Faulty approaches to Orientalism-Determinism explaining Kurdistan’s future: Part 2

Kurd map

By Dr. M Koohzad:


In this section both concepts of Orientalism and determinism will be discussed and criticized. Tribalism and Nomadism fall under a broader concept formulated in the previous century. Geographical location and being landlocked fall under a much older Greek notion of environmental determinism. Being a mountainous landlocked nation is not a negative cause or corrupt fate. It is a manageable geographical reality. Application of these ill-informed ancient issues must be avoided in regards to control of modern political economy. Both Orientalists and determinists need to leave old research models behind, enter the Internet cafes of the future and smell the freshly-brewed issues social media.

Neither one of the two concepts is deeply concerned with critical thinking or meaningful conclusions. Tribalism, particularly viewed from the Orientalist’s perspectives is racist, imperialist, outdated, and outmoded. It hardly produced any meaning full results, anyway. Unlike possibilism, geographical determinism does not value education, training, experience, and investment. It ignores the more complex reality and survival adaptation of human societies.

The age of colonialism produced a group of scholars, geographers, and travel writers who were called “Orientalists” or scholars of the Orient. They performed their intellectual and philosophical functions in the service of the colonial powers. These scholars were deeply involved in grand colonial designs. Working in concert with the missionary, the merchant, the colonial administrator, and the soldier, the Orientalist scholar was the essential accomplice in promoting western hegemony, colonialism, and control. Very few of them were trustworthy independent researchers.

The thesis of Orientalism is that knowledge is power; such knowledge fashions images of “Other” in a manner designed to dominate that culture. The East was portrayed not only as exotic and alluring but also as dark, wicked, fixed in time and space, tribal, and threatening. It was the realm of the alien, imperfectly known, falsely mysterious, always inferior and in need of being controlled. More importantly, Middle Eastern, and especially Kurdish, societies are tribal and at the mercy of their environmental conditions.

Stereotyping and generalizations about the people and cultures of the Mideast were an important part of the Orientalists’ agenda. Consider many binaries at work here: compared to Orientals, the people of the west were “normal,” “civilized” and “democratic,” whereas the people of the Orient were “abnormal,” “savage,” and “despotic.” People of the west lived in cities, while people in the Mideast were nomadic, “tribal” warriors living in tents in the desert.

The research agenda of Colonialism and its associated Orientalism most often avoids terms like ethnic groups and nations. Western colonial scholarship frequently replaced a “nation” with a “tribe”. Their framework for research is loaded with stereotypes and misconceptions that were not truly applicable to the tribal societies of yester years. Grossman (2010) argues that the West “tends to portray tribes as primitive, backward peoples, and views tribalism” as merely ignorant villagers brutally acting in their narrow self-interest.” The western mass media’s tendency has been to support stereotypes of native people. They seriously attempt in utilizing the word “tribe” and its negative connotations, as well as, never relating the word “nation” at all costs.

In criticizing Thomas Friedman’s ‘Festival of Lies’, Lawrence Davidson (2012) argued that “to reduce the Middle East to tribalism, sectarianism, fundamentalism and oil is just stereotyping and inappropriate reductionism. You might as well reduce the U.S. to … tea-party fanaticism…It is the same for the Middle East.” Davidson believed that tribalism is no more than “a rhetorical black box that is so widely used that it has no coherent meaning…Western scholars brandish the word “tribalism” as though it is a “value” without having a clue to what it means to be “tribal” in a specific social context.”

Fattah (2012) found two misconceptions in regards to the growing controversial U.S. drone attacks in tribal areas of the Middle East. These misconceptions about tribes continue to plague press coverage and policy reports. According to him “the first of these misconceptions is that tribal areas are lawless, ungoverned spaces – a modern-day wild-wild West. The second fallacy is that tribal areas are breeding grounds for terrorist cells. Yet, in reality tribal members are the most law-obeying people in the world. In the Middle East, they have to follow their countries’ civil laws, religious tenets, and their traditional customary laws. The Kurdish freedom fighters, the Peshmerga, were called backward tribes of “Bandits” and ‘Separatists” in Turkey until September 11, 2001. Beginning with September 12th, Ankara gave them a new title “Terrorist” that is easily understood by the West.

The discipline of geography studies the relationships between humans and their environment. Since, the time of the ancient Greeks until the early 1900s, geographers have focused more on the physical environment and less on human ingenuity. It was believed that the environmental factors alone determined and controlled every aspect of human societies. Humans thus were at the mercy of their natural environment and virtually had no choices. Many Western geographers actually boasted of the favorable climate in the middle latitude that made some societies more developed economically and intellectually. A conclusion that is self-gratifying considering these geographers lived in the middle latitudes.

Geographical determinism’s claims in regards to the effects of climate on people, availability of mineral resources on levels of socioeconomic developments, and physically isolated places making societies less developed were often found to be wrong. In addition, critics of the theory claimed that the revenge of geography was chauvinistic, racist and perpetuated imperialism. The ancient and outdated geographical determinism did not leave room for human experience, education, and investment in science and technology. Furthermore, it underestimates and simplifies the complexity of civilizations and their history as well as neglecting the adaptability of human societies. People are usually not just some helpless victims when faced with environmental challenges. They can adjust their subsistence strategy and survive with relative ease.

