Keynote Speech Omar Sheikhmous - fhe

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Keynote Speech Omar Sheikhmous


The Essence of Kurdish National Identity – The Role of Kurdish Nationalist Movements
in its formation and its impact on the “New Order in the Middle East”.
Omar Sheikhmous
In this paper, I intend to present some real life and empirical incidents of some essential
elements in the formation of Kurdish National Identity and the role that Kurdish nationalist
movements have had in that process.
Furthermore, it is aiming at analysing the growing effect of this Kurdish nationalist
mobilisation in questioning and shaking the post-colonial order of states that took shape after
the First and the Second World War in the Middle East.
The Essential Elements:
Subjective National Identification:
In the winter of 1959, I went with four other Kurdish friends of mine, from Amouda
(Amudé), to a public Ottoman Turkish bath in the souk of Aleppo. We all had recently (in the
summer of 1958) joined the ranks of the newly established Kurdistan Democratic Party in
Syria (KDP-S). We were secondary-school students between the ages of 17-20. Some of us
were studying in Aleppo and some in Damascus, because of lack of secondary schools in
While we were in the bath place, we were speaking Kurdish (Kurmanji) with each other. A
middle-aged gentleman approached us and asked: “Are you Kurmanj?”. We replied: yes, we
are “Kurds”, with emphasis. He told us that he was from Ain Al-Arab (Kobani), and enquired
which tribe we belonged to? We replied: “We do not belong to any tribe. We belong to the
Kurdish Nation”, as we had learned within the ranks of the party and we were proud of the
The man from Kobani gave us a very sad look and said: “I really pity you fine young men that
you are rootless and without a tribe”. We replied: “But the Kurdish Nation is much bigger and
stronger than the tribe and we are proud of it”. He just shook his head and left us in anger,
without saying goodbye to us.
We in fact belonged to some tribes. One of us was the son of one the Aghas of the Daqoori
tribe, another belonged to the Mersini tribe and a cousin of mine and I belonged to the Gergeri
tribe. But we had already been socialised by the party to surpass tribal loyalty and identify
with the “Kurdish Nation”.
This reminds me of a dialogue between T.E. Lawrence and Sheikh Auda Abu Tayi of the
Howeitat tribe in the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962), when Lawrence tells Abu Tayi that
“the Arabs should get united if they want to get rid of Ottoman rule and get their own
country”. Auda Abu Tayi reacts by saying: “Arabs! What tribe is that? I have never heard of
2- Mass phenomenon:
From Michael Ignatieff: Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism;
Publisher: Douglas & McIntyre (April 01,1994).
This border region between Turkey and Iraq is where I finally learn the human difference
between a people who have their own place and a people who do not. On one side, hearts and
minds are open. On the other, hearts pound with fear. On the one side, they shout “Allo,
Mistair” in greeting. On the other, they shrink from foreign contact for fear of trouble.
Statelessness is a state of mind, and it is akin to homelessness. This is what a nationalist

understands: a people can become completely human, completely themselves, only when they
have a place of their own.
The longing for this is too strong to be stopped by terror. I leave the ferret at his barracks,
double back into the mountain passes, elude my security tail, and end up on a mountain road
at dusk, my way blocked by a huge flock of sheep. A shepherd comes toward me through the
rocky pastures. He is old, burned dark by the sun. He wears two rough, untreated hides sewn
together like the armor of a warrior prophet. His eyes are blazing, and he strides up to me,
pushing his sheep aside with his crook:
I ask him where I am, for I have lost my way on
these high mountain roads
. As if astonished that I should ever have believed anything
else, he points to the bare burned hills around us, bathed in silver light, and he says, in a
voice that is both soft and sure, “This is Kurdistan.”
Observation: This shepherd would most probably have never replied in the way he did, by
saying: “This is Kurdistan”. If he had not been influenced by the discourse of the Kurdish
nationalist movement. He might have answered this is Bahdinan, or Bradost or Zebari land,
3- The language factor:
In many of my interviews with some Kurdish nationalist leaders and Kurdish political
refugees in Sweden, when I asked them: “ What is the most important element in your
Kurdishness or Kurdish identity?”. Nearly all, without exception, would say: “The Kurdish
language”. When I then pointed out that: “The Kurdish language is not united or standardized
and that there are four or five different main dialects”. They would respond that it is not
important, because all identify themselves as Kurds and their language is different from that
of their neighbors. They related lack of standardization of the language to division between
four states, suppression of the use of the Kurdish language in education and banishment of
Kurdish literature and culture.
Therefore, one can observe the heavy emphasis by the Kurdish nationalist movement, in early
days of its emergence, on opening schools in the Kurdish language, publishing books,
magazines and newspapers in Kurdish; and creating symbols of nationalist pride. For

