americans was that the chemical weapons and poisonous gasses that Saddam extensively used in these attacks were supplied by the U.S. in its support of him a bit earlier in that period in his conflict with Iran. Luckily for Iraqi Kurds, the increasing conflict between Iraq and the U.S. eventuated in the U.S. led establishment of the “No Fly Zone” in 1991 over Kurdish areas in Iraq, which protected them at least from any air attacks from Saddam or any other force hostile to the U.S. in this major conflict. Now, as is widely known, after Saddam’s ouster, the Iraqi Kurds in those areas have established a strong self government (called the “Kurdish Regional Government” by Iraq and recognized as a semi-autonomous region), but which the Kurds themselves have more ambitiously named “Kurdistan.” And now many Kurds around the world see this very successful (financially, politically, socially, militarily) region as a promising beginning of an eventual internationally recognized larger Kurdish state for the already existing Kurdish nation.
Through the past 40 years or so, I have been an acquaintance of and friends with a number of immigrant Kurds in California, north and south. I can say confidently that the Kurds I have met and socialized with overwhelmingly and enthusiastically believe in democratically elected representative governments, the essential human rights and dignity due to everyone from all national, religious, and ethnic groups, the equality of men and women, and the authority of modern science. I’d also add from my personal experiences with them and their families, a love of music, literature, and visual arts, and enthusiastic support of their children, male and female, for their own educational ambitions in American universities and toward future professional careers.
I met most of my Kurdish friends and acquaintances socially through my long-term friend and colleague, Dr. Rashid Karadaghi, a Kurd from Iraq, whom I met in the early 1960’s at UCSB where we were both graduate students in its English Ph.D. program, and from which we both earned our Ph.D.’s. Throughout the years Rashid kept me abreast of the many struggles the Kurds throughout the Middle East were undergoing.
Today, Dr. Karadaghi is well known among Kurdish communities for his courageous support of Kurdish statehood through numerous forcefully written, compelling articles, and as well for his eminently authoritative “Azadi English-Kurdish Dictionary,” a 30 year successful effort in preserving the national language, and keeping it current and useful to Kurds here and abroad by rendering English, the dominant world language, vitally interactive with Kurdish. Here I quote Dr. Karadaghi from his May 14 and June 25 2015 articles posted on EKurd Daily in which he calls upon the free world to go further in supporting the Kurds:
“They have suffered unbearable oppression for no reason other than their identity as Kurds and their desire to be left alone and live in freedom on their own ancestral homeland.” [Yet] “the countless uprisings and sacrifices they have made, especially in the last hundred years, are solid proof of their continuous struggle against injustice.” [Indeed] “In the current war against ISIS the Kurds have been in the forefront of the fight on behalf of the world, and their Peshmerga have been the most effective fighting force against the terrorist organization. Yet despite all appearances and praise of the Peshmerga, the Kurds have not made any tangible gains in terms of recognition of their rights to live as an independent, free nation.” And one disturbing continuing situation that affirms this sad reality is the unwillingness of the U.S. (including both the U.S. Senate and President Obama) “to directly arm the Peshmerga, the only fighting force that is standing up to ISIS, thus forcing it to depend on whatever weapons trickle down from Baghdad.”
This unwillingness is, of course, inextricable from the U.S. reluctance in the larger political arena–out of fear of more instability in the middle east and the danger of the complete disintegration of Iraq– to support Kurdish statehood either openly or more quietly. And yes, we must acknowledge the terribly confusing and chaotic situations the U.S. and well meaning western nations face and attempt to deal constructively with, and which have even produced circumstances where the Kurds living in different middle eastern countries have been pushed to fight each other, as, for example in the late 1970s among Kurds within Iraq, and between Kurds in Iraq and Iran in the 1980s. Still, the overwhelming reality remains that the Kurds, as has been pointed out here, have long been a coherent, legitimate society—a nation—by all the measures recognizable by authoritative historians, social scientists, and other legal experts, and therefore without question deserve the right to live as an independent, free nation-state.
“The free world must have the courage to back up the Kurds, not their oppressors, if it is to remain true to its declared principles.”
And my addendum to Dr. Karadaghi’s compelling words here is to call upon all thinking, caring Americans to exhort our government officials (senators, congress members, and administrative officials) to actively, openly support the nation of Kurds in their heroic, very legitimate quest for the return of their ancestral homeland—their nation state.
Norman Bruce Garber, born 1940 in Hartford, Conn. Earned a Ph.D. in English from UCSB in 1972 (Santa Barbara, CA) where he met as a fellow graduate student and became lifelong friend and colleague of Rashhid Karadaghi, author of the Azadi English-Kurdish Dictionary. Professor of English at and retired from Moorpark Community College in Ventura County Ca.