Modern geography’s research question deals with “what is where and why? Naturally, geographers are interested in location, distance, patterns, distributions, movements, and relationships. Complaining about relative location, specifically the landlocked nature of Kurdistan yields nothing meaningful or significant. Indeed, it can be argued that this specific location has been very good and wholesome. In the British desire to have control over Kurdistan, Its strategic location has always been very significant. When most experts attempt to emphasize positive geopolitical feature of Turkey, unknowingly they are looking at Northern Kurdistan. Actually, in direct contrast to the negative association of being landlocked, the relative location of Greater Kurdistan should be advantageous for its economy. It is centrally located between the Caucuses, Plateau of Iran, Mesopotamia, and it is not far from the Black Sea, Mediterranean Sea, and the Persian Gulf.

It has almost become a proverb for most Western Kurdologists that “the Kurds have no friends but the mountains.” Yet, hardly any one of them goes beyond this simple common sense conclusion. Do these high and young mountains have any effect on the population distribution, climate patterns, herding and agricultural activities? Western Kurdologists, including the Kurdish Prime Minister, need to learn that many of these young and restless mountains are volcanic located near seismic fault lines. They, in return, produce fertile soils but create earthquakes. The caves were comfortable living spaces for the Kurdish Neanderthals and today’s shepherds. In front of these caves the Kurdish women selected and grew grains such as wheat and barley and invented the art of carpet weaving. It is not a secret that these mountains are major reservoir of freshwater for a dry region just below Kurdistan.

Being landlocked is not the sole reason that the Kurdish government in Northern Iraq is building a pipeline to export oil. It is the economic reality that dictates this cheaper means of transportation not the nature. Consider Saudi Arabia, not a landlocked country, world’s largest exporter of crude oil had to build many pipelines. It took Iraq only two years after independence in 1934 to build its first pipeline, about 600 miles, connecting the oil producing Kurdish city of Kirkuk to the Mediterranean Sea. The Nabucco, a 2,050-mile (3,298 km) pipeline with an estimated cost of $11.0 billion will be operational next year. It is going to connect the Caspian Sea to Central Europe.

Nearly, ten thousand miles of pipelines transport crude oil within the Middle East. In addition, pipelines are not made to only transport crude oil. Actually, pipelines are more suitable to transport natural gas. Thus, in the near future, there will be more pipelines almost everywhere to carry fuel. For example, Iran is going to sell natural gas to Pakistan, India, China and some European countries. Many places between Berlin and Beijing will be dependent on fuel for energy from Iran.

It is important to note that properties of accessibility and means of transportation change through time and over space. When the Suez Canal became operational many cities on the Silk Road in mainly in Central Asia and Kurdistan suffered economically. With the advent of supertankers, more pipelines, and the information superhighway, the Suez Canal itself is now losing its previous prominence. With the application and advancement of the Internet, future global integration requires less physical proximity. In modern geography lessons being landlocked, land bridges, chokepoints and strategic locations are simply old and irrelevant stories. Orientalist and determinists are unable to interpret any of these changes.


Most of the available literature on Kurds and Kurdistan written by Western Kordologists fall into now obsolete Orientalism and determinism modes of research. Belonging to the past centuries, none of these concepts shed any lights on today’s integrated world, the Middle East or Kurdistan. Few of these so-called scholars, biased researchers, and even lobbyists can be trusted to have genuine advice applied towards day-to-day situations for Kurdistan. It is not honest or scientific to refer to all Kurds as nomads and tribal. It is demonizing to believe that all tribal areas are lawless and the nesting grounds for terrorists. The faulty associations give the hegemony of the West an easy out. It negates all of the causal responsibilities of the West for the atrocities suffered by the Kurds.

With its excellent relative location, its mountains, mineral resources, and hard-working smart population; Kurdistan is truly the Switzerland of the Middle East. It does not have to be seen as the “New Other” infested with wild tribes and terrorism. When reunited, it will be a rich and the only true democracy in this volatile region. With enhancing educational standards locally in Kurdistan, the self-proclaimed Orientalist Kurdologist would be identified and discredited. The Kurdish Prime Minister should not apologize to anybody for the geographical formation of his country. But, he must for example listen to honest educators like Dr. Michael Rubin (2012) and establish an office to take a census and much-needed statistics.

In addition to its friendly mountains, some of the Western Kordologists think they know that the Kurds are the world’s largest stateless ethnic group! However, so far no one has dared to say how large is large. The ranges of the unscientific estimates of the Kurdish population are so big that they become tragically comical. The KRG has had ten years to count its own population. Unfortunately, a single accurate figure is still not available. Kurdistan, similar to Switzerland, a rich mountainous landlocked democracy, needs numbers to prove itself and fight against Western misconceptions.

The Kurdish leadership must broaden their horizons and look after basic human rights of the Kurds outside Iraq. The Kurds now need a Lingua Franca more than anything else. They need world-class education, roads, hospitals, and steady electricity. Parts of the petro-dollars must reach poor Kurdish families in places inside and outside the KRG. The first democratic Kurdish government is responsible for providing the basic needs of its total population.


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Part 1

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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