example, the flag of “Khoyibun” and the Kurdistan Republic in Mehabad, the Kurdish
National Anthem “Ey Reqib” and the political celebration of Newroz as a Kurdish National
Day, rather than as a New Year.
4- Role of Nature and the Mountains:
In similarity with many other nations and peoples, who live in especially picturesque
environments, like the Scots in their highlands, the Norwegians in their Fjords and Mountains
and the Arabs in their deserts, the Kurds have also developed a special attachment to their
historical milieus. The mountains, rivers and high plateaus and pastoral places have become
an important element in their identity. Their Mountains and Nature has also protected them
from outside invaders and threats. They have sought refuge in their confines and persevered
over centuries in surviving very harsh conditions.
This has been very successfully utilized by some Kurdish nationalist movements in advancing
the political, somewhat defeatist and objectively false, message that “The Kurds have no
Friends but Their Mountains”, in order to mobilize their masses to greater sacrifices,
obedience and control.
5- Role of Folklore (Costumes, music and dance), Customs, values and ways of life.
In my long years of experience as a Kurdish student and political activist and later as a
politician and Pesh Merga, I have been bewildered by the extremely strong attachment of my
people to Dance and song in the most difficult and the most impractical situations. For
example, in the heat of a military battle or immediately after victory in a fighting. I could read
about similar episodes only among the Irish, the Basques and the Scots.
This seems to indicate the central role of music, song and dance in forming Kurdish identity.
National costumes and clothing, because at times, were forbidden in Turkey and Syria, have
also gained an important role in strengthening Kurdish identity. Now, in KRG areas, they

have established special days for Kurdish costumes, for the Flag, for Pesh Mergas and other
nationalist symbols.
Many Kurds have repeatedly reacted to infringements by the central powers of the states, that
they are included in or ruled by, into their way of life and violated their basic customs and
values. Many local tribal uprisings of the past could be related to such incidents.
6- Reactive Ethnicity:
There is abundant research that indicates how the rise of the waves of Iranian/Persian, Turkish
and Arab nationalist movements, from the 1920´s- 1950´s, has led to the creation and upsurge
of Kurdish national sentiment in Iran, Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Many a times enhanced by a
nascent Kurdish nationalist movement. The harsh assimilation drives by the majority nations
led to further ethnic reactions by the Kurds in preserving and asserting their national and
cultural identity.
This assertiveness of one´s identity could be affirmed in manners that it is not, as illustrated
by Barth (1969) and van Bruinessen (2016). In other words, it defines Kurdish identity as not
being Arab, Turkish or Persian. For example, as it is stated in one of Ibrahim Ahmed´s Poems
: “Her Kurd boyn, we Her Kurd Ebin -
We Are Kurds , and always have been. I am Not an
Arab , Not an Iranian and Not A Mountain Turk. History will sing with me: That I am a Kurd
, a Kurdistani”.
7- The Effect of Contagion:
The wave of de-colonization of former British, French, Dutch, Portuguese territories, among
others, after the Second World War, deeply influenced the leaders of Kurdish nationalist
movements to compare their situation with peoples of those colonies in demanding liberation,
the right to self-determination and self-governance. Especially that numerous international
legal documents, concerning such rights, were adopted by the United Nations and other
international institutions. These developments gave greater impetus to strengthening Kurdish
national identity by aspiring towards similar rights and status. The fact that some very small

