By Amir Taheri*
An old Arab adage asserts that there is always something good in whatever happens. The secession referendum held in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq is no exception. Yes, it has added to tension in the region, awakened many old demons and diverted attention from more urgent problems, but at the same time it has also provided an opportunity to examine and debate some important issues in a cold and clinical manner, as opposed to the inflammatory style in vogue in our neck of the woods.
One such issue concerns the relationship between ethnicity and nationality.
It is important because the Middle East — which is, and has always been, a mosaic of ethnicities — has arrived at the point of nation-statehood, a la Europe, through a historic shortcut that bypasses the ethnic conundrum.
In Europe, the birthplace of the modern nation-state, the concept of citizenship provided a synthesis between ethnicity and nationality. All European states are multiethnic entities, yet few of them experience ethnic tension the way it affects the emerging nation-states of our region.
The assumption on the part of Iraq’s Kurdish secessionists is that statehood should coincide with ethnicity. However, if that were the case almost all Middle Eastern states would have to be divided and subdivided, by one account, to create at least 18 more states. Kurdish secessionists dismiss that account with the argument that most ethnic groups in the region are too small to merit statehood. In other words, size becomes a justification for secession.
They also claim that Kurds represent the largest ethnic group without its own state. That, of course, is not true: In the Indian subcontinent, the Dravidians, numbering over 300 million, do not have a state of their own. The same is true of the Punjabis, some 100 million of them, who are divided between India and Pakistan with reference to religious differences into Muslim, Hindu and Sikh sub-groups.
In Africa, the Haussa and the Ibo — who number 40 and 35 million respectively — do not have a state of their own. In China, the Uighurs (22 million) and the Manchus (12 million), as well as 4 million Tibetans, of course, have had their states wiped out by the Han majority.
There are more Pathans in Pakistan than in Afghanistan, more Irish in the UK than the Republic of Ireland, and more Hungarians outside Hungary than inside it.
The second argument is that since Iraq is an “artificial country” created by Sykes-Picot, there is no reason why anyone should not walk out of it. To start with, despite fashionable buzz, the so-called Sykes-Picot “plot” has nothing to do with the current shape of the Middle East.
Sykes-Picot was a draft treaty by Britain, France, Russia and Italy to carve out the Middle Eastern possessions of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. However, the draft never received final ratification by the four countries involved.
Before the war ended the Tsarist Empire collapsed and the new Bolshevik regime published the text of the draft as part of its propaganda against “Imperialist powers.”
The draft envisaged giving large chunks of Anatolia to Russia, an ally of Britain, France and Italy. But when the Bolsheviks seized power Russia became an enemy; there was no reason to give it anything.
As for Italy, it had performed so miserably in the war that Britain and France decided it merited nothing but crumbs of the cake, in the shape of a presence in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. With Sykes-Picot rendered inoperable, Britain and France made new deals later reflected in several treaties notably of Lausanne and Montreux.
In any case, to say Iraq is “artificial” is meaningless. All states are artificial. None has fallen from the heavens fully shaped. It took the US almost 200 years to assume its present shape, by admitting Hawaii, annexed in 1898, as its 50th state in 1959.
A century ago there were 32 nation-states in the world; today there are 198, the majority of which are newer, and more “artificial,” than Iraq.
In some cases, ethic identities are either fabricated or exaggerated in pursuit of political power. For example, the Castilians and the Catalans share the same Christian faith, speak variations of the same Latinesque language, and are hardly distinguishable from one another by outsiders. Yet, we have a Catalan secessionist movement in Spain. The reason is that Catalonia has always been a support base for leftist movements in the Iberian Peninsula while the rest of Spain, especially Castile and Galicia, has been conservative.
Ironically, the more multi-ethnic a state, the more successful it has proved in history. The Sumerian state was “pure” in ethnic terms but vanished without trace. The Roman Empire, open to all ethnicities up to the position of the emperor, lasted over 1,000 years, and perished when it tried to impose uniformity through its new official religion: Christianity.
Countries where citizenship is not based on ethnicity or religion offer inhabitants freedoms unavailable elsewhere. In a small street in Paris, Rue des Petites Ecurries, shops and cafes belonging to all sorts of Islamic sects, Jews and Christians exist side by side without anyone cutting anyone’s throat — at least not yet; something unthinkable in “pure” places such as a Daesh or Taliban “emirate.”
There is nothing easier to invent than “traditions” upon which to construct ethnic identities. To fabricate a new identity, Ataturk adopted the Latin script, purged the Turkish language of Arabic and Persian vocabulary, and used French words instead. Now, however, we see the old Ottoman ghost coming back to reassert itself.
Some Kurds tried a similar scheme by including the vowels in Arabic script and, imitating Ataturk, purging many Arabic and Persian words. The result is that their new-speak appears more Kurdish but is harder to understand, especially when it comes to classical texts of their literature.
There is much talk of identity these days. But human identity is protean, subject to the tangential twists and turns of individual and collective life.
For example, Masoud Barzani’s identity is not exactly the same as the Peshmerga who drives his bullet-proof Mercedes. Barzani was born in Mahabad, Iran, as an Iranian subject, but he spent the first 12 years of his life in the Soviet Union. He then spent a decade in Iraq before being forced out by the Baathist terror machine, finding refuge first in Iran and then in the US. None of this makes him any less Iraqi or any less Kurdish — if only because the two are not incompatible but complimentary in his case.
An Iraqi citizen is easy to define and recognize because citizenship is a politico-judicial status that can be tested and ascertained. When it comes to ethnic and/or religious identities, however, we are often in terra incognita.
Two things are certain about any one of us: Our humanity and our citizenship. Everything else is subject to speculation and convoluted definitions.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.
— Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.