Faulty approaches to Orientalism-Determinism explaining Kurdistan’s future: Part 1


By Dr. M. Koohzad


Nearly a decade ago in November of 2003, the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association was held in Anchorage, Alaska. A written version of some of the talks, later called the “Briefs”, were edited by Hakan Yavuz and Michael Gunter, two of the Association’s members and participants. Five of these Briefs with the name of “Kurdistan” in their titles were then published in Volume 1, Issue 1, March 22, 2004, of their journal, Middle East Policy. Apparently, the talks were organized around Iraqi Kurdistan’s future independence in the light of its social structure of tribalism and its geographical formation as a landlocked political entity.

The two main concepts of tribalism and geography that are utilized to deal with Kurdistan’s statehood have already been discredited. These two concepts are boiled down to be Orientalism and Determinism. It is disappointing that some the so-called Western Kurdologists still cling to these discredited concepts to analyze the future of an independent Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. In much of the available literature, the Kurds are seen as the “New Other”. Sadly, some Kurdish politicians employ the lingering defunct Orientalism of the Western scholarship.

The purpose of this paper is to review the narratives of the available literature of Orientalism and Determinism used to predict the future of Kurdistan. This review will be followed by a discussion of problems associated with these concepts and their inability to explain issues currently facing the Kurds. In conclusion, it is not advisable to reduce the complex Kurdish world into only the social structure of tribalism that hardly exists and its geographical formation.

The above two concepts fail to critically analyze Kurdistan’s geopolitical and economic reality in an intricate world. Kurdish studies, particularly those predicting Kurdistan’s future, need to employ more analytical realistic enquiry into the geographical and political economy of the region. The Switzerland of the Middle East is neither tribal nor in trouble due to being a landlocked nation. More realistic concepts by its native scholars should be employed to have an insight into its future.

Tribal and Landlocked:

Even though, ten years prior to the meeting of the Association in Alaska, Gunter (1993, p. 313) speculated that, “the creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq no longer seems so politically improbable”, in the flagship of the Briefs in 2004, he was more cautious. He wrote, “With the possible exception of Iraqi Kurdistan, Kurdish statehood is unlikely in the near future for several reasons” (p. 106). For his first reason, he alluded to the basic geography of Kurdistan. His lame argument is that Kurdistan is fully landlocked and that the creation of an independent state here would be a threat to the countries that surrounded it. Then, he switched to another level of analysis referring to the unwillingness of the world community to redraw the familiar world map. The western powers, that were unable to agree with their own borders until the end of WWI, superimposed political boundaries that formally divided Kurdistan. Attempting to distinguish between a “state” and a “nation”, he brought in examples of the Poles in 1795, the Germans before 1871 and the Italians before 1861. He concluded, “the state can mold its ethnically diverse citizens into a single nation” (p. 106). But he did not explain how this might happen. In Turkey, a unitary nation is still too far away despite forced mass assimilation, mass deportation, and systematic genocide of the Kurds.

Next, Gunter recycled the Orientalist concept of “Tribalism” and referred to many different observers who have also noted that tribalism has had “the negative effect(s) on the creation of a Kurdish state and nation” (p. 107). He further argued, “The Kurds also lack a Bismarck or a Garibaldi. No contemporary Kurdish leader has been able to rise above the level of tribal warlord to true statesman. Jalal Talabani, Massoud Barzani and Abdullah Ocalan–the three main Kurdish leaders during the past quarter century–have fought against each other as much as they have fought against the states that deny Kurdish self-determination” (p. 107). It is a complete nonsense to believe so. We know that at least a Kurd became the president of Iraq and the three Kurdish leaders have bravely fought more against their enemies than among themselves.

In his article, Natali (2004) was more concerned about transnational cooperation between Kurds in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Kurdish political leaders allowed “their modernizing nationalist movement to continue alongside and in competition with the tribalized, traditional stratum” (p. 111). Apparently, he is saying that the Kurds would put their narrow tribal interest aside when comes to national concerns. According to him, the new opportunities for Kurdish statehood included active NGOs and the politicized and persuasive Diaspora networks, mainly in Europe.

