As graduate students in England in the late 1960s, my wife and I struck a close friendship with a classmate from Iraq and his Lebanese girlfriend. He was a Muslim Kurd, and she was a Maronite Catholic. Although he carried an Iraqi passport and was sent to England on a scholarship by the Iraqi government, he insisted on being called a Kurd. He did not seem as emphatic about his religious identity as he was with his ethnicity. Later, I realized that apart from Muslims, there were Kurdish Christians, Kurdish Jews, Zoroastrians, and Yazidis.
It was my first encounter with this ancient people, numbering close to 40 million today, the biggest concentrations of whom are found along the borders of Iraq, Iran, and Turkey. Nowadays, every time I read about the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), I can’t help thinking of my friend and classmate, Mohammed Fatah. Did he go back to Iraq, or did he remain in England? His people, known as the world’s largest ethnic group without a country, have been waging a guerrilla struggle for an independent Kurdistan. Wherever they live in the Middle East, they have been the object of suspicion and discrimination, and the target of the most brutal suppression and dispersal by governments.
Today, the semiautonomous territories that the Kurds occupy have also become the fiercest battlegrounds in the war against the Isis. Compared to the less committed armies of the Syrian and Iraqi governments, the Kurds have demonstrated an astounding capacity to resist the Islamist militants on the ground. Indeed, they have become the staunchest enemies of the Isis dream of an Islamic caliphate.
This is perhaps not surprising. While, the majority of the Kurds are Muslims, they are also known as the Middle East’s most religiously diverse people, who wear their religious identities lightly. They fight as one people, heroically defending a 650-mile front that cuts through the Kurdish homeland along northeastern Iraq.
Recently, Isis jihadists were caught off-guard by the introduction of a new element in the war—an all-female Kurdish fighting force. On the belief that a Muslim killed by a woman will not go to heaven, the Isis fighters have scrupulously avoided engaging the ferocious Kurdish female “Pershmerga” in combat. Through their brave women warriors, the Kurds have been able to retake villages that had been overrun by the Isis forces.
Where the Iraqi army has withdrawn from Iraqi territory in the face of the Isis assault, the Kurds have filled the space, fighting the jihadists and claiming territory for Kurdistan. These were the same forces that rejoiced in the overthrow by American forces of Saddam Hussein’s regime. For decades they had waged a struggle against the brutal Saddam government, and welcomed America’s entry into Iraq. But, against their expectations, America ignored their call for independence when the war was over. One of the biggest reasons, of course, was oil, a large portion of which was on Kurdish territory. America preferred to establish a puppet government for a unitary Iraq, a political authority that never managed to stabilize the country, than to allow the people to rule themselves.
If there is any political center that has proven its will and ability to resist the Islamic State, it is to be found neither in the besieged regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria nor in the brittle government of Iraqi President Fouad Massoum, but in Kurdistan under the leadership of Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish regional government. The Kurds today know better than to wait for America and Europe to recognize them. In July this year, Barzani told his people: “The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us.”
All these are fascinating developments in a region of the world where the march to modernity, accelerated by the Arab Spring, has been derailed. Along with the collapse of the postcolonial authoritarian secular state in the course of globalization, we are also witnessing the race to fill the need for meaningful identity by recourse to local segmentary affiliations. In the Middle East, that race is basically between an identity based on territory, as exemplified by the Kurds, and a trans-territorial identity based on religion, as personified by the multinational Isis fighters.
For this reason, it perhaps makes little sense to say that 3,000 Europeans and several hundred Americans have joined the Isis war for an Islamic caliphate. These individuals are European and American only in their travel documents, and, maybe, in their accents. But, as ultramodern as they may be in their arms and in the propaganda methods they use, their principal identification is clearly with Islamic jihadism, not with any particular country in which they may have been born or raised or educated.
Not so the Kurds who have shown how much they continue to be bound by the notion of a Kurdish homeland, despite the fact that they have not been able to establish a separate nation-state. In the course of their struggle, largely self-determined, they have been able to build the foundation for a stable government that, no doubt, has a greater chance at democracy than all the artificial regimes that America has put up in the wake of the wars it fought in the name of democracy.
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