countries and island territories had gained membership in the United Nations, while they were
denied such rights, encouraged their aspirations even more.
The Cold War era of competing camps over different social, political, ideological and
economic values that manifested themselves in a public discourse of democratic freedoms and
concepts of justice gave further awareness to emerging national elites (the Kurds among
them) to mobilize their peoples around such ideas.
8- Insights into discrimination and acts of injustice
The realization of Kurdish nationalist elites of the state of discrimination, by the majority
people or the central state, against their people in different economic, administrative and
social fields becomes a very strong mobilization factor by the nationalist movements for
fighting and lifting this relationship of injustice that is being practiced against them. Which,
in turn, rallies them around certain nationalist demands for equal treatment.
9- The Role National Traumas and successes
It has been observed, among the Kurds, that during periods of big national traumas, like the
collapse of the Kurdistan Republic in Mehabad in 1946, the collapse of the autonomy
movement in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1975, The Anfal Campaigns of Genocide and the attack with
chemical weapons on Halabja (1988), The tragic exodus of millions of people from Iraqi
Kurdistan to Turkey and Iran, after the uprising against Saddam´s regime in 1991, and finally
the DAESH genocidal attack on the Yezidis in Sinjar in August 2014 and later the onslaught
against the town of Kobani in September the same year, people rally and the sense of
solidarity and common destiny is strengthened. These traumas tend to develop a stronger
sense of common national identity and more acts of solidarity, cooperation and common
action. The Current attacks by Turkish forces and their Syrian militias have provided many
traumatic and tragic examples of very serious violations of human rights against the Kurds in
Syria, together with war crimes and crimes against humanity. A young Kurdish girl of 8 years
loses both her legs, as a result of artillery bombardment, and she screams that she is from
“Afrin, from Kobani, from Qamishly, From Diayrbekir, from Mehabad, From Erbil and from
Kurdistan”, and appeals to the World to help the Kurds against the Turkish invasion.
Widespread demonstrations are organized in Iranian and Iraqi Kurdistan against the Turkish

Army onslaught against Rojava. Some demonstrations are also held in Istanbul and
Diyarbekir, but are harshly repressed.
A similar phenomena can also be observed at times of some successes for the Kurdish people,
like the achievement of Autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan in the March agreement of 1970, the
fall of the Shah in Iran and liberation of most areas of Iranian Kurdistan (1979), The
formation of KRG in 1992 and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, and the acceptance of
federalism in the Iraqi constitution , among others.
These two factors have a more unifying and rallying effect of expressions of Kurdish identity.
Possible Impacts on the New Order in the Middle East.
Nowadays, the Kurds play a crucial role in the region, and the so-called "Kurdish factor" has
constantly been a key ingredient of recent Middle East crises: from the wars in Iraq under
Saddam Hussein to the fight against the so-called Islamic State. Not to mention the strategic
relevance that Kurdistan assumes as one of the oil and gas-richest areas in the region. What
new balances would an eventual victory of Kurds over IS create? What are the long-term
goals of the Kurdish community? How to reach a solution to the Kurdish question able to
satisfy all the actors involved? Can we envisage a common future for the Kurds or will they
remain tied to the political destinies of the countries they live in? These are just some of the
questions that come to mind.
The following effects can be conceived as a result of stronger expressions of Kurdish identity,
after decades of persistent struggle and sacrifices:
1- Questioning the legitimacy of existing states that were formed after World War One.
2- Forwarding demands for power-sharing and democratic governance.
3- Demands for a more just allocation of values and division of resources.
4- Advancing of more decentralised forms of government like autonomy, federation or
5- Demanding equal status and genuine partnership in running their common countries.
6- Development of a certain assertiveness and more self-confidence among the Kurds.

7- Establishing themselves as regional and international political actors and to a lesser
extent as economic actors.
8- Changes in the pattern of earlier alliances between the states that rule over different
parts of Kurdistan.
9- Gradual increase of awareness and acceptance of Kurdish rights and demands by
representatives of the majority nations, in the countries that Kurds live in
increased involvement of the international community and international NGO´s in
defence of Kurdish rights when serious violations of human rights are committed
against them.

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