Olson (2004) was concerned about Iraqi Kurds’ achievements providing pride and pleasure among all of the Kurds around the world. Especially, political and economic stabilities have “been building self-confidence in Kurdistan-Iraq since 1992. It was contributing to a desire to participate as equals in a wider Kurdish society, though the extended family, clan and tribe were still predominant” (p. 117). Indeed, Olson was concerned about positive aspects of Kurdistan’s geography. He said, “Ankara has in part begun to realize that a Kurdistan-Iraq would also be a focus of foreign investment. The oil, gas, water (Tigris, Greater and Lesser Zab Rivers) and mineral resources–in addition to the region’s strategic geography–provide opportunities for a variety of economic enterprises…” (p. 116).

Ozcan’s (2004) tentative reaction to the question of Kurdish statehood was a quick “yes”. He believed that the Kurds are not far from this goal. Then he counted five serious practical difficulties in the way of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq including: tribalism, demarcating borders of the new state, Kurds outside Iraq, problems with geography, and the cost. He believed that Barzani and Talabani “are simply the leaders of the alliances of the best-organized tribes that managed to hold control by relying on the force of money and armaments. Tribal membership provides people living in this region with economic advantages, political power, social status and individual security” (p. 119). According to Ozcan, “an independent Kurdish state would face the serious problem of its landlocked geography” (p. 120). He makes no mention of why being a landlocked country is so bad or if it is possible that a united Kurdistan could have a corridor to the Mediterranean Sea.

Finally, Salih (2004) labeled Kurdish nationalism “as an archaic, narrow-minded, tribal, ethnic, divisive movement in the service of neoconservatives in the current Bush administration” (124). Amazingly, he ignored over a century-long Kurdish struggle for their basic human rights and independence. Similar to other ethnic groups around the world, Kurdish politicking has gone through different stages and had to align itself with different factions and internal and external forces. He noted, “Kurdish leaders are painfully aware of the fact that, if they opt for independence, their geography and power bases are strongly against them” (p. 125).

In the previous century, many more Orientalist studies focused on tribalism in the Middle East. Few of them were carried out on the Kurds and Kurdistan. A Russian army Captain, Averianov (1900) wrote a little book on the Kurds based on his own observation in the field in southern Caucasus. He was dumbfounded once when he saw two Kurish tribes fighting each other so fiercely and a few other tribes watching them from afar. From this incident, Averianov concluded that the Kurds were uncivilized savages. The book, which is filled with negative comments about the Kurds, was translated into a few European languages, including English.

As the result of the Crusaders Wars, many Europeans, the British in particular,  developed a not-so-nice perception of the Kurds. A famous Kurdish leader, Saladin, defeated the Europeans several times. In addition to Marco Polo’s book not being so honest about the Kurds, Averianov generalization was taken seriously against this ethnic group. One of the most famous American geographers, Issiah Bowman borrowed heavily from both Maro Polo and Averianov. Thus he was reinforcing stereotypes about the Kurds in the West.

In 1922, Dr. Bowman wrote a book called, The New World: Problems in Political Geography. On page 445, he has provided the readers with an excellent map of Kurdistan. But, generally speaking, he is not in any way positive when describing the Kurds or Kurdistan. He probably influenced President Wilson’s lack of interest in solving the Kurdish problem during the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919. In this conference, Dr. Bowman was chief territorial adviser to President Woodrow Wilson. Issiah Bowman (died 1950) was the only geographer in the world who appeared on the cover of Time magazine on March 23, 1936.

Dr. Bowman (1922) stated, “Self-government among the Kurds seems out of the question, owing to their deterioration under the Turkish regime, their habit of plundering, and their general inability to read and write, as well as their tribal mode of life. As a result of invasions by both Russians and Turks during the war, some of the settled communities within the range of the Kurds have been extinguished and others reduced to a state of such poverty that it is no longer profitable to raid them” (p. 447). He concluded, “In spite of themselves, therefore, some of the Kurdish tribes already have had to give up their predatory habits and settle down to agricultural pursuits in order to live. But whether settled or nomadic, the Kurd has persisted in maintaining his tribal organization” (p. 448).

