Keynote Speech Ofra Bengio - fhe

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Keynote Speech Ofra Bengio


Kurdish national identity in Iraq: A comparative perspective
Ofra Bengio
The new regional order of post- World War I had disastrous consequences for the Kurds. Not
only did it divide them in four states, Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria but it also had severe
impact on the crystallization of their national identity. First, their national identity became
fragmented as in each of these four states there developed a separate identity which was
impacted by the framework of the political system, culture, and set of norms in each of these
states. Second, throughout the 20
th century and beyond, the regimes in all four states did their
best to obliterate Kurdish identity through different means of Arabization, Turkification and
Persanization. Third, the clash of identities between the state and the Kurdish community
caused a lot of bewilderment within the Kurdish society itself as part of it tended to identify
itself with the state and even to collaborate with it against their Kurdish brethren. The best
known cases are the Juhush among the Kurds of Iraq and the Korucular in Turkey.
For all of these impediments Kurdish identity managed to survive and even flourish in certain
areas and at certain times thanks to a strong nucleus of inherent characteristics and unique
features. These include language, a common historical myth, common culture, as well as
attachment to the land of Kurdistan they have inhabited from time immemorial. The most
successful case is by far that of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq (KRI) that managed to establish
an entity which retains many ingredients of this national identity. To prove my point I will
compare Kurdish national identity with the Iraqi one and will argue that in certain areas
Kurdish national identity seems even more cohesive than that of the Iraqi one.
From the inception of the Iraqi state in 1920 two burgeoning national movements were
competing with each other, the Iraqi and the Kurdish ones. However, their power was uneven
with the first having overwhelming advantages over the latter: it had the framework of a state,
economic infrastructure, support of the British mandatory power, and international
legitimacy. Moreover, in terms of demography and territory the Iraqi Arab part was
incomparably stronger, all of which should have been an ideal starting point for developing a
strong and cohesive national identity. However, it was difficult to achieve this goal among
others due to the clash of identities between the Kurdish and overarching Iraqi one. King
Faysal I echoed this difficulty in his famous memorandum of 1932 where he lamented the
absence of an Iraqi nation, saying: "In this regard, my heart is full of sorrow. In my opinion,
an Iraqi people does not yet exist; what we have throngs of human beings lacking any
national consciousness or sense of unity…"
The lack of cohesive Iraqi identity has had many manifestations. Because of many coups or
attempted coups the political system had undergone swift changes, very often violent ones.
This chronic instability reflected on various components of the national identity. Thus for
example, Iraq had six constitutions, the first in 1925 and the last one eighty years later, in
2005. Another example is the national anthem which also changed six times. The most
curious is the last one-- "Mawtini". It was written by the Palestinian Ibrahim Toqan back in
1934, its lyrics was composed by the Lebanese Muhammad Fleyfel and was chosen by the
American Paul Bremer to be the Iraqi anthem in 2004. Obviously, there is nothing Iraqi
about it, neither its wording nor its very choice. Another important symbol of national
identity, the flag, also became the victim of Iraqi political and social vicissitudes and was also
changed many times.
Nor did Iraq have a national leader or a founding father Like Ataturk in Turkey or Ghandi in
India that could serve as a symbol of Iraqi national identity, with whom the people could
identify. In addition, unlike Saudi Arabia, Jordan or Morocco where the king became an
inherent part of national identity, in Iraq neither King Faysal I nor his descendants managed
to assume such a role as evidenced in the killing of the entire royal family in the 1958 `Abd

al-Karim Qassem coup. The lack of a unifying figure is still felt today. In short, the political
system too was fractured and lacked stability and continuity.
Comparatively speaking the starting point of the Kurdish national movement was very weak
and as a result the crystallization of national identity too. In the first part of the twentieth
century the project of nation building suffered from severe internal and external impediments.
Internally, the tribal system and tribal loyalties were still widely prevalent thus competing
with an all arching national one. With regard to language which is a most important pillar of
national identity, Kurdish was also lagging behind. Unlike written Arabic which has been in
use for hundreds of years in Mesopotamia/Iraq, the written Kurdish language was making its
very first steps at the beginning of the 20
th century. Similarly, modernization with all its
educational, economic and political aspects arrived much later to the Kurdish part of Iraq all
of which precluded the rise of a strong intelligentsia to fulfill the task at hand. Most
debilitating of all was the fact that the Kurds did not possess a political framework which
could have enhanced the formation of their national identity as is the case with the smallest
countries in the world.
Externally, all the Iraqi regimes with no exception did their best to repress Kurdish identity by
various means such as putting obstacles on the use of Kurdish at schools and in public sphere
or Arabizing society as a whole. Indeed, Kurdish identity seemed so threatening that the
central government considered it to be a menace to the very existence of the state. The
military campaigns unleashed against the Kurds, the most infamous of which Halabja and the
Anfal in 1988 were thus intended not just to efface their unique identity but also to annihilate
them physically.
By the twenty first century the picture has changed dramatically. The military struggle had
paradoxical effects on Kurdish identity. On the one hand it took much energy and attention
from the mission of developing a national movement and encouraging the peaceful evolution
of its identity. On the other hand the ongoing military clashes with the state exacerbated the
clash of identities between the Kurdish and Iraqi Arab communities thus reinforcing Kurdish
identity. For all of the obstacles put by the central government and the inherent subjective and
objective difficulties, Kurdish identity in Iraq moved fast forward in the last twenty five
years. What made this possible was the weakening of the central government; the attainment

of a political framework of sorts such as autonomy and federalism; certain legitimization
granted by external powers to the Kurdish entity and most important of all the Kurds own
attachment to their unique identity.
What are the manifestations of this identity? The Kurds have their own anthem, a flag, a
national festival, historical memories and ethos as well as special way of performing religion.
Unlike in the Iraqi Arab case the Kurds' national symbols demonstrate continuity and
coherence. Thus, for example the anthem Ey Reqib was written by the poet Dildar while he
was in prison back in 1938 and it serves as the anthem of all Kurds not just those of Iraq.
Similarly, the flag of Mahabad Republic of 1946 is used with certain small changes in the
Kurdish Region of Iraq and elsewhere. The festival of Nowruz which is celebrated on 21
March is the national holiday for which Kurds had to fight against the central government's
attempts to ban it. The Kurdish calendar represents another important national symbol which
qualifies it from the Muslim one as it is older than the latter by one thousand years. Likewise,
the more moderate and Sufi style performance of religion distinguishes it from the rest of
Iraqi society. Thus, political Islam which became rampant in the Iraqi part did not cut roots in
the Kurdish region. This was proved in the last elections of September 2018 where Kurdish
religious parties gained only 12 seats losing 5 seats compared to the 2013 elections.
This quick comparison shows that a political framework is a condition sine qua non for
developing or preserving national identity. In the Iraqi case, however this was not enough as
other counter forces such as religious and ethnic divides militated against the formation of a
strong and unifying all Iraqi national identity. In other words the contents which should have
filled this framework were amiss. For their part, the Kurds did possess unique identity but
they could not develop it into a full blown national identity either because of lack of
political/territorial framework or because of the central government's ongoing attempts to
eliminate this identity or both. This hen and egg axiom is hanging like Democles Sword on
the future of Kurdish national identity. It is extremely vulnerable to political and geostrategic
fluctuations besetting the Middle East so that any such change may jeopardize its
achievements so far.

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