Armstrong is a very interesting Orientalist. In 1932, he wrote a biography of Ataturk entitled; Grey Wolf, Mustafa Kemal, An Intimate Study of a Dictator. Armstrong believed that all of the people in the Ottoman Empire or the Republic of Turkey, with the exception of the Christians, were backward Orientals. He even called General Ataturk, the main character of his book, “an oriental despot” (p. 116). To Armstrong, the Kurds “were primitive, wild mountaineers and fanatically religious” (p. 222).

Fewer recent writers are still concerned about the relative location of Kurdistan because it is a mountainous and landlocked region. Indeed, one of Koohi-Kamali’s (1992) questions was why the Kurds in Iran still are among the “most militant” and relentlessly stress for their basic human rights and ethnic and political acknowledgement? In answering her own question, she wrote “Kurdish nationalism did develop largely as a result of the government’s repressive policies…” (p. 175). She continued to write that, despite some improvements, the Iranian Kurdistan remains largely isolated from the rest of the country by its mountainous geography” (p. 178). In fact, no part of Iranian Kurdistan is geographically isolated. More flat and fertile areas are found between the Zagros Mountain ranges in Iran that are used for farming, settlements, and road building, and more. This is why Tehran has employed its air force less often than Baghdad and Ankara.

Dr. Hiltermann (2008) declared that the former kings of the mountains are now kingmakers in Baghdad. He believed, “this new role suits the Kurdish parties just fine, as it allows them to advance their agenda: to use a once wide but now narrowing window of opportunity to expand the territory and natural resources [oil, gas and water] under their control, as well as the powers they exercise within that territory. They hope thereby to build the foundations of an independent Kurdish state, an ambition that once and for all would allow them to trade in their barren mountain hideouts for a stable home in the fertile plains.” Unfortunately for him, neither one of the two words on both sides of the “mountain” is accurate. With the littlest geographic education such generalized assertions are simply mistaken.

Then, Dr. Hiltermann became more concerned about the Kurds and asked “How can they escape geography?” without explaining what was wrong. Yet, he wrote that the Kurds have to pump oil out of the ground and sell it. More importantly, he notified the Kurds that their “only viable route leads through Turkey.” In 2008, Dr. Hiltermann was unable to predict what would have happened in Syria. If a second Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is formed there, the Kurdish dream of access to the Mediterranean will be materialized. Lastly, he mentioned that, “the Kurds’ freedom of maneuver will depend on their good relations with their neighbors for a long time to come.” Of course, he forgot to think that this situation is true for all of the nations in the world.

In his short article that was published in the foreign Affairs, Dr. Hiltermann’s (2012) sounds like the bearer of the good news for the Iraqi Kurds. To break away from Iraq, in his view would be a “revenge” and retaliation by the Kurds. The atmosphere all over Iraqi Kurdistan is cheerful. With the first chance, the Kurds dance. They have reason to be grateful and celebrate. They have peace and stability, democracy, and are ready for independence. But, according to him, “the Kurds are victims of history, geography, and, on the occasions they overreach, their own ambitions. For almost a century, they have struggled to free themselves from central control and to overcome their landlocked location.” Again, he does not explain why is it so bad to be landlocked and to export crude oil through a pipeline.

It is obvious that many journals publish articles written by well-known scholars who are associated with big name educational institutions. So, few of the readers and the public question these so-called experts, lobbyist and their biases. In addition, the Foreign Affairs even brags about the names and affiliations of their contributors. Under the “Author Bio:” it reads that, “JOOST R. HILTERMANN is Deputy Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group and Research Affiliate at the MIT Center for International Studies.” Everybody knows that “MIT” here is the biggest little name. But, few of the readers recognize what is wrong with the region’s name. In this combo wrong title, the word “and” ruins the whole regional name game. A lazy-loaded shorthand of colonialism such as MENA is hardly avoidable by individuals and institutions with little knowledge of the region per se.

This inaccurate name, “Middle East and North Africa (MENA)”, was invented by a bunch of geographically-challenged individuals who probably work(ed) for the United Nations and the World Bank. It is simply wrong to put together the two names of “Middle East and North Africa” and come up with another wrong regional name. Appropriately defined, the Middle East includes some countries in Southwest Asia and North Africa. Thus, adding “North Africa” is simply redundant because it is already included in the first part. Many of the inventors of this double naming have no idea what they are taking about. Evidently, they are unaware of “where” the Middle East is, in the first place. They are not able to answer questions such as “Middle” of what? “East” of where?

Between her main job of Congressional reporting in the US and visiting many other countries all over the world, Ms. Jay Newton-Small found time to write a few pieces on Iraqi Kurdistan that were published by the TIME magazine. Only three of them will be briefly reviewed here. In the first piece, on December 21, 2012, she interviewed Nechirvan Barzani, Kurdistan’s Prime Minister. In the second one, on December 31, she wrote a piece on the region’s tourism. In the third piece, on January 18, 2013, she looked at the possibility of a civil war in Iraq for oil. In her interview with the prime Minister, she started with the simple question of “will there be an independent Kurdistan?”

Prime Minister Barzani did not really answer the question. But, he attempted to justify Kurdistan’s relations with Turkey. He said Ankara is against an independent Kurdistan and “So this is the fate that we have been given.” His powerful deterministic statement means the Kurds have absolutely no other choices. Then, he said, “Turkey needs something that it doesn’t have. We need certain things that we don’t have.” Actually, Edward Ullman, an American economic geographer, first developed this concept. His first principal of Spatial Interaction or Complementarity must lead to trade between two parties based on need and surplus of a commodity.

At the end of this interview, the Prime Minister mentioned that “Being landlocked we have to have a partner, a regional power to be convinced and internationally, a big power to be convinced to support that.” But, having both regional and international trade partners have nothing to do with relative location of a place that is landlocked. In regards to supply and demand, having reliable trade partners are very essential especially if they meet the first principal of interaction.

Written on December 31, 2012, the second article deals with Kurdistan’s tourism potential.  She wrote that “Kurdistan in northern Iraq… is by far the safest and most accessible. The region expects to earn $1 billion this year and hopes to increase it by four fold in two years. Regional tourists are happy to visit Switzerland of the Middle East. “People just looking for a chance to enjoy cooler, mountain weather.” Not only do they have skiing facilities but alcohol and gambling are also allowed”. Unfortunately for the author, some of the readers of the piece found more than a dozen big and small mistakes in her report. One comment was, “Please do a bit of research before you write.” While another one wrote, “The report suffered from lack of credible info.” After finding so many mistakes and biased information, a third person commented, “This article lost its credibility…”

In her most recent piece, written on for the February 18, 2013, Ms. Newton-Small, after providing some basic statistics on oil reserves, production, and oil majors, returned to the two concepts of tribalism and determinism. She reported that, beneath the Kurdish “lands lie an estimated 66 billion barrels of oil… majors such as ExxonMobil, Chevron, Total and Gazprom have already done some drilling with promising result, and Iraq is able to produce 6.1 and 8.3 million barrels of oil a day by 2020 and 2030, respectively”.

Newton-Small (2013, p. 40) believed that “Kurds—a nomadic Indo-European ethnic group spread across parts of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq… and Iraqi Kurdistan is landlocked… ” Thus, pipelines are needed. Never in history, has Kurdistan ever been dominated by a nomadic way of life. A “nomadic” society needs at least to have 51% of its total population be considered wanderers. Exactly, opposite to what Ms. Newton-Small reported, today the greatest proportion of the Kurdish population, up to about 70%, live in urban areas. She too, does not spell out why it is bad to be landlocked and why pipelines are even a part of the discussion in this type of geographic milieu.

Part 2

Dr. Koohzad is a Professor Emeritus of Middle Eastern Studies in the United States. 

Also by the author: Koohzad, M. “Kurdistan Ignored Even by American Professional Geography Textbook Writers.” The International Journal of Kurdish Studies, Vol. 22, Nos. 1 & 2, 2008, pp. 173-192. 

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